Denaice Wright
Photo: Dennis Rodkin

Denaice Wright

At a meeting late last December, Denaice Wright happened to notice a postcard on a table that said every one of the nearly 90,000 people on the Chicago Housing Authority’s waiting list had until February 28 to re-confirm with the authority that they wanted to be placed in housing.

Wright, who at that time had been on the CHA waiting list for four years, contacted a housing activist group and used their Internet connection to fill out the confirmation form. She also asked several other homeless women and the administrator of the shelter where she was staying if they knew about re-confirming with CHA.

“Nobody knew shit about it,” she says. “The CHA said they mailed out letters to everybody, but they sent those letters to ghosts.”

People who are waiting for a spot in public housing often have unstable circumstances, moving from shelter to borrowed room to squatters’ space. So nobody’s entirely surprised that tens of thousands of people on the waiting list didn’t respond to the CHA’s re-confirmation request; many of them may never have received a letter. Nevertheless, on page 36 of its 2014 plan issued in late August, the CHA noted that “a total of 47,536 applicants did not respond to the survey and will be removed from the wait list.”

That’s 53 percent of the names that had been on the list, all dropped for non-response. According to the CHA, the other 47 percent of the list, 42,027 people, completed the update and will stay on the list.

Wendy Parks, CHA’s communications director, told me in an e-mail that the update process is “a best practice for wait list management. Public Housing Authorities must regularly update wait lists to have an accurate representation of those in need and those who are interested.”

She explained that shrinking the waiting list by more than half “helped to reduce administrative costs associated with wait list management.” Before the 53-percent cut, she wrote, “CHA screened 15 applicants in order to fill one unit/voucher, often due to reaching out to applicants with outdated information that was more than several years old.”

Leah Levinger, director of the activist group the Chicago Housing Initiative, stops just short of calling that Kafka-esque logic. The CHA, she says, “is not only not finding housing for you, it’s not finding you to tell you it’s not,” she said.

Levinger links the list purge to a menu of failings by the CHA—“this is a symptom of a transformation plan that demolished and vacated buildings before it had replacements ready,” she says—but on the specifics of the re-confirmation update, she’s concise: “You’re asking people to stay in touch with you when they may not have the means to do it,” she says. “They may not have a phone or [Internet], and they’ve moved so many times during the years they were on the waiting list, that finally they gave up bothering to update you with their latest address.”

She and Wright both concede that trying to keep up with the whereabouts of about 90,000 people who may move often would be a burden for the CHA. Shifting some of that burden to people on the waiting list is reasonable, both say. But Wright adds that she felt the reconfirmation update was made even harder for poor people in one particular way: With each of her three moves in the past five years, she has dutifully gone to the CHA office to fill out a change-of-address form by hand and submit it to a staffer who put it into the computerized system. But the re-confirmation was only done online or by phone. It was more efficient for the CHA, but “it wasn’t any easier for us if we don’t have Internet,” she says.

At a meeting about the 2014 plan last week, CHA CEO Charles Woodyard said the authority will explore ways to reinstate some names that were cut from the waiting list.

Wright has another idea. She has been on the waiting list since 2008, even though she says she was told she’d get housed in three to five years. This is the fifth year. With so many names recently lopped off the list, she says, “I ought to be right up near the top now.”