EAST CHICAGO — In a letter to the head of the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, a Chicago-based nonprofit representing a group of West Calumet residents in the ongoing lead contamination crisis alleges the federal agency and local housing authority’s relocation efforts are “dysfunctional” and “a recipe for disaster.”
The letter — dated Wednesday and signed by Katherine Walz, housing justice director for the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law — is addressed to HUD Secretary Julian Castro and East Chicago Housing Authority’s Executive Director Tia Cauley. Walz is a member of a legal team representing some West Calumet residents.
“While it appears to have taken years to properly inform residents of the toxic contamination of their community, residents now report a rushed and confusing process for receiving Housing Choice ‘Section 8’ vouchers and relocating, “ Walz states in the letter.
The city is working with HUD to provide housing vouchers to relocate more than 1,000 residents and possibly demolish the decades-old public housing complex. Briefing meetings between residents, HUD and ECHA are underway.
“Some ECHA staff instructs residents that they must tell them immediately if they are moving out of East Chicago. Other ECHA staff cannot articulate any description of relocation services, including if moving vans or boxes will be provided, and if security deposits will be returned or new deposits (will be) provided for the upcoming move,” the letter states.
ECHA’s attorney, Jewel Harris Jr., said Wednesday night he has read the letter, but wants to review the content with his client before commenting on specific allegations.
“To give a flat-out denial wouldn’t be fair. There obviously was a lot of time and effort put in that letter, and I want to give it the attention it deserves,” Harris Jr. said. “We owe it to the residents to take allegations like that seriously.”
Allegations include a lack of information regarding relocation services, verbal threats issued by ECHA staff and continued leasing of vacant housing units to new tenants despite knowledge of dangerous lead and arsenic levels in the soil, the letter states.
Harris said the allegations will be investigated. However, the Shriver Center appears to be “repeating what is being told by tenants” in the letter, he said.
“They need to look into that, and whether they can be substantiated,” he said.
The letter urges HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity to review the ECHA’s relocation plan, identify deficiencies and monitor the relocation of families.
“This type of dysfunctional relocation is a recipe for disaster and will likely result in poor outcomes for the households,” the letter states. “Relocation must be handled consistent with HUD and ECHA’s duty to affirmatively further fair housing and duty not to discriminate. There can be no doubt that what is in place here falls far, far short of that obligation.”
As part of ECHA’s application to HUD to demolish the units, the agency is required to include elements of its relocation plan under Section 6 of the application, according to the letter. That would include listing the number of displaced residents, the type of counseling and advisory services provided, a cost estimate for such services and moving expenses and the expected source of payment for such costs, according to Walz’s letter.
Harris Jr. said there is a detailed, written relocation plan. However, he added he needed to confirm with the housing authority whether the plan was attached when the ECHA submitted the application to HUD.
The letter to HUD comes on the heels of a series of public meetings between residents and local, state and federal agency representatives.
At a panel discussion Tuesday in East Chicago, the head of the city’s health department urged more West Calumet parents to get their children tested for lead levels, noting just 380 of the 670 age 18 or younger have been screened since July 1.
“Everyone is up in arms about the situation, but we should have had all 670 screened,” Gerri Browning, the city’s health commissioner, said Tuesday.
Of the 380 screened, 27 have tested above the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s threshold of 5 micrograms per deciliter, he said. Anything above that warrants action and further monitoring.
Health department officials are offering free lead testing to residents after soil testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uncovered higher than expected lead concentration levels. Arsenic also was found in the soil.