Forced Relocation and Democratic Representation

Today Chicago public housing residents will select those who will represent them over the next three years. At CHA developments throughout the city, elections will be held for positions on the resident council—the Local Advisory Council (LAC). Those elected LAC president at each development will take seats on the Central Advisory Council (CAC), the city-wide assembly that represents CHA residents in dealings with the housing authority, other city agencies, and the federal government.

The LAC representatives elected today will serve during an era of historic change—a period when their communities face fundamental issues and fateful choices. As the CHA’s “Plan for Transformation” continues to unfold, they will be in positions to exercise considerable influence over its implementation at their developments.

In order to insure the integrity of the electoral process, the CHA contracted with an independent agency, Citizens Information Service (CIS), to administer the elections. CIS describes its organizational mission this way:

CIS believes that all people in a democratic society have the right, obligation, and ability to participate in public policy decisions. Our responsibility is to assist citizens and organizations to help them be part of the decision-making process at every level—national, state, county, city, and community. We do this by providing non-partisan information, training, technical assistance and collaborative efforts.

Letter from Citizens Information Service of Illinois reminding residents of CAC/LAC January elections.

As a third party election contractor, CIS works under the regulations and on the basis of the information provided by the institution that contracts for its services. “We’re at the mercy of the information provided by others,” observed Reggie Winfrey of CIS in response to questions at the monthly Tenant Services meeting at the CAC on January 9.

It is thus possible to have an election that is independently administered and free of fraud, yet yields undemocratic results—because the underlying rules are skewed and/or essential information is inaccurate. In the case of the LAC elections, there are several such concerns:

The accuracy of the rosters of eligible voters. Eligibility to vote is determined by rosters of “lease compliant” residents provided to CIS by the CHA. How accurate are these lists—especially in the cases of developments where significant relocation activity has occurred? There is no way to independently ascertain their accuracy, for the CHA has refused to make the lists public. It argues that the names of CHA residents are protected by federal privacy regulations. Privacy is, of course, an important value, but so is an open political process. And we must be alert to the possibility that invocations of privacy will serve as a cover to insulate the agency from scrutiny.

Exclusion from candidacy of those with convictions for certain felonies and certain misdemeanors within the last ten years. Background checks of LAC candidates are conducted by a firm hired by the CHA. Convictions for certain felonies or misdemeanors are grounds for disqualification. The ten year bar is dictated by the CAC bylaws. It is at once legal and unintended. Recognizing the harshness of the provision, the CAC acted to amend it and to reduce the period of the bar to five years. The legal paperwork, however, was not completed in time for the election. CIS thus had no choice but to impose the ten year bar. The upshot in this era of mass incarceration is that very few male residents of public housing are eligible to run for seats on the LAC. At Stateway Gardens, Lloyd Haywood, the one male currently serving on the LAC, was disqualified by CIS from running in the election because the background check disclosed a felony nine years ago.

Disenfranchisement of those who opt for temporary Section 8 relocations. As CHA high-rises are vacated in preparation for demolition and redevelopment, residents are given a choice. They can relocate to another CHA building or they can take a Section 8 voucher and find housing in the private market. There are two kinds of Section 8 vouchers: permanent and temporary. The only functional difference between them is that if one opts for a temporary Section 8, one retains the right to return if and when redevelopment occurs on the site. At Stateway (and I assume elsewhere) a substantial majority of those choosing to move off site have opted for temporary Section 8 vouchers. In other words, in the context of forced relocation they have chosen to relocate off site temporarily while awaiting redevelopment. In so doing, they are asserting their continuing involvement in the life and fate of their community. The moment they move, however, they are disenfranchised. Under HUD regulations, they cannot vote in LAC elections—the one vehicle of representation open to them as public housing residents. As the relocation process goes forward, more and more residents will be disenfranchised, and power will be concentrated in the hands of a few resident leaders.

Under the Plan for Transformation, it is assumed that as the redevelopment process progresses, the LAC structure of governance will be replaced by other civic forms more suitable to mixed income communities. But little thought appears to have been given to questions of how democratic representation will be guaranteed during the years of transition. Whatever the outcome of today’s elections, these questions will persist.