Off the Lease: Unauthorized Residents in Public Housing

Moving trucks parked outside a building at Stateway.

Under the CHA’s “Plan for Transformation,” public housing high-rises throughout the city are gradually, one by one, being emptied and demolished. The process of closing a building is governed by a set of understandings negotiated by the CHA with the Central Advisory Council (CAC), the citywide representative body of public housing residents. These understandings are embodied in a document called the Relocation Rights Contract. They include a series of notifications to residents, procedures for making “housing choices,” supportive services for those going through relocation, and so on. Judged on its own terms, the relocation process has been uneven, but at least there is a system in place, a set of procedures and standards to which leaseholders can appeal.

Such is not the case for another group of residents also affected by relocation—a shadow population living off the lease and under the radar. The number of such unauthorized residents in public housing is uncertain. It may fluctuate from development to development and from building to building, but it can be assumed to be significant city-wide.

On the basis of our experience at the Stateway Gardens CHA development, it is possible to distinguish four distinct groups within this population. Although these categories often overlap and interact in the case of particular households, it is useful for the purpose of designing effective policies to distinguish them:

  • Unauthorized members of otherwise lease-compliant families.
  • Tenants who have slipped off the lease in one way or another, including eviction, but remain in residence.
  • Individuals involved in the drug trade: sellers who live above their place of business and consumers who use vacant units as drug houses.
  • Families in need of transitional housing—the sort of families for whom public housing was originally built—who can only access it through the underground real estate market.

How many residents are living off the lease? Although there are no definitive numbers for the city as a whole, data from several sources, taken together, suggest the dimensions of the phenomenon:

  • A research team led by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh of Columbia University, and including residents trained in survey techniques, is following 400 families who lived in two buildings in the Robert Taylor Homes that were demolished in 1997. The preliminary findings of “The Robert Taylor Relocation Study” suggest that roughly a third of the population in these buildings was living off the lease. Professor Venkatesh and his colleagues found that there were seasonal fluctuations in this population. During winter months roughly 40% of those living in the two buildings were off the lease; during the summer 31%.
  • Over the last year, the Stateway Gardens Local Advisory Council (LAC) and the Neighborhood Conservation Corps (NCC) have collaborated with The CARA Program, an organization that provides job readiness training, in an initiative aimed at non-leaseholders living at Stateway. This initiative has two aims: to provide direct assistance to non-leaseholders and to serve as a diagnostic tool for learning more about the phenomenon so that appropriate policies and programs can be designed. Between July 1 and September 30 of this year, CARA completed 68 intake assessments at Stateway. Although the CARA assessments do not constitute a definitive sample of the unauthorized population city-wide nor at Stateway, they serve to sketch the broad outlines of the phenomenon and to suggest avenues for further inquiry. Of the 68 individuals assessed, 52 (76%) were living with families or friends and 16 (24%) were living in a vacant unit. Of the 16 living in vacant units, 10 (63%) had children living with them.
  • Over the past six months, three buildings have been closed at Stateway. During this period, Kenya Richmond and Andre Williams of the NCC have continuously monitored physical conditions in the buildings; they have walked each building, checking every floor, twice a week. (See “In Memory of Eric Morse: Part II.”) Although tracking the unauthorized population is not part of their assignment, they have been exposed on a daily basis to instances of non-leaseholders living in vacant units. Their experience suggests that as a building goes through the relocation process, a number of variables come into play that affect the size, location, and character of the unauthorized population. For example, as leaseholders are relocated, there may come a tipping point at which relatively large numbers of non-leaseholders move into the apartments being vacated. The introduction of a security force, as the building moves towards closing, will sharply reduce the number of unauthorized residents. Those displaced from one building, however, may simply move to vacant units elsewhere in the development. Thus, once the relocation process is initiated, the phenomenon becomes increasingly fluid.

According to the CHA’s “Plan for Transformation—Year 3” draft annual report for FY2002, there were 14,209 occupied units in family developments as of September 1, 2001. And the number of legal residents as of that date was 43,552. Note that on the basis of these figures the average household size in family developments is an improbably low 3.07.

When the ratio from The Robert Taylor Relocation Study (one non-leaseholder for every two leaseholders) is applied to the CHA’s total of legal residents, it suggests that there are an additional 14,373 people living in public housing who will be displaced by the relocation process.

Applied to the estimated number of non-leaseholders city-wide, the proportions that emerge from The CARA Program’s assessments at Stateway Gardens—76% of non-leaseholders are living with family and friends, 24% are living in vacant units—suggest that an estimated 10,924 of those living off the lease are living with leaseholders, and an estimated 3,450, many of them children, are living in vacant units.

Both Professor Venkatesh and The CARA Program take care to emphasize that their findings are preliminary. It would be intellectually irresponsible to treat them as definitive and to seize on them as established facts. It would be equally irresponsible to ignore them. For they represent the best evidence we have to date, and they are consistent with the day-to-day impressions of those in the field with whom we have discussed the matter. Further research is necessary, but so is immediate action to address the needs of this highly vulnerable population, whatever its exact size.

In effect, CHA high-rises throughout the city have come to function as a de facto shelter system. This informal system is the product of neglect and abandonment. It is also in some respects animated by decency and fellow feeling. In cases of unauthorized residents whose only crime is homelessness, others—leaseholders, resident leaders, property management staff, and even the police—often “look the other way.”

When buildings are closed, these de facto shelters are shut down, and the problem of the unauthorized moves from the shadows into the light. At Stateway Gardens this took the form of armed security guards, employed by the property management company under orders from the CHA, forcibly removing unauthorized residents in handcuffs.

How did these conditions develop? For a number of years, under successive administrations, the CHA has gradually been emptying the high-rise developments. The Plan for Transformation is the culmination and the ideological rationalization of what has been going on for the better part of a decade. In the case of Stateway Gardens, apartments have not been leased since the mid-1990’s.

The high vacancy rates that have resulted are thus the product of government policy, not lack of human need. The CHA’s own numbers suggest the extent of the need. There are 33,000 on the waiting list for apartments in family public housing; 22,000 on the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers. Using the CHA’s average family size, the number of people seeking access to public housing via the waiting lists is 168,850.

Moving Trucks.

This number is only suggestive of the need, for the waiting list has been closed since March of this year. And it has been widely known for several years that public housing is being dismantled. Hence it is fair to assume that in recent years many individuals who would have put their names on the list if there was a reasonable chance of securing a unit have not done so.

There are other indices of need. According to the Chicago Department of Human Services, there has been a sharp increase in requests for emergency shelter in recent months. The city’s shelter system—5,825 beds—has been filled to capacity for several months. And we have had unusually mild weather into December. As temperatures fall, the demand for shelter will rise.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that a significant number of individuals and families are living off the lease in unsecured public housing buildings. Although the CHA stresses that its contractual obligations are limited to “the lease compliant,” it recognizes that unauthorized residents living in buildings undergoing relocation present a problem that must be addressed. (One expression of this: the CHA recruited The CARA Program, promoted the idea of a pilot program at Stateway, and brought CARA and the NCC together.) Yet it does not have an adequate system in place to address that problem.

In a series of pieces that will be posted over the next few days, The View From The Ground will examine the problem of unauthorized residents. We will do so by describing several situations we have encountered at Stateway Gardens. Our approach is to start with a clear description of human realities on the ground, then work back toward questions of why the system produces such outcomes and of how it might be reformed.

The Dimensions of the Problem .

A methodological note: In estimating the number of non-leaseholders, we have rounded all numbers up, no matter how small the decimal, because they represent an estimated count of individual human beings. Human beings are indivisible and therefore should, we believe, be included, counted, and represented as a whole number. In other words, when people are being counted, the presence of, say, 0.2 indicates that there is a likelihood that there is another person present who should be counted rather than forgotten.

Chart prepared by Danielle Walters