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Residents fight Cabrini Rowhouse evictions

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Cabrini residents vowed to fight a CHA order evicting 33 rowhouse tenants, citing a previous federal ruling barring relocation at Cabrini without first negotiating with the local advisory council.

“There are going to be legal challenges, there are going to be protests, there are going to be a lot of things,” said Carole Steele, president of the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council.

At the end of August, CHA gave 33 families remaining in non-rehabbed units of the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses 180 days to relocate.  About 150 of 586 units in the 1942 red-brick low-rise development were rehabbed in 2008 and 2009, and these will remain occupied.

Steele said the LAC was informed of the action in a meeting a couple of hours before the notices went out.

In 2008 a federal court barred CHA from evicting 385 families at Cabrini, citing an existing agreement that requires negotiations with the residents’ council over the relocation process, said Richard Wheelock of the Legal Assistance Foundation [2], who represents the Cabrini-Green LAC.

In that case, CHA had sent letters to the residents in 2004 giving them 180 days to find new housing.

Once again, CHA has given residents 180 days without negotiating with the LAC, Wheelock said.  “We went through all that litigation – and a federal court found CHA was in violation of the relocation rights contract – and now they are doing exactly the same thing,” he said.

Safety concerns

CHA cited high vacancy rates and crime levels in the section of the rowhouses being vacated.  Wheelock called that rationale “ironic” since “many families will end up in much worse conditions.”

Former residents who were moved to Wentworth Gardens at the end of last year, when Cabrini-Green’s last highrise was demolished, report high levels of violence, said J.R. Fleming.  The former Cabrini resident, now a leader of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign [3], has family members who were moved to Wentworth.

He says “there’s a lot of tension” between Wentworth residents and Cabrini relocatees, and it’s resulted in fights and a series of attacks on women and children from Cabrini.  The relocatees “are fearing for their lives,” he said.  “There have been big community meetings where the Wentworth residents say, get these people out of here.”

“How can CHA say they’re motivated by concerns over safety when they are moving women and children into harm’s way?” he said.

New Wentworth residents are seeking housing vouchers to move out – but such vouchers are generally only accepted in high-poverty, high-crime areas, Fleming said.

“This is just another situation of public housing residents being pushed around, and we are competely tired of it,” said Steele.

Rehab plans on hold

Looming large is the question of the future of the rowhouses.

They were among ten “traditional,” mainly low-rise, developments, including Altgelt Gardens, Dearborn Homes and Lathrop Homes, deemed “viable” by HUD in a late-1990s assessment; CHA pledged to rehab them for public housing residents.

Under its original Moving To Work Plan in 2000, CHA promised to rehab all of the Cabrini Rowhouses’ 586 units as public housing, projecting completion in 2004.  Work didn’t start until 2008 and was suspended in 2009, but CHA’s 2010 annual plan projected completion by 2013.

This year’s plan, however, reports that rehabilitation has been put on hold. According to the report, the move came at the request of the Gautreaux court (overseeing a 1966 case requiring CHA to desegregate), with Gautreaux counsel Business and Professional People for the Public Interest [4] (BPI) joining discussions “to explore the possibility of incorporating future plans for Frances Cabrini Rowhouses into a broader planning process that involves the input of community stakeholders.”

In a 2009 report [5], BPI argued that CHA’s plan for rehabbing traditional developments as public housing “runs counter” to the goal of “economic integration.”  The group suggested converting those developments to mixed-income communities and recommended steps to “dimish the size of the public housing populations” currentlly living there.  BPI also argued that “the favorable location” of the Cabrini Rowhouses “suggests the possibility of moving directly into full mixed-income.”

In addition, one area resident reports that condo associations in Cabrini mixed-income developments have been agitating for the closing of the rowhouses.

Mixed-income projects stalled

The problem is that “mixed-income development has ground to a halt,” Wheelock points out.  “Nothing is happening.”  And no one can predict when the economy and housing market might rebound.  Increasingly, it looks to be a long way off.

Meanwhile thousands of displaced CHA residents are still waiting for replacement housing.  Financing for mixed-income communities isn’t available, while federal funding for rehab of public housing is.

“They said they were going to rehab everything, and that’s what we’re going to hold them to,” said Steele.  “The LAC’s position is:  you had a ten-year plan, you asked for an additional five years, it’s fifteen years and you haven’t begun to build the housing.”

CHA’s failure to expeditiously fill vacancies at the rowhouses (none have been filled since 2000) violates its original agreement with HUD, and the agency’s failure to rehab the rowhouses is “at odds with numerous written commitments made over the years by CHA officials,” an attorney for CHA residents’ Central Advisory Council told Residents Journal [6].

Steele points out that CHA is still 400 units short of meeting its commitment in a 2000 consent decree to replace housing for residents of the first Cabrini-Green buildings that were demolished.  Indeed, last month a federal judge warned with city and CHA [7] that they could be in violation of the 2000 order if they don’t start moving to meet replacement housing commitments.

“Their promise to build mixed-income communities in a timely fashion for people to return to is not a promise they have kept,” said Fleming.

“Completing rehab of the rowhouses could add 400 units,” said Wheelock. “Where else are you going to find that?”

Slow-motion demolition?

Unlike Cabrini-Green high rises which have been demolished, the rowhouses are “human-scale” and “have stood the test of time,” according to LISC [8].

CHA says it’s still considering options for the rowhouses, but Wheelock suspects their intention is to demolish them.

He says the LAC wrote CHA in May asking them to adequately secure vacant rowhouses so that rehab would remain an option, but received no reply. (CHA did not respond to a request for comment.)

“CHA has done nothing to preserve vacated units,” he said.  “The inventory is being destroyed.  When it comes time to decide they’re going to say, oh my, the rowhouses are too far gone for rehab.”

“When CHA boarded up with windows, they didn’t board them up from the outside, they boarded them up from the inside,” said Joe Peery, a former Cabrini high-rise resident now living in Cabrini mixed-income.  “When it rains the water gets in.  You get water damage and mold.

“They’re just destroying the property,” he said.

‘A new Jim Crow’

A long perspective gives Peery a nuanced view of public housing issues.  He remembers when the entire area around Cabrini was mostly poor and black – supplying cheap labor to industry then located just south of Division Street.  He remembers when maintenance workers were let go and repairs stopped being done after drastic budget cuts in the Reagan era.

He’s not too enamored of the concept of mixed-income communities, either.  An array of disparate rules for rich and poor means the reality is “a new Jim Crow, a new apartheid,” he says.  “I have to take drug tests, they don’t; I can’t barbecue, they can; I can’t have family gatherings, they can.”

And condo associations are eager to evict public housing tenants for minor infractions, he said.   A large number of evictions under CHA’s draconian policies have taken place in mixed-income housing, where residents have even fewer rights than in public housing developments, according to the Chicago Reporter [9].

The onerous requirements for public housing residents are predicated on the federal assistance they receive, but Peery points out that market-rate condos received federal subsidies too, and several private developers have received millions of dollars in bailouts from the city and CHA.

CHA’s Plan For Transformation “is a scam,” he said.  “They’re cutting everything, and they figure let’s just get rid of it all.

“We’re in a depression.  I’ve never seen this many homeless people.  Homeless people are dying in the streets.  Wouldn’t this be the time for public housing?”

Residents Journal reports that plans for the Cabrini Rowhouses will be one topic at a public comment session on CHA’s annual plan, Tuesday, September 13, 6 p.m. at CHA administrative offices, 60 E. Van Buren, 9th floor.