Housing deception

By The Columbia Chronicle

Even As the housing market slowly revives throughout the country, Chicago’s publicly funded housing developments continue to struggle. Members of the city’s public housing community came together to speak out against the Chicago Housing Authority’s redevelopment  plan at a Sept. 12 board meeting at CHA headquarters, 60 E. Van Buren St.

The Far South Side housing complex Altgeld Gardens has become a shell of its former self, and its homes have fallen into disrepair, according to Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery, an organization that seeks to ensure proper environmental conditions for Altgeld residents.

“The CHA is talking about drastically changing our community’s quality of life,” Johnson said. “As a resident and as a community activist, we need to take the initiative to create our own plan to present to the CHA because it is time to have our own voice.”

According to Johnson, 648 housing units are scheduled to be demolished by 2014, and the CHA has yet to inform the 1,300 current residents of their relocation.

A 2011 report issued by the CHA claimed the housing units destined for demolition are vacant because they’re in disrepair and would fall into legal dispute if sold to a tenant company. But Johnson said she believes CHA has undermined the projects and seeks to profit from residents’ hardships.  “The contractor, Walsh Construction, received $600 million to do the development at CHA,” said Joseph Perry, an Altgeld resident. “There was only $290 million worth of work done. That means Walsh got $310 million that they got to walk away with.  This board is responsible for rebidding the contracts multiple times at the cost of all of us.”

When asked to comment at the meeting, CHA representatives said responses would be issued at the next board meeting Oct. 10.

Similar problems have been brought up at other public facilities, including the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, 2000 W. Diversey Ave., and the Cabrini-Green row houses on the Near North Side. The CHA report shows that 18 percent of Lathrop’s rooms are unoccupied, and there is a 21 percent vacancy rate at Cabrini-Green.

As apartments sit uninhabited, Mary Thomas of Altgeld Gardens wondered why the CHA hasn’t looked into updating its waiting lists. “A home is a terrible thing to waste,” Thomas said. “We are in the middle of a housing crisis. We need CHA to allow people to move into these vacant buildings. Don’t let them sit vacant anymore when people need help this badly.”

Although some units are empty, many residents are forced to live in overcrowded rooms after being kicked out because of “unlivable” conditions, according to Yolanda Ward, another Altgeld resident, who said that living conditions are drastically declining.

“There are three people living in my apartment,” Ward said. “We are crowded—packed in like animals. There are so many vacant homes out there that are just waiting to be demolished. Why can’t the CHA rehab the homes? We are overwhelmed, overcrowded and overlooked.”

According to Carol Steele, director of Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council, many members of the community have been actively fighting for the CHA to rebuild the complex since 2008.  A federal court banned the CHA from evicting the 385 remaining members of the complex, on the grounds that it did not give residents enough time to relocate.

Speculating  on multiple bidding attempts by the CHA on Altgeld Gardens, Perry said he saw members of the community beginning to voice their discontent. According to Perry, the residents were unaware that CHA meetings were open to the public until recently

“I have lived here for eight years, and up until now, I had no idea that we could go to these meetings and get access to financial information and meeting minutes,” Perry said.

He questions the board’s motives after it approved a plan to rehab parts of Altgeld Gardens in 2010 for approximately $50,000 and subsequently voted Sept. 11 to schedule a $315,000 demolition plan.

These concerns were echoed by  Altgeld residents who spoke during the public forum, with many hoping for rehabilitation and an answer to their questions.

William Freeman of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign argued that the CHA has caused a vicious cycle of repression. “We were trying to believe the CHA had the residents’ best interest in mind, but that failed,” Freeman said. “We were trying to believe in the previous CHA administration. They failed. We tried to believe in the redevelopment, but that failed.”