Tradin' on up: sweat equity at the CHA | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Tradin' on up: sweat equity at the CHA

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"As far back as eight years old, I would cut pictures of furniture out of catalogs and magazines and paste them on paper," says Rosetta Holmes. "I had a little scrapbook. It was my dream to own a home."

Holmes is sitting in the orderly living room of her eighth-floor apartment in the ABLA housing project on the near west side. Holmes, who was on welfare for a decade, raised her four children at ABLA, but she's never lost the desire to own a home. "Saving the money was the problem. That was a hard struggle. I would get work and save up something, but then a crisis would hit the family--a death mainly. My mother, two brothers, and my kids' father all passed. And I would help out with the expenses. After the kids were grown I was thinking about buying a four-to-six-unit building, but I never took steps to make that happen. Until now."

Holmes is a pioneer for the CHA. She's one of 300 public-housing residents the authority hired two years ago to learn construction skills by rehabilitating vacant apartments under a program called "Step-Up." Then in November, through another CHA program open only to Step-Up participants, "Step-Up to Step-Out," she won a lottery that will enable her to move out of her ABLA apartment into a house she will rent and, she hopes, one day buy.

Both programs bear the stamp of CHA chairman Vince Lane, who believes they demonstrate how life can open up for the disadvantaged when they're given an opportunity. The programs sound up-by-the-bootstraps, something the chairman is sure the reigning Republicans in Congress will appreciate.

As chief executive at the CHA, Lane says, he became troubled by "the millions of dollars we were spending with external contractors to fix up buildings. I thought, why can't we have the residents do that?" In 1991 he began negotiating with the Chicago Building Trades Council to train residents, putting two trainees with each experienced tradesman. "The trade unions said they couldn't go for that arrangement," recalls Lane. "So I told them, 'Fine. The residents will do all the work, and you can just picket us.' I didn't think they wanted to set up picket lines at CHA developments."

They didn't. Instead they came around, and in September 1992, after what Lane describes as even more ticklish negotiations with HUD and the U.S. Department of Labor, the CHA launched Step-Up. From 1,000 applicants the housing authority picked the 300 residents--two-thirds of them women--for a one-year training program under the tutelage of union tradesmen.

Among those chosen were Holmes, a 44-year-old graduate of Malcolm X College who had worked at factory jobs, and Irene Hammonds, a 39-year-old thrift-store cashier who lives with her three children in the Trumbull Park housing project on the far south side.

The trainees took some classes, but basically they learned "by looking over the shoulders of the journeymen," says Jacqueline Jackson, supervisor of Step-Up. "We did a little bit of everything--carpentry, painting, electrical, glazing," says Hammonds.

At first Hammonds was worried about being assigned to the Robert Taylor Homes. "I had a job that was paying me $13.52 an hour, which was a lot of money, but I was petrified of going into Robert Taylor," she says. "Was it worth it? I thought to myself, you can't spend all that money dead. But I went there, and though there are gangs and drugs, there are also decent people who want to do something with their lives. I felt comfortable--or comfortable enough."

In 1993 Hammonds became a union apprentice carpenter. Though her pay fell to $9 an hour, the work--hanging doors and putting up cabinets in CHA flats--pleases her enormously. "I also know I will always have a trade to fall back on. And at my age that's insurance."

Holmes hasn't been as lucky. Just as enthusiastic about her new career as Hammonds, she applied to become a union apprentice electrician with Local 134 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, but the local has dragged its feet on developing appropriate training for "maintenance electricians." So Holmes is now working as a "building repairer" for the CHA. She has also bid for a slot as a lead-abatement worker, also a lower-paying nonunion job.

The lack of an apprentice maintenance-electrician program irritates Lane. He charges that Local 134 is interested primarily in "taking care of its own." And he says that if no curriculum materializes soon, the CHA will create its own program.

Sam Evans, business representative for Local 134, says, "We're trying to develop a curriculum, but things have been caught up in the bureaucracy."

So far 76 Step-Up workers have become union apprentices, and another 16 are lead-abatement workers for the CHA; 50 more, including Holmes, have been hired by the CHA to do simple building repairs. The Step-Up workers have taken home $2.2 million in wages, says supervisor Jackson. "These people were unemployed or underemployed, and now they've gotten back into the mainstream. When they're done with us they're being out-placed to real jobs."

Yet 154 Step-Up recruits--roughly half of those who started--dropped out. Lane blames the high rate on sloth bred by the welfare system. "When you give people a check, food stamps, and a box to live in--and require nothing in return--what do you expect? People may say they want to work, but once they get jobs there are still problems at home. People are pulled back by their friends. Drugs enter in. Some of those circumstances hit the Step-Up people, and when they didn't show up we let them go. We have to have standards."

Those who made it, like Holmes and Hammonds, were also offered a chance to buy their own homes. Using money it had accrued through bond refinancing, the Chicago Metropolitan Housing Development Corporation (CMHDC), a CHA affiliate that finances low- and moderate-income housing, bought ten houses at a HUD foreclosure auction and through private real estate brokers and invited Step-Up participants to apply for one.

There were 144 applications in the November 7 lottery to determine the recipients. Lane picked the winners out of a small wooden house wrapped in gold foil. "My girlfriend and I were going to write down the names of those who won," recalls Hammonds, "but we didn't get very far." Her friend captured the second home, and Hammonds took the fourth. "I just jumped up and screamed," says Hammonds. "I couldn't believe it." Holmes was the ninth winner.

The Step-Out houses, valued at an average $65,000, are located "in nice stable areas where the neighbors go to work every day and the kids walk to school," says Deborah Moore, CMHDC executive director. "None of your neighbors will know you're with the CHA unless you tell them." The occupants will pay 30 percent of their income in rent, a portion of which will be deposited in an escrow account over two years to make a down payment on the residence. CMHDC and the Hull House Association will also give the occupants help handling their household budgets, building credit, and staying motivated.

Holmes has mixed feelings about leaving ABLA. She has enjoyed growing greens, onions, and tomatoes in the community garden, and she's been happy to live so close to downtown. "It's only a few miles from ABLA to Grant Park, and when my kids were young we'd walk over there and go to the beach and the museums. Walking is a wonderful form of exercise." But Holmes has also witnessed a woman and a baby fall to their deaths off the galleries. "Now there's fences on the balconies. Yet every day from July until September there's gunfire here. Roosevelt Road has developed into a shooting gallery. Basically I mind my own business in the building." She's hoping her house, which has not yet been assigned, will be on the north side.

"I could live where I am till the day I die," says Hammonds, who's sitting in the living room of her two-bedroom CHA row house. "People do stay in CHA forever, you know. The immediate family plus the aunts and uncles and the grandkids--all packed in tight together. But it isn't living really. Besides, this row house will also never belong to me, no matter how much rent I pay. With a house though, I'll have something to pass down to my kids." Hammonds wants the one suburban house among the ten acquired for the Step-Out participants. "I take the kids to the suburbs in the summer," she says. "It's quiet there, and the kids can walk to the park all by themselves."

The first ten houses will be ready come spring. In December the CMHDC picked another 20 potential home owners. Lane intends to hold a quarterly lottery for Step-Up participants, and the CMHDC is planning to spend $20 million buying houses.

Lane believes it's money well spent. "Public housing doesn't have to maintain people from cradle to grave. We've taken people and given them a marketable trade, and now we're giving them homes. The investment is coming on the front end, where it should come, not the back, in the form of prisons and mental hospitals. We're showing the residents of public housing that there is a better way. You have to have demonstrations that our kind of thinking works, and here you'll have it." Then he adds emphatically, "To hell with charity and altruism. Get poor people working and building healthy neighborhoods where everybody isn't on the dole, and we'll see these cities turn around."

Republican lawmakers have denounced midnight basketball leagues, a much-publicized Lane program. But the CHA chairman figures Step-Up to Step-Out will generate a different response. "We're doing everything that's in the Contract With America and that Newt Gingrich talks about--getting government off the backs of Americans and setting standards that welfare recipients must meet. They'll love this. I know they will."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Randy Tunnell.

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