Right next to the Chicago River on the city’s North Side, Lathrop Homes, with its black, white and Latino residents, is considered the city’s most diverse public housing.
It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places. And with 925 low-rise units on about 30 acres, it’s big. But these days, only a fraction of those apartments are occupied.
Miguel Suarez has lived in Lathrop Homes for 25 years. He says the Chicago Housing Authority offered people housing vouchers to move elsewhere when they decided that Lathrop would be rehabbed — part of a massive effort to revamp public housing in the city.
But residents at Lathrop say they don’t live in a distressed neighborhood that needs change — so they are fighting to keep their homes intact.
The New Face Of Public Housing
It’s been two decades since the federal government’s HOPE VI Program offered public housing authorities around the nation money to tear down blighted public housing projects.
Across the country, cities used it as an opportunity to experiment with breaking up pockets of poverty. They replaced the housing projects with “mixed-income housing,” where people who have money live next door to people who don’t.
But mixed-income housing changes the profile of a city — and it’s often controversial. The Chicago Housing Authority, or CHA, launched a massive program in 1999, promising to tear down troubled high rises and rehab or rebuild 25,000 units of public housing.
“Our interest, and the CHA’s interest, is in making a vital, vibrant mixed-income community here,” says Jacques Sandberg, a vice president at Related Midwest, one of the developers involved in revamping Lathrop Homes.
The Lathrop Homes Plan
Suarez, who is semi-retired, is the chairperson of a group of residents called the Lathrop Leadership Team. During a driving tour of the neighborhood, he points out how all of the three-story apartment buildings and smaller row houses on the northern side of the development are boarded up and fenced in.
Throughout the development, arched colonnades connect the buildings and sweeping snow-covered lawns. There’s lots of new pricey housing surrounding Lathrop, and plenty of businesses and stores.
Suarez says he knows why there’s a push for change. “It’s moving the poor out and bringing the rich in,” he says. “Gentrification — ‘We don’t care where you go, just get the hell out, because we want this.’ ”
That’s the fight when it comes to mixed-income housing: determining the right mix of incomes — and how many public housing residents get to return to a refurbished development.
The latest plan for a redeveloped Lathrop Homes calls for one-half of the historic development to be torn down and the rest rehabbed. The new Lathrop would include 500 market-rate condos and townhouses, but only about 200 low-income or affordable apartments and 400 public housing units, down from the current 925.
It’s controversial, and developer Jacques Sandberg says creating mixed-income neighborhoods can be difficult.
“There are people who have legitimate positions that have to be reconciled,” he says. “Sometimes they are at odds and are fundamentally irreconcilable, and there are people’s lives at stake.”
The Fight For Lathrop
A group of Lathrop residents say they aren’t on board with the plans for their home. Lathrop Advisory Council member Cynthia Scott, a former receptionist who is on disability benefits now, says it has been frustrating to hear developers and others talk about “concentrated poverty” and how Lathrop Homes is isolated from the rest of the neighborhood.
“If you go outside this community, everybody else’s community is gated. We are not gated,” she says. “People walk their dogs around here. Our parks are open; their parks are closed. So who’s to say we are not an open community?”
Recent home sales near Lathrop range from $500,000 to about $1 million. Titus Kerby, the Lathrop Advisory Council’s president, says the plan for Lathrop means hundreds of public housing residents won’t be able to return to a thriving neighborhood that’s already mixed-income.
“Our position is, if you are only going to bring back 400 units here in Lathrop Homes, the other 525 units must be located here on the North Side,” he says.
Most of the Lathrop Homes development is located in the ward of Chicago Alderman Proco Joe Moreno. Moreno says market-rate housing — or what he calls “unrestricted” housing — actually helps fund mixed-income projects.
Even so, Moreno says he’s committed to bringing displaced Lathrop residents back to the North Side and wants more affordable housing in the Lathrop plan. That will allow public housing residents who will live in the new Lathrop a next step, he says.
“I know it sounds a little utopia — that a public housing resident comes in, gets to affordable rent and gets to an affordable purchase and then, maybe, perhaps gets unrestricted,” Moreno says, “but it’s not without precedent. And if we don’t provide the opportunity, it’s not going to happen.”
Mixed-Income Housing Results
Studies of Chicago’s existing mixed-income housing show that public housing residents in the new developments are doing better, while most who had to move elsewhere still live in segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods.
Lawrence Vale, an urban studies professor at MIT, has studied mixed-income housing in Chicago and other cities. “There are lots of assumptions about what the new neighborhoods should do to help low-income residents find role models or better social networks,” he says, “but the empirical evidence of that has been scant.”
But there are some aspects of mixed-income housing that are promising, Vale says.
“There’s a sense of people finding enhanced security, increased investment in the surrounding neighborhoods and higher expectations for the management when they have the pressure of people putting more of their own money into payments,” he says.
The Chicago Housing Authority says construction at Lathrop could begin by spring of 2016, and that it plans to update residents soon. If Lathrop does indeed become a mixed-income community as planned, even its developers say it may take years to determine how it functions as a neighborhood — and whether a new Lathrop is a success.