Council working with housing authority to address Water’s Edge job controversy

Crew members working on the now under-construction site for Water’s Edge, a $19 million public housing development project located in Joliet. (Megann Horstead | For The Bugle)

Crews take to the job site working on Water’s Edge, a public housing development on Joliet’s west side. (Megann Horstead | For The Bugle)

Megann Horstead | For The Bugle

Joliet officials set out to work with the Housing Authority of Joliet during a Feb. 7 meeting of the Joliet City Council by discussing and probing for solutions to the ongoing job controversy at Water’s Edge, a public housing development under fire for what some are calling “discriminatory hiring practices.”

HAJ officials were on hand for a presentation and discussion following their Jan. 18 meeting, at which time Joliet Mayor Bob O’DeKirk and council members Bettye Gavin and Terry Morris invited them to come in and provide an update to the city.

“You made some comments about wanting to see an increase in minority participation at the Water’s Edge project, and I would concur with that and that we agree,” said HAJ CEO Michael Simelton. “In fact, I think immediately after that meeting we formed a committee along with Commissioner (Angel) Contreras and Dr. Glenda McCullum. (They) formed a committee to sit down with the contractor and talk about that very issue.”

A complaint was filed in the fall of 2016 with the city and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alleging that HAJ was in non-compliance with section three regulations during their last two construction projects, Liberty Meadow Estate I and Liberty Meadow Estate II.

Section three requires the housing authority to provide job training, employment and contracting opportunities for the low or very low-income residents in connection with projects and activities in their neighborhood. This is put into action when a need for new hires is reported.

To qualify under section three, residents must reside in public housing or possess a section eight housing voucher or serve as a low-income or very low-income person living in Joliet.

HAJ Chief Development Officer John Chow sought to rest concerns for non-compliance.

“With regard to section three, I know there has been some confusion and concern being raised (regarding) policy recently, and we believe that we addressed these concerns through various training that we held,” he said. “(We had) additional training within our own staff, (our) residents, some of our commissioners in our community and even councilman Terry Morris.”

Simelton sought to add further clarification.

“Just for section three, you look at income for qualifications,” he said. “In some instances, you have to look at those [hiring requirements and standards set by other HAJ programs] separately,” Simelton said. “If you’re talking about an individual that wants to work on the project—and that’s our first tier is our residents that we serve—first tier is a resident-owned business (and) second tier is a resident of public housing and maybe section eight as well.”

If there are no qualified residents selected through section three, the opportunity for work extends to the general public.

A number of city officials urged Carlson Construction to favor Joliet contractors in the bidding process to allow more locals to find work.

Mayor Bob O’DeKirk said it’s a concern that people in that neighborhood looking to work have expressed to him they are being turned away.

“I understand you’re a federal organization (and) there’s bureaucracy, I think the question that I would ask, and maybe, Terry (Morris) you’d agree, ‘how do we cut through the bureaucracy to get people trying to work in that neighborhood on that job site?” he said. “It’s a great investment, $19 million. Michael (Simelton), as your charts have shown, you’ve pulled the housing authority from a troubled agency to one of the top performers. It’s no question the job you’ve done. We’re trying to solve a problem on that job site.”

Councilman Terry Morris acknowledging that federal laws must be followed said he’s concerned knowing that all city officials asked for was to include as many Joliet contractors as possible.

But according to what the housing authority expressed to him, that’s not how it works, he said.

“I know I was told, ‘well, the housing authority serves all of Will County,’” Morris said. “But, you didn’t go to Bolingbrook for incentives, you didn’t go to Plainfield (or) Frankfort for incentives. You came to Joliet.”

The city waived building permit fees and water tap-on fees for the Water’s Edge project to assist with the development.

Chow tried to explain.

“Triggering section three does not equate automatically to hiring a resident or a resident-owned businesses,” he said. “It triggers section three in the sense that additional needs from the consultant, the general contractor ad subcontractor that we hire must consider hiring our resident and resident-owned businesses first, and it must be based on qualification. There is no direct relation to section three and (Minority-owned Business Enterprise) and (Woman-owned Business Enterprise), which caused some confusion initially. It is race and gender neutral.”

O’DeKirk questioned the extent to which the project is kept local.

“When you say local, what are the boundaries that you’re looking at?” he asked.

The project’s contractor, Rob Carlson, of Carlson Construction, defined local as residing in Will County.

Data specific to section three, WBE/MBE and local participation show that housing authority projects have remained steady over the years.

Recent construction of Liberty Meadow Estate I created jobs for people in the community through section three at 21 percent, WBE/MBE at 11 percent and local participation at 53 percent.

At Liberty Meadow Estate II, the hiring effort reached residents through section three at 29 percent, WBE/MBE at 9 percent and local participation at 55 percent.

The housing authority’s current project, Water’s Edge, aggregated jobs through section three at 13 percent, WBE/MBE at 8 percent and local participation at 59 percent. That housing development is at 30 percent completion.

There are a number of ways in which HAJ has already sought to improve hiring practices, including efforts to allow for rebids, increase publication, and post large signs at job sites.

“We utilize this housing initiative as a platform to improve on the quality of life of the residents that we serve,” Simelton said. “Our first obligation is to the residents we serve (is to) assist them in achieving economic independence, self-sufficiency through out strategic initiatives and programs… We know that if we change the landscape of the buildings, we’re starting to impact lives.”

Morris questioned the extent to which fairness is maintained when bids are publicly read.

HAJ Commissioner Robert Hernandez said one suggestion that Carlson has expressed a liking for is one that allows for a city staff person to be present when they are bid.

The council came to a consensus this is an initiative they’d like to see happen.

To date, there are a number of available items still needing to be bid out.

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