Last week, the Chicago Housing Authority held two well-attended open house events to showcase proposed redevelopment planning in the area formerly occupied by Cabrini-Green public housing high-rises.
Set up in the Seward Park pavilion, the open houses invited visitors to scope out posters displaying images and maps of proposed road changes, commercial development, residential zoning and plans for green spaces. In the spring, the CHA will put out a request for proposals to developers, who are supposed to look to these suggestions, and input from the community, to vie for contracts to build on the authority’s land.
Today, the Near North Side is a rapidly gentrifying area, largely due to the CHA’s demolition of its high-rises and the development of mixed-income housing where a third of units are sold at market rates, a third are affordable (for those receiving tax credits for rent), and a third reserved for public housing tenants. While the neighborhood has certainly become safer and more attractive through this transformation over the past 20 years, the influx of higher-income residents has come with an influx of demands to continue “cleaning up” the area.
“It was a very shoddy area, very, very bad,” said one eighty-year-old woman who wore a fur coat and hat, and said she was looking to buy a condo. “That’s why it was called Cabrini-Green. And it was that way for many years. Shoddy, low income, people looking for trouble and things of that sort.” She added, lowering her voice: “And it was mostly all Negro. But it is trying to come back.”
The last remaining enclave of public housing in Near North, and the desired target of clean up for some, is the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses. Built in the early 1940s, the 583-unit complex of two- and three-story buildings now stands mostly vacant in the area bordered by Chicago Avenue on the South, N. Larrabee Street on the West, Oak Street on the North, N. Hudson Avenue on the East.
Back in 2000, at the start of the Plan for Transformation, the CHA promised to conserve and rehabilitate all of the Cabrini Rowhouses as 100 percent public housing. The buildings were structurally sound, low rise and the apartments could accommodation larger families. The agency began moving families out in preparation for the rehab, and the first phase of 146 units was completed a couple of years ago. However, in 2009 the CHA announced that it no longer planned to retain the rest of the Rowhouses as 100 percent public housing and that the buildings would be demolished in favor of a new, mixed-income community.
To the residents of the Rowhouses, and to those who had moved out and were awaiting the rehabilitation of their units, this news came as a blow. “It’s just not fair to us as residents,” said Kenneth Hammond, the vice president of the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council, the elected tenant-representative body. “We are limited little by little as we go through these plans. I’ve been through, from the first phase to the phase that they’re doing now, and it seems like the people like myself and other residents don’t have any type of leverage when it comes to them coming in and revitalizing our community.”
This is why last May the Cabrini-Green LAC filed a lawsuit against the CHA to force the agency to stick to its original rehabilitation plans. The LAC claims that turning the Rowhouses into a mixed-income development would be a violation of the Fair Housing Act which requires housing authorities to “affirmatively further” fair housing.
Of the 3,600 public housing units originally located in Cabrini-Green only around 400 units have returned to the select few in mixed income developments. Most of the relocated tenants ended up in poor, segregated areas of the city with Section 8 vouchers. The Rowhouse residents believe the same fate awaits most of them if the CHA is allowed to move forward with its plans.
Yet at the open houses on Tuesday and Saturday, the images showing the Rowhouse area zoned for mixed-income development and maps proposing various street extensions made it seem as though the CHA’s new plans are set in stone. Though no one knows what a mixed-income development on the Rowhouse site will look like or how many units it will have, the CHA sent a clear message that its program was advancing.
One of the attendees asked a member of the marketing and urban planning team hired by the CHA whether the Rowhouse area is for mixed-income development. “Yes it is,” she replied, “It’s mostly vacant right now, it was public housing for many years.”
Richard Wheelock and Elizabeth Rosenthal, attorneys from the Legal Assistance Foundation who represent the Cabrini-Green LAC in the lawsuit were in attendance on Tuesday. I asked them how it was possible that the redevelopment of the Rowhouses into mixed-income housing was being presented as inevitable. “Because there’s no court order yet to stop it,” said Wheelock. “We know that the CHA has already decided that the Rowhouses will be a mixed income community, including for-sale [units]. And the LAC’s position is it can be a mixed income community within the public housing spectrum.”
Wheelock went on to explain that the CHA’s position was bound to get more support from the wider public if it advertises its own vision for the future of the Rowhouses as the only option. “The views of public housing families and the views and needs of low income families is always in the minority. Because the interest of the public at large is to see this area developed as a profitable middle to upper middle class community, to minimize the role of or the position of low income housing.”
I reached out to the CHA for comment, asking what the agency planned to do if it lost the lawsuit. After all, now the community at large will expect the Rowhouses to become a mixed-income development. “CHA does not comment with respect to on-going litigation,” answered spokeswoman Wendy Parks in an email. “However, it is important to note that CHA has not announced any decision on the future of the row homes.”
As is typical with Chicago public housing issues, the question of the Rowhouses will likely take many more months to resolve in court and in planning groups. Meanwhile, viable public housing units will continue to stand empty in the shadow of the Gold Coast skyline as hundreds of families languish in limbo, waiting to return home to Near North.