Public housing's island

Crime, Law and JusticeChicago Housing AuthorityPoliticsHousing and Urban PlanningCrimeLaw EnforcementGang Activity

For all the talk of weaving public housing residents into the fabric of the city, the Chicago Housing Authority's ambitious Plan for Transformation includes this inconvenient fact:

When the plan is complete, nearly 1 of every 10 of those families will live more than 100 blocks south of the Loop, tucked amid landfills, industrial parks and a sewage treatment plant.

Mayor Richard Daley declared eight years ago that Chicago would end "the failed policies of the past." Yet a Tribune investigation found that the city has pumped hundreds of millions of federal tax dollars into housing complexes that preserve the very policies the plan was meant to reverse.

The largest is the Altgeld-Murray Homes, a sprawling 190-acre development built on the Far South Side for black factory workers during World War II. At that development alone, the CHA plans to spend $451 million rehabbing 1,998 barracks-style apartments, with politically connected Walsh Construction doing much of the work.

Altgeld sits in one of the city's most isolated areas. The nearest supermarket is miles away. Only one bus route serves the development. And it backs up to the Little Calumet River in an area once known as "The Toxic Doughnut" because of a long history of environmental problems.

Crime is another challenge. Open drug markets thrive at Altgeld, and shootings occur frequently enough to keep residents on edge.

"You guys are an island out here, cut off from everyone else," John Ball, the local police commander, noted during a recent community meeting with residents.

For generations, public housing in Chicago was a highly visible failure. In the mid-1990s, the agency began demolishing more than 13,000 public housing units on prime real estate to make way for new developments where poor residents are supposed to live alongside wealthier families.

Those mixed-income developments are now more than a decade behind schedule. The same problem plagues the CHA's efforts to rehab the public housing that wasn't demolished, with fewer than half of those units finished.

At Altgeld, about two-thirds of the units lie empty, despite a severe shortage of affordable housing across the region. Some of the apartments are awaiting rehab, and others remain vacant because the CHA has had trouble persuading residents displaced by demolition to relocate to Altgeld.

Many current residents are pleased that the development is being spruced up, and CHA officials envision Altgeld becoming a thriving community. "We are providing safe, clean, updated housing," said Lewis Jordan, the CHA's chief executive. "We don't subscribe to this notion that it's in isolation."

But even some housing advocates who support the Plan for Transformation question using scarce resources on a development that could continue Chicago's long history of segregated public housing.

"It really flies in the face of the whole idea" of integrating poor residents into the broader community, said Bob Whitfield, an attorney who represents the CHA's tenant council. "It'll take a miracle to make it work."

Obama's proving groundAltgeld is now known around the world as the place where a young community organizer named Barack Obama cut his teeth. But when the CHA embarked on its plan to remake public housing, there were questions about whether the development was worth saving.

The CHA pushed to preserve the project as part of a strategy to sell the plan to tenants and housing advocates. The agency already was razing thousands of apartments, and it had vowed to deliver 25,000 new or rehabbed homes, enough to accommodate all residents living in public housing as of Oct. 1, 1999.

When the Plan for Transformation is complete, Altgeld will make up nearly 2,000 of the 25,000 units, more than any other development.

At first the CHA said the remake of Altgeld would be finished this year. But only about a third of the units have been completed, and the deadline has been pushed back by six years to 2014.

Those who support the rehab effort at Altgeld say its two-story row houses along winding streets are fundamentally different than the infamous high-rises that once symbolized all that was wrong with public housing.

"Out here in Altgeld, we don't call it a project," said Gertte Smith, site operations director for East Lake Management, the private firm run by Daley backer Elzie Higginbottom that manages Altgeld for the CHA. "We like to think of ourselves as the housing development in the suburbs."

That image, though, is clouded by lingering environmental concerns. Some of the region's biggest sources of toxic air pollution surround Altgeld, according to the most recent federal data examined by the Tribune.

The CHA contends the area is safe for families, but the environmental problems add another hurdle to the agency's already difficult job: persuading public housing residents to move to Altgeld.

In July, the CHA tapped its waiting list in an attempt to fill newly rehabbed units that were vacant because the agency couldn't sway enough people who had been displaced by demolition to move to Altgeld.

More than 700 people attended open houses at the development in recent months, and the CHA was able to fill 96 vacancies. Agency officials said many of the new residents are employed, meeting another goal of the plan.

Other attempts to recruit new residents haven't been any more successful.

As the agency emptied the last buildings at the Ida B. Wells development in the Bronzeville neighborhood, residents were urged to take bus tours of Altgeld to see the rehabbed units. But Melanie Troy, a counselor for a private firm hired by the CHA to help Wells residents find housing, said she had no luck.

"They've heard about people getting sick," she said, "the lack of transportation."

The threat of violence also looms.

No 'magic spray'Charlotte Allison has been on public housing's waiting list for 20 years. Her chance to get off it: move to Altgeld.

But the health-care worker was worried about the location (she doesn't have a car) and the crime (a friend who had lived at Altgeld warned her about it).

So the night after an Altgeld open house, she did what any house hunter should do. She went back to Altgeld around 10 p.m. She found drug dealers operating in the open, prostitutes walking the streets and virtually no police.

"It was drug country over there," she said. "I was like, 'Oh my God.' "

A few weeks ago, a 23-year-old man was fatally shot in the back. In August, police discovered the charred remains of a man shot to death and dumped in the trunk of a car before it was set aflame.

Some residents say crime is concentrated inside specific cul-de-sacs because the private management firm, East Lake, broke long-standing gang lines by relocating gang members to rehabbed units on the same blocks. Others contend most of the violence stems from personal disputes, not drug warfare.

Whatever the reason, the crime rate at Altgeld is more than double the citywide rate. "It really isn't that safe to be outside," said Kim Reid, an Altgeld resident for 33 years who worries that her teenage daughter might be hit by stray gunfire.

Some fear that when Altgeld is filled up, crime will worsen. "Once it starts to be occupied, [crime] will soar right through the roof," said Whitfield, the tenants lawyer. "Has there been some magic spray that has changed everything? The gangbangers aren't going anywhere."

But the local police commander, Ball, is hoping to prevent that. In August, he met with Altgeld residents to discuss crime. Ball told them the development is not as bad as other parts of his district.Even so, he said he's planning to reopen a substation that was closed a few years ago, install more police cameras and assign a dedicated sergeant and additional officers to the development.

Residents met Ball's initiatives with suspicion and loud jeers, but he pressed his point with those who would listen.

"With all the money and all the resources that are out here now, we want to maintain this and make it stronger," he said. "Do you know how lovely this could be if we could make it work?"

From the back of the room, resident Liquita Saulter scoffed under her breath. "Pipe dream," she said.

jgrotto@tribune.com

lcohen@tribune.com

solkon@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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