Tag Archives: Chicago Housing Authority

My city meadow: the future of LeClaire Courts

31 Jul

I cut my teeth as a reporter at LeClaire Courts. It was the location of my first Chicago Housing Authority board meeting. My first complex-wide shouting match between residents and the CEO, and the first time I really got to know public housing residents and see the struggle they faced to save their community.

It was also the first complex I saw shut down. I started reporting on public housing in 2008, long after the concrete towers of the infamous Robert Taylor Homes had been demolished.

I read “There are No Children Here”, by Alex Kotlowitz, but Henry Horner Homes wasn’t here anymore for reference.

It was a weird time in the Plan for Transformation–so much had been demolished, and a good amount rebuilt. But there were these outliers–communities that were in limbo–and LeClaire was one of them.

I came to LeClaire in its last year. Like many public housing complexes in the city, it was slowly being emptied. At one time, the 600 units sprawled over 40 acres were full.

But after the plan to remake the city’s public housing started, once a family moved out, their unit was boarded up and left empty. Some families were in the only occupied unit in their stretch of row houses.

It was a pattern I’d see over and over. At Lathrop, at Cabrini. The Chicago Housing Authority would decide to leave a unit vacant after someone moved out or was evicted. Little by little, the building would empty out, until CHA would declare it to be an “emergency situation,” which gave them the authority to close it in 90, 60 or even 30 days.

Families would be offered the chance to relocate to another CHA development or get a Section 8 voucher.

If it didn’t involve people’s lives and homes, it would have almost been funny. It was like knocking over one domino and claiming to be surprised when they all fell down.

Every story was the same–residents would fight to stay. But slowly, they would move out. The building would be closed, and eventually, demolished.

I don’t cover public housing exclusively anymore, but what I saw at places like LeClaire shapes my reporting even now.

I notice the same patterns in other city structures. A plan to let things disintegrate, a plan of intentional neglect, until they become too difficult to maintain and it seems no one can argue against the city’s plan to close them. It’s the mental health clinics, the public schools.

Even people are treated this way. Citizens are left in poor, resource-less communities for so long that generations of their families can’t escape pollution, unemployment, or lack of education. At some point, they’re either shipped out to other neighborhoods or left voiceless as people with power decide the future of their communities.

I saw it in the struggle for Whittier parents to save the fieldhouse they wanted to turn into a library. The parents said they’d been asking for the Chicago Public Schools to do something with the building for years, but instead, they waited and wanted to demolish it because they claimed it was in extensive disrepair.

I saw it again illustrated in a recent study on how TIF dollars are distributed to the city’s schools, with the least resources going to neighborhood schools, a list of which are slated to close each year for their failure to match the outcomes the wealthier schools report.

A few employees of a mental health clinic told me a story about how, after numerous complaints to the higher-ups, the ceiling fell in at their clinic. The cost of keeping open the clinics, especially with their crumbling infrastructure, was cited as one of the reasons to shut half of them down earlier this year.

With the closure of clinics, advocates say clients have been scattered and left to fend for themselves… much like those at LeClaire.

I wonder what happened to Natalie Saffold, the community president that demanded that the housing authority make a decision about what LeClaire would become before it was closed down.

I remember Michelle, a mother moving her two children from LeClaire to Lawndale, unsure about what the future would hold for them in a new community. Her oldest daughter, I recall, wanted to become a lawyer. Back before the complex closed in 2009, she walked me around the neighborhood and told me how its dwindling population had altered the face of her community.


LeClaire was also the reason I could never watch the cult-favorite “The Wire.”

The sprawling low-rise public housing complex in the show reminded me too much of LeClaire, complete with empty units ripe for gang members to use as hideouts and machine-gun armories. Yes, the show was very well-written, but it seemed wrong to be watching something on TV as entertainment when I knew people were living this life for real.

LeClaire was in my mind again after many years when I pulled off the Stevenson at Cicero Avenue to get gas. Memories flooded back. Even the panhandlers that always stand next to the traffic light seemed familiar–a sign that the place hadn’t changed much.

But things had changed. LeClaire is nothing now but a fenced-in meadow. Gone were the low-rise buildings, barbeques and offices. The child care center I visited one morning long ago, where I played with preschoolers on playground equipment covered with graffiti, is also gone.

An empty lot of trees and tall grass is all that’s left of a community.

For many residents, LeClaire will always exist–the place where they grew up, raised their kids, or a place they escaped from to hopefully find something better, something safer.

What will become of this city meadow? I asked Matt Aguilar, CHA’s spokesman, if any decision had been made about LeClaire’s future. He gave me the stereotypically vague response that the housing authority is known for.

“A Working Group composed of stakeholders has determined that the site has mixed-income community potential. Also, a traffic study evaluating the area is being planned through this summer.” So, it might become something vaguely described as mixed-income. When? Unknown.

In many ways, the meadow is a symbol of unfinished business in the city’s efforts to provide affordable housing – even if the CHA is promising a new, “re-calibrated” Plan for Transformation, dubbed the Plan for Transformation 2.0.

The Plan for Transformation 2.0 promises to reflect on “lessons learned.” What are those lessons? It doesn’t say.

Maybe the scores of residents scattered around the city? Perhaps the thousands of Section 8 tenants who’ve been sent to neighborhoods just as poor and segregated as the ones they left, without the support of their communities?

Or maybe it’s just the unoccupied acres–the ghosts of housing projects long gone, like the empty fields that used to be Robert Taylor, the vacant lots on the Gold Coast that used to be Cabrini, and the fenced-in meadow by Midway, LeClaire Courts.

This story was originally published on July 31, 2012 on Chicago Muckrakers.

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Cabrini row houses to go?

23 Jun

Policymakers and tenant leaders aren’t in agreement as CHA considers the future 586 public housing units

Cambridge Avenue in Cabrini-Green, just north of Chicago Avenue, is a study in contrasts.

On the west side of Cambridge, refurbished yellow brick surrounds new metal doors and sleek house numbers while cheerful landscaping brightens the space in front of row houses.

On Cambridge’s east side are dilapidated, mostly empty structures worn by decades of use and neglect.

Barbara Lott, a longtime resident of Cabrini, feels lucky that she secured a rehabbed unit near Cambridge. She keeps it smartly decorated and spotlessly clean.

“I love it here,” she said. “I just love where I live.”

The Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation has already brought big changes to Cabrini, knocking down all but four of the old high rises that used to dominate the landscape in this part of town. But after promising to rehab all of the row houses — 586 units of public housing — CHA has confirmed it is now considering doing away with many, if not all, of them.

At the beginning of the Plan, the Cabrini row houses were to remain as newly rehabbed and 100 percent traditional public housing, set apart from the mixed-income neighborhood the Plan is seeking to create.

And it’s that proximity that now has some policymakers concerned. They’re worried that having a block of concentrated poverty so near to the new neighborhood will be detrimental to public housing residents themselves and the broader community.

Resident leaders, however, are pushing back against any demolition of the row houses, making the case that traditional public housing communities can be vibrant, safe places. Losing additional units of public housing in an area that’s difficult for people with low and moderate incomes to find places live would be a travesty, they say.

Whether the east side of Cambridge will ever look like the west side, or whether some of the units, if not all of them, will see the wrecking ball is an open question at this point.

Unlike other residents who were afraid of the Plan For Transformation — CHA’s effort to remake the city’s public housing system — Lott hoped for the best and has been happy with the results.

The 41-year-old mother has seen both the promise of public housing and the desolation it produced. She’s lived in the Cabrini row houses most of her life, moving to Chicago when she was two years old with her parents from Calhoun, Mississippi. They were seeking a better life, and Lott remembers those early days well.

“People were a lot friendlier back then. My best friend lived just down the street,” she said. “We played all the time. There are activities for kids. It was different.”

She had a daughter when she was just 17 and dropped out of high school to take care of her mother, who became ill due to sickle cell anemia.

Lott has lived on almost every street in the row houses — Hudson, Cleveland, Oak, Mohawk and now Chestnut, near the corner of Cambridge. She’s loved it there, but she’s not blind to the neighborhood’s faults.

One summer night when her daughter was 12, Lott left her with a babysitter for the evening, but got a frantic call an hour later. Gang crossfire had gotten so bad that a bullet pierced her kitchen window, grazing her daughter’s forehead as she ate dinner.

“We were scared. I didn’t like it, but we couldn’t afford to move to someplace better,” Lott said.

She still worries. Her youngest son is 11, and she keeps close tabs on him, tracking who he plays with and warning him about the dangers of getting involved with the wrong people. Gang violence and drug dealing have certainly waned since the high-rises have come down, she said, but there’s still plenty of criminal activity around to make her wary.

That, in part, is what concerns Alex Polikoff, an attorney and the former executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a non-profit advocacy group.

Polikoff has long had an interest in the composition of residents at housing authority properties around Chicago.

Through BPI, he served as lead counsel in the Gautreaux case, which challenged the housing authority’s practice of putting public housing in low-income, minority neighborhoods.

The lawsuit, first filed in 1966, resulted in a consent decree calling for scattered-site public housing development in Chicago, which has long been overseen by a federal judge and the Habitat Company. That monitoring will be phased out over the next three years, CHA announced earlier this year.

Back in September, Polikoff and his colleagues filed a motion with the judge overseeing the Gautreaux case, asking the housing authority to reconsider keeping the row houses traditional public housing.

“History tells us over and over again that a concentrated urban poverty situation is not going to be good for the families, and it’s not going to be good for the adjacent neighborhood,” Polikoff said.

Polikoff cited research shows that areas of concentrated poverty produces negative outcomes — higher rates of out-of-wedlock births, inferior schools, more residents with criminal backgrounds, higher rates of crime and drug trafficking.

This kind of activity within the row houses, he said, will bleed over into the surrounding communities. And that’s exactly the kind of neighborhood he doesn’t want public housing residents to have to deal with.

“Why would we impose this additional burden on them?” Polikoff said.

Tenant leaders at Cabrini-Green don’t believe Polikoff has the residents’ best interest in mind.

Carol Steele, the president of the Cabrini Local Advisory Council, said public housing residents are indeed able live in a peaceful, positive neighborhood if given the right conditions.

”You can’t say you’re doing right by people and you don’t put good management or good security in the buildings,” Steele said. ”In this city, the Plan has been about moving low-income people up and out.”<

She dismissed Polikoff’s concerns that maintaining the row houses as traditional public housing will negatively impact the groups of condos and town homes that surround it.<

“Who died and made Alex Polikoff God?” Steele said. “I don’t care what he thinks. Gautreaux is done. We no longer need Gautreaux.”

Steele’s lawyer, Richard Wheelock, an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, agrees that with proper management, good security and supportive services, the row houses can be vibrant public housing community.

Demolishing them, he said, will mean a loss of almost 600 public housing units, further limiting the number of families that can return to the Cabrini-Green area.

“We’re concerned that CHA is going to break its word to the residents and not pursue rehab of that site, which would be a terrible decision,” Wheelock said. “It’s a huge loss of public housing. Where would you build the remaining units? Where would that be made up? Certainly not in the Cabrini area.”

Wheelock also took issue with the idea that the new residents of the row houses are going to be troublesome.

He pointed to a recently imposed work requirement for public housing residents, along with new admissions policies that encourage moderate income families to move in and strict rules for lease violations.

These changes, he said, will make the row house population more stable and cohesive.

“There are plenty of examples where you have low-rise public housing, if the families are being provided proper social services, proper management, proper repairs to the units and police protection — it can work,” Wheelock said.

Polikoff doesn’t want to take that chance. Can traditional public housing work? Yes, he acknowledged. But will it work? He’s not so sure.

“Everything we know tells us that it’s not inconceivable, theoretically, that we could produce great results in a 100 percent public housing community,” Polikoff said. “But what is the likelihood of that happening? We’re not sure.”

Both Wheelock and Polikoff expect the Chicago Housing Authority to announce a decision soon. The agency has been tight-lipped about when that decision will come or what it will be.

“No official decision has been made,” Matt Aguilar, a CHA spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.

Any decision, he wrote, be it demolition or some sort of reconfiguration of the row houses, would be discussed and determined within Cabrini’s working group, a committee of community members and city officials that plans the site’s redevelopment.

Lott said she isn’t losing sleep about the decision.

If the row houses stay, Lott will stay in the home that she loves. If they go, she has an idea of where she would like to move. Either way, she wants to live in a community where she feels safe.

“I just want everybody to be able to get along, even if you’re from one end of Cabrini or the other,” Lott said. “I love my apartment. I love where I’m at. I just want less violence and more community.”

This story was first published in Skyline Newspaper on June 23, 2010.

Poetry and memories: From the West Side, a former Cabrini-Green resident remembers what was

19 Mar
Doreen Ambrose’s first memories of Cabrini-Green are as wholesome as any young child. Going to preschool, visiting her grandmother, playing with the neighbor kids — these are the fond, sunny memories she recalls from her early days.


It wasn’t until she was 14, in 1983, that she realized her neighborhood had changed.


“My mother and I were sitting in the living room, just talking and stuff, and we heard shooting. We looked out the window, and we saw people running and screaming,” she said.


A boy she knew — Derrick Savage — had been shot, murdered in cold blood blocks away.


“I just froze,” Ambrose recalled. “I just remember not feeling like a kid anymore.”

Although it was the only home Ambrose had ever known, the day Derrick Savage was killed was the first day she realized she wanted to leave Cabrini-Green. When gang members started threatening and chasing her older brother home from school, she and her family packed up and moved from the building at 365 W. Oak on the West Side of Chicago, where she still lives today.

Bradford Hunt, a Roosevelt University historian who has studied Chicago’s public housing said Cabrini experienced a major shift in the kinds of families that lived there while Doreen was a child.


“In the mid-1960s, the median CHA family was working-class and two-parent. By 1974, over 80 percent of family residents were dependent upon state aid in one form or another,” he said.


The Cabrini-Green that Doreen knew as a child — the good times and the scary ones — is almost gone now, razed by Chicago’s Plan for Transformation. Only four of the more than 30 high-rises that once towered over Chicago’s Near North Side remain today. It is likely the rest won’t be around much longer.


The Chicago Housing Authority has planned to close the last four buildings — 364 and 365 W. Oak, 1230 N. Burling and 1230 N. Larrabee — for the past several years, listing them in its annual plans. In the last year, CHA has closed two buildings, at 660 W. Division and 420 W. Chicago, moving residents out and slowly demolishing each site.

How long the remaining buildings will last isn’t just up to CHA.

A group of residents sued the housing authority in 2001 alleging that the rapid destruction of their home was a discriminatory act against the primarily African-American women and children who lived there. They won their case, and since then, every decision at Cabrini is carefully negotiated between the residents, their lawyers and the housing authority.

CHA spokesperson Matt Aguilar says they haven’t yet determined when the final buildings will be closed.

“Discussions are currently underway with the Cabrini LAC and its counsel regarding the timing of the closure of the four buildings,” Aguilar said. “As of this date, no specific timeline has been determined.”

Lawyer Richard Wheelock, who represents the residents, says they have recommended consolidating the remaining buildings, either by grouping residents together on lower floors or cutting down to two buildings instead of four.

“They’re all largely vacant, so our best argument is to consolidate them,” says Wheelock.

Wheelock says he and Cabrini president Carole Steele have been concerned about the process of relocating residents. The housing authority has been holding voluntary relocation fairs, giving residents the option of using a Section 8 voucher to move out of Cabrini.

“It seems like CHA is hoping that at the end of the day, there will be a handful of families left to relocate,” Wheelock said.Aguilar said the relocation fairs at Cabrini are not unique.

“CHA is offering voluntary relocation to Cabrini residents just as it has offered voluntary relocation to residents at other properties,” he said.

Ambrose will be sad to see her old building, at 365 W. Oak, be torn down, even though she knows it’s inevitable.

“As a mature adult, I know it has to go. I know I don’t want to see anybody else die here,” she said. “But I will be sad. I will cry, for sure. I’ll be sad to see it go.”

Ambrose still has family that lives in the remaining buildings, and her memories of her first home are very much alive.

Doreen remembers Cabrini as the place she discovered poetry, sitting in her third grade classroom at nearby Byrd Elementary School. She was captivated as her teacher read Dudley Randall’s “The Ballad of Birmingham,” and says she knew then that she wanted to write poetry. “I just loved the way poetry made me feel. You could just say exactly what you were feeling, and that was beautiful to me,” said Ambrose.

She went on to write two books of poetry. The Diary of a Midwestern Ghetto Girl and Raised in Da Sun are published, and a third is coming out soon. But no matter how much she writes, anytime she picks up the pen, she’s carried back in time to her home in Cabrini-Green.

“When I write, I feel like I’m 9 years old again,” says Doreen. “I feel like my mother’s cooking some pot roast. I can hear her talking to my grandmother. I can see my father watching TV, my sister toddling around. When I write, I write from here.”

Will it be harder to write once her old building is no more? “A little,” Ambrose said wistfully. “A little.”

This story was first published in Skyline Newspaper on March 31, 2010.

LeClaire Courts conundrum

3 Jun

Rosie EuRosie Eubanks and her sister listen for details at a meeting with the Chicago Housing Authorityon what will happen at LeClaire Courts, a public housing complexMartha Abraham has lived at LeClaire Courts for over 30 years. She’s attended LeClaire Baptist Church every Sunday and
raised three children there, all of whom have gone on to get college degrees. She’s the woman that other residents come to when they don’t know what’s going on or who to trust.

But her community is dying a slow, painful death. And while Abraham and others are screaming for life support, city officials say they need to pull the plug.

It came to a head this week, when LeClaire residents sat down in a room with Chicago Housing Authority staff, to talk about closing down the development.

At several points during the meeting, Abraham stood up at the conference table and bellowed, often with tears in her eyes, about the injustice she felt was taking place.

“You told us we can stay here. We love LeClaire Courts. We’ve been here for years. You gonna take our home from just because we’re poor?” shouted Abraham.

If it sounds like the housing authority is the Big Bad Wolf threatening to knock down people’s homes, then we just because we haven’t gotten to the real heart of the situation.

Here’s the skinny on LeClaire: It’s a sprawling, low-rise development on the city’s far South West Side, out by Midway. It’s actually two different developments rolled into one: one part that’s nicknamed “city/state” and the other “federal.” The federal side is traditional public housing, but city/state is actually project-based Section 8 housing. The distinction is one of boring, complicated housing policy, so let’s just say for now that the money for each side comes from two different parts of Uncle Sam’s money pot.

With the city/state side closed, only 40 families would remain at LeClaire. And officials say that’s treading on dangerous territory.

“At some point, there’s going to be so few people out here that it’s not gonna be safe,” said

CHA chief Lewis Jordan at last week’s town hall meeting.

“I don’t want some child walking past 30 vacant units to get to her house with God knows who’s in those 30 vacant units. That’s the kind of choice I have to make.”

I certainly don’t envy Jordan’s position. It’s a tough one. There are no easy answers on what to do at LeClaire.

Ultimately, the hardest thing about this whole situation is that you have a whole group of people who are so heavily invested in their community. People like Martha Abraham. People who have put blood, sweat and tears into a neighborhood, and ultimately, because it’s public housing, they have no say over what happens there.

That fact sort of boggles my mind.

I mean, I know the government pays for it, and so the government decides. But isn’t it sort-of weird that the people who live in a place don’t have any control? Their lives are in someone else’s hands, no matter how much they’ve invested.

It’s such an obvious idea, but so profound. In one sense, the very essence of being American is the idea that you control your life, your home. The whole idea of representative, local government is that people know best what to do with their community because they live there.

But not at LeClaire.

And so Abraham and others will just have to wait and see what Jordan and his staff decide to do. I asked Matt Aguilar, CHA’s spokesperson, if there’s a cut-off point for when federal side residents would have to go. He said there’s no set point at which federal side residents would have to leave their homes, but if things become unsafe or it doesn’t make good business sense to keep LeClaire open, it’s going to have to shut down.

Rosie Eubanks has lived at LeClaire for 40 years, working as a pre-school teacher in the local headstart. She told me she
doesn’t think that other people should be able to make decisions about someone else’s community, but that’s the way it happens in public housing.

“Because it’s low-income, they have the hammer over our heads. What can we say?”

This story was originally published on June 3, 2009 at One Story Up.