A chronicle of disappearances

The Julia C. Lathrop homes stand on Chicago’s well-to-do North Side, at the intersection of two zip codes, two aldermanic wards, and arguably four community areas, bordered on the west by the Chicago River and on the east by Lincoln Park. Driving westward down Diversey from the lake, the sight of row after row of upscale condos and townhouses contrasts harshly with the  drab view of boarded up two- and three- story brick buildings once one crosses Damen Ave.

This 925-unit public housing development was built in the late 1930s and gradually transitioned from an all-white community to the most diverse one in the Chicago Housing Authroity’s portfolio. Whites, African-Americans and Latinos have coexisted at Lathrop for decades, surrounded by amenities and access to transportation. Lathrop’s sound construction and thoughtful design long kept it from meeting the fate of the CHA’s garish and cheaply-built high-rises.

When Chicago’s $1.6 billion overhaul of public housing known as the Plan for Transformation began in 2000, what to do with the Lathrop Homes remained a question.  The CHA swiftly tore down all of its high-rise public housing projects such as the Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens and Cabrini-Green, and rehabilitated some low- and mid-rise projects such as Wentworth Gardens and the Dearborn Homes.

The Plan promised to rebuild new mixed-income communities on the sites of the high-rises, which would combine market-rate for-sale and rental housing with affordable rental units and public housing units. By the time the Plan was supposed to be finished in 2010, 25,000 units of public housing would be constructed or rehabbed in the city.

Some headway was made on mixed-income sites before the housing market crashed in 2008, but today only about 1,900 of over 7,000 promised public housing units in mixed-income developments have been built. The rehabilitation of most public housing developments slated for preservation under the original Plan is complete. However, estimates of how many more units the CHA still has to deliver to reach its 25,000 (now promised by 2015) vary wildly from around 3,000 to over 7,000.

No clear plan was articulated for the Lathrop Homes back in 2000, and for years  many Lathrop residents assumed that the property would be fully rehabbed. Since 2009, however, the CHA has made it clear that they plan to turn Lathrop into a mixed-income development.

Back in the early 2000s, Janet Smith, Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-director of the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement started tracking the CHA’s position on the Lathrop Homes from year to year.  She has produced a fascinating timeline which reveals not only a shifting vision for the development but also the steady bleeding away of its residents.

“Lathrop was always a curiosity to me, because when we did the math for the 25,000 units, Lathrop in the Plan for Transformation was a question mark,” says Smith. “Then we started hearing stories, ‘Joe went to the hospital and he came back and his apartment was gone, he couldn’t get back, he was no longer a resident of public housing.'” Here is what Smith found by combing through the CHA’s annual reports:

2000: The property was listed with nine others in Category 4 of the Plan for Transformation, which meant it was not slated for wholesale demolition and redevelopment but some “modest density reduction” was anticipated “because of [its] age and design” (pg. 16-17). 747 of Lathrop’s 925 units were occupied as of October 1, 1999 and that number would be preserved.

2001: The number of occupied units is listed at 704 (though this is probably a typo since the 2002 plan has the  2001 unit occupancy back to 747), but now the CHA states that a planed redevelopment of the complex will result in 30% of the units “to be reserved for tax credit families and the rest for traditional public housing” (pg. 16). Tax credit families are those who receive government rent assistance because they make 50-80% of the area median income. The “affordable housing” units in mixed-income sites are also reserved for these kinds of households.

2002: This year marks the sudden appearance of a new category in the CHA’s property portfolio: “Undecided Properties.” Lathrop is listen here as well as in Category 4. The CHA states that the development is “being considered for potentially mixed-income and mixed-finance properties” (pg. 91). From the total number of listed occupied units among the Category 4 properties, Smith calculates that Lathrop is down by 109.

2003: The CHA now indicates that all “Undecided Properties” are now classified as “Rehabilitated or Redeveloped” but the number of planned units is undecided and neither is the kind of redevelopment the properties will undergo (pg. 26). Lathrop occupancy slips by 51 families  from the previous year to 587.

2004: The previously sorted “Undecided” properties are now further subdivided into just Rehabilitated, just Redeveloped, and “Rehabilitated of Redeveloped.” The Lathrop Homes are the only CHA property in this last category (pg. 5). A further 53 families disappear from Lathrop and the total number of occupied units is now down to 534.

2005: The fate of Lathrop is still undecided. The CHA states “while the decision is pending, current residents have access to a growing number of amenities” (pg. 42). 74 more families are lost, total occupancy down to 460.

2006: No decision on what will happen at Lathrop (pg. 30). Occupancy rate down to 375 units.

2007: The CHA announces that Lathrop will become a mixed-income property with 400 public housing units (pg. 30). This year the total occupancy rate is down to 332 units.

2008: The “planned redevelopment of Lathrop Homes will result in a total of 1,200 units, divided equally into public housing units, affordable units, and market-rate units,” and the public housing units will be delivered at the rate of 100 per year starting in 2012 (pg. 32). Demolition of 480 Lathrop units is scheduled to begin in 2009. The occupancy number down to 311.

2009: Demolition of 478 units scheduled for 2010. Delivery of public housing units on the site still scheduled to begin in 2012 (pg. 36).  Occupancy down to 264 units.

2010: No new information on unit demolition, delivery, or occupancy rate. Lathrop is target for efforts to improve energy efficiency across the CHA: “In FY2010, CHA will undertake a community planning process for Lathrop Homes, which will identify strategies to develop a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) certified community,” (pg. 44).

2011: No demolition has thus far happened at Lathrop, and no new construction either. No new data on occupancy (plan).

2012: Once again, no new data on occupancy rate and no concrete schedule for demolition or unit delivery. The CHA announces that it has “accepted the recommendation of the Lathrop Homes Working Group to enter into negotiations with Lathrop Community Partners, a five-year development team, for the revitalization of Lathrop Homes as a sustainable mixed-income community…The robust community master planning process is planned to be completed in FY2012. Initial phase design and finance development is also planned for FY 2012,” (pg. 18).

2013: CHA announced that it is “in the last stages of finalizing the plan for Lathrop Homes in coordination with the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development and other key stakeholders. The final plan will also address phasing issues and will determine the ability to return quickly units on the north side of the property,” (pg. 38). Construction is planned to start in the third quarter of FY2015 with unit delivery beginning in the third quarter of FY2016. There are now 748 unoccupied units at Lathrop.

Thirteen years after the beginning of the Plan for Transformation, there are almost exactly as many unoccupied units at the Lathrop Homes as there were occupied units in 2000.  Around 100 families remain in the complex today, concentrated on the south side of Diversey Pkwy.

“There’s no activity here, there’s no construction, nothing happened but people are leaving. Why are they leaving?” asks Smith. And where did they go? “We don’t know,” she says. “We had voucher data from that time period and we were trying to figure it out.”

Based on data about voucher holders in Illinois between 2000-2007 (the time period in which Lathrop lost 436 households), Smith was able to deduce that just 20 households had moved from the two zip codes that contain the complex to housing authorities outside Chicago.

In that same time period, Smith calculated that 395 households from the Lathrop zip codes moved within Chicago to predominantly Latino communities (Humboldt Park, Hermosa, Logan Square, Avondale, Belmont Craigin).

In glancing at all this data, one might assume that people simply chose to leave, but Smith says this is not the whole story. “The way CHA has been able to justify demolition of public housing is high vacancy rates.” But some residents and advocates are under the impression that vacancies at Lathrop have been spurred by the agency itself in order to proceed to redeveloping the property into a mixed-income community.  The pressure could be coming from a variety of places: the Mayor, the surrounding, gentrifying neighborhood,  and/or the team hired to plan the new development, which could get a 5-13% cut from the overall cost of development on the site.

Former Lathrop residents have a right to return if they are in good standing with the CHA, and are supposed to have first dibs on the 400 public housing units to be built in the mixed-income community. However, some of those who “chose” to leave their apartments in preparation for demolition years ago are loosing this right through no fault of their own.  As the planning process stretches out over years, the likelihood that a significant number of former Lathrop resident will get a chance to enjoy the new community dwindles.

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