Philadelphia Inquirer: Judge ends oversight of Chester Housing Authority

Judge ends oversight of Chester Housing Authority
By Laura McCrystal, Philadelphia Inquirer
January 6, 2015
Original Article

Decades after dilapidated buildings filled with crime and drugs drove tenants to file a class-action lawsuit against the Chester Housing Authority, the agency has been released from federal receivership.

The move, announced Monday, marks the completion of an overhaul of the public housing agency, which had been under the oversight of a federal judge since 1994.

While under the guidance of District Judge Norma L. Shapiro, the authority razed and rebuilt most of its buildings and started its own police force.

Comparing the authority of the 1990s with today’s is “literally night and day,” said Steven Fischer, executive director.

“You had properties that were in deplorable conditions, to the point where low-income families weren’t even applying to live here,” Fischer said. “And contrast that with, for the past 10 years at least, we’ve had waiting lists that have had to be closed because we’ve had so many families applying.”

Shapiro noted the agency’s improvements and released it from receivership in an order dated last Wednesday.

“Significant progress has been made to transform CHA into a functioning housing authority providing decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings to families of low income,” she wrote.

Shapiro said that in the latest round of inspections, authority properties averaged 95 percent in categories such as safety and sanitation. When the agency entered receivership, its overall score was 41 percent, according to a federal report.

A group of tenants filed the lawsuit against the authority in 1990, alleging that officials had neglected hundreds of housing units to the point that they were uninhabitable.

The lawsuit led to Shapiro’s lasting involvement, and required the authority to renovate its buildings and report frequently to the judge.

Now, the agency is in the hands of a board of commissioners appointed by Shapiro. As the five commissioners’ terms expire, new commissioners will be appointed by the mayor of Chester.

The agency is not controlled or funded by city government. It operates with federal funding to provide housing to low-income residents.

Fischer said the authority has about 2,400 tenants, including those who live in its nine buildings and use its housing-choice voucher program, often referred to as Section 8. About one-third of Chester’s population is below the federal poverty level, according to U.S. Census data.

Chester’s was the last remaining public housing agency in the country under the oversight of a federal judge. The housing agencies in Boston, Kansas City, and Washington completed receiverships.

Several other housing authorities remain under administrative receiverships, controlled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rather than the federal court system.

In Chester, many authority residents can recall conditions in the old buildings.

“People generally don’t hesitate to make the comparison,” Fischer said. “You get a general expression of satisfaction with how things have been turned around.”

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