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The fight to preserve a model public housing project

Lathrop Homes, on the western edge of Lincoln Park, has long been one of the Chicago Housing Authority's most diverse and successful properties. But today it's a shell of its former self.

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"It was beautiful to live there. There were trees all over the place, rabbits were running all over the place, every now and then you'd see a raccoon or something coming through," Miguel Suarez recalls as he sifts through memories of his neighborhood. "African-Americans, Latinos, whites—there was no real differences in whom we were as a class, as a people. We were just totally happy living amongst each other."

The place he's describing isn't a utopian paradise in a distant land. It's a Chicago public housing project, Julia C. Lathrop Homes. Suarez, a semiretired addiction counselor, has lived there since 1989, when there were nearly 1,000 families living in Lathrop's redbrick buildings. Now he's among the few residents remaining in the mostly shuttered complex. In recent years he's been actively opposing the redevelopment of Lathrop—one of the last public housing projects left standing in Chicago—into a mixed-income development that would include market-rate real estate.

Lathrop's two-story row houses and three- and four-story walk-ups occupy 35 acres on the western edge of Lincoln Park, and are often noticed by passersby on Diversey owing to the thick, white plumes of steam that rise from ground vents like jets from primordial geysers—the result of aging heating pipes. When the 925-unit development opened in 1938, it was one of the first public housing developments in the country and only the second in Chicago, built by a dream team of architects for the Public Works Administration's New Deal program. For 30 years it was one of four all-white public housing projects managed by the Chicago Housing Authority. When the first African-American families were finally allowed to move into Lathrop in the late 1960s, they were segregated in the buildings on the south side of Diversey. The project didn't become the melting pot Suarez describes until the 1970s.

Over time Lathrop evolved into a mini America, a home to immigrants from Puerto Rico, Japan, Korea, Great Britain, Lithuania, and elsewhere. Such diversity is rare in public housing, and its effects are clearly visible among Lathrop kids today, many of whom come from multiple generations of mixed-race unions. In 2012 Lathrop was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.

It wasn't just the unique architecture and unprecedented integration that made Lathrop unique among public housing projects in the city. Its location offered easier access to some of the city's better jobs and its integrated schools, which meant Lathrop's residents had a better shot at the social mobility that was mostly denied to public housing residents in more segregated and isolated parts of the city.

Photographer Jason Reblando, who shot these photos from 2007 to 2009: “I became interested in Lathrop Homes because it challenges commonly held perceptions of public housing, ranging from its humane architectural design to its idyllic location on the Chicago River to its demographic diversity.” - JASON REBLANDO
  • Jason Reblando
  • Photographer Jason Reblando, who shot these photos from 2007 to 2009: “I became interested in Lathrop Homes because it challenges commonly held perceptions of public housing, ranging from its humane architectural design to its idyllic location on the Chicago River to its demographic diversity.”

Though Lathrop experienced some of the same problems that besieged other low-income communities—rising unemployment, teen pregnancy, gang activity, crime—Lathrop remained a relatively stable, family-oriented place even as the effects of CHA mismanagement, the crack epidemic, and gang violence ravaged Chicago's public housing high-rises in the 80s and 90s.

"It was safe here," says Lolita Gonzalez, who moved to Lathrop with her mother 39 years ago, at the age of 11. "We didn't have the same troubles that a lot of other kids from one-nationality neighborhoods had."

So why is Lathrop a virtual ghost town today?

The primary targets of Mayor Richard M. Daley's ambitious program to cure the city's public housing woes were high-rise projects. Since 2000, more than 18,000 public housing units have been demolished. The CHA promised to rebuild or rehab 25,000 units by 2010, but the agency remains 3,300 units short of the goal.

Though Lathrop was supposed to be rehabilitated—and to remain 100 percent public housing—the CHA's position shifted over the years. In 2000 the CHA stopped accepting new residents (in anticipation of rehabbing the property), and each subsequent year families were encouraged to move out. The buildings were shuttered one by one as Lathrop shrank from 747 occupied units in 2000 to about 140 today.

In other words, at a time when affordable housing in Chicago was becoming more and more scarce, hundreds of low-rent apartments were sitting vacant in a prime neighborhood.

In 2006 the CHA announced that Lathrop would become a mixed-income community with 400 public housing units, 400 tax-credit-subsidized units, and 400 market-rate ones. Demolition was scheduled for 2009.

But the housing market collapse, the recession, and persistent leadership turnover at the CHA has stalled those plans. To this day, not a single one of Lathrop's 30 buildings has been demolished.

In 2011 the CHA approved a $1.4 million contract with Lathrop Community Partners, a planning and development team, to produce a master plan for the site. On May 20, the CHA approved another $3.6 million predevelopment loan to LCP to continue tweaking the plan. Until a redevelopment contract is signed between the CHA and LCP—and a master plan is approved—redevelopment cannot begin.

Molly Metzger, assistant professor at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in Saint Louis, wrote her dissertation on the exodus of Lathrop families. She conducted interviews with 40 former Lathrop residents and concluded that the most common reason for leaving was pressure from the CHA.

"Contrary to what the CHA was saying, that everyone was leaving voluntarily, there was almost coercion, [with the CHA] saying, 'Things are gonna change here, you should get out while the getting is good, and while you still have some control over where you end up.'"

"They were supposed to be a class counsel to the residents. But they've become bedfellows with CHA."—Public housing resident Miguel Suarez describing what he considers to be unjust legal representation in a racial discrimination case against the housing authority

Those who left were told they'd be allowed to return to the property after redevelopment if they took a temporary Section 8 voucher (now known as a "housing choice voucher") granting them subsidized rent in the private market. Many of Metzger's interviewees say they regret having left.

Tiffney George grew up in Lathrop in the 70s and 80s, and returned as a young mother in the 90s. "Nobody felt that they lived in a project," she recalls. George attended Near North High School and had friends who lived in nearby Cabrini-Green. "When I went to Cabrini it really felt like a project. It felt like you were in jail. We don't live in a project, we live in a home."

In 2005 she agreed to move out of Lathrop in exchange for a Section 8 voucher. George left Lathrop intending to come back by 2010, the year that the CHA had estimated Lathrop's rehab would be complete. "I was like, 'Everything's working out! They're gonna rehab it and now it's gonna be even more wonderful than it was when I first moved in.'"

Persistent problems with rats and mice at her first two Section 8 apartments in Albany Park and Humboldt Park forced her to keep looking for a new place. "It seems like everybody I know who's on Section 8 continuously move."

Finally, in 2008, George moved to North Lawndale with her three children. The apartment has worked out well. But George, a pharmacy technician, regrets having to live in a more segregated and dangerous place. She wishes her children had been able to grow up with the safety and resources of her old neighborhood.

"I don't want my children to go outside by themselves without me. Not to say it's a bad community, it's just that I feel safer with me watching them." She says her 16-year-old daughter always had been on the honor roll and had near-perfect attendance at her diverse north-side schools—but moving to an overwhelmingly African-American school put a lot of pressure on her to fit in at the cost of her academics. "It feels good when you're on top of your game in school and on top of your class, and she's always been like that until we moved over here."

Both Metzger's research and CHA data show that those residents who moved from Lathrop have overwhelmingly ended up in segregated communities on the south and west sides, where they could find landlords to take their vouchers. On average, former residents moved to areas with 250 percent higher rates of crime and poverty, and 300 percent higher unemployment.

Walking around Lathrop, it's easy to glimpse residents' efforts to offset the desolation. Lush houseplants fill the windows that haven't been boarded up. Well-maintained gardens poke out of courtyards across the street from vacant buildings ringed by chain-link fences.

Many of the residents who have moved maintain close ties to those who've stayed. Some former residents come back daily to check in on friends or family, or bring their kids to the Boys and Girls Club—one of Lathrop's best assets.

On a rainy morning in early April, I walked down Hoyne with Titus Kerby, the vice president of the Lathrop Local Advisory Council, a leadership group elected by tenants. We met Lolita Gonzalez and her mother, Anna Capps. Capps, 71, a retired hospice nurse who emigrated from Great Britain, has lived at Lathrop for 40 years. After her husband died and she was left to raise four children on her own, she found Lathrop was the best affordable-housing option on the north side. Eventually her children moved out on their own. Gonzalez, her oldest, worked as a merchandise coordinator at Marshall Field's for 21 years until the department store was bought out and her position was eliminated. After Gonzalez lost her husband and suffered two strokes, along with a variety of other health problems, she moved back to Lathrop to live with her mother.

"Our head management staff always sees about the people here," she says. She appreciates the fact that staff helped her with small projects, like installing tile in her bathroom. "You're able to make it like a home for yourself," she says. "You don't have to live in squalor if you don't want to."

Like the dozen other current and former residents I spoke with, Gonzalez talked about the value of integration and the importance of preserving public housing. "They need to open it back up," she said about Lathrop. "It's a valuable resource for those people who appreciate it."

Toni Dixon, a junior at Alcott College Prep, is starting a group to mobilize teens to campaign for the preservation of Lathrop. Though she's fairly confident that the remaining residents will not be displaced, she still fears the possibility of moving to the south or west side. "I think it'd be harder for me to go to school and survive. I'm used to the north side. My school is right there, you don't hear nobody shooting or fighting every night."

In 2012 outrage over vacancies grew when the Chicago Housing Initiative, an advocacy group for low-income housing, publicized that CHA continues to collect operating subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for every empty apartment. According to calculations based on records the Chicago Housing Initiative obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, CHA receives more than $7 million annually for the vacant Lathrop units alone. The advocates took the issue all the way to HUD's assistant secretary for public and Indian housing, Sandra Henriquez, but the group's effort to bring federal pressure on the CHA ultimately fell flat.

Alexander Polikoff, now 87, was a 39-year-old lawyer and a volunteer for the ACLU when he agreed to take a case against the CHA alleging race-based discrimination. - MAYA DUKMASOVA
  • Maya Dukmasova
  • Alexander Polikoff, now 87, was a 39-year-old lawyer and a volunteer for the ACLU when he agreed to take a case against the CHA alleging race-based discrimination.

Lathrop's racial diversity would have been hard to imagine for Dorothy Gautreaux, who lived at the all-black, low-rise public housing community Altgeld Gardens. Built on landfills next to the water treatment plant on the border of Indiana, Altgeld was home to some 2,000 families employed at the nearby industrial sites. Gautreaux was active in the civil rights movement and even brought in Martin Luther King for a rally at Altgeld in the summer of 1966. That year she also mobilized the support of the West Side Federation and the Chicago Urban League for a lawsuit against the CHA alleging race-based discrimination.

Alexander Polikoff, then a 39-year-old partner at the law firm Schiff Hardin & Waite and a volunteer for the ACLU, agreed to take the case, and put together a team of four other attorneys. The lawsuits Polikoff and his team filed against the CHA and HUD claimed that the CHA was discriminating against African-Americans by building public housing in poor, black neighborhoods and screening applicants to keep black families out of projects in white neighborhoods.

In 1969 a federal district court judge found CHA guilty—and it was up to the tenants' lawyers to draft the recommended remedy. The majority of the lawyers on the team representing the public housing residents—Polikoff included—decided it would be best not to consult with their clients about the kind of relief they'd like to see. Instead, the attorneys successfully recommended that for every unit of public housing built in a black neighborhood, three units would be built in white neighborhoods—a decades-long process that would be overseen by the judge assigned to the Gautreaux case (of which there have been three since 1966).

Polikoff is now 87—and is the sole member of the original team who's still on the case. In 1970 he left his successful career and comfortable salary at Schiff to become the executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a small nonprofit organization. He took the Gautreaux case with him. BPI has handled several other high-profile class-action lawsuits over the years, but the Gautreaux case has been its constant.

"To this day Gautreaux remains a case brought on behalf of blacks by white lawyers in which . . . neither the black class members nor others in the black community have had a meaningful role in litigation decisions."—From the memoir of Alexander Polikoff, lead attorney in the 1966 case against the CHA alleging race-based discrimination

Public housing residents continue to play no direct role in litigation and have no voice in deciding what Polikoff argues in court on their behalf. In his 2006 memoir, Waiting for Gautreaux, he wrote that there is no good or fair way to consult with such a large class of plaintiffs. "To this day Gautreaux remains a case brought on behalf of blacks by white lawyers in which . . . neither the black class members nor others in the black community have had a meaningful role in litigation decisions," he wrote.

At times over the years, Polikoff has been asked to explain his decision to leave out the tenants and not partner with the civil rights activists working in Chicago in the summer of 1966. In a 2005 interview with the Reader, Polikoff said that he "blew it" by not connecting the Gautreaux case to the civil rights movement. When asked why, he responded: "Either we were unthinking, or we were dumb."

But Hal Baron, research director of the Urban League, says that Polikoff preferred to exclude the tenants and black political organizers from the beginning. He says he urged Polikoff to include resident leadership in the negotiations after the judge's initial ruling. On May 12, 1969, Baron wrote Polikoff: "There is a grave danger that the ACLU will find itself in what has come to be known as 'the white liberal broker role.' Whereby on the basis of good will, hard work, expertise and broad public policy it plays the role of deciding what is good for the black community. . . . This brokerage role is an untenable one that rightfully will come under attack from groups in the black community. They justly feel capable of defining their own interests, and they resent any group, even with the best of intentions, playing God for them."

When I showed Polikoff a copy of Baron's letter, he said he had no recollection of the correspondence. He reaffirmed the explanation he gave in his book: that there is no practical or fair way of involving the class he represents in coming up with remedies for the case they brought.

"The interest of all the class members, even the dissidents, is in having desegregated hosing opportunities provided," Polikoff says.

In the 1990s the federal government, faced with public housing crises across the nation, adopted policies that favored a shift to a new model: mixed-income communities. The idea was that "concentrated poverty" was to blame for public housing's failure. Therefore, the solution seemed to lie in building communities that housed people with a range of incomes. As an added bonus, cities could use the demolition of public housing to generate billions in new investment and real estate development.

Northwestern University law professor Len Rubinowitz notes that the embrace of the mixed-income concept came despite a near total lack of evidence that it would actually be helpful to the poor.

Rubinowitz points out that the mixed-income approach reduces the number of public housing units. Take Cabrini-Green. The high-rise complex with 3,600 public housing units has been replaced by mixed-income developments with fewer than 500 public housing units. Many former residents ended up in the same kind of slumlike dwellings that were cleared in the 1950s to build Cabrini-Green in the first place, according to MIT urban design and planning professor Lawrence Vale's 2013 book, Purging the Poorest: Public Housing and the Design Politics of Twice-Cleared Communities.

In 2012, when the Chicago Housing Initiative was raising awareness about the high level of vacancies at Lathrop, the Cabrini Rowhouses, and Altgeld Gardens—and was calling for federal intervention into the CHA's handling of the redevelopment—Polikoff and his team at BPI wrote two letters detailing its position.

"Now, on the cusp of redevelopment, we believe that it would make little sense for CHA to spend significant amounts of money to prepare vacant units for occupancy," BPI stated in the first letter, dated August 12. In the second later, dated December 20, BPI argued that reserving Lathrop exclusively for public housing families "would recreate a large enclave of poverty and fly in the face of what history should have taught us about such large urban poverty enclaves." The letter goes on to say that, because the surrounding neighborhood is gentrified and housing is expensive, more room should be made at Lathrop for "moderate-income families" as a means of combating "segregation, economic isolation, and potential community instability."

The fact that Lathrop was not itself racially segregated did not figure in BPI's arguments.

Disturbed by these letters, Kerby and Suarez, along with members of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and Northwestern University sociologist Mary Pattillo, went to BPI's offices to speak with Polikoff. "We wanted to make it unmistakable to them that we felt they were totally on the wrong track," says John McDermott, housing and land use director for the LSNA.

Miguel Suarez at City Hall in January, speaking out against the conversion of Lathrop Homes into a mixed-income development. - MAYA DUKMASOVA
  • Maya Dukmasova
  • Miguel Suarez at City Hall in January, speaking out against the conversion of Lathrop Homes into a mixed-income development.

Suarez was disappointed by the meeting. "They were supposed to be a class counsel to the residents. But they've become bedfellows with CHA."

Polikoff and his colleagues strongly dispute Suarez's characterization. They say it would be best for Lathrop residents to remain on-site during the eventual first phase of redevelopment on the north side of the complex. But BPI opposes the rehab of shuttered buildings, stating that CHA funds could be better used elsewhere.

The CHA, however, appears to be sitting on the money it collects for vacant units across its properties. After scrutinizing CHA's annual reports, the Chicago Housing Initiative announced in January that the agency has accumulated more than $600 million in its reserves. CHA has insisted that the reserves are around $300 million—a number that's still astonishingly high for a city agency.

Robert Whitfield, an attorney currently working with Lathrop residents, says the deconcentration-of-poverty arguments espoused by BPI and CHA have amounted to little more than a reduction of hard units of affordable housing for the city's low-income African-Americans. "Let's face it, when you're talking about concentrations of public housing, you're talking about African-Americans," Whitfield says. "I have a problem with somebody telling me too many of me is bad."

The CHA has asserted that the lost units at Lathrop will be replaced in the neighborhoods surrounding it through project-based vouchers (long-term contracts between landlords and the CHA for specific units), the Real Estate Acquisition Program (whereby the CHA can buy units from landlords to use as public housing), and the construction of other mixed-income communities.

But documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request have shown that not a single unit of family housing has been secured in the affluent neighborhoods around Lathrop through project-based vouchers, even during the recession. In its first year, REAP hasn't produced a single new unit of housing anywhere in Chicago. And the lack of available land and high costs of development in the neighborhoods near Lathrop have made the construction of new mixed-income communities unfeasible.

Yet the Gautreaux lawyers continue to express faith in the CHA's objectives. "The hope is that with the new tools that are now available to it, CHA will be able to produce the lost units from both Cabrini and Lathrop in good neighborhoods scattered around the north side of Chicago," Polikoff says. "I believe it's possible."

He also says he remains dubious that serious reinvestment in projects such as Lathrop will translate into tangible improvements in the lives of the people who might live there. Polikoff and his colleagues argue that, contrary to what proponents of Lathrop Homes might say, low-income people living together in any significant numbers will inevitably lead to poor life outcomes. "When these guys say how to do it right, they're talking about nirvana," Polikoff says. "It's not doable in the real world."

Those proponents, in turn, question the Gautreaux lawyer's understanding of the real world.

"It would be impossible for someone who has never lived an experience to be able to say 'I know what that's all about,'" Suarez says. "[BPI] is made up of people—primarily white, primarily well-to-do—who have never missed a meal. And so how could they possibly have any kind of sense of what we—the people who have experienced poverty and prejudices and bad times—need, want, or would like?"

This article was reported with the help of an Investigative Reporters and Editors' freelance fellowship.

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