Oops, They Did It Again


Bill Wilen thinks he’s found a “smoking gun” in his current legal battle with the Chicago Housing Authority.

Wilen, an attorney with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law who has been an advocate for residents for decades, recently received a package of documents related to the ongoing redevelopment of the Henry Horner Homes on the Near West Side. Among those documents was one that appeared strange.

The paper in question has a header that indicates it is the goals for the “Supportive Services for CHA Horner/West Haven Residents.” To translate from CHA terminology, Supportive Services, also known as “Service Connectors,” refers specifically to those private contractors whose job it is to connect residents with programs including jobs training and drug treatment.

The Service Connectors have been charged with a critical task in the ongoing process of demolishing CHA buildings and replacing them with so-called ‘mixed-income communities’ under CHA’s Plan for Transformation.

The Service Connectors are supposed to prepare residents to return to the mixed-income communities which are planned to replace most CHA sites. For residents who have moved into the private market as well as those who are in other public housing units, the Service Connectors have the primary responsibility of fulfilling CHA’s promise that any resident who follows the rules and wants to return to the developments will be able to do so.

But on the document that Wilen received in his package, one of the outcomes reads: “15% of families with a Right to Return meet site-specific criteria.” To continue translating from CHA-speak, the former residents of the developments who have chosen to come back to the mixed-income communities are said to have a ‘Right of Return.’ ‘Site-specific criteria,’ meanwhile, refers to those standards that residents will have to meet to actually be accepted by the developers who run the mixed-income communities.

So to Wilen, the statement “15% of families with a Right to Return meet site-specific criteria” means that CHA only expects a tiny fraction of the residents who have chosen to return to actually make the developers’ cut.

Worse yet, Wilen surmised that this statement really referred to the whole Plan for Transformation, since Horner is governed by a federal court decree that has nothing to do with the Plan for Transformation. In fact, the Horner redevelopment started almost five years before the plan. Though a mixed-income community is being built at Horner, the federal court decree has different terms and standards.

The establishment of units for the mixed-income community that was supposed to begin in 2003 at the Madden Park Homes continues to be delayed.

Wilen, who is also involved in a general lawsuit against CHA filed by a team of public advocates, recognized “Right of Return” and “site-specific criteria” as terms of the Plan for Transformation. He guessed the document that he received had been adapted from another document that referred to all the developments in the city, not just Horner.

He suspected, therefore, that the CHA is setting a goal that only a few residents will be able to return to the developments.

“If they’re saying now that it’s only 15 percent, that’s their goal, then that tells me they don’t expect many people to come back,” Wilen told me recently.

“Why isn’t the goal 90 percent?”

CHA confirmed Wilen’s suspicions – kind of. In a telephone interview, CHA’s Managing Director of Resident Services, Meghan Harte, explained that the document Wilen received was indeed sent to him in error, and she said that it had been a draft of goals for the Service Connectors for all the developments in the Plan for Transformation, not for Horner.

But Harte emphasized that the goal of having 15 percent of residents who have the Right to Return was just for one year – not for the overall Plan for Transformation. The goal was set low, Harte explained, because the mixed-income communities are not built yet, and probably won’t be built for a few more years. CHA will increase the goals for the service connectors in coming years, especially as the mixed-income communities come closer to completion.

“This is not CHA saying that we only think 15 percent of residents will return to public housing,” she said.

Harte noted that 90 percent of residents have filled out surveys which indicate they would like to return to the mixed-income communities. To that end, Harte said the CHA will try to fulfill the residents’ choices.

“I don’t think that it would be an acceptable result for the CHA if the majority of families don’t choose to return,” Harte said.

“At the end of the day, it’s individual residents’ opinions that matter.”

So the document does not appear to be a smoking gun, after all.

But Wilen may have a point anyway. Very few housing authorities which have torn down old developments and replaced them with mixed-income communities have been successful in getting residents to return.

In a 2002 report, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, studied HOPE VI, the federal program that funds the redevelopment process. The Urban Institute found that just 14 percent of residents returned to the mixed-income communities, while 37 percent went to other public housing developments and 35 percent used Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly known as Section 8s) to enter the private market.

Just a few months ago, the General Accounting Office, an arm of the federal government that does independent research, did its own report on HOPE VI. The GAO found that the results on HOPE VI developments varied greatly. Some had a high degree of resident involvement, some didn’t. Some HOPE VI neighborhoods saw their property values rise, some didn’t. Some HOPE VI sites saw many residents return and others did not.

GAO found one development that had high levels of resident involvement, rapidly rising property values and a high number of former residents returning.

That development was Henry Horner Homes in Chicago, the same development where Wilen is the lawyer for the residents. Here’s what the GAO wrote about Horner’s rising property values:

“Average housing values increased in 13 of the 20 HOPE VI neighborhoods, ranging from a minimum of 11 percent in Tucson to a maximum of 215 percent in Chicago (Henry Horner). It is generally accepted among researchers that housing values represent the best available index of expectations regarding future economic activity in an area.”

Almost 15 years ago, Wilen started representing a group of Horner residents that sued the CHA for failing to maintain the buildings to the point that they needed to be demolished.

The case was settled in 1995, with all parties agreeing to the demolition of a number of Horner high-rises and the construction of a mixed-income community. Under the agreement, all the residents of Horner have an automatic right to return, unless they commit a serious felony or damage the property.

The settlement institutionalized the legal conflict. Every step of the process at Horner must be approved by all the parties – the resident leadership, the CHA and the property manager. A federal court judge oversees the whole process, and makes a decision when the parties don’t agree.

By coordinating the building closures with the construction of the new housing, most of the residents don’t even have to leave the neighborhood while they are waiting for their replacement housing. Wilen estimates that 95 percent of the residents who want to return to the new development, renamed West Haven, have returned.

“Families aren’t returning. They are there already,” Wilen explained.

Wilen, therefore, is on solid ground when he calls Horner a model for other redevelopment projects. And he is likewise on solid ground when he criticizes the CHA’s plan to allow the developers to make the ultimate decision over who gets into the new mixed-income properties. Wilen noted that if the public housing residents who left the complexes don’t meet the ‘site-specific criteria,’ the developer can fill the public housing units in the mixed-income communities with other families.

“When a family gets within striking distance of coming back, they’re turned over to the developer,” Wilen said.

“It seems like the CHA is very happy with the idea that most of the families are not coming back.”

CHA’s Harte disagreed with Wilen’s criticism. She claimed that having the developers decide who can come back to the mixed-income communities is logical.

“The developer owns the units. We own the land but the developer will own the units,” she said.

“Our goal is to assist the residents with getting services and helping them to present themselves in the best possible light.”

But when she was asked whether they looked at other HOPE VI sites at other cities to see whether this approach was successful in terms of getting families to return, Harte said they haven’t:

“We haven’t compared ourselves to other cities because we don’t think we are other cities.”

That is a serious error. Other cities can offer valuable insights on how to make this system work, and can likewise point out how to avoid errors. The CHA staff should not try and re-invent the wheel. Even if the CHA staff can’t or won’t learn from other cities, the GAO report indicates they have models just a few blocks from their offices.

Failing to avoid the mistakes of the past will produce more mixed-income communities that have excluded the families whose sacrifice allowed their construction. Failing to ensure that families who want to return can return will only bolster those advocates and tenants who believe that the Plan for Transformation is an effort to steal attractive tracts of land from low-income African Americans.

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