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The Chicago Housing Authority Was Slow to Protect Residents During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Internal communications show CHA officials waited weeks before hastily drawing up plans that could reduce the risk of coronavirus exposure for staff and residents.

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As is her way, Brenda Perry got right to the point when I reached her on the phone. “They’re not doing anything right at the CHA,” she said.

Perry is 73 years old and lives in a Chicago Housing Authority high-rise for seniors, the Lincoln Perry apartments, in the South Side’s Douglas community. She’s long been outspoken about conditions in her building and other CHA policies; during public testimony at a meeting last fall, she reminded the CHA board that she had been telling them for three years that the building’s private management company hadn’t been keeping it clean.

In recent months, she said, she’s also pressed officials for information about the CHA’s plans for emergencies, including the coronavirus pandemic. Perry suffers from health problems, including the autoimmune disease lupus, that could increase her risk of infection.

“No one has gotten back to me,” she said.

The view from Brenda Perry’s home at the Lincoln Perry apartments in Chicago on Friday. (Courtesy of Brenda Perry)

Recently, when Perry was on her way to visit her building’s resident service coordinator, a CHA liaison, she was alarmed to see more than a dozen people shooting pool and sitting around a card table in the first floor rec room.

She wondered why the building’s common areas were even open. It was nearly a week after state officials had first urged Illinois residents to practice social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Does that make any sense at all?” Perry said to me on the phone. “If you’ve got four people sitting at a card table, you know doggone well they’re not sitting 6 feet apart — they’re on top of each other.”

The common areas have since been closed. But Perry is one of several residents and CHA employees who’ve expressed deep concerns to me that the agency’s leaders have been slow to take crucial steps to protect public health and safety.

Internal communications I’ve obtained back them up. They show that CHA officials waited weeks before hastily drawing up employee work-from-home plans that could reduce the risk of exposure for staff and residents. Some residents say they still haven’t heard what the CHA is doing to protect tenants and what will happen if the outbreak continues for weeks or months.

These accounts offer an example of how public agencies around the country are scrambling to adjust amid the growing pandemic. For those that provide social services such as housing to people in need, the challenges are even greater.

When I reached out to the CHA, a spokeswoman sent me a written statement stressing that the agency has worked to comply with health guidelines and stepped up its communications with residents.

“The health and safety of our residents and staff remains the highest priority of CHA and along with city departments and sister agencies, CHA is following the lead of the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) when it comes to providing information about the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement said. “While CHA offices are closed to the public, we continue to operate and provide all essential services to CHA families and seniors.”

At least one CHA employee has tested positive for COVID-19, according to a message from acting CEO James L. Bebley emailed to staff Friday, and others who were in contact with that person were asked to self quarantine. The agency has also received word about “a few” residents who tested positive, the statement from the spokeswoman said. “Individual cases are being handled according to CDPH directives and protocols as with any other resident in the City of Chicago.”

Some context here: With a complex history that includes periods of disastrous mismanagement, the CHA has spent the last two decades trying to deliver on a vow to “transform” public housing. Its central promise: It would build or fix up 25,000 housing units across the city within 10 years. A decade past that deadline, agency officials say they are on the verge of delivering the last of the promised apartments.

Officials at City Hall rarely mention the CHA as a solution to the region’s vast shortage of affordable housing, let alone to the immediate threats presented by the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled a plan for the city to rent hotel rooms and partner with the YMCA to house homeless and quarantined people without other options. She didn’t even bring up the CHA, which has more than 1,800 empty apartments, according to a report from the third quarter of 2019, the most recent available.

While the agency’s public housing footprint has diminished, more than 4,600 senior households and 9,000 families still live in CHA-owned apartments. All of those apartments are now managed by private companies. The agency also oversees more than 45,000 rental subsidy vouchers, commonly known as Section 8, that help families live in privately owned housing.

The CHA has been without a permanent leader since September, when its former CEO left to oversee the housing authority in Atlanta. Bebley, formerly the CHA’s general counsel, has been serving as acting CEO with the understanding that he would stay on as chief operating officer once Lightfoot picked a permanent leader for the agency.

The mayor finally did so in early March, naming Tracey Scott, leader of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, as the new CEO. The CHA board was set to approve Scott’s appointment on March 17, but the meeting was canceled the day before, after Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an executive order banning gatherings of 50 or more people as well as on-site bar and restaurant service.

By then, behind the scenes, CHA officials were already struggling to adapt to the rapidly accelerating advance of the coronavirus.

Like other units of government, public housing authorities, known in housing circles as PHAs, are supposed to have detailed plans in place to deal with a range of potential emergencies. In a 2016 document, “PHA Disaster Readiness and Preparation Guide,” the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recommended that local agencies hold training sessions with both staff and residents so they have “a clear understanding of pre- and post-disaster roles and responsibilities.” In the event of an emergency, agency employees should have a system to make contact with residents, particularly the most vulnerable.

A HUD memo posted online on March 13 offered additional guidance amid the coronavirus outbreak. It advised housing authorities to prepare remote work plans for employees and to communicate closely with tenants, by phone if necessary to limit in-person contact.

The CHA has distributed information on COVID-19 directly to residents while also posting notices throughout its properties and on its website, according to the statement from its spokeswoman. Communication with senior residents has been a top priority, it said. Private building managers and social service providers have also been in touch with residents.

But residents tell me the CHA has engaged in only sporadic communication since state and city officials began imposing rules to reduce social interaction.

During the first two weeks of March — when the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global pandemic and Pritzker named Illinois a disaster area — some CHA residents received informational flyers about COVID-19 under their doors. The flyers advised residents to wash their hands and keep surfaces clean in their apartments, and it promised that property managers would make sure that common areas were wiped down regularly.

But other information from the CHA was contradictory and confusing. On March 10, a resident service coordinator distributed memos to tenants at the Lincoln Perry apartments announcing that, as a coronavirus precaution, the building’s lunch service would only provide take-out boxed meals. To minimize person-to-person contact, residents were asked to exit the dining room once they picked up their food.

However, the memo added, “The dining room will reopen @1:30 pm daily for socialization, ie, all scheduled events, parties, activities, health seminars, etc.”

Etta Davis says she hasn’t received even those notices.

“I haven’t heard or seen any flyers or anything,” said Davis, who has lived for 26 years in the Dearborn Homes, a complex for families in the Douglas community. “I’m just assuming they’re assuming that everybody is watching the news, but not everyone does.”

Etta Davis has been a resident of Dearborn Homes for 26 years. (Leslie Adkins/Chicago Sun-Times)

Davis, 65, serves as the vice president of the Dearborn Homes local advisory council, the official residents’ group. She told me that a resident services coordinator had gone apartment to apartment to check on seniors “within the last two weeks.” But then the coordinator’s office closed, and she isn’t aware of any outreach efforts since then.

“As far as well-being checks on seniors, they could be doing more of that,” Davis said.

Internally, the CHA created an operations plan to protect its employees and maintain “critical services,” the agency’s statement said.

But according to interviews with employees and emails I’ve obtained, top officials were halting, at best, in developing policies to protect its employees.

In Illinois, the government response to the pandemic hit a turning point on March 13, when Pritzker ordered the closure of schools statewide. Two days later, he banned on-site dining and drinking at bars and restaurants. Whenever possible, he said, state workers would also be told to work from home.

But that evening, Bebley, the CHA’s interim chief, sent out an email informing staff that the agency would remain open. “You are expected to continue your daily responsibilities in your respective departments until further notice,” he wrote. “It remains safe to come to work.”

Bebley added that, during the coming week, top CHA officials would work on implementing the agency’s “Continuity of Operations Plan,” which would help to determine whether employees could work from home. The email didn’t include any details of what was in the plan.

Employees I spoke with, one of them a supervisor, said they had never seen the plan and weren’t aware of what their roles in it might be.

On March 17, Lightfoot said many city employees would begin working at home “in order to protect the health of its workforce and the community at large.”

That afternoon, the CHA’s human resources office notified staff that, in response to COVID-19, “we will begin the process of rolling out a teleworking policy and plan. Thank you for your patience.”

James Bebley, acting CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority. (Via Chicago Housing Authority website)

Two more days passed before CHA officials circulated a video of Bebley announcing that the agency had finished the work-from-home plan. “Those of you who do not want to telework may continue to report to central office and perform your duties,” he said, noting that the CHA’s downtown headquarters would remain open to staff. He promised to keep employees and their families in his prayers.

As late as March 20, Bebley and other officials were still holding in-person meetings about the new plans. Fourteen staff members were invited to one meeting in a CHA conference room that afternoon despite advice from public health officials that gatherings should be limited to no more than 10 people.

Later that afternoon, Pritzker ordered state residents to stay at home except for essential work and trips, such as going to the grocery store or seeking medical care.

“CHA was very slow to respond & inadequate throughout,” the supervisor wrote me. “Who knows what the consequences could be.”

Last week, officials rescheduled the postponed CHA board meeting to Monday, according to a notice posted online, which stated that some board members plan to join by video conference. Approval of the new CEO is on the agenda.

Brenda Perry was happy to learn last week that gathering areas at CHA properties are now all closed and building managers have promised to clean lobbies and other common areas twice daily. But she remains concerned that she and dozens of her neighbors could have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Perry said she had only left her apartment once in the previous 24 hours. “And that was to walk 20 feet to the garbage chute,” she said. “I cannot afford to get sick.”


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