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HUD to Aurora Housing Authority: Plan violates Fair Housing Act

Crews from American Demolitiwork tearing down buildings west side Jericho Circle complex AurorWednesday October 24 2012. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

Crews from American Demolition work on tearing down the buildings on the west side of the Jericho Circle complex in Aurora on Wednesday, October 24, 2012. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 14, 2014 12:33PM

AURORA — Following a complaint from fair housing groups, the federal agency that governs the Aurora Housing Authority has found the AHA’s decision to pursue another housing plan instead of rebuilding at Jericho Circle violates the Fair Housing Act.

In a letter to AHA Board Chairman Henry Champen, HUD official Maurice McGough writes that the Housing Authority has been found in violation of the Civil Rights Act “and its duty to affirmatively further fair housing.” McGough is regional director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

On April 25, the West-Chicago based HOPE Fair Housing Center and Tonya Hayes filed a housing discrimination complaint with HUD against the AHA. On May 13, Shirley Fraction filed an additional complaint. The complaints allege that the AHA violated the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act when officials decided not to move forward with a rebuild of mixed-income housing at the Jericho Circle site in February 2013.

Following the complaints, HUD’s FHEO Chicago office conducted an eight-month investigation.

AHA, city reaction

AHA Executive Director Keith Gregory said the Housing Authority disagrees with the HUD findings.

“They never came out to see the site,” Gregory said. “While HUD has a job to do, they lack the necessary local perspective of what is really happening and what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

City Assistant Chief of Staff Rick Guzman said the city believes that the central premise of HUD’s letter is wrong.

Guzman said the city is “very troubled” that the letter extensively discusses actions taken by the city, but that HUD officials never attempted to speak with any city representative in connection to the complaint.

“The letter issued by the FHEO arm of HUD contains factual inaccuracies and one-sided characterizations of events, a problem that is perhaps to be expected when key parties are not ever asked to provide any information,” Guzman said.

During interviews, Gregory said HUD officials spent 97 percent of the time asking questions and gathering evidence on the failed plan to rebuild housing at Jericho Circle and 3 percent of the time “understanding what we intend to do instead,” a 40-unit scattered-site housing model that rehabs foreclosed and vacant homes in Aurora.

“We do believe the plan we have going forward is right for the community that we can all universally support,” he said.

The letter directs the AHA to negotiate terms to resolve the non-compliance issues in 30 days. Gregory said the finding is not punitive.

The 30-page complaint document rehashes much of the communication and conflict between the city and previous AHA leadership.

Number of units

The issue at hand concerns the number of families on the AHA’s current waiting list and the type of people who would be served under different housing scenarios.

Guzman, who acts as the city’s housing expert, said that the HUD letter seems to allege that the AHA’s multi-phased plan to redevelop foreclosed, scattered-site homes would discriminate against people protected by the Civil Rights Act in a way that HUD believes would not occur under a previous proposal to rebuild at the Jericho Circle site.

“We disagree,” Guzman said. “In fact, it has been the city’s consistent and strongly-held opinion that rebuilding concentrated, low-income housing on the isolated Jericho Circle site goes against decades of lessons learned and HUD’s own public policy guidance.”

Guzman said the scattered-site plan guarantees that at least 32 families on the AHA’s wait list will be served by dedicating project-based vouchers to each of the units. An additional eight homes have been reserved for tenants with special needs.

According to the complaint, a previous proposal filed in November 2012 to rebuild 46 units at Jericho Circle and rehab 23 vacant or foreclosed homes — 69 total units — would allow for 48 families from the AHA’s wait list to be served.

But the city disagrees on that number. Guzman said this week that the Jericho rebuild proposal could only guarantee 11 families on the AHA’s waiting list would be served. Gregory, then the AHA’s new executive director, and the AHA board rejected that plan in January 2013.

The complaint disagrees with the city’s number, too. According to the complaint, the scattered-site plan submitted to the Illinois Housing Development Authority in March 2013 prioritizes supportive housing for seniors, veterans and the disabled.

“There is extensive evidence that the AHA does not want any children in these units,” the complaint reads.

According to HUD documents, as of June 2013, about 55 percent of the households on the waiting list are African American. Of all of the households on the waiting list, 11 percent have a family member with a disability and 2 percent seek senior housing.

Additionally, the complaint alleges that former Jericho residents would not have “right to return to public housing” under the scattered-site model; only one of the former 93 Jericho families has a disabled family member.

Future development

In addition to the 40-unit first phase, the AHA, city and Brinshore Development have confirmed in writing that they intend to develop a second project that would serve more AHA wait list families down the line. The city has committed more than $500,000 toward the first-phase scattered-site project so far, according to city documents.

“The current plan will do a better job of furthering both fair housing and housing choice by actually serving more families from the AHA waiting list more quickly than the previously contemplated redevelopment efforts at the Jericho Circle site,” Guzman said.

The board’s move this year to not redevelop housing at the now-vacant Jericho Circle follows years of fighting over the future of the former public housing site.

Former AHA officials wanted to redevelop mixed-income, mixed-finance housing at the site; Mayor Tom Weisner and other city leaders didn’t want any housing rebuilt at the remote site.

Gregory was hired in September 2012. Weisner replaced most of the seven-member AHA board in 2012.

Demolition of the housing complexes at the Jericho Circle site began in October 2012. The last 93 families living at the site received special Section 8 vouchers to relocate.

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