Who would have thought that building 17 apartments in Humboldt Park for people with AIDS would be such an ordeal?
Certainly not the Anixter Center, the rehabilitation agency overseeing the project. Anixter had all its pieces in place: HUD funding, a vacant lot on which to build, rising demand for the units (Humboldt Park has one of the city's highest concentrations of AIDS cases), and the support of Congressman Luis Gutierrez.
But in a surprising twist, Gutierrez has backed away from the project; and 26th Ward alderman Billy Ocasio, who's Gutierrez's protege, opposes it. Without Ocasio's backing Anixter can't get the city loan it needs to build the units, even as the number of AIDS cases continues to rise.
Ocasio and Gutierrez did not return phone calls for comment, but local health activists have a ready explanation. They say the AIDS house has been unfairly linked to unpopular attempts by Gutierrez to scatter over 100 units of CHA housing throughout Humboldt Park. "We're tied to CHA housing even though we have nothing in common," says Obed Lopez, case manager for CALOR, a near-west-side support group for Hispanics with AIDS. "It's not fair, it's not right, but that's the way it is."
Of course, any project that resembles public housing generates vehement opposition almost anywhere--be it city or suburb. But nerves are particularly frayed in Humboldt Park. "This is not about intolerance to people with AIDS," says Kathy Phelps, a Humboldt Park resident and activist. "This is about too much subsidized housing for one community. Enough is enough."
According to Stuart Ferst, Anixter's president, the apartments at Kedzie and Crystal--to be called Crystal Courts--were never intended to be anything other than homes for the disabled, to be built on a vacant lot purchased from the city at a nominal fee in 1992, when Gutierrez was still the local alderman. "We couldn't or wouldn't have purchased that land without Gutierrez's support," says Ferst. "He supported the project."
At HUD's request, Anixter decided to limit occupancy to AIDS patients and their immediate families. There would be eight units for families and nine for single adults; tenants would live independently but the building would have an on-site manager employed by Anixter. "We'd make sure common rules were followed and rents paid," says Ferst, whose agency runs four other complexes for disabled residents. "Most importantly, we planned to fill it with local residents; we had no intention of moving people in from the outside."
All studies show there is a dire need for AIDS housing in Humboldt Park. According to the city's health department, there are 73 AIDS cases for every 100,000 residents in Humboldt Park, compared to a citywide average of 62 per 100,000. "We can't turn our backs on people in our community who have AIDS; we can't pretend they don't exist," says Juan Elias, a health care worker who plans to oppose Ocasio for 26th Ward Democratic committeeman. "I lost my uncle due to AIDS complications. He used to live in Humboldt Park, but in the end he had to move to a hospice in Burbank. He had to leave his home community."
Despite the urgency, it took Anixter three years to get its proposal through HUD's bureaucracy; in the meantime, rising construction costs increased the projected price tag from $1.3 to $1.6 million--$300,000 more than HUD would commit. "To make up the extra $300,000 we went to the city's housing department," says Ferst. "They indicated that they would be happy to make the loans, but that we needed to file an application with the City Council and it would behoove us to talk to the alderman."
Thus they went to Ocasio, who suddenly faced the kind of awkward choice politicians loathe. If he opposed Crystal Courts, he would look heartless. If he supported it, he would rekindle the rage against subsidized housing and remind everyone that he was Gutierrez's handpicked successor. After all, it was Gutierrez, residents recalled, who allowed the CHA to scatter over 100 units of low-income housing throughout West Town and Humboldt Park. "Gutierrez promised to guarantee that at least half of the units were reserved for local residents, but when the time came to select tenants local residents didn't get the units," says Phelps. "The CHA said it had to satisfy the people on its waiting list first."
Not surprisingly, Ocasio "didn't seem to be a totally happy person when we met with him in September to discuss our proposal," says Ferst. "He suggested that we take it to the community; he said he would do what the community wanted."
So Anixter and CALOR organized several meetings, attended by as many as 40 residents. "There was some moving testimony," Ferst recalls. "One man with AIDS talked about living in a one-room apartment without a stove or refrigerator. He said he has to get up every day and walk six blocks to his mother's house so she can feed him. That's not a good way to live, not a lot of dignity.
"We showed our building plans. We said the building would be accessible, clean, and safe. We run four other sites for the disabled. Our track record is good."
In response, Phelps and others expressed their skepticism. It was all well and good, they said, for Ferst to promise that occupancy would be reserved for Humboldt Park residents. But how did they know they could trust him, particularly when they had already been misled by Gutierrez and the CHA? How did they know Anixter wouldn't turn around and fill Crystal Courts with drug addicts and alcoholics from every neighborhood of Chicago? "I listened to what Ferst said, but I wasn't convinced," says Phelps. "I personally understand the AIDS issue--my brother died of AIDS. I told Ferst that if he had come here three years ago I don't think anyone would have objected. But you can't view Crystal Courts independently of the scattered-site issue. We're saturated with subsidized housing, over 100 units in our little census tract. We have a drug rehab facility, a women's center, an SRO. Our schools are overcrowded. We have no shopping centers since we lost our Jewel. It's like, how much can one community take?"
In addition, Phelps says she's not certain a separate building is good for people with AIDS. "I asked someone with AIDS, 'Would you want to live there?' At first she said yes, but then she said, 'You know, I'm happy where I'm at. Nobody knows I have AIDS. If I move [to Crystal Courts] everyone will know I have AIDS. Other parents won't let their kids play with my kids.'"
On November 29 Ocasio held his own meeting on the matter. By then opponents had circulated a flyer warning residents that "the government considers substance abusers such as drug addicts and alcoholics 'disabled' which makes them eligible for [housing like Crystal Courts]." The flyer went on to say that "federal privacy and discrimination laws will prevent the Anixter Center from guaranteeing that residents will not be engaging in risky behavior such as dirty needle sharing."
CALOR and Anixter officials vehemently deny these accusations.
"They're trying to frighten people," says Elias. "There were some homophobic sentiments at the hearing. Someone asked, 'Would gay couples be allowed to live there?' Mr. Ferst said the Anixter Center would not discriminate against anyone. There was this perception that we were going to import people from all over the city to live there, and that our kids were suddenly going to see men holding hands in Humboldt Park."
After the meeting Ocasio announced his opposition, having decided, apparently, that being cruel would be kinder to his political career. "I asked Ocasio, 'Why are you doing this?' and he said, 'Wrong time, wrong place,'" says Ferst. "I said, 'What does that mean?' And he said, 'Wrong time, wrong place.' That's all he says."
Phelps says Ocasio took her side because it out-organized CALOR and Anixter's. "I don't think they did a good job of organizing the community," says Phelps. "They spent a lot of time lining up support from social service agencies and they forgot about Humboldt Park."
But CALOR officials say the project's not dead; they're hoping to get Gutierrez back on board. "I had a productive meeting with the congressman," says Omar Lopez, who's Obed's brother and CALOR's director. "He said he didn't know much about the proposal."
But how can he say that when he was the one who helped Anixter secure the land three years ago?
"Well, the project has changed since then. I gave him all the information we had and he promised to have another meeting in a few weeks."
Presumably that should give Gutierrez enough time to calculate which position (for or against) would cost him the most votes.
In the meantime, Anixter's contemplating a lawsuit. "I think this is a violation of people's civil rights, and as a group we will be looking into that," says Ferst. "This isn't fair--everybody has the right to live where they wish."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.