Miguel Suarez stands next to the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, where he has lived for more than 20 years. He worries the residents won’t have a voice in its makeover. Photo by Brent Lewis.

In November, more than 100 people gathered at the New Life Community Church of West Lakeview near the Julia C. Lathrop Homes to kick off the planning for the public housing development’s future. The Chicago Housing Authority has billed this effort as unique in the history of its Plan for Transformation, a 12-year effort to change its developments into mixed-income communities. Instead of its typical practice of soliciting proposals from developers and then presenting the winning design as a done deal, the agency had hired a developer to create a plan with residents’ input.

The message from Lathrop residents and many advocates at that first meeting was clear: Steer clear of building market-rate units.

“We need more public housing for the people at the low-income end of the spectrum,” said Robert Davidson, president of the Lathrop Homes Local Advisory Council, a group elected by residents. “We have market-rate all around us,” he added, referring to Hamlin Park, the increasingly white and affluent neighborhood surrounding Lathrop.

John McDermott, the housing and land use director for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which has been active within Lathrop for years, said if the city wants to break up poverty, it should not eliminate hundreds of public housing units from Lathrop, which has been “a stepping stone for African Americans to get into North Side communities.”

Support for their position also came from local political leaders. “I don’t believe we need more market-rate [units] in this neighborhood,” 1st Ward Alderman Joe Moreno told the crowd.

But the long history of distrust between residents and the CHA has many questioning how much they can really influence this planning process. And they worry that the developers will squeeze out poorer families by ignoring their chief demand for few, if any, market-rate units at a new Lathrop.

The desire to preserve existing public housing units seemed to get a boost on April 30 when the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency announced that Lathrop had been officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And later that week, Charles Woodyard, the CHA’s new CEO, stated that the agency may ditch the formula that was supposed to guide much of its redevelopment—reserving one-third of new replacement units for market-rate renters or buyers, another third for affordable housing, and only one-third for public housing.

But Kerry Dickson, the senior vice president of Related Midwest, one of the lead developers of Lathrop Community Partners, the consortium selected in 2010 to lead the Lathrop process, said the site may eventually have an even higher percentage of market-rate units. Nothing has been set, he added, and a lower percentage of market-rate also remains a possibility. “I think it could go either direction.”

Besides Chicago-based Related Midwest, the team includes the Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp., a respected affordable housing developer on the Northwest Side, historic preservationists, experts in energy-efficient housing and many others.

Three follow-up workshops for the planning were held in December. Discussions were held on topics like turning a revived Lathrop into an energy-efficient community and how to make the neighborhood more livable, all with animated participation by the residents, neighbors and advocates.

The developers seemed aware of the community’s distrust and often said that neither Lathrop Community Partners nor the CHA had a secret agenda. At the first workshop, Ted Wolff, principal of Wolff Landscape Architecture, said they would not concoct a Lathrop plan without reaching out to the community. “We’re professional listeners; it’s in the fiber of our being,” he said.

But the question about market-rate units kept popping up and never got answered. During the first workshop, audience members submitted handwritten questions to the developers. One of those read out loud asked how much affordable housing the developers would build. “This is off-topic,” Dickson replied with obvious impatience.

The Rev. Kevin Bruursema, the New Life pastor, who hosted the workshops, said he’s a bit troubled that neither the CHA nor the development team has really responded when people raise questions about the projected income mix or the possible displacement of Lathrop’s few remaining families. “They have not been super-explicit; they kind of punt on it when it comes up,” he said.

“I’d like more transparency from the CHA and the Lathrop Community Partners on what’s going to happen,” added Miguel Suarez, a longtime Lathrop resident who attended some of the workshops. “Yes, they have had these sessions where they have involved residents and neighboring communities, but what comes out of that? We don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine.”

But Moreno counsels patience. The CHA’s “reputation is not stellar in these situations, and people are going to come in very critical—and rightly so,” he said. And although the advocates and residents won’t get everything they want, he promises that the final plan will not ignore their views. Otherwise, he said, “I won’t support it.”

Starting this summer, the developers will unveil, in a series of community meetings, not a final plan but a range of options that might include a possible income mix, sources of funding, design ideas and other proposals, Dickson said. “What we’re trying to do is take all of these ideas and [eventually] put them into a plan,” he said.

But Dickson added: “That doesn’t mean the community does the planning. This is a development-planning process with community input.”

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Lathrop already has many qualities needed to succeed—including good design, low crime and little hostility from the surrounding community.

When the government began building Lathrop in the 1930s, it was committed to constructing small-scale homes with fine architectural details and gardens. It hired people like Jens Jensen, a world-famous landscape designer who graced the 32-acre Lathrop site with open spaces, playgrounds and grass, unlike the towers that would emerge in the 1950s and were surrounded with unforgiving concrete. “It never had the extreme dysfunction you saw in the Robert Taylor Homes,” said Aaron Renn, an urban affairs analyst and former Hamlin Park resident.

“If I had my druthers, I would keep the site the way it is. There are plenty of people in this area who could use that type of housing,” said 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack, whose ward touches Lathrop.

For Suarez, Lathrop has always meant more than just a place to live. “There were blacks, Latinos and whites quite mixed; it’s always seemed equally diverse.” More importantly, without it, “I never would have been able to afford to go back to school.” Starting in the 1990s, he took advantage of the low rent, just 30 percent of his income, to get an associate’s degree for addiction counseling and a bachelor’s degree in social work. “I saw a need in the community, but counselors don’t make a lot of money.”

Many former residents also remember a nurturing community. Bill Aichast has lived most of his 61 years in or near Lathrop and runs a local auto-repair shop. The neighborhood was quite different when his family moved into Lathrop in 1954—three years after Aichast’s father had a fatal stroke. The development was surrounded by smokestacks, factories and humming workshops. That meant thousands of jobs to sustain Lathrop’s families. Although the nearby Chicago River was often choked with industrial waste that gave off an overpowering stench, the green, open areas were a haven. “If you wanted an ideal childhood, that community was it,” he said.

Bill Achaist
Bill Aichast grew up in the Julia C. Lathrop Homes and has owned a nearby auto shop since 1979. But gentrification and rising property taxes are finally driving him out. Photo by Brent Lewis.

But when Aichast moved just north of Lathrop in 1974, the development had hit harder times. The jobs started disappearing, and by the 1980s, it was shaken by gang conflicts. Like many area residents, however, Aichast said the violence dissipated in the mid-1990s.

It certainly did not stop a wave of gentrification from lapping around the development.

“I chose to live here knowing [Lathrop] was there, and I’m comfortable,” said Charles Beach, a criminal defense attorney, who moved into the neighborhood with his family in 2009. Beach and a group of neighbors were inspired to restart the Hamlin Park Neighborhood Association in the summer after realizing the neighborhood needed a voice in the redevelopment. But even though hundreds of families have recently poured into Hamlin Park, few express opposition to reviving the area’s public housing. “For the most part, Lathrop is not bad,” he said. “As a neighborhood group, I think we’re more concerned with gang activity in our own neighborhood rather than Lathrop.”

But Dickson contends that a healthy community, especially one the size of Lathrop, needs market-rate homes onsite. For example, families without cars might find it difficult to shop the large shopping malls, which house most of the neighborhood stores. “I’d love to be able to develop some walkable retail, but it’s hard to bring that into a community if it’s all rent-controlled housing.”

Still, many wonder if the CHA can even build successful mixed-income communities. The agency fell behind its original 10-year schedule even before the housing crisis made financing more difficult.

Dickson believes the housing crisis will eventually recede, and that such worries shouldn’t limit long-range plans. In any case, he said, “it [will be] a lot easier to convince a market-rate family to live at Lathrop than at Stateway.”

Alderman Moreno remains skeptical. “I just don’t know how a case can be made that there is a market for market-rate units.” He does, however, leave himself a big loophole. The development team could convince him if it showed that having market-rate units would help fund the construction of the affordable or public housing units.

“I agree with Alderman Moreno when he says that the market-rate housing in Lathrop needs to help finance the affordable housing,”

Dickson said. For example, the developers have considered asking the city to designate Lathrop a Tax Increment Financing District, which would funnel property taxes into a fund to pay for infrastructure such as a reconfigured street grid. But public housing units don’t generate property taxes, so the developers will need market-rates. “There’s a broad spectrum of market-rate housing,” he added, and that means “we’re not going to be building $1.5 million homes.”

But others remain convinced that gentrification has already taken a toll on long-standing neighborhood residents. “We’re looking to get out because it’s getting too expensive,” said Aichast, thinking of his rising property taxes.

“We need more market-rate housing like we need a hole in the head,” Renn said.

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The fight over market-rate units began several years ago. Much of the planning for the CHA transformation gets done by each development’s working group, a collection of city officials, community leaders, the local alderman, CHA staff, elected resident leaders and others. Lathrop’s working group spent most of 2009 negotiating with one another on what to include in a request for qualifications from prospective developers.

Former 1st Ward Alderman Manny Flores, Moreno’s predecessor, was also allowed to appoint two additional members, and one of his choices was McDermott, from the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. Flores said that having the community organization on the group was a natural fit. “Did I agree with all of the positions they took in the working group? No,” he said. But “it’s a proven community organization that has demonstrated leadership.”

McDermott immediately joined Davidson and Mildred Pagan, the Lathrop Homes Local Advisory Council’s vice president, in advocating for the exclusion of market-rate housing. But the working group had more than 10 members, and they were heavily outnumbered.

“The three of us were the opposition bloc,” McDermott said. “We pushed as hard as we could to change the [request for qualifications] and adjust the developmental guidelines to keep out market rate.”

“There was never consensus going forward about these homes,” Davidson said. “We are very disappointed in the [request for qualifications]. I thought we were starting from scratch, but they never considered anything but [including] market-rate.”

Worst of all from their point of view, the final version of the request for qualifications required the developers to reserve only one-third of the units for public housing, which would mean hundreds of the now-existing 925 units will disappear. The working group finished the request for qualifications in 2010, received several applications and considered Lathrop Community Partners the most qualified. The CHA board voted to accept it in October 2010, and the developers spent much of 2011 negotiating a master development agreement with the agency.

Flores, who took a job in state government shortly after the group finished the request for qualifications, supported putting market-rate housing in Lathrop, although he would prefer that they are affordable for families with modest incomes such as teachers or other city workers. And he points out that the advocates did have an impact, since the developers are called on to maximize affordable housing opportunities, and a specific percentage of market-rate housing is not mandated. “It was purposely left a little open to challenge the developers and planners,” he said.

And he calls the request for qualifications a model that can guide future land use and planning for the city. Above all, he touts the requirement that the developers create an environmentally sustainable neighborhood according to standards set by national environmental groups, like the U.S. Green Buildings Council.

“That’s a huge victory,” Flores said. “It’s amazing that we got the CHA to adopt” it. Most such certifications require a developer to include not just energy efficiency but mixed-income homes and many other qualities.

Dickson expresses impatience with the demands of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, especially the calls for no market-rate units. “That’s not what we were set out to do,” he said, since the request for qualifications clearly calls for a mixed-income community. “They didn’t get exactly what they wanted, but their message, ‘No market-rate,’ is the same. I find it disingenuous. They’re disrupting the process.”

McDermott does not apologize. “We’re going to keep shining a light on this,” he said. Furthermore, “our beef is not with [the Lathrop Community Partners]. The real decision-makers on this are on the CHA board.”

And the city has long called CHA properties islands of poverty that they want to dissolve. But McDermott says the city has the wrong focus. He points to the oceans of poverty on the West and South sides and asks why the city would eliminate hundreds of public housing units from the more prosperous North Side. “Gentrification is already hardening the lines of segregation, so why is the answer to radically redevelop Lathrop?”

Whatever happens to Lathrop, Aichast and his wife, Carol, probably won’t see it. Once they sell their auto shop and home, they’re moving to Tennessee. Even the small workshops and warehouses that once had their vehicles repaired in Aichast’s shop have shut down or moved, leaving him with far less business. “I used to employ four guys. Now it’s just me,” he said.

He keeps hundreds of photos taken at Lathrop over the decades on the shop’s computer and occasionally looks through them. Most show families smiling in front of the still-tidy buildings. In a way, they remind him of all the talk he has heard from the Lathrop development team on how they envision the future Lathrop. “What they want Lathrop to be is what you see in my pictures,” he said. But with all the industry gone, “you can’t make it what it was.”