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A Vision For Chicago Public Housing, Stymied And Contested

Audio

Aired 12/15/12

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 were 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 tradeoffs 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 is 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 rowhouses, 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

Executive director 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 donut," he says. "And what I really want to see is that the Lathrop footprint is more integrated into the surrounding neighborhood."

With retail and more green space, Woodyard says, that will draw people to the Lathrop area.

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 at Lathrop 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 wants 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 meet 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. The housing authority's 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.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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