Mid-South: Poor residents fear they’ll be left out

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Lake Park Crescent

John Booz

Lake Park Crescent

Signs of change abound in Mid-South. Some are as subtle as the flower-filled concrete planters that decorate the otherwise bleak landscape where high-rise public housing once stood.

Others are overwhelming. A new $65 million headquarters for the Chicago Police Department on the corner of 35th Street and Michigan Avenue. Two new buildings on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), one of them, the McCormick Tribune Campus Center, straddled by a dramatic 530-foot, concrete-and-steel tube encasing the CTA Green Line El tracks at 33rd and State Street.

Sprouting like wildflowers are private housing developments, growing on lots where public housing has been leveled. In a three square mile area that encompasses four neighborhoods, over 6,800 public housing units have been razed in the last five years. Ongoing demolition of Robert Taylor Homes—once the world’s largest public housing project—and Stateway Gardens has already ripped out most of the 36 buildings that once lined State Street from 31st to 55th streets. By late May, only four were still standing.

The Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation calls for doing away with high-rise public housing and replacing them with mixed-income communities to be built by private developers. New public schools are an integral part of the overall Mid-South redevelopment plan, which community groups and institutions like IIT have pushed for more than 10 years.

But longtime advocates are concerned that the focus on attracting middle-income families will detract from efforts to house poor residents, many of whom are being displaced. In fact, CHA’s plan for Mid-South calls for rebuilding 2,800 units of public housing, instead of the 9,227 that previously existed. Fewer units of public housing in Mid-South will be offset by more in other areas, according to CHA.

“This is a real fear [for the community] because of all the changes that are happening,” says Leroy Kennedy, associate vice president of community affairs at IIT. “These changes have been talked about for a long time but now it is happening.”

“We have the same agenda, but have different ways of arriving at them,” says Shirley Newsome, chairman of the North Kenwood Oakland Conservation Community Council.

Still, despite verbal commitments, community residents and others are concerned that low-income families will be pushed aside.

Formula can vary

Mid-South is five years into CHA’s 10-year plan, which specifies a formula for the mixture of housing: One third each of market rate, affordable and public or subsidized housing.

However, that formula can vary at individual developments. Jazz on the Boulevard, for example, is a development of three-story townhouses, duplex condominiums and three- and six-flat rental apartments along Drexel Boulevard near 41st Street. The housing mix is 50 percent market rate units, 25 percent affordable and 25 percent public.

A rental-only property at 46th Street and Woodlawn Avenue built by the same developer, The Thrush Companies, is 74 percent market rate, 15 percent affordable and 11 percent subsidized.

“We like to say it’s not an equal split but an equitable split,” says CHA spokesperson Kim Johnson.

Some Mid-South residents remain wary. Wanda Taylor, who chairs the local school council at Price Elementary in North Kenwood, says she knows families that were displaced by CHA demolitions. “They are afraid they are not going to be coming back,” she says. “Many parents see the changes and the first thing you hear is ‘This isn’t for us. They are bringing in all this new housing and programs, but this is not for us.'”

The redevelopment history of some blighted communities would substantiate such fears. When it was built in the 1950s, the Lake Meadows apartment complex revitalized the Near South Side, recalls James Alexander of the Chicago Teachers Union, who lives in the area. But some residents lost their homes. “I know people who were not able to come back into the area, even though they were told they could,” he says.

And one Mid-South resident believes developers are not above tactics that may lock out workingclass residents.

“There are all kind of marketing switcharoos,” says Patricia Abrams, who moved into Mid-South when she bought a home there 10 years ago. “Developers may say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have any more $120,000 homes anymore, but we have plenty that are $220,000.'”

“In some cases the fear is justified,” says Newsome, who also sits on the board of the Quad Communities Development Corp., a new group headed by Ald. Toni Preckwinkle.

Residents worry that private developers will convert low-income housing into market rate units. But CHA officials note that developers have signed 99-year leases for the land that prevent them from doing so as long as those contracts are in effect.

Aiming for diversity

While some residents are fearful they will eventually be forced out, others may be oblivious to the changes in the area.

“Many people in the area don’t know what’s going on,” says Taylor, Price’s LSC chair. “And people deserve to know.”

Taylor is working with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) to launch a door-to-door public awareness campaign. “We plan to talk to them about gentrification, the schools, everything,” says Taylor.

“We’d like the area to look like it did 35 years ago,” Newsome says. “We want to see diversity along age, race and economics. Years ago, the doctors, teachers, people who worked downtown, lived in the same community [with the poor]. We’re trying to replicate that.”

IIT, an institutional supporter of developing Mid-South since the 1980s, is offering its staff and faculty $7,500 bonuses if they decide to take up residence in a new, mixed-income development under construction on the site that formerly housed Stateway Gardens. So far, 100 people have expressed interest.

IIT’s Kennedy says longtime residents, churches and community groups bear some responsibility for making sure low-income families are not swept out. “It is up to people to organize and make sure this doesn’t happen.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or e-mail williams@catalyst-chicago.org.