For people not math averse, here’s a little question for you: If I own a two-flat and I have no tenants, what do I collect in rent?

Your immediate answer would be “zero,” right? I would say that, too. But apparently that’s not the case when it comes to public tax dollars being funneled through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Chicago Housing Authority.

Properties on prime Chicago real estate along the Chicago River are sitting vacant while thousands of needy people sit idle on the CHA’s wait list.

How does this happen during a time when our nation is facing some of the highest unemployment rates and record foreclosures, and 40,000 people are waiting for an apartment from the CHA?

Angela Caputo explains in this month’s cover story, “Home evasion.” In her investigation, Caputo found that the CHA had taken a good portion of its housing stock “offline” without following protocol for approval, which is spelled out in written HUD rules.
The problem is this: The CHA is continuing to receive HUD money for each of these units, even though they’re empty and have been for years.

How much? Millions.

Officials maintain that the CHA is allowed to continue to collect the funds on these units.

I don’t know what it’s like to be homeless and living on the street or moving from one relative’s home to another because you don’t have a permanent place of your own. But I can imagine that it’s got to be frustrating watching good homes go to waste.

I see the glut of residential foreclosures—beautiful properties—falling apart from neglect or being left abandoned when the struggling homeowners could have remained in them. And now we’re seeing the same thing happen with public housing apartments.

It’s irresponsible for the CHA to continue to neglect the needs of thousands of potential residents by leaving them stranded. It’s been a long time—12 years to be exact—since the CHA launched its Plan for Transformation as housing advocates, and those of us interested in these issues, have sat by hoping for the best. But it seems that, at each turn of the corner, things are getting worse.

It’s about time that HUD steps in and uses whatever authority it has to force more change. HUD needs to provide more oversight where it’s legally allowed to do so and stop funneling good money after bad. Legal aid advocates and tenants can’t fight the battle alone.

Money is a powerful tool that HUD can use to leverage some action from the CHA. HUD should force the CHA to put units back online quicker and should withhold money for empty units. The CHA should reclaim that money once the units have been filled with qualified residents and it’s clear that tenants have been moved in.

Without drastic measures, what other motivation does the CHA have to push these changes on its own? Probably very little.

Now, will all this happen? Probably not. But I’m hopeful that we still live in a society where a public agency makes providing public housing a priority.