Where are the poor supposed to go?

October 28, 2010

Rory Fanning reports on the struggle of residents in a Chicago Housing Authority complex to protect their homes from the reach of real estate developers.

WHEN CHICAGO Housing Authority (CHA) board members held their meeting on October 19, it was to a packed room--with 150 tenants gathered to demand that the board vote to keep the Lathrop Homes public housing complex available to low-income families.

Led by Miguel Suarez, Cynthia Scott and Robert Davidson, Lathrop residents turned out to the Douglas Field House on Chicago's South Side to demand a "no market rate" claim on 50 percent of the Lathrop units, which are being taken over, renovated and sold as market-rate condos by an opportunistic group of private builders.

The city's "Plan for Transformation" has been displacing public housing residents since 1996. The "Transformation" project was initially slated for residents living in what the city called "dangerous and dilapidated" high rises--which is the government's standard "this-is-for-your-own-good" language of pillage and conquest.

Lathrop Homes is a low-rise complex, so when the tenants were informed that their homes would go the way of high-rise developments, like Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor Homes, they were taken by surprise.

The Lathrop Homes on Chicago's Northwest side
The Lathrop Homes on Chicago's Northwest side

Scott addressed the packed audience and the board. "The city is saturated with market-rate condos, and guess what--they aren't being bought! Thousands are sitting completely empty," she said. "We need more public housing. I have lived at Lathrop for 25 years--I shouldn't have to leave because someone thinks they see a business opportunity--I raised my kids here!"

The crowd erupted in applause as residents and action committee members from Lathrop Homes and the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign stood behind Suarez, Scott and Davidson, holding posters that read "No Market Rate!"

They then watched CHA director Lewis Jordon and his board don an ill-worn mask of "representative democracy," as they took up an "official" vote on the matter. The residents' call was flatly denied. The board agreed to go ahead with plans to turn Lathrop into all market-rate condos.

Lathrop Homes, a 900-unit development built as part of a Public Works Administration project in 1938, has been purged of its residents through prejudicial evictions and Section 8 housing vouchers. The low-income residents have been sentenced to the streets, stripped of their housing rights–only 117 remain as valiant, organized holdouts.

The housing development sits on expensive property running along the Chicago River near the Logan Square and Roscoe Village neighborhoods. City officials and private investors smell a profit in the Lathrop land, just as they did on the near North Side where the Cabrini-Green public housing development once stood. The last Cabrini tower is scheduled to be torn down in February 2011.

WHAT ABOUT Section 8 vouchers?

The city claims that Section 8 vouchers offer choice on the kind of neighborhoods their holders can live in. Unfortunately, what the city promises and what it delivers are two different things. "Nearly half of all voucher holders live in just 10 of the 77 of the community areas in Chicago," according to an Illinois Assisted Housing Action Research Project report published in 2007.

Molly Metzger, a graduate student at Northwestern University and advocate for the Lathrop residents, has compiled statistics showing that Section 8 vouchers--or what the city now deceptively calls "Housing Choice Vouchers"--are more likely to be accepted in poverty-stricken and segregated neighborhoods.

These vouchers often downgrade living conditions. "This would certainly be the case for the residents of Lathrop who live in the gentrified Logan Square and Roscoe Village neighborhoods," said Metzger.

She continued:

Residents are rarely given adequate advanced notice when handed these uprooting vouchers...Vouchers also subject tenants to the eviction whims of private landlords. I have heard stories of people who have faced multiple evictions under the voucher program...The information explaining the program is often confusing and contradictory. Residents really don't know who will take the vouchers, or where they can even begin looking for new housing. The 117 Lathrop tenants still haven't figured out if they can use "Housing Choice Vouchers" to stay in their homes.

The question remains: Where are all the poor supposed to go? The city doesn't care. The Daley administration and its CHA officials are building an economic wall around desperate, manufactured real estate markets.

The Lathrop "market rate" vote by the CHA board proves that city leaders value short-term profits that fill shortfalls in corrupt budgets above human rights. There is no consideration for those displaced by privatization. Nor, it seems, is thought given to the negative impact of fake real estate markets on the long-term economic health of the city.

The destruction of public housing creates real estate value bubbles. The current national financial crisis shows how much damaged a popped real estate bubble can have on the economy.

Lathrop residents and all those facing eviction from public housing need support. This isn't a done deal for the Lathrop residents, or those still in the last building at Cabrini--if their struggle can be reinforced by large numbers of action committee members and foreclosure victims, who recognize the importance of universal solidarity in the struggle for housing rights.

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