Deadly Moves: Troubling Development

by  and Brian J. Rogal

While Mayor Richard M. Daley is touting his plans to remake Chicago Housing Authority developments into mixed-income neighborhoods, a firm that manages one of his showcase communities is charging that the city is not doing enough to stop open drug dealing on its site.

The city has a lot riding on the Near West Side’s Westhaven Park. A failure to attract market-rate renters and buyers could set a bad precedent for other public housing redevelopment efforts.

The firm, Marlton, N.J.-based Interstate Realty Management Co., maintains that the lack of safety is making it difficult to attract market-rate residents to Westhaven, rising just north of the United Center on land once occupied by the old Henry Horner Homes.

A July 14 letter from Veronica R. Roundtree, district property manager for the firm, to Duwain Bailey, a CHA official, read, “We have received phone calls from potential residents for Westhaven Park and they want to know what we’re going to do about the blatant drug sales that is all to [sic] obvious in the community.”

Roundtree was also troubled that applicants for units in the CHA’s nearby “Superblock,” about 200 town homes built in the 1990s, are refusing to rent there, leaving “protracted vacancies.”

She wrote that potential renters and buyers are deciding to move elsewhere after checking out the area at night.

The letter stands in stark contrast to the glowing tributes that have appeared in some media reports since January 2003, when the latest phase of Westhaven Park had its groundbreaking. “Westhaven Park is a prototype for the future of inner-city housing in the Windy City,” Richard J. Sciortino, president of Brinshore Development LLC, a developer of Westhaven, told the Chicago Sun Times in late May.

In theory, it seems that Westhaven, the remaining Horner buildings and the surrounding blocks should have enough security. The neighborhood is entitled to services from the Chicago Police Department’s public housing unit, which is funded by $12 million from the CHA. And in December, the city and area residents made an agreement to use more than $400,000 from the development’s reconstruction fund to help pay for additional police officers.

Yet safety concerns remain.

“They need to get the gangs under control,” said Tabithe Wilson, who moved from a now-demolished Horner building five years ago. Wilson now lives in a “Superblock” apartment on a street lined with grass, small trees and tidy brick homes.

“Even though they beautified the neighborhood, they need to patrol more,” she said. “Your kids can’t really play, because you do not know when a gun might be fired.”

Wilson’s neighbor, who didn’t want her name used because she fears retaliation from drug dealers who colonize the block, thought the environment would be different when she moved in four years ago.

A food service manager, she leaves early for work and frequently sees young men outside who have been partying all night. “When you see a whole lot of them gambling [outside], [the police] drive by like they don’t see them,” she said.

Both she and Wilson said they want management to transfer them to one of the surrounding blocks, some of which are quiet.

Marvella Williams, 24, a former Horner resident who lives in a nearby replacement unit, said she does see police break up congregations of people who might be selling drugs. The problem, she said, is that the crowds return during gaps in police coverage. Horner residents have also complained that drugs are openly sold at night on the second floor of 1936 W. Washington Blvd., one of the development’s original buildings, and the playground next to it, according to Bill Wilen, an attorney representing Horner tenants.

“Drug trafficking has been very hard in [1936 W. Washington],” said Erica Lane, who lives in a nearby Horner building with her uncle and two children. “This is the worst building over here.”

The CHA plans to maintain the building for three years, providing about 300 Horner residents a place to stay during redevelopment.

“It’s just outrageous that the city would allow this criminal activity to occur when they have such hopes for Horner,” said Wilen. “It will hurt the marketing of the market rate units if there’s a huge problem with crime in this area.”

Williams said she’s not asking for hard-hitting tactics. Heavier patrols would curtail dealing and make the neighborhood safer, she said, even if the police “might not be able to stop it completely.”

Wilson’s neighbor agreed that the police can’t do everything. But she believes installing cameras there, as the city has done at other drug-dealing hot spots, would quickly clear the block.

Wilen and Roundtree said the Chicago police tried to assuage their concerns by pointing to the large number of arrests they’ve made in the area over the past few months. In her letter, however, Roundtree wrote that there was “no reduction in loitering and the obvious sales of drugs.”

Wilen said Horner residents had been trying to get better security from the city for a long time. Deliberations over what to do with the $400,000 security fund dragged on for three years before the December agreement.

The plan that emerged was developed by the West Haven Security Working Group, which includes Horner residents and representatives from the CHA, the police department and the property manager. It has brought two additional pairs of officers who patrol the developments in two eight-hour shifts.

Further expanding this auxiliary police force—such as adding a third eight-hour shift—would come with a price tag, and the Working Group does not have the money.

According to a letter from John R. Schmidt, the attorney who chairs the group, to Terry Peterson, the CHA’s chief executive officer, the patrol program costs $47,262 a month, but it will continue for three years, with a total cost higher than the $400,000 security fund.

The shortfall will be made up by the CHA. In fact, the agreement goes so far as to assign the CHA the responsibility of paying for the officers’ cellular phones.

“Security is an issue that must be taken more seriously by all parties involved, if we are too [sic] foster a new mixed income community where all residents can feel safe,” Roundtree wrote in her letter.

A successful Westhaven could help accelerate the real estate boom on the Near West Side, an area already filled with new construction and for-sale signs. The 764-unit development, expected to cost nearly $200 million, will account for most of the 1,318 units built to replace Horner. Westhaven will have 271 units of public housing, 361 market-rate units, and 132 more affordable units. It will include both rental and condominium homes.

For Horner residents, a successful effort would end their long struggle to fix the disastrous conditions that made the development infamous. In 1991, long before most people were talking about transforming public housing, Horner tenants sued the CHA, charging that the agency was deliberately allowing their buildings to deteriorate. A 1995 consent decree between the city and residents governs the reconstruction. Unlike at other developments, Horner residents won the right to remain on-site while the new housing materializes.

But, if they don’t have real security, many might leave. Williams, a mother of three, said she is searching for a job, and once she gets a paycheck, she’ll find another place to live. Still, she has no doubt that things will eventually change. “The police are going to start doing better,” she said. “Not for us, but for the people that are coming in.”

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Categories: Investigative Reporting Uncategorized