Saving the Lathrop Homes. The fight to preserve public housing on the northwest side

Many years ago, when I was doing research on the transformation of a public housing project on Chicago’s South Side, the then-CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), Lewis Jordan, came to a community meeting and stated, “We are not in the business of putting people out of housing.” I was happy to hear this, as it reiterated the original mission of the federal commitment to provide decent and safe housing, rather than to dispossess people of such housing. There is no other public entity besides the CHA that fulfills the important role of housing very low-income families when they need it most.

The context in which Mr. Jordan needed to clarify the CHA’s mission was and is The Plan for Transformation (“The Plan”). Launched in 2000, The Plan called for an enormous restructuring of public housing in Chicago, and has drastically altered the landscape of many Chicago neighborhoods. Its goal has been to demolish thousands of units of deteriorating public housing and to renovate thousands of others. In the end, housing for poor families would be reduced by over 14,000 apartments, with a final goal of 25,000 units of public housing for families and seniors.

In its Annual Report for Fiscal Year (FY) 2008, the CHA reported:

“To date, CHA has revitalized 16,936 units, demolished over 19,500 units of dilapidated housing, razed 339 buildings, and relocated residents between public housing and the [Housing Choice Voucher ] Program.”

In FY 2009, 2010, and 2011, the CHA reported demolishing an additional 2,542 units. Nearly all of the high-rise family public housing in Chicago has been demolished, as have many low-rise complexes. While the rhetoric of the CHA leadership avows that the goal is not to put people out of housing, the reality of the Plan is a different story.

On the sites where public housing once stood are new “mixed-income communities.” These are places built by for- and nonprofit developers who collect fees from the Chicago Housing Authority and profits from some of the housing and new commercial rentals. The developers utilize a range of public subsidies in order to supply housing at a range of rental and sales prices, accessible to people with a range of incomes. Very low-income families live in the federally subsidized public rental housing managed by the CHA. Working class and lower-middle-class families live in rental and for-sale “affordable” housing funded by state-and federally-funded Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and other homeownership subsidy instruments. And upper-income people live in “marketrate” units, the majority of which are built with private debt financing and meant to be owner-occupied. Although there is little to no evidence that it actually happens in practice, the philosophy is that the market-rate residents’ job contacts, education, political clout, and attention to public order and housing maintenance will rub off on the less affluent people, leading to the latter’s upward socioeconomic mobility.

Furthermore, these new developments discard the old names of women, labor activists, social reformers, African American icons, and immigrants’ rights defenders for bucolic vagueness. The Ida B. Wells Homes (named for the African American anti-lynching crusader and journalist) has become Oakwood Shores; the Jane Addams Homes (named for the immigrant settlement house movement leader) was renamed Roosevelt Square (after the nearby major street, not either president); the Henry Horner Homes (named for Illinois’ first Jewish governor) has become Westhaven Park. And so on and so forth.

On the docket next for “transformation” in this mode are the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, a 925-unit development on the North Side  along Clybourn and Diversey, dating from 1938. Lathrop is the only major public housing development north of North Avenue, and it is by far the city’s most racially diverse, housing a mix of African American, Latino, and white families. Architecturally, Lathrop is a combination of low-rise apartment buildings and two-story row houses clustered around courtyards and green spaces, and hugging the Chicago River. It is widely considered among the best-designed public housing in Chicago. In April of this year, it won listing on the National Register of Historic Places, which allows the CHA to utilize Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits  for historic preservation.

There is already an abundance of exclusively market-rate private development in the North Center and Lincoln Park neighborhoods where Lathrop is located. It is not at all clear that there is room for more. As Crain’s Chicago Business reported about other CHA-inspired mixed- income projects in Chicago: “Even at redevelopment communities in desirable neighborhoods, developers can’t justify building for-sale [market-rate] units, despite recent price improvements in the residential market.”

Given that condominiums that surround Lathrop sell for nothing less than $300,000, the only real way to achieve the Chicago Housing Authority’s goal of a “mixed-income community” on the Lathrop site, and to ensure demand for the housing there, is to retain as much public and affordable housing as possible. This is what residents and their allies have been fighting for. Indeed, in the very first Plan for Transformation, the CHA allocated funds to rehabilitate all of the occupied units at Lathrop, which totaled nearly 750 at the time. By the next year the language had changed, and continued to change every year up to the 2009 Plan, which announced that Lathrop would be transformed into a mixed-income community on a now-standard formula of dividing housing types into thirds. The 2009 Plan read: “The CHA plans to deliver 400 public housing, 400 affordable, and 400 market-rate units by the end of the Plan for Transformation.”

This scenario has been clearly rejected by  the people who live there. There are dozens of dedicated Lathrop residents who refuse to leave Lathrop despite the poor condition of the housing and the uncertainty of their futures there. They have been organizing for over ten years, and intensified their work in 2003, when the Plan listed the fate of their homes as “Undecided.” Residents have never been undecided. They called for the rehabilitation and remodeling of the existing development as 100% public and affordable housing. They have insisted (albeit unsuccessfully to this point) that families on the public housing waitlist (which numbers roughly 40,000) be placed in the vacant units at Lathrop (now more 75 percent of the units) rather than letting the apartments deteriorate. The resident leaders in the Lathrop Leadership Team have teamed up with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and are joined by an array of allies: former Lathrop residents, historic preservationists, affordable housing advocates, residents of surrounding neighborhoods who worry about increased density, and university professors who have studied the unfair history and implementation of public housing redevelopment across Chicago.

Despite residents’ protests, the CHA carried on with its new vision for Lathrop. It selected a development team, innocuously named the Lathrop Community Partners, and launched a dubious “community planning process” in November of 2011. As just one example of the opacity of this supposedly participatory process, the CHA has been duplicitous in its message about the issue of preservation of units versus demolition. As early as 2009, the CHA blatantly listed its intent to demolish 478 units at Lathrop. Then it backtracked. In response to the on-line comments to its 2012 Plan, the CHA responded as follows:

“It is not economically practical or feasible to rehabilitate these units and repair the heating system especially considering that the development is undergoing a community planning process that will ultimately lead to a redevelopment of the property.”

While the reference to a “redevelopment of the property” does not explicitly announce demolition, the unwillingness to renovate units gives that strong suggestion. Finally, the draft plan for FY 2013, which is the most recent as of this publication, softens its language only slightly and says the redevelopment “may include demolition”; the agency planned to make the request to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development just in case. However, a few months later at the kickoff of the “community planning process,” the CHA-chosen developers, the Lathrop Community Partners, emphasized that no firm plans regarding demolition or preservation had been made. It is either intentional deception or unacceptable incompetence to first announce a decision to demolish, then to say that rehabilitation is unfeasible, and then to say that the fate of the development is up for community input.

The planning process consisted of three community meetings, held in the hectic and cold holiday month of December 2011. After months of silence from the developers, the Lathrop Community Partners and the CHA recently held two Open Houses in November of 2012. There they unveiled three redevelopment scenarios, each of which included 1600 total units of housing, 25% (or 400 units) of which would be public housing, 25% (or 400 units) affordable housing, and 50% market- rate housing (even more skewed than the “thirds” distribution). Of course each version featured a new name for the community (none of which is significant enough to mention), erasing the legacy of Julia C. Lathrop, a child welfare advocate and the first Chief of the US Children’s Bureau. The scenarios varied in the amount of demolition and preservation, with the most extreme calling for total demolition. All three called for new construction of high-end and high-rise housing, and none planned for the replacement elsewhere in the neighborhood of lost public housing units on site.

The resident leadership is outraged that these plans continue to disregard their wishes to exclude market-rate housing and to preserve the bulk of the original development. Preservation is important because it is more environmentally sound and more cost-effective. Even more crucial, however, history has shown that once residents are displaced from their homes, it is highly unlikely that they will ever be able to return. While demolition in these redevelopments is swift, it takes years for the financing and other arrangements to gel. In the meantime, the land sits vacant, and no one benefits. Preservation would allow for a staged rehabilitation while residents remained on site.

Lathrop presents perhaps one of the last opportunities to intervene in what research has shown to be a mixed-bag transformation for public housing residents (similar important battles are raging in Altgeld Gardens on the South Side and the Cabrini Rowhouses). Because of its unique location, building style, and tenant composition, Lathrop offers a chance to think differently, indeed creatively, about providing opportunities to CHA residents and other low-income and working people in an area that offers good jobs, access to transportation, and a wide array of commercial offerings. The resident leadership has presented proposals that take advantage of subsidies for historic preservation in order to renovate the buildings and maximize the amount of public housing on the site. While there is no doubt that the future of the Lathrop Homes and its residents is in serious peril, it is still not too late for the CHA to make good on the words of its one-time CEO and not put people out of housing. ◊