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A Missed Chance at Lathrop Homes

Revitalization could do so much for a disadvantaged community

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on March 18, 2016.

By Mary Patillo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday scolded the Chicago Housing Authority for what he deemed a well-intentioned policy “gone awry.” He argued that the practice of paying “exception rents” allows the CHA to subsidize luxury apartments for some needy families while leaving others out in the cold.

When asked about this this very uncommon practice (only 298 of the 49,000 households with Housing Choice Vouchers live in units where the rents are over $2,000/month households), Mayor Emanuel said: “The purpose of the policy is correct. [But] it’s been executed poorly. Getting families housing outside of the context of poverty is not only an admirable goal, it’s an essential goal…”
Sounds good.
But just one day later, on March 16, the mayor and the City Council had a chance to weigh in on this “essential goal” as it pertained to the redevelopment of the Lathrop Homes, a low-rise public housing complex on the North Side. And they essentially ruled against it.

The actions of Mayor Emanuel, the City Council, and the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) are full of ironies, contradictions and inconsistencies. At stake is poor people’s access to parts of the city that they can’t afford to live in on their own, but that offer better schools, proximity to jobs, safer streets, and other amenities and resources that support self-sufficiency and better prospects for the next generation. The revitalization of the Lathrop Homes as a mix of public and affordable housing, with no market rate housing, would be a step in the direction that Chicago leaders espouse, but rarely implement in practice.

At the City Council meeting, a consortium of developers selected by the CHA was seeking a zoning agreement for a plan that would eliminate 525 units of housing for poor and working-class families at Lathrop. The Emanuel administration backed the agreement and the City Council passed it. To their credit, Scott Waguespack (32nd) and John Arena (45th) voted no.

Lathrop is at the intersection of Clybourn and Diversey. It is located in exactly the kind of “opportunity area” that the CHA and Emanuel claim should be available to families who have vouchers and who live in Chicago public housing. But their actions moved in the opposite direction, decreasing access to this part of Chicago.

Failing to protect public and other affordable housing in higher-income and higher-amenity neighborhoods ultimately leads to the alternative, using public dollars to reproduce the same racial and economic segregation that perpetuates poverty in the first place. That’s not a good investment. That’s throwing money down the drain.

The CHA claims that it will replace the housing lost at Lathrop with new units built in the immediately surrounding communities. I am deeply skeptical of this. When the CHA was ordered by the Gautreaux lawsuit in 1969 to build public housing in non-Black neighborhoods it stalled for years.

Scholars James Rosenbaum and Leonard Rubinowitz characterized the CHA’s response to the courts as “inaction.” They write: “The agency assigned almost no staff to the effort, and it failed to take steps necessary to acquire sites and buildings for the program. It did not keep current on available sites, use its power of eminent domain to secure sites, package proposals to overcome HUD’s cost limits, or otherwise use its initiative to advance the program.” My research on the redevelopment of public housing on Chicago’s South Side shows similar inaction, lack of accountability, and, ultimately, promises broken. There is no evidence that this time will be different.

The turn of events this week reveals a sea of contractions. Emanuel rejects exception rents, the CHA partners with developers to reduce the number of public housing units in a thriving community, and the City Council passes it through. Yet, “[g]etting families housing outside of the context of poverty is not only an admirable goal, it’s an essential goal.” This sounds like a lot of double talk with no follow through.

There is still time at Lathrop. The buildings are still there – and structurally sound – and there are thousands of families on waitlists for housing in Chicago. In the very first Plan for Transformation, the CHA allocated funds to rehabilitate all of Lathrop’s occupied units as public housing. Let’s see if any of our public officials can actually follow through on this promise, and align their actions with their rhetoric.

- Mary Pattillo is a sociology professor at Northwestern University.

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