A Vision For Chicago Public Housing, Stymied And Contested
Chicago's $1.6 billion "Plan for Transformation" envisioned public housing in a way that would deconstruct an image of the city's poor all concentrated in huge housing silos.
The idea was to mix public-housing residents with market-rate condos and subsidized rentals or homes, with one-third of each in these new communities.
But after more than a decade in the works, one of the country's most closely watched public housing experiments has been hampered by the flailing economy. The agency has extended its deadline and is looking at a new approach to deal with the circumstances.
Meanwhile, protests continue at some of the developments the housing authority still plans to revamp.
Tough Years Ahead
Charles Woodyard, the agency's executive director, has been on the job now for a little more than a year. He says the Plan for Transformation, which began in 2000, has not been perfect, but it was brilliantly conceived and thoughtfully executed.
"No one has tried to do anything like this before, and the big thing that's kind of slowed us up is the economy now," he says. "In some ways, these last three years are gonna be tougher than the first 11 or 12."
The housing authority's goal is to replace 25,000 units of public housing by either constructing new housing or rehabbing buildings. It was supposed to be a five-year deal; Woodyard says the job is about 85 percent complete. There are still huge swaths of land in areas where public housing once stood.
The Lathrop Anomaly
The Lathrop Homes are one of the latest revamp efforts. At a recent open house, developers presented three scenarios for redesigning the low-rise public housing development on the city's north side.
"They are chosen to offer really different choices and to illustrate the trade-offs that happen on this site," says Doug Farr, president of Farr Associates and the lead planner for the redevelopment of Lathrop.
"The site has been historically designated, so it's eligible to be preserved and retained. On the other hand, we hear a lot about how isolated it is physically," he says. "It is not connected to the surrounding neighborhoods."
Lathrop is an anomaly. Besides being on the National Register of Historic Places, it's an integrated development with black, white and Latino residents. It's located in a gentrifying area of Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood and not far from the city's upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood.
It used to be home to about 900 families. The three proposals call for the mixed-income development to have as many as 1,600 units. Four hundred would be set aside for public housing families, and the rest would be a mix of market-rate and affordable housing. One of the scenarios includes a 28-story, high-rise tower.
Against The Market-Rate Housing
Driving through the development, Mary Thomas shows where generations of her family have lived in Lathrop's row houses, or four-story brick walk-up buildings.
Thomas has lived here for eight years with her husband and 7-year-old son. Lathrop sits on what many now consider prime land, next to the Chicago River. A busy street splits the development into a north and south section.
The north side is completely shuttered, cordoned off by gates, a ghost town of boarded-up buildings. Thomas lives in the open southern section, where steam from the old heating system wafts into the street. About 170 of the 900-plus units are occupied.
Thomas says all three of the concepts for Lathrop should be dumped and there should be more input from residents. She says there's little affordable housing in the area and there's no need for market-rate units at all.
"And we've been chanting that for years. No market rate — period — because this neighborhood is saturated with market rate," she says. "And half of it is going into foreclosure, and what are they going to bring more of it in here for?"
Especially, she says, with thousands on the housing authority's waiting list for public housing.
An Integration Debate
Woodyard says the agency may take a second look at units that have been taken offline throughout the agency and may consider reopening some.
While there are some rehabbed developments under the Plan for Transformation, Woodyard says it's important for the public to understand that communities where everyone is a public-housing resident are not financially sustainable and eventually cause the developments to fall into disrepair.
"I don't think that the people in Lathrop feel like they're a huge part of Logan Square or Lincoln Park. They go shopping up and down the corridors in the area, but it feels to me a little more like a hole in the doughnut," he says. "And what I really want to see is that the Lathrop footprint is more integrated into the surrounding neighborhood."
Retail and more green space will draw people to the Lathrop area, Woodyard says.
Those types of comments raise the ire of Robert Davidson, president of the Lathrop Advisory Council. He and his wife have lived at Lathrop since 1991. He says the public-housing residents there are engaged in their neighborhood and that only outsiders think that they are isolated.
"The outsiders don't speak for us because they ain't never going to say anything that keeps them out or pushes them out. Never will they say that. Because why? They see a gold mine," Davidson says. "That's what they see because of the gentrification that's going on here around us. They want to say that we're an eyesore so they can build all this market-rate stuff and make hundreds of billions of dollars in the future."
Davidson is part of the working group that met with the Lathrop developers, but he says residents have really had no say in the fate of Lathrop Homes.
Like other public-housing residents who've been moved out of gentrifying neighborhoods, Davidson calls the push to change Lathrop a land grab. Woodyard disputes that charge and says the agency's goal is to make sure there are 900 units of public housing in the Logan Square/Lincoln Park neighborhoods — just not all concentrated on the Lathrop site.
Revamping The Approach
Plans call for the Lathrop design to be final after more public hearings in the next six months.
Now, the agency aims to finish the transformation of all of its housing by 2015 and that, Woodyard says, means there will be some changes.
"You can't execute the Plan for Transformation like we've been doing the last 11 or 12 years — basically, new construction and rehab. That's not going to get you there in the next three years," he says.
Woodyard says the agency must think about buying existing properties and creating different ways to subsidize public housing. The housing authority's strategy will become more apparent during the first quarter of 2013, when it plans to unveil its recalibration of the city's huge housing experiment.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
One of the most closely watched public housing experiments in this country is now more than a decade old. Under the Chicago Housing Authority's plan for transformation, Chicago tore down all of its notorious high-rises, replacing them with mixed-income communities. But even after all these years, it's still a contentious process. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: The Julia C. Lathrop Homes on Chicago's North Side is on the National Register of Historic Places. The development was built in 1937, and these days it's nearly a ghost town.
MARY THOMAS: So, this is about where everybody lives, where they moved us all together.
CORLEY: Mary Thomas is driving through Lathrop. It's an integrated community of blacks, whites and Latinos. She lives there with her husband and young son and she points out the row houses and solid four-story brick walk-ups where her neighbors live.
THOMAS: And as you can see, too many empty apartments.
CORLEY: It's all boarded up.
THOMAS: Yeah, it's all boarded up.
CORLEY: Big grassy areas and playgrounds are cordoned off by fencing. Lathrop sits right next to the Chicago River. It has more than 900 units. Fewer than 200 are occupied. For a dozen years, the Chicago Housing Authority has torn down decrepit or troubled public housing, replacing it with mixed-income communities under the plan for transformation. In those new neighborhoods, public housing residents live next door to market rate homeowners and renters in subsidized or affordable homes.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)
CORLEY: Scores of people showed up for a recent open house where developers displayed three design concepts for a new Lathrop.
DOUG FARR: They are chosen to offer really different choices and to illustrate the tradeoffs that happen on this site.
CORLEY: Doug Farr is president of Farr Associates, the lead planner for Lathrop Homes' redevelopment.
FARR: This site has been historically designated, so it's eligible to be to be preserved and retained. On the other hand, we hear a lot about how isolated it is physically. It's not connected to the surrounding neighborhoods.
CORLEY: Neighborhoods that are either upscale or gentrifying. The concepts would place far more housing on the Lathrop site from the 900-plus units there now to as many as 1,600 units with 400 set aside for public housing. One of the scenarios includes a 28-story high-rise tower. Critics say all three designs should be dumped and residents should have more input. Mary Thomas agrees. Back near her home, Thomas said there's little affordable housing in the area and there's a need for much more.
THOMAS: And we've been chanting that for years - no market rate, period. Because this neighborhood is saturated with market rates, and half of it is going into foreclosure. And what are they going to bring some more in here for?
CORLEY: Especially, said Thomas, with thousands of people on the CHA's public housing waiting list. But Chicago Housing Authority Executive Director Charles Woodyard says mixed-income communities are more successful.
CHARLES WOODYARD: All I am asking is that you don't have the type of enclave that almost appears to have an invisible fortress around it, that you have no reason at all to walk through Lathrop and see and interact with people who don't look like you.
CORLEY: Woodyard says he's not talking about race, since Lathrop is integrated but more about class in the gentrifying neighborhood. Those types of comments raised the ire of Robert Davidson. He and his wife have lived at Lathrop since 1991 and he is the president of the advisory council. He says the public housing residents at Lathrop are engaged in their neighborhood and it's only outsiders who think they are isolated.
ROBERT DAVIDSON: And the outsiders don't speak for us because they ain't never going to say anything that keeps them out or pushes them out. Never will they say that. Because why? They see a goldmine. That's what they see because of the gentrification that's going on here.
CORLEY: Although Davidson is part of the working group that meets with the Lathrop developers, he says residents have really had no say-so about the fate of Lathrop Homes. The CHA's Woodyard says 900 units of public housing at Lathrop will be replaced in the area; just not all concentrated on the development site. It will take six months to complete Lathrop's design plans. The transformation for all of CHA's public housing is scheduled to be complete by 2015. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.