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Plan Forward: Communities that Work

Wed, Jul 3, 2013

The Chicago Housing Authority started a 10-year Plan for Transformation (PFT) of its 38,000 units in 1999 and later extended it five years.

Released in April, “Plan Forward” is the CHA’s latest five-year plan, in which the agency proposes time limits for public housing residents, public-private partnerships and the leasing of empty land. The CHA says it has produced more than 85 percent of the Plan for Transformation’s promised 25,000 units through demolition, rehab and reconstruction. Housing advocates, however, say that Plan Forward is vague, misguided and lacks the necessary detail to finish the PFT.

“The thing about Plan Forward is there is a lot of generalization, but there’s no ‘how,’ so they’re doing the ‘how’ as they go along,” said Myra King, chair of the Central Advisory Council (CAC), an elected group of CHA resident leaders. “We would prefer to know the ‘hows’ so we can know how it will or will not impact us or affect us.” CHA has not delivered a blueprint describing how it will build, acquire and rehab the remaining public housing units, but Plan Forward promises to do so.
Ethan Michaeli is director of We The People Media and was founding editor-in-chief of Residents’ Journal, a magazine written for and by public housing tenants. “When are they going to rebuild and most importantly, when are the residents who were promised that they were going to come back to their home neighborhoods going to be able to come back?” Michaeli said.


CHA’s public housing portfolio includes 2,844 unoccupied units, says Leah Levinger of the Chicago Housing Initiative. These include units CHA has not yet redeveloped in Lathrop Homes at Diversey and Clybourn; the Cabrini Rowhouses on the Near North Side and Altgeld-Murray Homes on the far South Side, as well as rehabbed units CHA has not yet leased.

In a May 7 meeting, CHA CEO Charles Woodyard admitted that between 888 and 1,034 unoccupied units are counted toward the CHA’s 25,000-unit commitment, Levinger said in an email. These include 92 units in Westhaven (the replacement housing for Henry Horner Homes in the West Loop) and 181 units at the 20-story Fannie Emanuel Apartments (formerly known as the Parkview Senior Apartments) at 3916 W. Washington Blvd. Levinger says CHA is in the process of leasing somewhere between 70 and 138 units at Lake Parc Place; this development at Pershing Road and Lake Park was finished in 2006, she said.

The Chicago Housing Initiative is a coalition of eight community-based organizations that has worked to reduce this vacant inventory and to get families into the vacant CHA units through its Lease-Up Campaign. In October 2011, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also challenged public housing authorities to reduce vacancies, according to the CHA’s 2012 annual report.

CHA spokesperson Matt Aguilar said in an email that “At times, some of the public housing units that were revitalized at the beginning of the Plan have been taken offline for maintenance, upgrades and updates to align with building requirements, ADA modifications and major capital maintenance projects. Units may also be taken offline to address pending demolition or disposition or modifying units into non-dwelling units such as offices for property management and/or service providers.”

The billion-dollar Plan for Transformation has completed 86 percent of its 25,000-unit goal, Aguilar said. “CHA is committed to building strong, vibrant communities throughout Chicago. Our goal is to increase the quality of life and economic opportunities for CHA residents. The mission is to leverage the power of affordable, decent, safe and stable housing to help communities thrive and low-income families increase their potential for long-term economic success and sustained quality of life.

CHA and Plan Forward continues to build on the success of the Plan for Transformation to strengthen Chicago’s neighborhoods.”

Plan Forward: Communities that Work, has three goals, each followed by strategies, initiatives and deliverables:

Goal 1: Reimagine the final phase of the Plan for Transformation, coordinating public and private investments to develop healthy, vibrant communities.
“The CHA will acquire and rehabilitate homes and apartments in a variety of neighborhoods and invest in private developments to complete the PFT,” according to the report. “All properties on CHA-owned land and surrounding neighborhoods will benefit from a full array of retail, commercial, educational, and community amenities.” Highlights include the promised release of a blueprint – tailored to neighborhood dynamics — to complete the 25,000 units, a pilot program for public housing term limits and the use of CHA vacant land for public-private investments that could create jobs.

Goal 2: Ensure that CHA’s housing portfolio is safe, decent and sustainable.
All housing supported by federal and local subsidies must adhere to relevant standards, Plan Forward notes. “The CHA will maintain every housing unit to ensure that safe, decent housing is sustainable in the long term. The agency will hold contractors, property managers and landlords fully accountable for the condition of their properties.” Highlights include installation of 1,900 security cameras on top of the 2,800 already in existence and consistent rules between CHA housing and Housing Choice Voucher programs.

Goal 3: Expand services to more residents, targeted to their needs and at critical milestones in their lives.

CHA will implement programs for public housing residents and voucher holders, whether they are young people, adults who need job training, senior citizens or long-time residents unlikely to move to the private sector without subsidies. Highlights include improved connections to city partners with early childhood programs, expanded extracurriculars for school-aged youth, a pilot adult literacy program, connecting 1,500 unemployed or underemployed people to jobs by 2014 and assisting a total of 6,000 residents gain employment by 2015.

As an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Janet Smith has followed the Plan for Transformation since its inception. Smith was part of a team of consultants who researched and wrote a 124-page report commissioned by the CAC on issues and best practices. It was released in August 2012 – eight months before Plan Forward. The $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation called for demolition of 22,000 units and replacement of 9,000. In the process, 6,000 families would be dispersed, she said.

What has happened to them?

CHA spent $1 million to locate all CHA residents displaced through the PFT who have the right to return, including 16,500 family members, Smith said.

As of April 2011, just over half of the families (52 percent) were still receiving a CHA subsidy; 28 percent were either no longer eligible, had been evicted or had died.

Smith says Plan Forward is vague and does not address how CHA is going to complete three specific housing developments.

“When it was approved in 2000, the plan was only going to demolish high rise buildings – 51 in total,” she said. “Today the CHA envisions demolishing low-rise buildings in Altgeld Gardens, Lathrop Homes and the Francis Cabrini Rowhouses. All were to be redeveloped – and more specifically – to be rehabbed and retained as public housing. What changed?”

Located at 130th Street and Indiana Avenue, Altgeld Gardens is the community where President Obama got his start as an organizer. Only 1,258 of its 1,998 units are occupied, Smith said in an email fact sheet. “What is the plan for the remaining 740 unoccupied units?”

All 582 units in the Cabrini Rowhouses were supposed to be rehabbed as public housing, Smith added. But after finishing 146, CHA says it will no longer support 100 percent public housing there, she said.

Lathrop has 925 units of public housing, with 157 occupied, according to a CAC spokesperson. Even though Lathrop is surrounded by middle-income and high-income neighborhoods, such as Logan Square and Roscoe Village, it is going to be redeveloped as a mixed income community, which means fewer units of public housing. “What changed?” Smith asked.

One reason for the mix of housing is a 1960s federal lawsuit where CHA was found to have racially and economically segregated public housing residents. Leveraging costs is another reason. The CHA has historically said that market rate housing helps pay for public housing units.

In a letter introducing Plan Forward in April, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the CHA’s Woodyard said that economic realities called them to “… move beyond the goals set over a decade ago and create a new strategic plan.” They said they intend to “reimagine the final phase of the original Plan for Transformation by coordinating public and private resources.” Key strategies include building new units in mixed-income communities, acquiring and rehabilitating homes and apartments, and preserving affordable housing units.

King, however, is concerned that the CHA didn’t incorporate more of the CAC’s report recommendations into Plan Forward. One of its key points, that preservation is more cost-effective than new construction, does not seem prominent in Plan Forward, she said.

Another Plan Forward strategy is the development of CHA’s vacant land through long-term public-private investment, with a focus on generating jobs. King and Smith want to be sure that these land swaps benefit low-income residents who were displaced from public housing.

The CHA is looking at vacant land not only for housing, but also for retail opportunities, Smith said. The CHA swapped former Cabrini property at Division and Larrabee Streets for a Target store. This land swap means former residents of Cabrini Green will likely be relocated to less desirable locations, she said. But trading vacant land for retail development may be the right decision for other neighborhoods.

“On the South Side … they need more retail,” Smith said. “But frankly I’d rather to see them use some of that land to make great paying jobs, not just minimum wage jobs.”

While King said she believes the CHA needs private-partnerships to complete the PFT, she wants prime value for prime land.

“We’re giving them opportunity; are we getting opportunity back?” King asked. “Are we trading or swapping land that is comparable in value and amenities so that we are not getting the short end of the stick?”

King said she believes the CHA intends to turn vacant land near McCormick Place, once occupied by residents of the Harold Ickes Homes, into a business strip with limited units of public housing to relocate displaced residents. “My question is, where will the people who were promised the right to return…where will they go?” About 800 tenants were displaced from Ickes and only 200 may be coming back, she said.

Citing the CHA’s 2012 annual report, Levinger calculated that 3 out of 4 units CHA had delivered had come from rehab, not new construction. Among its 21,376 units, 15,871 were rehabbed. These include 3,909 units of family housing, 2,581 units of scattered site and 9,381 senior units.
“The historic success of rehabilitation, and the historic failure of the demolition-privatization model is why Chicago Housing Initiative is so disappointed, so stunned, and so disturbed that rehabilitation does not feature more prominently in the Mayor’s Plan Forward,” Levinger said.

Levinger also questions exactly what the public is getting out of CHA’s partnerships with private developers. Chicago Housing Initiative did a limited study of Parkside of Old Town and of West End, which are mixed-income replacements for Cabrini and Rockwell Gardens, respectively. Private capital accounted for just 5% of the $42 million cost of Parkside and 8% of the $36 million price of West End, although both developers will own the housing and control the land for 99 years.

She said she believes the CHA’s public-private partnership agreement is much like the city’s despised parking meter deal.

“We are sacrificing the long-term interests of the public for a little bit of money upfront from a few private corporations who have their own profit-making interests at heart,” Levinger said.

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As the cost of renting in Chicago continues to escalate, King and Michaeli are especially concerned about the plan’s proposed public housing time limits before residents transition into unsubsidized units. A missing detail is the length of the time limit. One source cited seven years.

Michaeli said that term limits are not in the residents’ best interest. As part of the CAC’s research for its 2012 report, Michaeli and We the People Media surveyed residents. Regarding time limits, 86.4 percent of respondents did not support them for any CHA population under any circumstances.

“The residents thought that term limits were going to make life in the developments a nightmare, because they wouldn’t have any stability, and they really saw it as a tool to destroy the sense of community that exists in public housing,” Michaeli said. “They thought that most of the people forced out of public housing due to term limits would end up on the streets.”

Charles Woodyard, CHA’s chief executive officer, was scheduled to hold the first in a series of Resident Forums June 19 at the Charles A. Hayes Family Investment Center at 4859 S. Wabash Ave. to discuss Plan Forward and to hear from CHA residents. The meeting was to be restricted to CHA Public Housing and Housing Choice Voucher residents.

By Wendy Rosen, StreetWise Editorial Intern
Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-In-Chief contributing


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