Just south of Lake Calumet, about halfway between the Loop and the smokestacks of Gary, Indiana, sits Altgeld Gardens. A low-rise public housing development with just over 3,000 residents, the neighborhood looks more like a suburban residential community than like the massive high-rises that dominate the narrative of Chicago public housing. Driving south on I-94, you’re more likely to notice the landfill on your left than the neat little rectangles of two-story row houses on the other side of the highway.
Altgeld—one of the first public housing projects in the country—was built in 1945 to house the African-American workforce of surrounding factories, particularly the Acme Steel plant and the Pullman factory. Since the majority of these businesses left in the eighties, the community has been struggling both with unemployment and with the air and water pollution the factories left behind.
Within the city limits, Altgeld could scarcely be farther from the Lathrop Homes, a development on the North Side that lines a short section of the Chicago River between Lincoln Park and Logan Square. The two developments are linked by the fact that they are some of the only traditional family public housing projects left in Chicago. Both have also recently been the unwilling targets of large-scale demolition proposals made by the Chicago Housing Authority. But while the CHA has since backed off from demolition plans at Altgeld, where the location and environmental issues make it unsuited to market-rate development, it remains committed to remaking the Lathrop Homes according to its Plan for Transformation.
Announced in 2000, the Plan represents Chicago’s effort to reinvent and rebrand public housing in response to the mismanagement, neglect, and violence that its high-rise projects had come to represent. It has accomplished this mostly by knocking down the old high-rises and replacing them with mixed-income developments and retail, meant to integrate more easily into the surrounding communities and avoid the concentrations of poverty blamed for so many of the old-style projects’ dysfunctions. As D. Bradford Hunt, professor of social science and history at Roosevelt University, writes in his book “Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing,” “The Plan for Transformation, at heart and paradoxically, is about keeping public housing alive by making it nearly invisible.”
I didn’t know I was living in a project until CHA told me I was living in a project,” says Cheryl Johnson, head of People for Community Recovery (PCR), a tenants’ rights and environmental advocacy group based in Altgeld, where she grew up. “My mother moved out here in the sixties,” she says. “When she moved out here it was a viable community. I saw people who lived in the community working in the community. Businesses were owned by residents.”
Residents like Johnson, who entered public housing before the CHA’s toxic, very public crises at projects like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes damaged the reputation of public housing nationwide, have been surprised to see the very words for the place they live acquire negative connotations. In fact, the early days of public housing complexes like Altgeld are often described ecstatically by residents. “We never looked at Altgeld Gardens as public housing,” Maude Davis, an early Altgeld resident, told J.S. Fuerst, author of “When Public Housing Was Paradise.” “We felt it was just paradise. We felt that this was just the greatest housing we could live in! There was pride in it.”
Johnson was also surprised when the CHA earmarked $7.3 million of its proposed 2013 budget for “planning for demolition” of 648 units at Altgeld. “They wanted to just knock down the vacant units with no future plans,” she says, in a tone of disbelief. The demolition would have cut the number of units at the project by around a third. Johnson says that over 200 Altgeld residents showed up at the public comment meeting on the budget after the “planning for demolition” came to light. Activist organizations throughout the city, including the Chicago Housing Initiative, Preservation Chicago, and Architecture for Humanity, banded together to form the Save Altgeld Coalition. When PCR discovered that Altgeld had, in 1993, been found eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the organization contacted the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which began a review of the CHA’s development plans. As an eligible location for Historic Place status, any major changes to Altgeld must be reviewed by HUD.
At this point, CHA and HUD have, Johnson says, agreed to preserve more than ninety percent of Altgeld’s 2,000 housing units, and to develop a plan to get 350 of the 635 currently offline units rehabbed and available to rent in 2014. (The agreement is yet to be incorporated into the CHA’s annual Moving to Work plan, which outlines CHA projects for the upcoming year. A CHA spokesperson declined to offer more information.) The units to be demolished—less than 150—are largely in buildings that have significant water damage, according to Johnson.
This is no doubt a victory for PCR, and for the residents of Altgeld, but the long-term future of the development is still uncertain. Johnson still loves living there, she says, but admits that since most of the surrounding industrial companies left in the eighties, it’s not the same “vibrant, viable community” she grew up in. Organizations such as BPI, a group of Chicago public interest attorneys, and the Urban Institute, a D.C. think tank, have questioned whether rehabilitating it, and thus housing more people there, is advisable due to the “isolated” and “segregated” nature of the development. More than ninety-seven percent of Altgeld residents are black; the same is true of the surrounding Riverdale community area, which has a median income of around $13,000.
Though it seems to be what residents want, no mixed-income housing at Altgeld also means that it is unlikely to get the kind of funding for new amenities or to attract the level of attention from businesses that new developments elsewhere have. In general, the CHA’s new plan, characterized by a near-dogmatic commitment to mixed-income—which can at times make it seem as though living among market-rate residents is a virtual panacea for social ills—has little to say about the future of traditional public housing spaces like Altgeld.
“The biggest problem that we see,” Johnson told me, “is the preservation of housing, the preservation of public housing, for low-income public housing communities, for low-income working class people, and the poor.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the very existence of traditional public housing like Altgeld is under threat. In his recent book, “New Deal Ruins,” professor of urban and regional planning Edward G. Goetz catalogues the waning national support and, in some cases, surging distaste for the words “public housing.” He describes how at an opening ceremony for a mixed-income development in Memphis, that city’s housing director said, “We’re almost there. We have only a few more sites to go before we can eliminate the words ‘public housing’ from our vocabulary. Wouldn’t that be great?” Atlanta has already made the purge, and Las Vegas isn’t far behind. As of 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, HUD has approved the demolition of over 285,000 units nationwide. This is in addition to the more than 250,000 units that have already been knocked down since the early nineties, meaning that in the last two decades HUD has approved the demolition of close to one-fifth of the nation’s public housing stock.
Research shows that the demolition of public housing does, when accompanied by redevelopment, usually generate significant benefits for the surrounding neighborhood. Typically this includes a reduction in crime, increase in property values, and increased private investment. What demolition doesn’t do, however, is improve the employment opportunities, educational attainment, or health of displaced public housing residents. These residents generally wind up moving into the private housing market by means of a Housing Choice Voucher, which is how the majority of CHA tenants are now housed, or placed in another public housing probject. And, Goetz writes in “New Deal Ruins,” once they are moved out of these communities to make way for redevelopment, residents’ chances of moving back to the newly revitalized area they left are usually less than one in three.
When CHA first announced the Plan for Transformation, it included a full rehabilitation of Altgeld and the Lathrop Homes. Unlike at Altgeld, however, the CHA is now aggressively pursuing an agenda of mixed-income redevelopment at Lathrop. All of Lathrop’s 925 units—only 152 of which are currently occupied—were originally counted in the number which would undergo rehabilitation, and thus remain as public housing after the Plan for Transformation’s completion. But in subsequent years the housing authority slowly but surely scaled back its plans for rehabilitation at Lathrop, until in 2008 they announced that they were planning on tearing the entire project down.
The latest redevelopment proposal, put forward by a team of developers assembled by the CHA, envisions around 1,100 units in a new Lathrop. Only 400 of these would be for public housing, while 500 would be market rate, and around 200 would be designated as “affordable housing,” which describes units for renters earning eighty to 120 percent of Chicago’s median income. The developers, collectively known as the Lathrop Community Partners (LCP), plan for the complex to be centered on an “iconic building.” The phrase is LCP’s euphemism for a high-rise with an unspecified number of floors.
Miguel Suarez is the chairman of the Lathrop Leadership Team, a residents’ advocacy group formed in part to organize a response to the CHA’s increasingly aggressive plans for the project. He’s lived in the complex for over twenty years; the financial relief and the community support he received there enabled him to return to school and complete his college degree.
Though generally soft-spoken, Suarez becomes frustrated when he discusses the features of the current plan. His opposition, and that of Titus Kerby, vice president of the Lathrop Local Advisory Council, is unequivocal. In separate meetings, both stressed more than once: “No demolition, no high-rise, no market-rate.”
Lathrop is the only entirely traditional family public housing left on the North Side; the areas around it range from gentrifying to gentrified. The main concern of residents, community leaders, and activists is preserving public housing in an area in which many residents are being priced out, and in a city with over 40,000 families on the waiting list for public housing, with hundreds of thousands more surely waiting to apply. (The waiting list is usually closed—the last time it was opened, in 2010, more than 200,000 families applied. Only 40,000 were eventually added to the list.)
The CHA also still has a long way to go toward fulfilling a central promise of the Plan for Transformation: delivering 25,000 replacement units by 2015. That goal has already been pushed back five years, from 2010. The CHA claims to have completed roughly 22,000 units, but in each of the last three years the housing authority has delivered less than 400. In its plan for 2014 it anticipated adding just 267 public housing units, only forty of which will come through mixed-income redevelopments. In light of the fact that rehabilitation is both cheaper and quicker than demolition and redevelopment, the decision to demolish so many units at Lathrop is even less explicable. Ward Miller, president of Preservation Chicago, also told me that two different groups of surveyors, one hired by CHA, said that the buildings at Lathrop are structurally sound and well-suited to rehabilitation, despite the fact that some have been kept empty for years.
Based on the Plan for Transformation’s stated aims of deconcentrating poverty and fighting the trend of segregation in Chicago’s public housing projects it’s unclear why they would want to reduce the public housing stock at Lathrop at all, especially since the development is exceptionally diverse, with sizable populations of black, Latino, and white residents. “This is not a poor concentration of African Americans,” Kerby says. “It’s not like that here. We’ve got all the retail and market-rate housing we need around here.”
The phrase “iconic building,” though, seems more than anything else to leave a bitter taste in Suarez’s mouth. Asked for his most significant complaint about the current plan, his voice lowers almost to a growl. “No high-rise, no ‘iconic building.’ ”
“Why, after just knocking down all those high-rises,” Kerby asks, “would they want to build a new one here? We never had any high-rises. They know that doesn’t work.”
Given that he doesn’t want new retail, market-rate housing, or a high-rise, I ask Kerby what he does want from CHA. In response he calls Annie Stubenfield, a resident of Oakwood Shores, the mixed-income development that replaced the Ida B. Wells, Clarence Darrow, and Madden Park Homes. Stubenfield is a plaintiff in a pending lawsuit over drug testing at mixed-income developments. Drug testing only occurs at sites that house former public housing residents, as Oakwood Shores does. Home and condo owners aren’t required to take a drug test.
As Stubenfield sees it, “they’re basically saying that everybody from public housing is a drug addict.” One of her two daughters just turned eighteen; she is now subject to drug testing as well. “My daughter told me,” Stubenfield says, “ ‘I didn’t graduate from high school, get a job, and become a college student so that I would have to be drug tested.’ ” Those who fail the tests are evicted, which seems, almost more than anything else, to set Stubenfield off. She doesn’t use drugs and has never failed a test. Her voice blares out of the phone: “You’re gonna kick me out? You’re not gonna help me? You’re not gonna send me to rehab? This is the twenty-first century—they look so stupid.”
Afterward, Kerby seems to feel he’s made his point about mixed-income. “It just shouldn’t differentiate between market-rate and public housing,” he says. “Don’t stigmatize me.”
“[When things go wrong] who gets blamed?” Johnson asked. “It’s us as residents. But we don’t control that purse string, we didn’t make the decisions made by the CHA hierarchy about what was done in our communities.” In other words, Johnson, Kerby, Stubenfield, and public housing residents all across Chicago are still suffering from the fallout from CHA’s last set of “iconic” buildings.
Unlike most of Chicago’s public housing developments, which were built on top of demolished slums, Altgeld Gardens was built on top of what Cheryl Johnson calls “a raw sewage landfill.” And though it never faced the same levels of crime, violence, and drug trafficking present in high-rises like the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green, residents have long struggled with endemic disorders of a different sort.
Cyanide-contaminated drinking water, PCB contamination, lead-based paint, fifty documented landfills, and 250 leaking underground storage tanks were just a portion of the environmental hazards faced by Altgeld when Cheryl Johnson and her mother Hazel—the founder of PCR—began their environmental advocacy work in the eighties. Hazel, who passed away in 2011, was a nationally renowned environmental activist, sometimes called the mother of the environmental justice movement. She worked with President Obama on his first community organizing effort to remove asbestos in the area, which was contributing to the Far Southeast Side’s having the highest incidence of cancer in Chicago.
More than half of the Riverdale community area, where Altgeld is located, is still taken up by rail yards, landfills, industrial sites (many non-operational), and, of course, the massive Calumet Water Reclamation Plant. Just across 130th Street, at the community’s northern edge, the facility uses an antiquated treatment system involving the use of open-air sludge beds; a large portion of the plant is, essentially, a field of decomposing waste. It smells exactly like what it is—raw sewage—particularly in the northern part of the development. Along the southern edge of Altgeld, close to the city limit, flows a section of the polluted Calumet River. There are so many environmental hazards in Altgeld’s immediate vicinity that Hazel Johnson used to call the whole area “the toxic doughnut.”
The amenities here are limited—there’s only one grocery store in the neighborhood, which Johnson and other residents described as understocked and overpriced, and the nearest full-sized supermarkets are three to four miles away. Hazel Johnson was instrumental in getting the CHA to open a small health clinic, which is still there, and Altgeld just recently got its own public library branch. “Isolated,” however—a term often used in reference to Altgeld—is a word Johnson doesn’t like. “Self-contained,” she corrects me. “It has its advantages and its disadvantages, being in an isolated area. We don’t have to worry about what, as we say, goes on in the city.” She pauses. “I mean, is that a fair question to ask, because I come from a low-income community? Wilmette is isolated too. But because we’re in an industrialized area, and because that’s changed so drastically, it’s affected the economic status of the community. Nobody would be saying anything about isolation if that industry was still going.”
Johnson isn’t fond of the phrase “mixed-income” either, pointing out that it implies that communities such as Altgeld are homogenous. “Working class people live here,” she says, though clearly fewer than did in the past. Kerby told me the same thing. “Mixed-income is nothing new,” he said. “There are people paying close to a thousand dollars to live here in public housing.” In fact, their preferred definition of mixed-income is more in line with the history of the practice than the CHA’s.
Chicago was the first city to implement intentionally mixed-income housing projects. Under CHA head Vincent Lane, the agency announced the development of the two-building Lake Parc Place in 1988. Half of Lake Parc’s apartments were reserved for “low-income” residents, or tenants making between fifty and eighty percent of Chicago’s median income, while the other half would be used for housing “very low-income” families, or those earning between thirty and fifty percent of the median income, and “extremely low-income” families, defined as those earning less than thirty percent of the area’s median.
Today, “mixed-income” means, at least to the CHA, an even mix between market-rate, affordable, and public housing, meaning that only roughly a third of the units in any given development are reserved for all three of the income categories included in Lane’s original conception of mixed-income housing.
D. Bradford Hunt is skeptical that this shift can be entirely explained by the desire to avoid concentrations of poverty. He’s not convinced that what the CHA considers a “true mix” is entirely necessary. “There are many varieties of mix,” he said. “And I wonder to what extent the numbers [financial considerations] drove that decision.”
What is clear, Hunt says, is that the CHA is much more likely to pursue rehabilitation at sites like Altgeld, where—due to the location and the environmental issues—there’s no real interest from private developers. The pattern is so pronounced that tenants’ rights lawyer Robert Whitfield, who worked at the Chicago HUD Office of Fair Housing, believes that it warrants an investigation by HUD to see if CHA’s practices violate the Fair Housing Act or other federal fair housing laws and guidelines. Whitfield is also the general counsel for the Central Advisory Council, an elected body that represents Chicago public housing tenants as a whole.
“The actions of the CHA toward Lathrop Homes and the Cabrini Row Houses,” he wrote in an email, “give the appearance, absent any other explanation, of being motivated because of the racial composition of those areas, and the fear that the addition of more public housing populated by African-American and Hispanic families will result in a decrease in the number of white families in those areas.”
At the Cabrini Row Houses, another North Side development, residents were also initially promised a full rehabilitation. After CHA announced its plan to make Cabrini into a mixed-income development, residents sued for housing discrimination. The suit is ongoing.
To Leah Levinger, director and founding member of the Chicago Housing Initiative, the difference in outcomes at Lathrop and Altgeld is easily explained. While the plan for redevelopment at Altgeld was put together by a third-party consultant, she explains, the Lathrop plan came from a team of five developers, headed by the firm Related Midwest, a company which previously specialized in luxury condominiums and rentals and has only recently taken up affordable housing. “They’re the devil,” Levinger fake-whispers. She says the CEO told her explicitly that the company only got into affordable housing because after the 2008 crash the private market couldn’t sustain their Chicago office. “It’s a pretty typical way to keep capitalism alive during times of crisis,” Levinger says. “Use public money.”
The money that developers like Related Midwest make on affordable housing projects comes from their fee, which, Levinger explains, is a percentage of the overall cost of the project. Since demolition is, on average, $100,000 more expensive per-unit than rehabilitation, there’s a clear incentive for these companies to push for demolition-heavy plans. The ironic result is that despite the fact that the CHA consistently cites avoiding concentrations of poverty as the main justification for its demolition of public housing stock, public housing that—like Lathrop—is located in a relatively wealthy area is far more likely to be demolished.
For several years, Levinger has been meticulously documenting fiscal improprieties at the CHA in an attempt to get HUD, which provides the vast majority of the housing authority’s funding, to intervene. The CHA was deregulated in 2000, while Rahm Emanuel was on the board, which means that its federal funding flows into one main operating fund instead of being earmarked for particular aspects of its operation. Levinger believes this makes federal oversight difficult, and has found that the CHA consistently receives operating funds for vacant units as if they were occupied, and even sometimes gets funding for units that no longer exist. Levinger also wonders what the CHA does with the $40 million it receives from HUD for about 13,000 Housing Choice Vouchers it chooses not to distribute. (A CHA spokesperson declined to offer an explanation for their decision to retain those 13,000.) In 2012, Levinger succeeded in getting Sandra Henriquez, the deputy assistant secretary for public and Indian housing at HUD, to come to Chicago to review evidence of fiscal mismanagement. In a meeting, she claims Henriquez stood up in frustration, and essentially abdicated HUD’s role in overseeing how the money they give to CHA is spent. “The message was,” Levinger says, “ ‘Yes there are serious managerial problems here, but we’re politically intimidated by your mayor.’ ”
Later, I ask Levinger what she thinks of the Plan for Transformation’s dedication to mixed-income housing. “I think it’s great,” she says. “And when they start knocking down houses in Lincoln Park to make room for mixed-income housing I’ll believe everything they’re saying. But as long as they’re still building mixed-income on the backs of poor people, I’ll still feel like shooting someone.”
“That Plan for Transformation,” Johnson told me, a few weeks earlier, “was thrown on us. It was a business. It wasn’t a service, it was a business.”
“It’s always been a struggle for African-American people to find housing in Chicago,” she said. “I just can’t understand why, why we’re so racist, for lack of a better word, when you and I we breathe the same air, we were born the same way.” She paused. “You know why, because there’s money all tied up in it. You take the money out of racism, and there wouldn’t be no problem about race.”
At Lathrop, residents and activists still hope that they might be able to preserve the buildings, and preserve them for public housing. Since Lathrop is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there is a substantial tax credit available to its developers if they conserve enough of the historic buildings. The current plan, which conserves sixty percent of the original buildings, is still under review and may not satisfy this requirement.
John McDermott, housing and land use director at the Logan Square Neighborhood Alliance, has worked closely with Lathrop residents and leaders for years. He thinks HUD has been less willing to approve large-scale demolition in recent years, and hopes that they might reject the CHA’s proposal. If this doesn’t happen, there’s still a chance that 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack, whose ward contains part of the northern portion of Lathrop, might be able to block the development. In order for the “iconic building,” to be built, all of Lathrop will need to be rezoned, a process which, as alderman, Waguespack might be able to block. He’s so far expressed a firm commitment to the cause of Lathrop’s residents.
Suarez claims that the hold on new leasing at Lathrop, placed in 2003, is evidence that the CHA was “systematically trying to empty Lathrop out,” removing a major obstacle to demolition. “They were just waiting to be able to do what they want with Lathrop,” he says. Suarez is referring to a practice known as “de-facto demolition,” wherein the CHA, in order to justify demolition, uses Housing Choice Vouchers and holds on leasing to empty out public housing.
Currently, most CHA tenants actually live in private buildings using vouchers. Though they theoretically offer a greater array of housing options, the voucher program has been accused of simply relocating tenants to poor, primarily minority communities—redistributing rather than deconcentrating poverty, and disrupting tenants’ relationships in the process.
In 1995, residents at the Henry Horner Homes won a settlement in a lawsuit in which they charged that the CHA had engaged in “de-facto demolition” at their Near West Side development. Horner residents were allowed to choose, with a vote, between rehabilitation and demolition; they were also given the right to remain on-site throughout the process, and guaranteed one-to-one replacement of every public housing unit demolished.
Perhaps inspired by the success at Horner, Kerby told me residents were considering suing to prevent demolition; with the exception of the right to remain on-site during construction, Lathrop residents haven’t been able to get the CHA to agree to any of these demands. The numbers would seem to support their case: in 2000, there were 747 units occupied at the development, compared to today’s 152.
In the meantime, Altgeld residents have put forth their own community development plan for Altgeld and the surrounding area. The plan is an attempt “to show them,” Johnson says, “that we have a vision as much as they have a vision.” In collaboration with Architecture for Humanity and several green-tech businesses, including Biojam, a clean-energy company headed by PCR board president Christian Strachan, they plan to bring in a variety of green initiatives to create jobs and help deal with the persistent environmental problems in the area.
To replace the open-air drying beds at the water reclamation plant, Strachan wants to create algae beds, which would reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous released into the Calumet River and Lake Michigan and also get rid of the smell. The resulting biomass could be used, he says, for fertilizer or alternative fuel, which would create jobs for residents. “This isn’t just some feel-good story,” he told me over the phone. “This is a triple-bottom-line business. You have a challenge, you have a workforce that’s untapped. It’s a perfect opportunity.”
“We look at environmental contamination as an environmental opportunity now,” Johnson said, “because technology is much better than it was thirty years ago, regulation is much better than it was thirty years ago, our knowledge of environmental issues is better than it was thirty years ago. Just from the fact that this place was built on top of a landfill, CHA has to be accountable for that. But now that we’ve been here sixty years, why not learn how to clean it up for the next five hundred years?”
At the table in the back room of the PCR office, Johnson and fellow Altgeld residents Marguerite Jacobs and Georgia Curtis talk about the redevelopment and other future plans for their community. Jacobs has heard that a new marina behind Altgeld is going to be used to help handle shipments to the nearby port, and is trying to make sure that local youth have a chance to find work there.
She’s involved with Prologue, a system of alternative schools that provides high school diplomas and GED, ESL, and vocational programs for those who never graduated. Prologue is also starting a maritime academy, which will prepare students for work in marinas and ports, just a few miles away. For the last three years, Jacobs has also been running a farmer’s market in Altgeld, six days a week, to help deal with the community’s lack of an adequate grocery store. After she’s done explaining all this, Johnson looks over at me and smiles. “All that,” she says, “and not one of the women in this room collects a real check.”
Later, I offer to give Jacobs a ride over to the unit where she has her farmer’s market, at the northern edge of Altgeld. In the car she tells me that although she came back to Altgeld because she lost her house to a fire, “coming out here was my choice, because I wanted to get back on my feet instead of going somewhere where I’d have to struggle, where I didn’t know my neighbors.” At Altgeld she could spend more time with her kids, and had a network of support she could rely on. “It’s not that we want to live off public entitlement programs,” she says. “We just make decisions sometimes, not to work at Walmart every day for minimum wage.”
She says she relies on this support network to watch after her youngest son, who’s in high school and still lives with her. Though Jacobs says she feels safe in Altgeld, she worries about him because of what she sees happening to so many other boys his age. Pulling up to the northern edge of the development, we can see the landfill off on the other side of I-94. Covered in snow, it looks just like a lumpy hill, the highest point for miles around. We pull up in front of the unit, and as soon as the car doors open the cold and the smell sweep in. “I’m glad I came back,” Jacobs says as she gets out. “I am not going to lose my baby to the streets.”