While the teardowns of high-rises has dominated talk of the Chicago Housing Authority’s sweeping transformation of public housing, more than half of the agency’s buildings will not be torn down. Many changes to public housing are occurring through rehabs of existing developments.
Nearly all of the CHA’s scattered-site and senior developments have been rehabbed. And, during the past year, the CHA has introduced hundreds of rehabbed units at family developments like Altgeld Gardens and the Bridgeport Homes.
Lawns, landscaping and playgrounds dot the courtyards between houses. Inside, air-conditioned units provide relief from sizzling summer temperatures. But, at some units, counters, doors and ceilings are already giving way, while residents are still awaiting other amenities.
Some residents said that a school bus stops by Altgeld Gardens every Saturday morning to pick up residents and drive them about two-and-a-half miles to Mama’s Coin Laundry in south suburban Riverdale.
“When we came to the new rehabs, they made us leave our washers and dryers,” said Reba Johnson, a resident of Altgeld Gardens. “There’s no washers in the new place.”
Residents have taken their complaints to U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., whose 2nd Congressional District includes Altgeld Gardens. In March, Jackson relayed those concerns to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In response, the CHA told HUD officials that it would provide five to seven on-site laundry facilities at Altgeld Gardens, according to a letter, dated April 14, 2006, from Joseph P. Galvan, the regional director for HUD Region V. The letter did not indicate by when the facilities would be installed. “We have been assured that no resident would have to walk more than 400 feet to the closest laundry facility,” Galvan said in his letter to Jackson.
In the meantime, some residents drive or carpool to a laundromat. Others haul laundry to friends’ apartments in Altgeld—those yet-to-be rehabbed units that still have washers and dryers.
But the lack of washers and dryers is at the top of a laundry list of changes that have altered decades-old ways of life in Altgeld.
There’s no walking on the lawns, no hanging pictures on the walls, no pets and no barbecues in the front yard. Any violations are met with a $50 fine, and repeat offenders can face eviction. “This is the first time these properties are rehabbed and it will be the last time,” says Robert Whitfield, an attorney representing public housing residents. “Because, if it don’t work this time, next time it’s the wrecking ball. It’s a cold, hard fact.”
But some newly rehabbed units are already declining, for reasons that have little to do with residents.
Altgeld residents showed off units, only months old, with closet doors hanging off their hinges, kitchen countertops that can be lifted from the sink with the press of two fingers, ceilings with drywall bulges and rooms that lack light fixtures. Organizers with People for Community Recovery, an Altgeld-based community group, suspect that the CHA lacked money to do the rehab right.
When asked about these rehab fixture problems, CHA Board Chair Sharon Gist Gilliam said, “I’m not aware of those particular problems. Among this past year, we privatized the whole rehab construction process. If people will report those kind of things to their property manger, we will get in and fix any of those last punch-list items.”
The rehab of the Bridgeport Homes, a small development near 31st and Halsted streets, has generated a different response.
As Sherry Cruz walked out of her Bridgeport Homes apartment on a balmy June afternoon, she was approached by an Asian woman with a street map in hand.
“How much are these condos?” the Asian woman asked.
“They’re not condos. It’s the projects,” Cruz told her.
“Oh, it’s for poor people,” the woman responded.
“Yeah,” Cruz said. “It’s for poor people.”
With its rehab about halfway completed, the Bridgeport Homes look like a plastic surgery before-and-after picture. To the west is the old Bridgeport Homes, a ghost town of dirty brick walk-ups, cracked asphalt backyards and chained-link fences. To the east, cream-colored two-flats rise from green lawns, flowered landscaping and sturdy wrought-iron fences.
“We get a lot of traffic with [Chicago White] Sox games. Everyone driving by always used to look at us like we’re freaks,” Cruz says. “Now they think we live in condos. They don’t stare anymore.”
But there are some drawbacks. There are no five-bedroom units, and four-bedroom units are scarce. “I’ve had to take three of my kids off my lease,” said Gloria Osorio, who has 10 children. “They live with my mother now.”
The CHA no longer guarantees housing for large families who moved into public housing after October 1999. A resident may have their lease terminated, forfeiting their future right to housing vouchers or public housing of any sort, if they do not move family members out of their house.