A new Chicago Sun-Times/Better Government Association (BGA) report takes a hard look at what the city of Chicago calls its “Plan for Transformation” for housing projects. In multi-part reporting, changes to the opportunity area program are highlighted.

When providing housing vouchers to income-eligible recipients, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) does not dictate in which neighborhoods people must live. That’s part of how the program has generated controversy — an effort to designate sections of the city into “opportunity areas” — distant from traditional public housing enclaves — where vouchers can also be used to procure housing.

The Plan for Transformation is credited with some wins, but it also comes at a hefty price. According to the Sun-Times, the housing vouchers cost more than $47 million a month.

The federal government pays $35.9 million of the bill, and the tenants pay the rest, based on what they are able to afford. More than 107,000 people, mostly black, in roughly 45,000 households in Chicago take advantage of the program.

At present, 4,690 households, representing a total of 9,841 people, live in opportunity areas with the help of the voucher program.

But, recent revisions of the rules of the program, spurred in part by well-publicized investigations of it, will change the living situation of some of the residents presently in private homes.

Some of the facets of the program that raised eyebrows and spurred change are:

  • Some people use vouchers to live in high-rent, luxury properties, largely in upscale neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park and The Loop, that are predominantly white. The CHA pays more to encourage tenants to live in the designated opportunity areas.
  • Many participants end up paying nothing, or next to nothing, for these units under the opportunity area program.
  • Those who can’t find an apartment in an opportunity area remain in traditional public housing, in units that are largely in poor, black neighborhoods on the South Side and the West Side.

The investigative report included numerous examples of voucher recipients who get luxury apartments for little or no cost, while more than 50,000 other voucher holders wait for a unit to come available.

The overhaul of the opportunity program will take more than a year and a half.

The investigative report series will continue to document the evolution of the changes to the housing voucher system.

Email Kimberley Sirk.