Who Speaks for Public Housing Residents?

by Bobby Watkins 

The Coalition to Protect Public Housing has been around for years. When it was first started in 1996, residents at Lathrop Homes, where I live, and other developments didn’t hear about it that much, except for maybe when there was a particularly interesting monthly meeting at First Congregational Church on Ashland Avenue and Washington Boulevard.

We also heard about the Coalition when it was around the Juneteenth Day rally. For their Juneteenth Day rallies, the Coalition would distribute fliers to the Local Advisory Councils and the management offices.

The Juneteenth rally in 1997 was how I first heard about the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. I really didn’t know what it was all about but I knew it was something to do with public housing, and that made me want to be a part of the rally, which took place in Grant Park that year.

There were buses and people walking from many developments headed to the park to take part in this Juneteenth day. I sat and listened to the speakers and resident leaders, who then seemed to play a different role. Not just the resident leaders but everybody was working together in those days.

Resident Management Corporations, Local Advisory Councils, the Central Advisory Council – everyone was coming together to help each other. Then things changed.

Many residents I spoke with said their leaders have become ‘sell-outs’ since the launch of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation in 1999. Some residents accuse their leaders are getting what they can for themselves and of not being concerned with the benefit of the residents as a whole.

This goes for the Coalition, too. The Coalition is now made up more of groups outside of public housing than inside public housing.

Residents complain the Coalition doesn’t involve enough residents and doesn’t work with resident groups or resident leaders. I wanted to know what happened. Why are the LAC presidents and the Coalition seemingly at odds? Why can’t all the leaders and advocates of residents work together?

A lot of people I spoke with believe the Coalition is not the same as when it was first started.

“Its purpose is not just for the concerns of the residents, but seems as though it is more of a matter of what can be gotten from all the demonstrating and bringing all these outside organizations in,” said Charles Nix, a resident of Lathrop Homes. “It just seems likes it’s more for the benefit of these organizations than for the benefit of the residents.”

Nix was critical of the LACs as well. “There are cliques and they won’t let residents be involved,” he explained. “They won’t even tell you when a meeting is.”

Nix’s comments were echoed by many across Lathrop and in other developments who feel no one – neither the LACs nor the Coalition – is representing them.

I got opinions from both sides – those who are with the Coalition and those who are not a part of the Coalition – so that this article would not be biased to any one.

A young woman, a resident of Maplewood Courts, was at a recent Board of Commissioners meeting in Lathrop Homes and was seeking help about the management in her building. Residents didn’t want the management team any more because of the way they were neglecting the buildings. They also felt they weren’t getting help from CHA.

So, while at this meeting, this Maplewood Courts resident spoke with members of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. And later, she said maybe this was the kind of help all residents needed to get things done in the developments.

Now, I don’t know if the Coalition got involved. I have tried to reach her to see if they were able to help but had not heard from her by press deadline.

I went on to speak with others, such as a member of the Coalition to get his views as well as some LAC presidents so I could get their opinions.

Most of the presidents felt the Coalition was sending the wrong message. While they emphasized they are not trying to badmouth the Coalition, they added that it seems the message the Coalition is sending is not for the benefit of the residents.

One resident who was active with the Coalition in the beginning said the Coalition was created by the Chicago Association of Resident Management Corporations, had 21 members and that Cora Moore, a former president of the Cabrini-Green LAC and current president of the 1230 N. Burling Resident Management Corporation, was the first chairperson. It was designed to work with RMCs and LACs to research the plans the Chicago Housing Authority had for residents.

Once the research was done, the Coalition was supposed to bring everyone together and meet with CHA and try and work out what was best for everyone and not have a lot of havoc in the developments. The Coalition had strayed from this original purpose, said this resident, who asked that his name not be used.

“It seems now the Coalition just wants to bring all these people who are not residents into our developments, stir up a lot of trouble among the residents and management as well as CHA and whoever else is involved, and then leave.
Most of these people in the Coalition have nice homes except for maybe some of the residents,” he said.

Coalition members, however, disagreed that the Coalition had changed. Carole Steel, Cabrini-Green LAC president and chairperson of the Coalition, said in an interview that she was really disappointed in the way people have been treating the Coalition. She said some of the LAC presidents have been “very disrespectful, especially the Central Advisory Council and some of its members, and that it seems a shame as some of its members were once members of the Coalition.”

Grant Newburger, a member of the Coalition since 1996, said, “The Coalition hasn’t changed. The Central Advisory Council would be serving residents better if they worked with the Coalition rather than thinking that the Chicago Housing Authority has residents’ interests at heart. Because of this thinking, generations of public housing residents have suffered….Also, the murder rate has increased and so has stress because of the substandard housing. And now, it’s even worse.”

One recent incident shows how complex and troubled the relationship between the Coalition and the LACs really is.
The incident took place at a meeting of the working group in Ida B Wells Homes in May.

The working group is designed to plan the new mixed-income community that will be built in Ida B. Wells with the help of HOPE VI funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Members of the Coalition felt they were treated unfairly at this meeting, put out a press release about their treatment and held a press conference. These Coalition members, some of whom are residents and some of whom aren’t, were upset because some of them were refused entry to the working group meeting. One member of the Coalition said force was used against her.

The members of the working group, meanwhile, explained that the residents who were part of the Coalition group could have stayed but the non-residents were asked to leave because of a confidentiality clause. I asked Wells LAC President Sandra Young how she felt about the Coalition and whether it had the residents’ concerns at heart.
She said, “No, I don’t. They don’t try to assess a situation. They just go on assumptions without having facts.” Young said the Coalition is positioning itself to try and take over the LACs.

But Annie Smith, a resident of Ida B. Wells and one of the people who was involved in the Wells incident, said she is not in favor of the Coalition or the LACs but for “what is right for residents.” Smith, who ran against Young in the recent LAC election, said she did not want to see the residents “sold out.”

“There had been so-called leadership training and a plan to prepare us for this transformation,” Smith said. “There was to be HOPE VI monies and resident management. Also resident-owned businesses, life skills, job skills for all. How did the plan change so much?”

Where will all this strife between the Coalition and the LACs lead? One way or the other, all of the people who want change to benefit the residents will have to work together. Otherwise, the residents will lose out.

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