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Lake County Housing Authority programs hit by shutdown

 David Northern

David Northern

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Updated: November 3, 2013 6:29AM

The first day of October 2013 — shutdown day for the federal government — brought with it a roller-coaster of developments at the Lake County Housing Authority, which administers such things as vouchers for local residents through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

On Tuesday morning, according to LCHA Executive Director David Northern, came word from HUD that the Grayslake-based agency’s federal outlay for October would be $1.5 million less than planned, a cut that would directly affect the 2,803 individuals and their families receiving housing vouchers across the county.

Northern added that when his staff attempted to contact a HUD representative for clarification, they would field an automated email:

“Thank you for writing. As you may know, the federal government’s spending authority expired at midnight, Monday, September 30, 2013. Therefore, most HUD programs have been interrupted, and most HUD employees have been told they cannot work.

“I will not be able to check this email account during the shutdown. I look forward to responding to your message when I return to work. We regret any inconvenience the government shutdown may cause. Thank you.”

But then, early Tuesday afternoon, LCHA staff received a separate notification from HUD that the $1.5 million would be funded this month after all. Northern said the day’s volatility echoed experiences felt by local agencies all year during the budget battles in Washington, including budget cuts produced by sequestration in the spring.

“Because of sequestration, we are dealing with budget deficits (from) the percentages they allotted us this year for our various programs,” said Northern, adding that “Lake County, fortunately, is a little healthier as far as finances because we prepared years ago for healthier reserves.”

“(But) they play a game of cat-and-mouse with us. We never know where we stand,” Northern said. “We’re not given our budget and they say, “OK, operate.’ Every month, they decide they’re going to give us a certain amount of money or that amount of money, and we have to play a balancing act to be certain we lease the right amount of clients or we don’t overlease to clients or have the right level of staff.

“So it’s kind of tough. We’ve been able to manage through it, but with the shutdown, it makes it worse — we don’t have HUD that we can call on right now.”

Meanwhile, programs both big and small are being directly affected by the shutdown. A scheduled Oct. 2 audit of the LCHA’s housing-counseling program was cancelled by HUD officials on Tuesday. On a larger scale, a combination of sequestration cuts and the shutdown thickens the cloud over the agency’s plan to demolish the 52-year-old Marion Jones public-housing project at 14th Street and Dugdale Road in North Chicago.

The LCHA was hoping to start razing the 125 units this winter and move forward with plans to relocate the 300 Marion Jones residents, but Northern said a revised timeline can’t be nailed down with HUD employees out of their offices.

“We’re in the process of getting our demolition application approved by HUD, (so) we felt that we were going to get that before Oct. 1 — actually, our goal was to get it before that,” Northern said. “But with sequestration and HUD’s current furloughs — and HUD planning on dealing with the budget cuts and with the shutdown — we haven’t gotten our approvals.

“It’s really disappointing,” he added. “It throws our schedule off some. It hasn’t derailed the project, but as soon as we can get our applications approved, then we can start moving forward with relocation plans and all the financial needs related to the development.”

The LCHA administers public-housing programs in all areas of the county outside of Waukegan and North Chicago, with the exception of the Marion Jones duplexes.

Along with the individual Housing Assistance Program vouchers, which cover 6,907 county residents, the agency owns and operates 163 single-family homes and seven apartment buildings with 334 units. All told, more than 11,000 people were being served by the agency as of February 2013, with tenants paying at least 30 percent of their household income for rent and HUD subsidizing the rest.

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