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Don't 'transform' us, say residents of Lathrop Homes

Everybody say yes,” said the speaker.

“Yes,” said the audience.

“Everybody say yes, we are a team,” said the speaker.

“Yes, we are a team,” said the audience with somewhat less enthusiasm.

“I didn’t hear everybody say yes, we are a team,” said the speaker.

Maybe that’s because the team isn’t sure whose side everybody is on.

Although it may sound like I was in church or attending a motivational sales lecture, this was part of the opening for a meeting of the Chicago Housing Authority’s board of commissioners — a regular segment labeled “Centering Thoughts.”

As I would learn, Commissioner Mildred Harris, founder and CEO of God First Ministries of Chicago, helps everyone center their thoughts before each CHA board meeting, perhaps with good cause considering the contentious history of such gatherings.

On Tuesday, Harris’ words seemed intended to quell an uprising of Lathrop Homes residents intent on not becoming the next public housing complex to be “transformed” into a vague memory.

We were in the gymnasium at Lathrop Boys and Girls Club, 2915 N. Leavitt, and several dozen Lathrop residents were on hand wearing black T-shirts reading “No Market Rate” — a reference to their opposition to this public housing development following the pattern of other CHA projects that have been redeveloped into mixed-income communities through the decade-old Plan for Transformation.

With the towers of Cabrini-Green removed from Chicago’s landscape, leaving only Ca­brini’s row houses, Lathrop is the only major public housing development on the city’s North Side — and next on the drawing board.

CHA commissioners voted Tuesday to move ahead with the project by committing a $1.1 million loan to a previously selected development team that must now help develop a plan for what the new Lathrop will look like, including the income mix of replacement units.

In preparation for this day, the CHA stopped leasing to new tenants at Lathrop a decade ago, gradually drawing down the occupancy until now only 171 families remain in its 920 apartments. The CHA doesn’t classify the empty apartments as vacant. They’re “offline.”

Lathrop is located at Damen and Clybourn, with about half the apartments in four-story brick walkups on the North Side of Diversey and half to the south. Over the past several months, CHA has relocated what was left of the families on the north half, concentrating everyone in the buildings on the south — in part, they explain, to keep the remaining residents closer to an antiquated and malfunctioning heating plant.

The result is a ghost town of boarded up buildings, a well- manicured ghost town to be sure with lush lawns and trees befitting the nearby gentrified neighborhood.

Public housing residents have seen this movie before — and offered mixed reviews on the ending. But Lathrop has always been unique, and its residents, working in conjunction with activists from the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, are determined to write their own script.

They say the North Side in general, and their neighborhood in particular, has all the market rate housing it needs — expensive housing at that — and that what the area really needs is more affordable housing. They also say poor people would benefit more from living in this area, even in concentration, than to be dispersed through housing vouchers to the same segregated communities that have absorbed other displaced CHA residents.

Indeed, they note, Lathrop has always had the sort of diverse racial mix that CHA has said it is seeking, though that mix has changed over the years until they say it is now about 60 to 70 percent African-American, 20 percent Latino and the remainder white.

Built in 1938 as part of FDR’s New Deal, Lathrop occupies a sweet patch of real estate bordering the Chicago River — the city’s second waterfront as the mayor declared this week. Beautifully landscaped, especially by the CHA’s historic standards, Lathrop is also unique for an engaged alumni group that fondly recalls living there and rallied to the cause.

“I personally feel other families should have the same opportunities we did,” said Perry Parsino of Arlington Heights, who grew up in Lathrop in the 1950s and 1960s and came to Tuesday’s meeting.

CHA officials have promised to keep at least a third of the replacement units as public housing and swear no decision has been made about the rest while they await the results of a community planning process. But they also reaffirmed the agency’s philosophy that some portion of the development go for market-rate housing.

Tenants may have one factor in their favor that they normally might not expect — support from some residents in surrounding neighborhoods who say the glutted local housing market can’t absorb more market-rate units right now.

In the meantime, all those apartments sit empty — for the good of the team.

Keywords: Lathrop Homes

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