Richard Wheelock got his start as a storefront legal-aid attorney but has risen to prominence as one of Chicago’s most influential housing attorneys. Photo by Lucio Villa.

Editor’s note: To celebrate four decades of muckraking on issues of race and poverty, we kick off this 40th anniversary edition with a focus on four of The Chicago Reporter’s key beats–criminal justice, immigration, labor and housing.

The history behind each issue has had its own trajectory since the Reporter’s founding in 1972. To illustrate that, we sat down with prominent figures whose activism has made its mark in their respective fields and asked them to reflect on their experiences.

We are confident these retrospective articles provide a unique insight into what it’s been like to work “in the trenches” of the nation’s toughest social justice issues. 

When Richard Wheelock took his first job out of law school, he became “the classic, storefront legal-aid attorney” who toiled out of a gritty office on the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Division Street.

It was 1984. Wheelock was juggling between 40 and 50 cases at a time for the Legal Assistance Foundation, he estimated. He quickly learned how to litigate a range of cases–from disability benefits to car repossessions and evictions. He was particularly drawn to housing cases, though, because they could make or break his clients.

“Most of these families had very little or no income at all,” said Wheelock, now 58. “You knew, if you lost the case, they would be out on the streets.”

In the decades since, Wheelock has made a name for himself as a staunch advocate for the rights of public housing residents. Along the way, he has played a unique role in shaping city policies by holding city officials accountable on plans–both big and small–for overhauling public housing. Wheelock and a handful of his fellow attorneys were there to make sure they got the details right.

For Wheelock, the ‘80s served as a critical learning period. Back then, a good number of Wheelock’s cases came out of the Cabrini-Green public housing development, about a mile up the road from his office. At the time, Cabrini was the second-poorest community in the United States, according to an analysis of 1980 census data by Pierre DeVise, a public administration professor at Roosevelt University. The annual per-capita income for the estimated 12,000 residents at Cabrini was $1,400. A decade earlier, it was twice that.

In Wheelock’s eyes, the Cabrini buildings were in deep distress. Maintenance had been deferred dating back to the 1970s. Burned-out units were boarded up and ignored. Lobbies and stairwells were urine soaked and squalid. In the high-rises, the elevators were routinely out of service. But the neglect was only part of the problem.

In 1984, during the week after Thanksgiving, a 13-year-old boy took a stray bullet to the stomach, and hundreds of parents decided that sending their children to school was too risky. In then-Mayor Harold Washington’s words, the environment had grown “cancerous,” and the Chicago Housing Authority faced a growing number of lawsuits filed by Wheelock and other attorneys.

In 1999, the agency came up with its “Plan for Transformation” to remedy the conditions by tearing down the high-rises and replacing most of them with mixed-income communities. During the past 13 years, however, rebuilding has been slow going, and thousands of tenants have moved from poor, racially segregated public housing units to equally segregated neighborhoods with failing schools, violent crime and substandard housing.

“Are we better off?” Wheelock asked. “If we’re talking about the 25,000 families living in public housing at the beginning of the Plan for Transformation, it’s not clear. For families that did get rehabbed housing? Yeah, it made all the difference in the world.”

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Cabrini has gotten more than its fair share of attention during the past four decades largely because it stood next door to the nation’s second-wealthiest community, the Gold Coast.

By the mid-1990s, it had become increasingly clear that public housing high-rises wouldn’t survive the turn of the century.

Wheelock began representing Cabrini tenants through a tenant leadership council. They worked with then-CHA Executive Director Joseph Shuldiner to solicit developers who would remake a section of mid-rise buildings, including the one made famous by the sitcom, “Good Times.”

“Our focus was not to preserve the status quo but to see that the units that were demolished would be replaced,” Wheelock said.

At the time, “No one was wedded to staying in public housing,” he added.

Shuldiner was hired after the federal government took over the CHA because of financial mismanagement. But the agency’s problems were deeply entrenched. A decade earlier, federal auditors found that the CHA had become “a vehicle for patronage,” and, according to a New York Times report, was “operating in a state of profound confusion and disarray.” It didn’t improve much until 1995 when the CHA’s parent agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, sent in Schuldiner, then the agency’s No. 2 administrator, to manage the federal takeover.

Wheelock was optimistic that the CHA was committed to building better housing for his clients. But he wasn’t the only one who saw opportunity. The Chicago Reporter found that developers were snapping up properties around Cabrini. Between 2000 and 2005, there were $1 billion worth of residential property sales in Cabrini area alone, the Reporter story found. “We were hearing rumors that the CHA was meeting behind closed doors with city officials and making new plans for Cabrini,” Wheelock said. In 1996, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley unveiled that plan, which called for tearing down more public housing than Shuldiner had previously supported.

Ultimately, Wheelock filed a federal lawsuit to halt the CHA’s demolition plans, arguing that tenants’ rights were violated. A federal judge agreed, and, by the time the case was settled in 2000, the Cabrini residents he represented were guaranteed that at least 700 new units would be replaced, and that their return would be a priority.

The Cabrini redevelopment was just one small part of the Plan for Transformation, which aimed to cut the CHA’s housing stock by 18,532 units to 24,773 units. Within a few years, thousands of units would be torn down, and the CHA, the city’s largest landlord, would scatter thousands of families throughout Chicago.

“Right or wrong, [the high-rises] are coming down,” Wheelock’s former colleague, attorney Bill Wilen, told the Chicago Sun-Times in the midst of the widespread demolition under the Plan for Transformation. “Now it’s a battle of who gets to stay.”

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The number of families who stayed is smaller than was initially anticipated. Under a relocation rights contract negotiated by Wheelock, protections were extended to those who wanted to return once the new housing was built. Others opted for a CHA voucher program that would help them move into the private rental market.

Today, 37,783 families are using vouchers in the private rental market, according to the CHA. In 2003, Professor Paul Fischer of Lake Forest College tracked the families who received vouchers. He found that more than 80 percent of them were living in areas that are “overwhelmingly African American and disproportionately poor.”

Wheelock believes the lives of families who took vouchers are “incrementally better” than they were in the high-rises. One factor that “might wipe out the marginal progress,” he added, is hundreds of families that had a right to return to public housing but, as federal monitor Thomas P. Sullivan found, never returned because they were lost in the haste to clear the buildings and knock them down.

Advocates are critical of the CHA for dragging its feet in rehabbing traditional public housing in gentrifying neighborhoods that have attracted a growing number of white residents and are close to jobs and high-achieving schools.

According to a Reporter analysis, there are only three family public housing developments left in predominantly white neighborhoods or areas that are growing in white population today: the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses and the Julia H. Lathrop Homes on the North Side, and a section of the former Henry Horner Homes known as the “superblock” on the Near West Side. More than 70 percent of the 1,709 apartments in those developments are empty.

Wheelock, who is representing tenants in a planning group that’s debating the future of the Cabrini rowhouses, is pressing for the sites to be rehabbed and rented to working-poor families. Which way it’ll go, he said, depends on how the CHA decides to answer this question: “Do we build new housing in neighborhoods with resources? Or do we build a fraction of the units we could in favor of mixed income and then ship the rest off to low-income segregated areas?”

The CHA has rehabbed sites similar to Lathrop in other parts of the city. What’s different is that those buildings are in predominantly black neighborhoods.

Wendy Parks, director of communications at the CHA, said that her agency has yet to finalize future plans for the sites. But she added that, if the units are demolished, a federal court order would require that any replacements be located in “opportunity areas”–census tracts where less than 20 percent of residents live below the poverty level and subsidized housing is minimal.

Wheelock predicted that eliminating any units from Lathrop or Cabrini will likely only put the CHA “much farther in the hole” in reaching the 25,000 replacement units that the agency was funded by the HUD to create when the transformation plan took off in 2000.

“Competing interests,” by city officials and developers, often “drown out” Wheelock’s clients living in the Cabrini rowhouses, he said. Wheelock anticipates the CHA will unveil the next stages of the Plan for Transformation later this year.

“We’re all waiting with bated breath,” Wheelock said. If Chicago’s history is a predictor, change will likely take time, he added. “This is definitely a marathon.”

is a staff reporter at The Chicago Reporter.