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CHA maneuvering on Lathrop Homes an unfortunate development

Deborah McCoy

An effort by the Chicago Housing Authority to advance plans to redevelop historic Lathrop Homes is causing a stir with opponents who say they were blindsided by the move.

CHA officials say there’s no reason for alarm and that they will continue to work with residents and community groups still seeking to shape final plans for the site.

But those reassurances sound uncomfortably familiar to those who have been on the receiving end of the city’s public housing disappearing act over the past decade.

“My concern is that they are not being very candid,” said Titus Kerby, vice president of Lathrop’s Local Advisory Council and a 23-year resident of the development.

The CHA less than candid? Surely he jests.

At issue is one of the biggest pieces of unfinished business in the CHA’s controversial Plan for Transformation, renamed the Plan Forward under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Located at Damen and Clybourn on 35 acres of prime riverfront property bordered by increasingly gentrified upscale neighborhoods, Lathrop Homes is the sweetest piece of real estate left in the CHA’s North Side holdings--and therefore an object of dispute between low-income housing advocates and development interests.

Before the CHA stopped issuing new leases more than a decade ago, most of Lathrop’s 925 apartments were occupied. Now only 147 families remain, all of them relocated south of Diversey Avenue.

Efforts to redevelop the property have been stalled for several years as residents, neighbors and advocates argued with the CHA over what the new development would look like—in particular what should be the proper mix of public housing, affordable and market rate units, or whether it should be mixed at all. The real estate downturn didn’t speed matters along either.

What has reignited the debate is an item that appeared on the agenda for next week’s CHA board meeting that seeks to make a $3.4 million “predevelopment” loan to a developer group to perform preliminary architectural design and engineering work on Phase I of the project.

More important, say opponents, it also proposes to give those developers a “preliminary commitment letter” that would set out specific parameters for Phase I: 497 total mixed income housing units, including 180 set aside for public housing residents, 111 for “affordable” and 206 for market rate residents.

There has never been any agreement on those important details, opponents say, and the CHA never alerted a working group that has been negotiating a final plan that they were introducing the proposal.

John McDermott, an organizer with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, called the CHA maneuver “undemocratic” and “underhanded.”

Late Friday afternoon, CHA officials said they had withdrawn what they understood to be the offending language.

That satisfied Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st), who represents Lathrop Homes and said he convinced CHA to pull back. But Kerby and McDermott argued the item should be withdrawn entirely until the CHA provides more answers about its overall plan.

“I think they were trying to slip one by,” Moreno said, agreeing with the others that the CHA could later have claimed the matter was already decided. “We don’t have a plan approved yet.”

“The CHA can screw up a one-car funeral,” added Moreno, who said he has no objection to the agency going forward with the loan.

Ellen Sahli, CHA’s chief housing officer, said the development team needs the loan and the commitment letter to secure financing for the project and to produce more detailed plans.

“It’s not the final step by any means,” Sahli said, adding that “there’s still lots of room for community discussion.”

But for those who have seen the CHA mow down its public housing stock without always making good on its promises, such assurances have an unsettling ring.

“It’s business as usual. There’s always a reason. What, do you think I’m stupid? I grew up in this town,” said Pastor Charles Lyons of the nearby Armitage Baptist Church in Logan Square, who watched in exasperation over the past decade as the CHA transformed Lathrop into a ghost town while the need for affordable housing on the North Side kept growing.

“What they are considering doing Tuesday doesn’t feel friendly here on the ground. It looks, it smells, it feels like the same old, same old,” said Lyons, who has participated in many of the planning meetings about Lathrop’s future.

Not everybody in the neighborhood disapproves of what the CHA is doing.

“We’re supportive of progress there,” said Charles Beach, president of Hamlin Park Neighbors. “The process has to move forward.”

My interest is simply this: to remind the folks at CHA and City Hall that others are still watching what happens at Lathrop Homes to make sure they play fair.

Email: markbrown@suntimes.com

Keywords: affordable housing, Armitage Baptist Church, CHA, Charles Beach, Charles Lyons, Chief Housing Officer, Ellen Sahli, Hamlin Neighbors, John McDermott, Lathrop Advisory Council, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, lsna, Pastor, Plan for Transformation, Plan Forward, Preserve Lathrop, Public housing, Rahm, rahm emanuel, Titus Kerby

Posted in News, Affordable Housing, LSNA in the Media