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Chicago, Washington collide on housing chairman's ouster

Has Chicago's long-established political patronage system hit an irresistible force in the form of Washington dollar pressure?

Apparently so in the case of Charles Swibel, the millionaire real estate developer with a wheeler-dealer reputation who has headed the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) for the last 19 years.

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The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has said that management practices in the agency are in such a state of ''profound confusion and disarray'' that Mr. Swibel must go if the CHA is to receive any more federal dollars.

At issue is a scathing recent report of the agency commissioned by HUD which charges that CHA problems, including a failure to balance the agency's budget since 1977, are due to a lack of expertise at top levels and to ''conscious'' management policies which condone such questionable practices as paying high wages for menial jobs and parking assets in low-interest bank accounts.

Though a coalition of citizen groups and editorials in both major Chicago newspapers have been urging Mr. Swibel's ouster for some time, the CHA chief has stanchly refused to resign on grounds he has done nothing wrong.

Though first appointed to his job by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, Mr. Swibel has long been one of Mayor Jane Byrne's key political advisers and fund-raisers as well as a close friend of her husband's.

She has argued in the face of the steady barrage of charges that she does not have the authority to remove Mr. Swibel from office even if she wanted to--that only action at the state level can accomplish that. And this week the mayor ordered up $35,000 worth of newspaper ads to counter HUD charges, insisting that violent crime is sharply down and school attendance up in CHA neighborhoods.

But the mayor has also appointed an advisory committee, headed by former Illinois Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie, to oversee CHA activities and has asked for a state probe of the CHA board in light of the charges. And she now appears to have discovered a graceful way to make a face-saving exit for Mr. Swibel possible. She will ask the Illinois Legislature to expand the size of the five-member CHA board and make the chairmanship, now a part-time voluntary job, into a full-time, salaried position. Mr. Swibel has said he could not afford to stay on if the job were changed.

Some political experts suggest that the way Mayor Byrne has handled the Swibel affair--apparently divided between loyalty to an old political friend and pressure from HUD officials who insist that CHA chairman's removal is nonnegotiable - may well resurface as a key issue in the tough reelection campaign she faces next year. It is ironic, they feel, that the question of hanging on too long and defending an agency which clearly has problems should come in the field of public housing. The mayor picked up some of her strongest support by moving into the troubled Cabrini-Green public housing project last year in an effort to reduce crime and improve living conditions there.

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