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For the working poor and others struggling to make ends meet, housing vouchers can be the difference between living on the street and having a roof over their heads. In Chicago, for the first time in years, the Public Housing Authority is expanding the number of people who will get these vouchers, promising to issue thousands of new ones for low-income renters. Housing advocates and some city officials say this is a welcome turn-around. They charge that the Housing Authority has been withholding vouchers and socking away money at the expense of the poor. NPR's Cheryl Corley has the story.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: In the North Side Chicago apartment where 32-year-old Shatara Uhumwangho and her 7-year-old daughter live, there's a lot of cooing and chirping from a cluster of parakeets and other caged birds near the room she rents from a friend. Uhumwangho fell on hard times after getting divorced several years ago and had been living in a shelter.
SHATARA UHUMWANGHO: And our time here ran out, so we had to go. So I just had to take the first thing that became available which is the room that she offered us.
CORLEY: Uhumwangho works as a cashier and hopes to join more than 35,000 families who are already receiving rent subsidies from the Chicago Housing Authority. But typically, when applicants join the CHA's waiting list, that wait can take years. Uhumwangho says it's simply...
UHUMWANGHO: Frustrating is what it is, very frustrating.
CORLEY: Recently the CHA has come under attack for reportedly under-using its federally funded vouchers and building up its cash reserves instead. A nonpartisan think tank, the Center for Budget and Tax Accountability, conducted a fiscal review. Budget director Bobby Otter says the study showed the CHA had not used thousands of federal dollars it could have for vouchers.
BOBBY OTTER: So we found in, for example 2012, they received funding for 51,400 vouchers.
CORLEY: But Otter says thousands of those vouchers were not issued. Yet the group's research shows the agency was able to sock away more than $400 million. The CHA and a few other housing authorities in the country are part of the U.S. Department of Housing's Moving to Work program. It allows them to use federal dollars as they see fit, so not issuing thousands of vouchers is not illegal. But housing activist Leah Levinger, the head of the Chicago Housing Initiative, which commissioned the fiscal review, says while it's not illegal, the CHA's actions have been abusive.
LEAH LEVINGER: If you're an agency charged with helping families afford housing and you know what the need is and you leave hundreds of millions of dollars unspent while that need goes unmet, I would call that an abuse. It's just wrong.
CORLEY: The Chicago Housing Authority CEO Michael Merchant says the full story about its vouchers and the money it's set aside hasn't been told.
MICHAEL MERCHANT: All of that money essentially has been earmarked for projects in the future. So it's not just money sitting there.
CORLEY: Merchant says the Housing Authority also plans to release thousands more vouchers. Housing advocates and families say the CHA needs to be much more open about its plans.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: CHA, don't be slouchers. Hand out those housing vouchers.
CORLEY: At a recent rally in downtown Chicago, besides the call for transparency there was also a push for the Chicago City Council to provide some oversight. Alderman Joe Moreno, the lead sponsor of the Keeping the Promise Ordinance, says it would require the CHA to reveal information about its unspent revenue and why it didn't issue 13,000 vouchers that could've been used to help subsidize the families' rent.
ALDERMAN JOE MORENO: We're just asking them to meet their mission statement, which they're failing to do. We get that tomorrow they couldn't lease all 13,000, they couldn't handle it, but we need to start moving in that direction, 3,000, 5,000, 4000, to get to that number sooner rather than later.
CORLEY: And that's crucial, say housing advocates, who say the need for affordable housing for the city's low-income families is dire. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.