Housing activists join Chicago aldermen in calling for greater oversight of the CHA. [Photo by Angela Caputo]

In July 2012, The Chicago Reporter exposed one of the Chicago Housing Authority’s best-kept secrets: The agency was cashing federal rent checks worth millions for empty apartments while a record number of families sat on a wait list hoping for a unit to open up.

The CHA has made little progress on filling thousands of empty units, and there is still no clear plan for how many–or when–they will get filled. Meanwhile, the agency has built a nice little slush fund–mostly with federal money–that is supposed to be used to house poor families.

The CHA had $661 million in unrestricted assets at the end of last year, a Reporter review of audited financial reports shows.

Yet, nearly two decades since the agency first began overhauling public housing under the Plan for Transformation, “We still have so much vacant land. We still have so many people living across the City of Chicago who are living in limbo,“ 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr. said at City Hall this morning. “We need to make sure this money is utilized,” Burnett added. Watch:

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While Sandra Henriquez, assistant secretary for public and Indian housing at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, took note of the vacancies after the Reporter exposed them, more than 2,400 units remained “off-line” for leasing as of this fall mostly because they are in redevelopment limbo. And the checks keep flowing.

The CHA’s largess of these unrestricted funds has grown nearly three-fold since 2005 when the agency had $234 million on hand, audited financial reports show.

The CHA is planning to dip into the fund “in the near future,” said Wendy Parks, the CHA’s director of communications and marketing. “We intend to use the reserves to fund our capital programs,” she said. But, when pressed, Parks could not give a specific timeline for when the unit will be completed.

Burnett is pushing back against the deregulation that has allowed the CHA to cash the federal checks with few strings attached since the Plan for Transformation began.

He and nearly two dozen of his colleagues called on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to amend his new five-year housing plan to give aldermanic oversight over CHA spending. They also want the CHA to replace all of the units demolished or converted under future redevelopment at places like Lathrop Homes and the Cabrini Green Rowhouses, which are home to the bulk of the current vacancies.

“There’s no excuse for money sitting in the coffers not being used,” Burnett said.

“We need checks and balances and we need to be there to check them because it seems like the people in Washington, D.C., have just let go of the CHA,” he added. “We need to keep their feet to the fire.”

is a staff reporter at The Chicago Reporter.