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Stroger open to changes in cheap houses

Tuesday, November 30, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times
by STEVE PATTERSON

Cook County Board President John Stroger conceded Monday that changes might be needed in the much-maligned Forest Preserve District housing program.

Saying he "can't go back in time to when others ran the district," Stroger said "we need to study the market value" of the houses and "see whether or not" those living in the homes should pay higher rents.

On Sunday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that 93 percent of those living in the houses pay as little as $225 a month in rent but aren't providing monthly inspection reports for their property, as required in their lease agreements.

The 60 employees get to live in secluded housing in the preserves at a reduced rate in exchange for providing off-duty responsibilities as "resident watchmen."

Stroger said Forest Preserve Supt. Steve Bylina, appointed last year, has insisted on improving management of the housing program.

County Commissioner Gregg Goslin, head of a district committee studying housing, said he believes there's already been progress. Bylina "has done a marvelous job" since taking over, he said.

Not swayed

But Commissioner Forrest Claypool, a regular critic of the housing program, remains unconvinced.

On Thursday, he'll reintroduce a plan that would require the 60 employees to pay market-rate rent, asking that minimum rents go to $450 and top out $900.

His plan was shot down 9-7 when he proposed it in July, but he said it would double the district's rental revenues from the $257,461 made last year. Claypool said "the good old boy patronage network is alive and well at the forest preserve district."

But Stroger and Goslin disputed that. "They've given five people the boot already and there may be one more going," Goslin said.

Goslin said his committee recently received a report on the quality of the 60 houses, and Stroger said he'll now push for completion of a study on market-rate rents -- similar to what's done in the Lake County Forest Preserve District.

Keep a close eye

Stroger also said he'll make sure each watchman "is doing what they're supposed to be doing" by turning in monthly reports on things like trespassers, fires and illegal dumping.

He also conceded the district housing includes "a couple with value" and "we want to be sure we're doing what we're supposed to do" with rent. But he's also taking stock of less-desirable housing the Forest Preserve District owns.

"We want to know which houses are suitable to live in and which ones require an unbelievable financial impact to rehabilitate so we can demolish those," he said.

Stroger said he anticipates releasing the district's proposed 2005 budget "very soon," which Claypool said could be bolstered with additional housing revenues.

Stroger has hinted at the need for "new revenues" to cover the budget, which most have interpreted as a call for tax increases.

Stroger said the budget is "one of the best budgets since I've been here."

But Claypool called it "outrageous" to propose tax increases while continuing to offer the houses to employees "for a song."



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