How Chicago Housing Authority is Helping Chicago Communities Thrive

Diana C. Liu rejuvenates the work and the image of the Chicago Housing Authority

The rooftop deck of CHA’s Fannie Emanuel Senior Apartments offers residents outdoor space and scenic views of nearby Garfield Park and downtown Chicago. Photo by Ruben Burgos

She grew up in New York, lived awhile in Baltimore and Taiwan, and started her law career in Philadelphia, but family ties and business transactions kept bringing Diana Liu to Chicago. Its renowned architecture and spectacular lakefront are obvious draws for a real estate professional; and through her younger brother Donald, chief of pediatric surgery at the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital, Liu came to love the people and the culture.

Diana C. Liu, Chief Construction Officer, Chicago Housing Authority
Diana C. Liu, Chief Construction Officer, Chicago Housing Authority Pierre Cameron

She relocated permanently in 2016, taking a position at the Chicago Housing Authority. The CHA is a public institution whose mission is to provide safe, accessible, and quality housing to underserved populations such as seniors, veterans, and the poor. It’s the second-largest housing authority in the United States. A number of its facilities are undergoing extensive rehabilitation while the organization looks ahead to new construction through city and private partnerships.

Over her 30 years in the real estate industry, she’s represented developers and small business owners, served non-profit community organizations, and taught law. Mission-oriented, non-profit work called out to her during her relocation from Philadelphia, and she brings that experience to bear on her mission of modernizing the authority portfolio as CHA’s chief construction officer. “Diana Liu is an unparalleled public servant,” says Ajay Shah, of Globetrotters Engineering Corporation. “Diana brings her background in law, finance, and construction to her role at the CHA. She is an effective leader. The CHA, its residents, and its vendors are lucky to have her serving as chief construction officer.”

Here, she discusses some of her key projects for the CHA and how she hopes to influence the organization moving forward.

How do you approach the mission of modernizing CHA’s portfolio?

My approach to modernizing the CHA portfolio follows CHA’s mission: to deliver best-in-class services to enhance the lives of all of our residents and the well-
being of Chicago’s communities.

CEO Eugene E. Jones, Jr. is a visionary with commitment, wisdom, and deep compassion. From the beginning, he enabled me to restructure and rebuild the agency’s capital construction department (CCD) so that the team is 100 percent CHA employees, instead of consultants. We have a strong, diverse team that includes a highly skilled internal planning and design team, a deputy chief and director of construction with significant construction experience in both government and private industry, engineers, seasoned project managers, construction inspectors, and reasonable accommodation specialists.

The CCD plans, designs, and constructs all projects to achieve strict levels of quality, safety, and customer service. We deploy thoughtful, accurate, holistic, long-term planning and design to achieve greater efficiency in terms of cost savings and reducing the necessity of change orders.

We rehabilitate and modernize the CHA’s existing portfolio, weighing consistency whenever possible; and we provide construction oversight for projects undertaken by CHA’s Office of Development Management and assist Property Department with capital maintenance.

Completed in December 2017, The Fannie Emanuel Senior Apartments features contemporary kitchens and baths, a private resident garden, and a fitness center. Photo by Ruben Burgos

What’s a project you’re especially proud of?

The Fannie Emanuel Senior Apartments, a 20-story, 180-unit senior housing high-rise building located in the West Garfield Park Community. The building was originally built in 1963, but was closed in 2008 because of significant problems with its mechanical systems and then left vacant until 2015.

Financing for its rehabilitation and modernization closed in late December 2015. The building underwent a complete replacement of the crumbling building envelope, installation of all-new windows, and complete interior demolition. We upgraded and replaced fixtures, appliances, mechanical and electrical systems, fire alarm systems, security systems, and HVAC systems; and we provided new landscaping, extensive site work and a beautiful roof deck with expansive views of Chicago’s skyline.

My restructured CCD team and I stepped into the project mid-construction, but were able to get over the hurdles and deliver the project in December 2017. The building is now fully leased.

Chicago Housing Authority’s Fannie Emanuel Senior Apartments is 20-stories, featuring 180 one-bedroom apartments Photo by Ruben Burgos

Tell us about the mixed-use/mixed-income development project in Rogers Park. What’s unique about it?

This project under construction is called Concord at Sheridan. It’s located on the site of an existing parking lot owned by CHA, next to a 26-story, 450-unit senior housing CHA building called Caroline Hedger Apartments. Three Corners Development, the master developer of the Concord site, was selected by CHA and approved as the developer in June 2016.

When completed, Concord at Sheridan will be a
seven-story new construction mixed-use, mixed-income building with 111 residential units, with resident-dedicated community amenity space, an underground parking garage, and approximately 30,000 square feet of ground-level retail space. Target will operate a 24,000-square-foot store on the ground level.

This project is unique as an example of a public-private partnership between CHA and the developer that combines mixed-income housing with modern urban retail formats at a transit-oriented site. The developer will also construct a new community center, with a rooftop terrace solely for the use of the residents of Caroline Hedger Apartments.

How would you like to continue influencing the mission and direction of CHA?

When I was a law firm partner in Philadelphia, I lived for eight years in an up-and-coming neighborhood where there used to be industrial buildings, manufacturing plants and active CSX railroad tracks. A new 55,000-square-foot Whole Foods store four blocks away was scheduled to open six months after I moved there.

I lived among residents with Section 8 vouchers, schoolteachers, professionals, as well as NFL, NBA, and NFL rookies. Everyone was treated alike. Today, that mixed-income apartment building is still there and that neighborhood is vibrant and thriving—in large part because of its location, investment by local universities and community colleges, and the 2012 opening of the Barnes Foundation Museum.

I understand from my own experience the impact mixed-income housing can have on a community, and I want people to know what CHA is doing to help communities across Chicago grow and thrive.

Four ways Diana Liu and partners help carry out CHA’s mission

1. Educate the general business community about CHA, its mission and its successes. So many people have no idea what CHA does and continue to have misconceptions of what we do, the high quality of our housing, the commitment of our staff, CHA’s wonderful residents and the challenges brought on by the need for affordable housing.

2. Maintain CHA’s strong relationships with City of Chicago sister agencies and work to build closer relationships with governmental and private entities that provide financing.

3. Strengthen collaboration with companies in the private sector so that their members can become not only mentors to, but also sponsors of, CHA youth who go on to college or vocational training.

4. Find a way to engage youth with seniors (including our senior veterans). It is well-known that more than 10,000 people turn 65 every day in the U.S. Seniors have a wealth of life experiences, good old-fashioned manners, and ways of courtesy and humility, while our youth can share with seniors their energy, confidence, and knowledge of new and ever-evolving technology.