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Regional Public Housing

Promoting viable public housing across metropolitan Chicago

Regional Housing Initiative

The problem: Affordable housing shortage perpetuates, concentrates poverty

Though metropolitan Chicago’s housing market remains weak, the availability of affordable homes in opportunity areas—communities with good jobs, transit access and quality schools— continues to fall far short of demand. The recession hit suburbs and cities indiscriminately and accelerated a nationwide phenomenon: Today, more of the nation’s poor live in the suburbs than in cities. A 2013 analysis by the Brookings Institution shows that the number of suburban households living in poverty in Chicagoland grew by 99 percent between 2000 and 2011. Nearly 50 percent of families in this region pay more than 30 percent of their household income on housing and utilities, according to the American Community Survey.

Chicagoland has grappled for decades with concentrated poverty and a lack of housing choices for low-income families. Rising housing costs coupled with the recent unemployment crisis served to further concentrate affordable housing and poverty in neighborhoods with high crime and poor access to jobs, transit and amenities. Municipal zoning and development regulations that discourage multifamily housing development and declining federal housing financing have further exacerbated this trend, making it difficult to build in some of the region’s highest opportunity communities. The results: far too many families living in precarious housing conditions, growing regional inequality, a dysfunctional housing market with few options for developers or renters, and hampered regional economic growth, public safety and health.

The solution: Regional coordination creates affordable housing and helps voucher holders "move up"

RHI has created 406 apartments in 28 successful developments, like Emerson Square in Evanston, Ill.

To address the region’s growing housing challenges, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA) and eight regional housing authorities created a collaborative called the Regional Housing Initiative (RHI) to support affordable and mixed-income housing developments in communities near transit, jobs centers, quality schools and amenities (“opportunity areas”). Since 2002, RHI partners have worked with the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, suburban employers and a range of local and regional stakeholders to overcome a number of housing and community development challenges through several promising strategies.

Since 2002, the public housing authorities participating in RHI have pooled a portion of their available rental assistance vouchers to provide long-term support for the rehabilitation or construction of multifamily, affordable rental homes in opportunity communities across the region. That means RHI can adapt to the changing housing market and economic climate more flexibly than current federal funding flows permit. For example, despite the growing need for affordable housing in the suburbs, the Chicago and Cook County Housing Authorities receive higher levels of voucher subsidies than the suburban housing authorities. By allowing eight housing authorities to pool their resources, RHI created a mechanism through which a suburban housing development can receive subsidies even if the local housing authority lacks resources. The Chicago and Cook County Housing Authorities see clear benefits in contributing vouchers to other communities in the region because waiting list families from all eight geographies are offered expanded housing opportunities. The pooling and transferring of subsidies has allowed RHI to support 406 apartments in 28 developments in 19 communities.

Angela Nash is one of many who have "moved up" to quality neighborhoods thanks to collaboration and counseling.

While RHI addressed development challenges, an MPC survey of regional public housing authorities showed that most rent voucher holders are not "moving up" into better neighborhoods, even as public housing authorities spend $1 million each year to facilitate such moves. In an era of declining federal resources for housing and poverty interventions, in 2011 the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded RHI a vote of confidence and $1 million to pilot new strategies to help families. For the past three years, the Chicago region has been using a regional waiting list for families who want to move into RHI developments and providing education on mobility and portability to support families leaving high poverty, distressed communities for opportunity communities across the region. The pilot is helping more low-income families find homes in attractive communities across the region, while overcoming some of the administrative inefficiencies and barriers experienced by participating housing authorities.

RHI creates opportunities around the region

Essential ingredients for a regional housing authority collaborative

How can other regions sustain and replicate regional collaboration between housing authorities, regional planning organizations, governments, fair housing advocates and developers? Our experience teaches us it’s wise to:

  • Organize a consortium consisting of regional businesses, housing policy experts, government and nonprofit stakeholders to better understand the relationship between regional housing needs, current and future employment centers, poverty trends, transit and segregation. In the Chicago metropolitan area, MPC played a critical role in bridging a multitude of interests to design pragmatic and innovative housing policy solutions. 
  • Align critical housing authority policies to create efficiencies, while remaining true to local needs, costs and policies. The 14 Chicago area housing authorities have a wide range of voucher policies, from waiting list preferences for disability and aging, to credit and background checks, to bedroom size restrictions, which hinder families from moving easily within the region and are administratively complicated for housing authorities and the regional collaborative to manage. MPC drafted an intergovernmental agreement and an addendum to each of the housing authorities’ administrative plans, outlining RHI’s policies and procedures and streamlining a range of practices. Assistance from national and local experts helped craft an Operating and Management Agreement to allow a housing authority to operate project-based vouchers outside of its jurisdiction to support a regional intergovernmental partnership.
  • Develop incentives for housing authority participation in regional equity initiatives. A framework that provides financial incentives or additional administrative fees to reward the expansion of affordable housing in opportunity areas is a potential solution. HUD is currently evaluating its existing administrative fee structure, and we recommend a component to reward housing authority participation in innovative pilots to expand housing choice. 
  • Define “opportunity areas.” Critical to any regional effort to create integrated, strong communities is an evaluation of both what is considered a quality housing development and if the surrounding community is suitable for an affordable or mixed-income development. Originally, RHI worked with the Mayors Caucus to adopt the Housing Endorsement Criteria, which outlines the types of housing that communities should be working toward building. Under the HUD pilot, RHI and the pilot partners integrated a quantitative definition of opportunity areas. To align with a regional assessment of fair housing barriers, RHI adopted the Fair Housing Equity Assessment (FHEA) metric that is being implemented nationally by HUD and locally by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the region’s federally certified Metropolitan Planning Organization. The FHEA integrates poverty, housing stability, job access, labor market engagement, school performance and transit access metrics. It is the standard used to evaluate housing development proposals by the region’s housing authorities as they work to deconcentrate poverty through interventions with families interested in moving. 

Call to action

With housing insecurity continuing to burden unemployed, underemployed and working poor families across the region and nationally, it is imperative that advocates, housing authorities and communities continue to reach for proven solutions to improve quality of life, create stronger neighborhoods and drive vibrant, equitable growth. Here we offer one of many solutions—a regional collaborative that leverages HUD’s limited resources to promote affordable housing in opportunity communities and mixed-income housing in transitional communities. The RHI model is a creative mechanism to circumvent dated policies that deter regional cooperation.

Grove Apartments offers affordable housing in a neighborhood near jobs, schools and transit in Oak Park, Ill.

As advocated here by Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution, a long-term strategy is to consolidate housing authority administration at the regional level. There are multiple housing authorities in metropolitan areas, which results in serious inefficiencies in program operation, including duplications in waiting lists, data management, certifying households and outreaching to landlords. In the wake of the recession and declining federal resources, housing authorities could see savings from consolidating programmatic and database functions. Not only are duplicative systems costly from a government spending perspective, it is also challenging for voucher families to navigate the varying administrative policies across one region when they are searching for housing. Now, more than ever, greater attention must be paid to how archaic government structures impact the nation’s poor. 

In the near term, RHI is pursuing a cross-metropolitan strategy to test innovative regional solutions and will be looking to HUD and actors across the Chicago region to engage. While a regional housing authority model would be truly innovative, a feasible short-term solution is to formalize the collaborative as a housing authority consortium. We encourage local, regional and statewide actors to join with us as we advocate for a new paradigm and policies to expand affordable housing opportunities.

Pilot leaders

BRicK Partners, LLC
Chicago Housing Authority
DuPage Housing Authority
Housing Authority of Cook County
Housing Choice Partners 
Joliet Housing Authority
Lake County Housing Authority
McHenry County Housing Authority
Metropolitan Planning Council
Oak Park Housing Authority
Waukegan Housing Authority

Key funders

U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

For more information

Watch the video and learn more at

Breann Gala
Project Manager
312 863 6029

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For more than 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has made the Chicago region a better place to live and work by partnering with businesses, communities and governments to address the area's toughest planning and development challenges. MPC works to solve today's urgent problems while consistently thinking ahead to prepare the region for the needs of tomorrow. Read more about our work »

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