Vanishing promises made to the poor of our ward

By JAY TRAVIS

The commitment by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and local elected officials to ensure one-third of the housing units demolished under the Plan for Transformation is replaced for former public housing residents, and the development of an additional one-third of housing units for working families that need affordable housing on publicly-owned CHA land, is vanishing right before our eyes. This vanishing commitment from developments such as the Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, and the Harold Ickes Homes is perhaps best demonstrated by the recent plans to build a 74,000-square-foot Mariano’s grocery store on the Oakwood Shores site (i.e. the former Ida B. Wells/Madden Park development) at 37th Street and King Drive. Don’t get me wrong, I fully support bringing grocery stores to the Bronzeville community, which like many neighborhoods across Chicago has limited fresh food options. However, it is important to note that plans to use CHA land are moving forward without a definitive plan to replace the housing units that will be lost within the footprint of the grocery store. Now, while this may be the best example, unfortunately, it’s not the only example.

There have also been recent land swaps between CHA and the City of Chicago at the former Harold Ickes site. Parcels of land are being used to provide an athletic field for Jones College Prep, and a proposed commercial development at the corner of State Street and Cermak Road. In the same way I believe Bronzeville deserves a quality grocery store, I believe the students of Jones College Prep deserve an athletic field. Nevertheless, the former residents of the Ickes also deserve to have their communities reestablished. CHA promised to replace 402 units of public housing after the Ickes were demolished. Now, the commitment has been reduced to 200 units. Consequently, there is still no identifiable plan to ensure any potential housing stock that is lost from the athletic field or commercial development is replaced anywhere. I should also note here, I am speaking specifically about plans to replace the units slated for redevelopment on land owned by CHA, and not plans for other stand-alone affordable housing developments in the Bronzeville area.

When former Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Chicago Housing Authority originally announced the Plan for Transformation, Rahm Emanuel was a CHA Board Commissioner, and many people that lived in public housing and housing organizers were skeptical of a plan that included building mixed-income developments on the sites where traditional public housing units once stood. The principal concern was that the plan focused heavily on demolition, and families feared that once the land was cleared, the commitment to replace the units would not be kept. The plan claimed that the new developments would include one-third public housing units, one-third affordable housing units, and one-third market-rate units. The plan called for the demolition of at least 11,000 units of housing in the Bronzeville community – with the commitment that at least one-third of those units would be replaced. For many, this plan was unjust because essentially it meant that two-thirds of the former residents would not be able to return to the new developments. Which also meant, in effect, the life-sustaining support systems and relationships were being ripped asunder; and communities — not just buildings — were being uprooted and destroyed.

I want to pause here for a second to explain what’s meant by support systems. It’s no secret that the housing developments I’m speaking of became challenging places to live as the result of CHA’s neglect and mismanagement. It is in this environment that residents had to rely on their neighbors to provide safe and adequate child care for the children and grandchildren while at work or school. Residents also came to rely on their neighbors to help make ends meet when households were financially strained. Neighbors also implemented their own homegrown model of “Neighborhood Watch” to provide true safe passage for their children, or protection from police brutality. In a difficult environment, residents looked to each other to make it through.

The development of replacement units for former residents, as well as the development of new rental and for-sale units has been slow at best. What I find interesting is that over the past year, plans to convert the use of this land for other purposes are moving forward without a plan to replace the housing units, or a process that allows the public to weigh-in in a meaningful way. I raised a similar concern at a public meeting in June 2013 over plans for a new tennis complex near 51st and State Street. Again, the young entrepreneur that presented the plan was impressive, but there was not a clear plan about the relocation of the housing units that would be lost.

As Timuel Black reminded us all in his open letter to Mayor Emanuel, the loss of public space has a huge impact on our neighborhoods. I welcome commercial development to our community; particularly projects initiated by Bronzeville residents. However, there should be a definitive plan to replace housing units that will be impacted by “land swap” deals prior to the authorization of such deals — as these deals involve publicly owned CHA parcels that were originally slated for affordable housing. Ultimately, these deals are precedent setting because of the large number of CHA parcels in Bronzeville. Let’s make Bronzeville livable for everyone, and be conscientious about the use of public space.

Jay Travis is a former candidate for the 26th legislative district and former head of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.