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Riverfront development to be a proving ground for Chicago Housing Authority; Lathrop at a Juncture

The Chicago Housing Authority has promised a bright future for the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, but the agency’s credibility with tenants at the development remains on the slide.
On Tuesday morning, a crowd of neighbors and housing advocates packed the gymnasium of a Boys & Girls Club in Hamlin Park, where the CHA’s board of commissioners had gathered for their monthly meeting. Among the items up for a vote that day was a recommendation to begin the planning process for the redevelopment of Lathrop Homes, a 925-unit public housing complex that sits on 32 acres of land near Diversey Avenue between the east bank of the Chicago River and Clybourn Avenue on the city’s North Side.
For years, CHA has told residents at Lathrop that the 75-year-old development is due for a makeover, pointing to the site’s low occupancy rate — currently at a 22 percent — and the safety issues that come with that gap in tenantship.
But so far little has emerged about the nature of that renovation, except that the amount of public housing at Lathrop will drop from 100 percent to no more than one-third of the development’s units — a formula that is in keeping with most of CHA’s redevelopment efforts in Chicago over the past decade.
In addition to naming a development team for the project, the agency has formed a working group comprised of public interest groups, resident leaders and Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st) to deliberate over the plans for Lathrop.
At the meeting, CHA interim CEO Carlos Ponce told the audience that the process at Lathrop has been — and will be — a transparent one.
“We’ve made every effort to talk to every group that has an interest in Lathrop,” he said. “All issues that we are going to be making decisions on … are going to be done through the [working group].”
The board unanimously passed the recommendation, which gave the go-ahead for the development team — led by Related Midwest in partnership with Heartland Housing, Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp., Magellan Development Group and Ardmore Associates — to officially begin the planning stage of the Lathrop redevelopment.
Miguel Suarez has lived at Lathrop for over two decades. He said that the CHA, though continuing to meet with leadership at Lathrop, has kept residents relatively in the dark concerning the future of the homes.
“Whatever happens with those other two thirds, your guess is as good as mine,” he said.
Residents and housing advocates have petitioned CHA to keep Lathrop free of market-rate units, arguing that the development already strikes a mixed-income balance with the area’s neighboring condos, many of which have remained vacant throughout the real estate slump.
That side has recently found an ally in Moreno, who has taken up the mantra that Lathrop should remain exclusive to public and affordable housing.
“Market-rate already exists in the community,” he told the board. “We have enough of it right now.”
While the vision for Lathrop continues to form, housing activists have also called on CHA to resume leasing the development’s vacant units, most of which are boarded up, to some of the thousands of families in the city that are currently waiting to move into public housing.
On the morning of the board meeting, the coalition group Chicago Housing Initiative released a study showing that over the last year CHA has kept as many as 6,100 habitable units unavailable to housing-hungry residents.
That figure clashes with CHA’s own data, which states that the agency recently reached an occupancy rate of 98 percent for its public housing portfolios city-wide.
Leah Levinger, a coordinator with the Housing Initiative coalition, said that her group’s study recognized that there were “many wasted homes inside the CHA system,” noting that the discrepancy in numbers comes from the varying definitions of what passes as a livable unit.
Case in point, Levinger said, was the fact the CHA only listed Lathrop as currently having only three vacant units available.
“Return to the fundamentals of property management,” she said to the board. “Lease your units up, and achieve full occupancy in reality and not just on paper.”
After the meeting, Ponce said that re-leasing the shuttered units at Lathrop was out of the question. Electrical and mechanical issues, as well as internal conditions, made the homes unlivable, he said.
“These are very old housing units, and whatever was the cause of their current state, they are what they are,” he said.
As far as the question of whether market-rate units would be included in the redevelopment of Lathrop Homes, Ponce said that nothing was etched in stone.
“There’s a lot of flexibility in terms of being able to define what market-rate is,” he said.
The CEO said that the objective of the redevelopment was to ensure that Lathrop remains “an integral part of the community.”
“Be it through job opportunities, be it through education — that will be part and parcel of the kind of work that the working group will be addressing, “he said.

Keywords: Carlos Ponce, CHI, Chicago Housing Initiative, Lathrop, Leah Levinger, Miguel Suarez

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