East Chicago Lead Crisis

Some 1,000 residents of the West Calumet housing complex will have to relocate. (Lauren Chapman/IPB News)

HUD Settles East Chicago Complaint

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Nov. 4, 2016
By: Annie Ropeik, IPB News

Residents in East Chicago, Indiana, will get more time, help and money to move out of a lead-contaminated public housing complex.

The federal government announced Friday it has settled a discrimination complaint with the Chicago-based Shriver National Center on Poverty Law about the relocation.

By settling the August complaint, the Department of Housing and Urban Development hasn’t admitted to violating any laws. But it will offer some relief for current and former residents of West Calumet Housing Complex, according to Shriver attorney Kate Walz.

“It’s not just about more time to move, but it’s about ensuring that when they move, there’s some quality to that new housing,” she says of the agreement.

The settlement technically gives residents until at least the end of the year to leave the complex, where lead and arsenic were left behind by an old smelting plant. They’ll have 120 days from when most housing vouchers were distributed on Sept. 1, with at least another 120 days in extensions possible.

But Walz and HUD spokesman Jerry Brown agree there won’t really be a hard deadline.

“People need more time — we’re going to be as flexible as possible,” Brown says. “This [settlement] is to resolve all the issues, so that people will be able to — unfortunately have to move, but to make this move as smoothly as possible for the families.”

He notes HUD hasn’t approved a deadline or funding for demolishing the complex, and likely won’t until at least next spring.

The East Chicago Housing Authority is still funding the relocation with $1.9 million in pre-existing, HUD-provided capital funds. Brown says HUD will replenish that account as needed down the line. For residents, though, he says this settlement has a simple meaning.

“You’re not being forced out next month; you’re not being forced out before the holidays,” he says.

But the settlement is about a lot more than just deadlines. It says HUD will inspect residents’ new homes for lead hazards, and offer special counseling to make sure families can move to better neighborhoods if they want to.

“I think we’ll consider both health outcomes, opportunities to move into racially integrated communities, opportunities to move into communities with better schools, and safer communities,” says Kate Walz at the Shriver Center.

She says residents’ federal housing vouchers will also be recalculated to reflect a slightly higher market rate of housing — meaning residents will have a little more of their rent covered, wherever they go. HUD will also provide child care for residents during meetings about their vouchers.

And HUD will offer those vouchers to a new group: former residents. Anyone who left West Calumet after July 22, 2015 — a year before residents found out about the lead and arsenic contamination — can now get a voucher to find new housing, as long as they have children under age 6, elevated blood lead levels, or can prove they moved away due to health concerns.

The settlement also holds the East Chicago Housing Authority, or ECHA, accountable for carrying out the relocation fairly, with special exceptions especially for disabled residents and those with elevated blood lead levels. If they don’t comply with the plan, they could lose federal funding.

The agreement says ECHA will repay residents’ security deposits in full, with deductions only for missing appliances or keys. ECHA will also reimburse any rent that residents paid since finding out about the lead in July, or officially forgive what they didn’t pay.

“The rent issue was really hanging over families’ heads,” Walz says. “They were not able to move because ECHA was reporting that they owed a debt to the housing authority.”

ECHA has to put this entire relocation plan on paper and get HUD approval for it within the next month. The terms of the settlement will be in effect for up to three years.

This story has been updated. 

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