CHA to settle lawsuit by eliminating back rent owed by 'poorest of the poor' residents

The Chicago Housing Authority has agreed to wipe out back rent owed by some of the agency’s poorest residents to settle a federal class-action lawsuit, lawyers for CHA tenants announced Monday.

CHA for years failed to alert residents who might have qualified for waivers of the housing authority’s minimum rent requirement, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of tenants by Legal Action Chicago, a nonprofit law firm.

Settlement terms will wipe out unpaid rent for residents who fell behind on CHA’s required minimum rent dating back to July 2016, said Legal Action Chicago attorney Leonard Wood. The suit was filed last week along with a proposed settlement that was negotiated over the past year. A federal judge must sign off on the agreement.


Federal law requires CHA to inform residents who struggled to pay the agency’s $75-per-month minimum rent about a "hardship exemption" that could drop or even eliminate their rent, Wood said. The only official notification was buried in the 30-plus pages of CHA’s lease agreements.

"Just about anybody who is poor enough to get the minimum rent probably is going to qualify for a hardship exemption," Wood said. "Everybody in public housing has limited income, but the people who pay the minimum rent are the poorest of the poor."

While working for a legal aid clinic, Wood frequently encountered CHA tenants struggling to pay the minimum rent and even CHA property managers seemed unaware that hardship exemptions were available. To qualify for the minimum rent, residents must make $9,000 per year or less, according to the lawsuit.

"My landlord told me to cash in some food stamps, sell them," said Josette Oliver, a resident of the Trumbull Park Homes and one of three named defendants.

Oliver, who has lived in the low-rise complex in South Deering for 15 years, had paid as much as $900 per month when she had a full-time job. When she has lost jobs over the years, she scrounged and borrowed to pay the rent even when it dropped to the minimum, she said. "It doesn’t seem like much, but a lot of people are suffering to pay that $75."

A CHA spokesperson did not immediately respond Monday to messages from the Chicago Sun-Times.

Wood said 1,400 households are paying CHA’s minimum rent and likely thousands more who qualify for relief because they paid the minimum dating back to July 2016.

Once the settlement is final, CHA has agreed to include notices about the hardship exemption with all lease termination or eviction notices and will notify all current residents of their rights. Staff will also receive training on the program.