William P. Wilen: Going to Bat for Public Housing Residents

Ferrell Freeman, 48, first moved into the Addams-Brooks-Loomis-Abbott public housing development on Chicago’s Near West Side in 1954. ABLA is her home, and she has no desire to leave.

So in the summer of 1996, when the Chicago Housing Authority went to Housing Court for permission to demolish her building at 1328-44 W. Taylor St., a judge ordered it vacated and Freeman got herself a lawyer. At first, she wasn’t sure whether William P. Wilen was really on her side. “I even rejected Bill in the beginning because I thought he was brought in by CHA,” Freeman said.

But she changed her mind. “I pay attention to people, and he sounded to me sincere. If he says A, he’s gonna do A–”not Z.”

William P. Wilen stands at a crumbling wall in the ABLA development, where he has been working with residents since 1996. (Photo by Richard Stromberg.)

Freeman has since moved out, and she and Wilen have moved on to bigger projects. This month, ABLA residents, represented by Wilen, are expected to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the CHA to block the agency’s $35 million redevelopment plan.

At first glance, Wilen seems an unlikely champion for the African Americans who dominate Chicago’s public housing. One colleague joked that the 52-year-old housing attorney with the non-profit Poverty Law Project bears a slight resemblance to Captain Kangaroo.

To many of those residents, Wilen is a savior–”someone who has forced the CHA to repair or replace its dilapidated apartments. To others, however, he is a nuisance–”an outsider using the courts to move low-income families into their communities.

But to friends and adversaries alike, Wilen is a knowledgeable, stubborn and determined force. Whether discussing a national class action lawsuit he has handled for 25 years or the time he sued a roofing company he said botched a skylight installation in his home, Wilen is equally impassioned and engaging. His serious demeanor belies a bright, friendly smile and biting sense of humor.

He has been a full-time, pro-bono attorney since joining the non-profit Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago in 1973, right out of law school. And while demanding an intricate knowledge of complex issues from his colleagues, Wilen also can be a patient teacher, said Brenda Grauer, a foundation staff attorney who worked with him as a law student in 1992.

A powerful sense of right and wrong fuels Wilen’s ideals, Grauer said. Still, “everything is personal,” she added. “It is us against them; David vs. Goliath.”

David Haracz, another foundation colleague, said working with Wilen was the best thing he had ever done as an attorney, but frustrating at times. “Working with Bill, you’re never the main player. He doesn’t like to give up control,” Haracz said.

Wilen may be best known for the April 1995 federal consent decree that provided replacement housing for every unit demolished at the CHA’s Henry Horner Homes development on the city’s Near West Side–”a guaranteed 466 new units.

After several delays and extensions, the new homes will be completed next winter, more than two years past the deadline, according to The Habitat Co., a private real estate firm and the court-appointed receiver for all new CHA development.

Victories aside, Wilen said this is no time to rest.

“It is the idea of giving people who don’t have much going for them an equal chance,” Wilen said of his life’s work.

Mason-Dixon

ABLA, a run-down development west of downtown, is surrounded by Chinatown and Pilsen to the south, the University of Illinois at Chicago to the east, and the Eisenhower Expressway to the north.

In 1996, Freeman founded the Concerned Residents of ABLA because she said tenants were not being properly represented by the development’s elected advisory council. The group’s lawsuit against the CHA charges the authority violated civil rights laws with its plans to redevelop ABLA and relocate the tenants–”most of them black women and children–”to other neighborhoods.

Wilen, who believes every resident should have the option of staying in the area, refers to Roosevelt Road, the southern border of the Addams development, as the “Mason-Dixon Line.” He said the CHA plans to move all the residents south of Roosevelt after demolition, a charge the agency denies.

“We think it’s discriminatory because when you move out African Americans and bring in whites, that is wrong,” he said. “I think there is room for more public housing north of Roosevelt while still developing the area.”

According to the CHA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rejected the agency’s 1997 request for redevelopment funds because of increased competition for grant money nationwide. HUD would not comment on the decision. In August, HUD approved a new $35 million application that calls for 3,278 new units in a mixed-income community.

Of those, 1,467 units will be set aside for families earning up to 35 percent of the city’s median income for a family of four, or $20,285, which will include the majority of ABLA families. The remaining units will be marketed to specific income levels, with 966 units sold to families making at least $71,400.

CHA Executive Director Joseph Shuldiner said a lawsuit “would be unfortunate because it would only delay better housing for the residents.”

Wilen and the CHA have similar goals but different realities, Shuldiner said. “Bill would like to see the maximum number of units, but at the end of the day, we are limited by money.”

Things could change dramatically if Freeman were to become president of the advisory council, Wilen said. She is considering running for the post in the Dec. 15 elections. “It actually might be better for everyone if that happened,” Wilen said. “We could sit down and actually work out a deal.”

Countless Lists

While most attorneys are comfortable in courtrooms or at conference tables, Wilen seems most at ease in public housing. He walks the projects like a politician working a banquet room–”making the rounds, asking questions, taking notes.

Wilen is rarely at a loss–”he has all the numbers memorized, and most of the court rulings too. And if his memory fails him, he keeps lists–”countless lists of residents, move-in dates and unit locations.

On a May visit to Horner, Wilen met with Janella Jones, 24. She and her three children are among the 11 families still waiting to move out of the 117-unit high-rise at 1847 W. Lake St.

William P. Wilen has helped Horner resident Janella Jones find a new home under some trying times. (Photo by Richard Stromberg.)

As Jones’ building has grown more deserted, it has become more dangerous, she said. Coming home late at night from her job as an assistant manager at a movie theater, Jones must climb seven floors of pitch-black stairwells. The elevator has not worked for three years. Many nights, a party is in full swing in the hallways and vacant apartments, and the revelers try to charge her admission to her own floor, she said.

Jones is waiting partly because the Horner consent decree reserves half the 200 on-site units being constructed for low-income, “working-class” families–”those earning 50 percent to 80 percent of the city’s median income.

She complains that families who don’t live in Horner are moving into new homes ahead of people like her. “I just want to go,” she said. “I am tired of living in this building.”

But Jones has another problem. In 1995, she pleaded guilty to a drug charge and may no longer meet strict tenant screening requirements. On Jan.15, 1995, police came to Jones’ apartment to arrest her for selling marijuana and ended up also finding cocaine, police reports show. Jones was charged with possession and delivery of a controlled substance.

Jones maintains her innocence, but pleaded guilty Nov. 8, 1995, on the advice of her public defender, she said. She was sentenced to two years probation. That delay proved costly. Under the consent decree, a resident’s criminal record before March 4, 1995, cannot be used to deny that tenant replacement housing.

In a compromise Wilen worked with the CHA, Jones will move in mid-September to a mid-rise at 1936 W. Washington Blvd. But her future there is anything but secure. When the mid-rises are rehabbed or replaced, Jones’ arrest record again may become an issue, Wilen said.

Despite his personal view that Jones would make a good tenant, Wilen acknowledges the hypocrisy of invoking the decree only when it suits his purposes. “The decree is pretty clear, and I am Mr. Follow-the-Decree.”

Concerned Mothers

Fittingly, Wilen got the news of “the decree” in 1995 while standing in the breezeway of the seven-story Horner Annex, 1815 W. Monroe St., talking on the only pay phone that still worked.

In May 1991, the Horner Mothers’ Guild, a group of more than 20 Annex residents represented by Wilen, sued the CHA, charging that the agency had deliberately allowed their buildings to deteriorate to justify tearing them down.

Wilen hired Donald E. Kimball, president of Crest Consulting Engineers of west suburban Oak Brook, to inspect Horner. Kimball, who has worked with Wilen ever since, said he first looked at Horner as just another job, but quickly found otherwise.

“The conditions were horrific and sub-human,” he said. In one ground-floor apartment, at 150 N. Hermitage Ave., raw sewage bubbled out of the toilet and flowed into the hallway, Kimball said.

Four years later, the parties signed a historic agreement to redevelop Horner in five phases that include demolition, rehabilitation and one-for-one replacement housing. No other public housing development in Chicago has received that guarantee.

Since then, the CHA has demolished two high-rises and two mid-rises and moved 270 residents to replacement housing. Ninety-eight families chose new units on site or in the surrounding neighborhood, and 172 requested scattered-site housing or Section 8 certificates for private market apartments.

Attorney Thomas E. Johnson, who worked with Wilen at the foundation and now represents the CHA, credits his former colleague with being flexible. “The reason the Horner case has been a success is because we did not rehabilitate [everything],” he said. “He was open enough to see other things.”

Flexibility may be needed to decide the fate of the seven remaining Horner mid-rises. In a June 12 letter to Shuldiner, Wilen and Mamie Bone, president of the Horner Residents Council, wrote that the “CHA must obey the amended decree and rehabilitate all seven Horner mid-rises. Of course, the Horner parties are always free to reach agreement on an alternative course of action.”

Much may depend on the residents, who can choose a rehabbed two- or three-bedroom unit in one of the mid-rises; a new, on-site townhouse; a Near West Side replacement unit; or a Section 8 certificate.

If most residents opt for new housing, the CHA would be wasting money by rehabbing the mid-rises and should just tear them down, Shuldiner said. He hopes Wilen and Bone agree.

“From our perspective, the consent decree was negotiated three or four years ago and the circumstances have changed both in terms of money and what the residents want,” Shuldiner said. “Are the residents of the same mind as Mr. Wilen?”

Bone said residents will hear their options at a meeting in the near future.

And then there is attorney Alexander Polikoff, who represents CHA tenants in the 1969 landmark Gautreaux lawsuit. Under the Gautreaux consent decree, the CHA cannot build public housing in neighborhoods that are more than 30 percent black unless the area is deemed to be “revitalizing.”

The CHA is free to rehab the mid-rises, but any new housing must be approved by U.S. District Judge Marvin E. Aspen, who oversees the Gautreaux decree. Aspen would have to issue a “revitalizing order” declaring that the area can sustain a mixed-income community.

Polikoff said he has yet to take a position on the matter and will wait until the CHA completes a survey of the tenants’ housing wishes.

Not everyone who lives near Horner welcomes the new public housing, including Dee Spencer, a 43-year-old homeowner and lifelong area resident. Spencer lives on the 2700 block of West Washington Boulevard, slated to receive 100 replacement units. The new housing will “destroy this community and any chance we have to revitalize,” she said.

In the end, the Horner consent decree may do more harm than good, said Earnest Gates, president of the Near West Side Community Development Corp. Inc., a non-profit that has built and rehabilitated homes in the area.

“All the emphasis has been on bricks and mortar, but not instructing [Horner residents] in how to take care” of their new homes, he said. “It’s not enough to have shiny new housing if people bring in old problems.”

In the next five years, Gates predicted that the replacement homes will deteriorate and many residents will be evicted. Then, he said, “the people who live in the community will have to deal with the consequences.”

Wilen remains firm. “The only thing I want, and that I’ve ever wanted, is that the decree be implemented,” he said.

Board Move

In 1995, Congress restricted the use of federal grants for legal services, including a prohibition against using such funds for class action litigation. Wilen, who had directed the foundation’s housing litigation since 1982, was faced with abandoning Horner and his other class action lawsuits. (Last year, the Legal Assistance Foundation received about $4 million from the Legal Services Corporation, an independent government agency).

The foundation agreed to transfer grants and four attorneys who handle welfare policy and litigation to the National Clearinghouse for Legal Services, a non-profit founded in 1967 that receives no government funding. Wilen hoped to do the same, but the foundation board was leery about giving up another grant, said board president James D. Wascher.

Wilen said he was so upset he turned down the foundation’s prestigious Equal Justice Award for his work on the Horner case. But in April 1996, the board went ahead and awarded Wilen a $75,000 grant.

Today he shies away from questions about the dispute and says his relationship with the foundation has been smoothed over. It “gave me a second life,” he said. “And not just me, but the residents.”

Wilen still gives training sessions at the foundation, said Dick Hess, a supervisory attorney there. “Everyone at LAF considers [Wilen] a major role model and player in the area,” he said.

In June 1996 Wilen joined the former welfare attorneys who had created the Poverty Law Project, an advocacy and litigation branch of the National Clearinghouse. It employs eight lawyers, and most of its funding comes from private sources.

At home, Wilen’s representation of the disadvantaged is not unique. His wife, Judy, works with the mentally ill. Their son, Jason, 27, is an architect with Kimball’s engineering firm, and their daughter, Erica, 21, is pursuing a degree in special education at the University of Arizona.

Judy said her husband’s decreasingly hostile relationship with the CHA has helped his psyche. Before, every situation was either seen as black or white, she said.”But now, [the CHA is] in the gray and that is the reason he is still sane.”

Yet Wilen is uncharacteristically pessimistic about the future of public housing. “Besides the homeless, [the poor] are the least powerful,” he said. “They have no lobbying, no PACs, only a handful of lawyers and activists.

“What I have seen so far doesn’t convince me that they are going to be better off. The vast majority may not get anything better than where they are now.”

Contributing: Brian J. Rogal

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