Housing activists are calling on the Chicago Housing Authority's (CHA) Board of Commissioners to refrain from considering proposals that sell or swap portions of vacant land to various entities, such as the city of Chicago. The land, protesters said, should instead be used to replace public housing that has been torn down under the agency’s Plan for Transformation.
Gathered outside of CHA’s downtown headquarters Monday, roughly 30 activists criticized proposed development plans, such as tennis courts and a retail facility, on CHA-owned vacant land formerly occupied by public housing.
“There’s no plan to replace the housing that we know of,” said Roderick Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, and organizer of the protest. “When the CHA came up with this Plan for Transformation to demolish public housing and to rebuild and transform it, they promised replacement housing that wouldn’t concentrate poverty. But where is it?”
From 2000 to 2013, the CHA demolished 11 public housing developments, roughly 18,000 units, under the more than $1 billion Plan for Transformation. The controversial plan set out to replace low-income, high-rise housing projects with mixed-income communities.
In May, the agency reported that the Plan for Transformation's redevelopment and rehabilitation of 25,000 public housing units across Chicago was 88 percent complete.
Of the 16,846 families displaced under the plan, the CHA reports that about 7 percent, roughly 1,248 people, are still waiting to return to public housing.
A new initiative, dubbed the “Plan Forward: Communities That Work", is a CHA-proposed amendment to an agreement made with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to "provide better housing and service to low-income families through several HUD-approved initiatives."
“There is an over-abundance of people on the waiting list, waiting for housing," said Wilson. "But instead of making moves to increase affordable housing, the city is selling land."
Pointing to 2012’s African-American unemployment rate of 19 percent in Chicago, the third highest in the nation, Wilson said the reduction in subsidized housing disproportionately affects black people.
“We’re talking about thousands and thousands of families who just cannot afford the cost of housing that is available to them,” he said. “Public housing provides a large portion of the African-American community with a safety net. This is a matter of being homeless or not.”
Here’s more from Wilson:
During Monday's protest, Wilson submitted a letter to the CHA Board of Commissioners criticizing a proposal to sell a portion of land that formerly hosted the Robert Taylor Homes to XS Tennis, which intends to construct a recreational tennis facility and retail development on the site.
Selling land to a tennis club, instead of building more mixed-income and public housing, would be “unfair” to the large number of Chicagoans who have been placed on a waiting list for CHA housing, Wilson’s letter read.
According to the agency, the CHA’s waiting list for public housing and Housing Choice Vouchers, or Section 8 housing, contained 42,000 individuals, not including people displaced under the Plan for Transformation.
The CHA promised to replace roughly 800 public housing units from the Robert Taylor Homes, which were completely torn down in 2007. With about 4,300 units in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, the Robert Taylor Homes was once the world’s largest public housing project, with approximately 27,000 residents. The redevelopment plan calls for 2,400 mixed-income rental and affordable homeownership units on and off the 92-acre site, which was renamed Legends South.
Only 305 replacement public housing units have been built following the Robert Taylor Homes' demolition, according to the CHA.
Much of the land along the massive State St. public housing corridor, which included the Robert Taylor Homes, still sits vacant following the series of demolitions. The Harold Ickes Homes, which housed more than 1,000 families at one point and was demolished in 2010, has not been replaced by any public housing units as of yet.
“That land belongs to those families who need housing,” said Ayanna Allen, housing organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.
Allen works with low-income and needy Chicagoans, and said she gets hundreds of phone calls every week from people seeking affordable housing. She called the plan to sell the land for purposes other than affordable housing “a slap in the face” to everyone on the waiting list.
“We were all told they wanted to reduce the concentration of poverty in our communities by demolishing these housing projects, but really they just wanted to get rid of it,” she said. “They aren’t replacing those units like they promised."
CHA’s Plan Forward also proposes swapping land with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district to acquire property on the Near North Side of Chicago for mixed-income housing and retail purposes. CPS plans to develop an athletic facility, for nearby William Jones College Preparatory High School, on a portion of land in Bronzeville that formerly featured the Harold Ickes Homes.
Meanwhile, the CHA said in a statement that selling the properties would “encourage job growth and re-use of vacant land for community building purposes.” According to the agency, enough land would remain at the sites to allow for public housing development and residents displaced during housing project demolitions would still be accommodated if the proposal is approved.
“The Chicago Housing Authority continues to work to help build strong, vibrant communities throughout Chicago as part of our new strategic initiative Plan Forward: Communities That Work,” Matt Aguilar, spokesperson for the CHA, said in a statement. “As we work to help strengthen neighborhoods throughout the City of Chicago, CHA is proposing an amendment to the HUD approved Moving To Work Annual Plan (MTW) for potential disposition of land and scattered site demolition in FY 2013. This is a proposed plan, which must receive both HUD and CHA Board approval.”
Aguilar pointed out that the agency hosted a public hearing on June 11 for residents to voice their concerns about the land sale and swap proposal.
The CHA Board of Commissioners was scheduled to vote on the Plan for Transformation amendment Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Janice Haney, 71, a former resident of the Robert Taylor Homes and participant in Monday’s protest, said her 35 year-old son is one of the city’s thousands of residents who needs the CHA to increase the availability of public housing.
“CHA isn’t moving as fast as we need them to,” she said, adding that her 13 year-old grandson should be able to live with his father.
Haney’s son has been homeless for nearly one year, and has been unemployed for more than six months.
“If he could get a two-bedroom apartment, he could get a job, and then his son could move in. If he could just get situated, I would be so grateful,” she said. “This is a life or death situation.”