By Lauren Harris
There are 10 apartments in the building where combat veteran J.L. Gross lives, by his count, but he is the only one living in the structure.
For more than 26 years Gross has lived in the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, a Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) public housing development bordered by North Clybourn and North Damen avenues on the city’s North Side. Over the years he’s seen many neighbors move out of the apartments for various reasons, but new tenants rarely take their place. Hence a once-thriving community is becoming a ghost town.
“Everything is totally different from when I first moved in,” Gross said.
Between its two-story brick row houses and three- to four-story apartment buildings, Lathrop has the capacity to rent out 925 family apartments, according to an analysis by the Chicago Housing Initiative (CHI), a coalition of eight community organizations including the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) and Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP).
Lathrop is only one of many Chicago housing projects with a high vacancy rate. But because it is in an area that has become relatively prosperous, it is under a microscope.
Lathrop has been a major focus for proponents of the Keeping the Promise ordinance, a measure backed by at least 19 aldermen and by the Chicago Housing Initiative and other advocates. First introduced in September 2014, the ordinance is billed as providing local oversight of the CHA, pushing the housing authority to restore public housing units, and increasing the city’s use of Housing Choice Vouchers that subsidize private apartments.
An informal city council hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for February 17.
In mid-November, the Chicago Housing Initiative met with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office and the new housing committee chair, 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore. A committee hearing on the ordinance was set for January 7 but postponed because of the death of an alderman’s spouse. No vote will be taken at the February 17 hearing. Proposed ordinances need to be passed in a council committee before being voted on by the full council, where 26 votes are needed to pass and 35 to over-ride a mayoral veto.
Lathrop’s dwindling population
In 1999, 747 of Lathrop’s units were occupied. In 2000, CHA stopped leasing units because of a planned building rehabilitation. However that rehabilitation never happened, and vacancies increased until today there are more than 750 units vacant, according to a Chicago Housing Initiative analysis of Chicago Housing Authority reports.
“Our numbers were decimated,” Gross said. “The lower the number goes…they can make a decision to close the place altogether and put everybody out because there’s not enough people to protest.”
Some blame the high vacancy rate on CHA’s Plan for Transformation, meant to replace ailing public housing developments with mixed-income ones.
The CHA initiative began in 2000 under the leadership of Mayor Richard M. Daley and was approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). CHA’s website describes the plan as “the largest, most ambitious redevelopment effort of public housing in the United States, with the goal of rehabilitating or redeveloping the entire stock of public housing in Chicago.”
Under the plan, mixed income communities would “break down the social barriers that formerly segregated public housing residents from the larger city of Chicago,” as CHA’s website promised.
The CHA promised to renovate or construct 25,000 units of housing under the plan, which was originally slated for completion in 2009 or 2010.
However, the plan has yet to be completed, and public housing advocates and residents doubt whether the city ever plans to fulfill its promises.
According to the Chicago Housing Initiative, the housing authority is still short of the 25,000 mark by 3,600 units.
The Plan for Transformation was made possible through a federal program known as Moving to Work (MTW), a multi-year project meant to provide better housing and services to low-income families through several HUD-approved initiatives such as rehabilitation, redevelopment and demolition.
Public housing watchdogs and tenant advocates are concerned that the MTW program deregulates public housing, decreasing federal oversight of the process. Critics blame deregulation for the fact that the CHA still gets federal funds for units even if they stand vacant or no longer exist.
According to the Chicago Housing Initiative’s analysis of CHA documents, the housing authority received $25-$35 million in federal funds annually between 2011 and 2014 for apartments that stood vacant. The initiative argues that if the CHA gets the money for units whether they are occupied or not, the housing authority has little incentive to house residents.
While CHA spokesman Matthew Aguilar did not respond to requests for comment about this issue, documents support the initiative’s analysis.
According to HUD’s 2015 Formula Funding by Development spreadsheet, CHA still receives federal funding for housing developments that stopped existing years ago. According to the document, CHA was slated to receive a grant of $736,461 for the vacant LeClaire Courts site on the Southwest Side, a development approved for closure in 2009 and then demolished.
According to statistics collected by the initiative, more than 18,000 units citywide were demolished within the first decade of the Plan for Transformation, while reconstruction has been slow and continuously dwindling.
CHA’s MTW Plans and Reports from 2007 to 2014 show that in 2007, CHA delivered 65 percent of the overall unit delivery goal of the Plan for Transformation. In 2011, CHA saw significant progress, ending the year at 85 percent completion. However, by 2012, the progress slowed significantly with CHA only achieving 86 percent of the overall unit delivery goal. This trend continued in 2013 with CHA reporting yet another one percent increase, to 87 percent completion; and again in 2014, with 88 percent completion. Critics have blamed Emanuel, who took office in 2011, for the slow rate in recent years.
“It looks like a policy decision on the part of the new mayor…Because it really begins declining in 2011 and then it tapers off entirely,” said Chicago Housing Initiative executive director Leah Levinger. “It looks like a policy reflective of his priority, or lack of priority, to see public housing rebuilt.”
South and Southwest Sides
CHA officials did not respond to repeated requests for comments about the future of LeClaire Courts. The CHA’s Amended FY2015 MTW Annual Plan says the CHA still “plans to procure and select a developer for [a] mixed-income housing development” at the site.
The report also outlines CHA’s intention to sell seven acres of the vacant LeClaire Courts lot to the Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC) for the construction of an international baccalaureate charter school.
There has been much opposition to the charter school plan in part because it will draw students from around the city, not specifically former LeClaire Courts tenants or others from the local area.
“If the CHA goes through with its plan to use this land for a charter school rather than public housing…It will squander the opportunity to provide more affordable housing units to the communities that need them most,” said the Latino Policy Forum in a public comment published in the Amended FY2015 MTW Annual Plan.
The CHA’s Plan for Transformation has also had a tremendous impact on housing in Chicago’s South Side. The Ida B. Wells Homes and the Robert Taylor Homes were two massive public housing developments in the South Side’s Bronzeville neighborhood that were known for poverty and violence.
Both developments were among those demolished in the early 2000s.
Ida B. Wells, the Clarence Darrow Homes and the Madden Park Homes — which collectively offered 2,359 public housing units — became the new mixed-income development Oakwood Shores under the Plan for Transformation.
Oakwood Shores promised to offer 1,000 new public housing units. CHA has replaced 277 units, according to the Chicago Housing Initiative’s analysis.
Meanwhile the Robert Taylor Homes, once made up of 4,415 public housing units, became a mixed income development called Legends South. According to the Chicago Housing Initiative, CHA originally promised the redevelopment would include 851 public housing units; but only 305 were replaced.
“I think the plan was unrealistic at its origins,” said Levinger. “CHA and the mayor at the time [Daley] were making promises they had no intentions of really keeping. In the early years of the plan they were going to say anything to residents and the press to try to make it seem like communities wouldn’t be disrupted as much as they were.”
With a shortage of available units, it might seem that vacant units should quickly be filled.
CHA’s FY2012 MTW Report logged a total of 21,179 public housing units, including units that were occupied and available.
But 3,016 of those units were marked as “offline.” The CHA says that term means a unit might not be available for lease due to redevelopment, community planning or overall updates. CHA’s FY2014 MTW Report noted that 2,852 public housing units were offline.
In CHA’s Amended FY2012 MTW Report, the authority responded to a public comment from Levinger, who questioned CHA’s claim in 2011 that they achieved 90 to 95 percent occupancy across their housing stock.
“[The initiative’s] argument was ‘That’s a vacant apartment, that’s an apartment that someone could be living in,’” said Levinger. “And that fact that the CHA still has federal funding for each of these apartments occupied or not …makes that wrong.”
CHA’s response to Levinger indicated that their portfolio of public housing units met the housing needs of low-income Chicagoans through the leasing of nearly 2,000 units. The agency rejected Levinger’s claim that CHA wasn’t using all of its available units.
“The Chicago Housing Initiative is counting units that are not habitable and/or offline in their analysis,” CHA wrote.
Along with large housing developments, the CHA also offers housing to very low-income families, seniors and disabled people through Housing Choice Vouchers, a federal program wherein residents with vouchers rent apartments from private landlords and pay a third of their income toward rent. The CHA picks up the rest of the tab.
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and CHA’s 2012 MTW Plan and Report indicates that nationally, eligible families wait an average 12 to 24 months to receive vouchers while families in Chicago wait up to 120 months — 10 years. A CHA representative who gave her name as only Tatiana stated that the voucher program currently has a wait time of one to five years.
There also appears to be a disparity in how many vouchers are circulated in Chicago versus how many vouchers are funded by the federal government. The Chicago Housing Initiative claims that CHA was funded for 51,415 vouchers in 2012; but the MTW Report states that 38,096 vouchers were actually circulated that year.
Today there are an estimated 50,000 housing voucher holders in Chicago, Tatiana said, with about 50,000 more people on the waitlist. CHA officials did not respond to further requests for comment.
Housing experts and advocates say that the number of CHA units standing vacant and the CHA’s seeming failure to fully utilize its voucher funding are unacceptable given the city’s homelessness crisis.
Laura Donaldson, 47, has been on the public housing waiting list for 20 years, she said, and is currently homeless.
“I’ve been interviewed for a couple of apartments over the years but for one reason or another, be it they are too far away…or just not accessible for me, I’ve been put back on the list,” she said. “It shouldn’t take this long for one person to get housing.”
According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, an estimated 125,848 Chicagoans were homeless during the course of the 2014-15 school year.
The U.S census says that about one in five Chicagoans lived below the poverty line in 2000 during the Plan for Transformation’s introduction. This percentage has increased to 22.6 percent of individuals today. And according to the Coalition for the Homeless, Chicago reports having 2,064 emergency shelter beds available, 8 percent fewer beds than were available in 2013.
In the U.S. Conference of Mayors 2014 Survey on Hunger and Homelessness, the city of Chicago reported that among homeless adults, 18 percent were physically disabled.
Donaldson, who is in a wheelchair, is an advocate for people with disabilities and is affiliated with Access Living, a Chicago-based, cross-disability organization governed and staffed mostly by people with disabilities. Donaldson advocates for solutions regarding jobs, living and housing, and she thinks the city should make public housing or vouchers a priority for people with disabilities.
“It’s not like we’re one in a billion. There are more people with disabilities that need housing than there used to be,” said Donaldson, who is currently living at Pacific Garden Mission, one of the city’s privately-run shelters. “As much as the city is progressive, how come they can’t look forward like they’ve done with other things?”