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At Altgeld, CHA scales back demolition plans

With a federal historic preservation review of plans for Altgeld Gardens under way, CHA has dramatically scaled back the number of units it is considering demolishing there, according to a residents group.

People for Community Recovery discovered last year that the CHA development had been found to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, said board president Christian Strachan.

After the group contacted federal agencies for more information — and with demands for a community-led planning process — HUD initiated a Section 106 review aimed at minimizing the impact of federally-funded redevelopment on historic properties, he said.

Meanwhile a consultant hired by CHA in May to coordinate planning has discussed two possible scenarios, one involving demolition of about 120 units and one with even less demolition, according to Cheryl Johnson, executive director of PCR.

That’s a huge change from CHA’s proposal last year, when its annual budget included $7.3 million to cover “planning for demolition” for 648 units at Altgeld, or one-third of the units there.

“That’s a victory for us,” Strachan said.

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A third date for Altgeld Gardens meeting

A promised CHA town hall meeting with residents of Altgeld Gardens – scheduled twice last month, and twice cancelled at the last minute – is now slated for Wednesday.

CHA budgeted $7.3 million for “planning for demolition” of one third of Altgeld’s units in its annual plan, but after scores of Altgeld residents turned out to object, CHA promised no decisions would be made without a “community planning process” to commence with a town hall meeting in November.

A meeting scheduled for November 14 was cancelled the day before, and a rescheduled meeting on November 29 was cancelled by CHA chief executive Charles Woodyard just hours before it was to take place.

Resident leaders were told the November 29 meeting was cancelled because Woodyard had an “emergency meeting” with the mayor, said Cheryl Johnson of People for Community Recovery.

“A lot of people showed up, and the doors were just closed,” she said.  There wasn’t even a sign announcing the cancellation, she added.  “People were angry.”

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New rules for CHA demolitions

New HUD regulations could make it much harder for CHA to get approval to demolish housing at Altgeld Gardens, Lathrop Homes, and Cabrini Row Houses, according to a veteran housing attorney who helped negotiate the change.

HUD issued a notice in February (PIH 2012-7) requiring public housing authorities claiming that units are “obsolete” must demonstrate that no reasonable program of repair is feasible, said Bill Wilen of the Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.  It also requires environmental and civil rights reviews, he said.

A HUD regulation governing the matter is expected to be issued early next year.

Previously, applications for demolition were routinely approved by HUD’s Special Application Center, located in Chicago, including applications that clearly failed to meet statutory requirements, Wilen said.  Rejections of demolition applications by the center have increased significantly in recent months, he said.

Five years ago Wilen successfully challenged HUD’s approval of demolition of public housing in Rockford, one of several legal battles that he said informed an effort by the national Housing Justice Network to get HUD to tighten up its regulations.

There are other possible legal grounds to challenge CHA demolitions. The agency’s annual contract with HUD requires CHA to maintain units that it plans to demolish eventually.  Instead, like many other public housing authorities, CHA allows housing to become deteriorated and then claims it must be demolished as “obsolete,” according to advocates.

Altgeld and Lathrop

At Altgeld Gardens, residents are gearing up for a CHA town hall meeting Thursday (November 29, 6 p.m., at the Community Building, 951 E. 132nd Place) to get community input on plans for their development.

In October, CHA submitted an annual plan with $7.3 million designated for “planning for demolition” of 648 units at Altgeld.  People For Community Recovery is organizing against demolition.

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‘Planning for demolition’ at Altgeld Gardens

Over objections from residents – and despite assurances that residents will be consulted – CHA is submitting an annual plan to HUD that includes $7.3 million for “planning for demolition” of one-third of the public housing units at Altgeld Gardens.

The move comes as the citywide CHA resident leaders’ organization has called for a moratorium on demolition and for rehabbing unoccupied units at Altgeld and at other remaining traditional developments.

It comes as the need for low-income housing continues to grow, while CHA public housing production has slowed dramatically, and the city produces a handful of low-income units annually under its affordable housing plan.

And it comes as housing activists who’ve exposed CHA’s receipt of HUD operating funds for unoccupied housing units are revealing a new no-strings funding stream from HUD – capital subsidies which continue for years for units that have been demolished.

Plan first, talk later

On Tuesday, the CHA board approved the annual plan under HUD’s Moving To Work program.  According to the plan: “After reassessing future developments needs at [Altgeld Gardens and Murray Homes], CHA has determined that it will undertake planning for the demolition of the remaining 648 non-rehabilitated unoccupied units.”

CHA has budgeted $7.3 million for “planning for demolition” at Altgeld, according to the document.  Rehab of 1,300 units at the Far South Side development was completed in 2010.

Last week People for Community Recovery, an organization of Altgeld residents, received assurance from CHA chief Charles Woodyard that no demolition would occur prior to a community planning process, scheduled to kick off with a town hall meeting next month.  Woodyard responded after the group handed Mayor Emanuel a letter asking him to intervene to save Altgeld’s housing, said Cheryl Johnson, executive director of PCR.

“It would be more reassuring for us if they took [funding for demolition] out of the plan,” she said.

“It’s backwards,” said Leah Levinger of the Chicago Housing Initiative, a coalition of community organizations working with tenants in federally-backed housing.  “Why not have the conversation first, before you submit a plan to HUD?”

“There’s no evidence these buildings are not structurally sound or that it’s not cost effective to rehab,” she added.  “Until there is, demolition seems senseless and wasteful.”

Moratorium

The CHA’s Central Advisory Council, comprising elected representatives of public housing developments, calls for a moratorium on demolition in a recent report outlining recommendations for the current “recalibration” of CHA’s Plan for Transformation.

Citing decreases in federal funding and a growing shortage of low-income housing, CAC calls on CHA to prioritize preservation of public housing, “specifically rehabilitation and reconfiguration of existing CHA units.”  Rehab is significantly more cost-effective and involves far fewer development hurdles, CAC notes.

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Altgeld residents oppose demolition plans

Residents of Altgeld Gardens say they were blind-sided by a new CHA plan to demolish a third of their Far South Side public housing development, and they are organizing to oppose it.

Led by People for Community Recovery, they’ll call for reconsideration of the plan – and a community-led redevelopment plan – at a hearing on CHA’s annual redevelopment report, Tuesday, September 11, 6 p.m., at the Charles A. Hayes Center, 4859 S. Wabash.

In the agency’s 2000 Plan For Transformation, CHA committed to redeveloping all of Altgeld Garden’s 1,998 units as public housing.  But in an annual update just issued, CHA said it has budgeted $7.3 million to demolish 648 units at Altgeld that have yet to be rehabbed.

“At a time when there is a housing crisis in the city of Chicago, what are they thinking?” said Cheryl Johnson of PCR.  “This is not right.  They are not going to get away with this without a fight.”

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In Millennium Reserve, a firing range?

Conservationists say they were “blindsided” when Mayor Emanuel resurrected a proposal to build a police firing range on the Southeast Side, just days after he joined in announcing the area would be part of a massive Millennium Reserve open space project.

The 33-acre firing range site is in “the heart” of what’s being called the Calumet Core, slated for the first phase of environmental renovation and trail-building under the Millennium Reserve, said Carolyn Marsh of the Chicago Audubon Society.

“It’s sad that our politicians, and particularly our new mayor, seem to be hypocritical on this issue,” Marsh said.

Days after the December 9 Millennium Reserve announcement, Emanuel requested the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to take up a dormant proposal to lease the site to the city.

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Two new libraries represent community victories

The official opening of the Richard M. Daley Library last month attracted lots of dignitaries (including the former mayor himself, as well as his successor) and lots of attention.  Now the community which fought for years to get the library is holding its own celebration.

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