A return to writing and a protest at Lathrop Homes

Okay I’m back. I realize I keep saying this. I also keep hoping it is true. I have been writing, just not here. If you’re interested, I started a personal blog that focuses mainly on anxiety, a recent running injury, and my thoughts on the world in general. Writing about myself was a bit of a challenge I set for this year, a way to loosen my writing practice and explore vulnerability in writing. One of the benefits of writing about affordable housing is that the topic can be relatively impersonal, focusing on news and policy and not my own emotional reactions. The safety of this was not working for me. As I struggled to find a balance, I found myself moving further and further away from this blog mentally. It became a burden. The joy I had felt at its inception dissipated as I struggled for perfection. The stronger my writing became here, the further I felt from my original purpose: to share the importance of housing from my perspective. 

Writing away from this site has given me the freedom to reconnect with my voice. I feel more fulfilled with my writing than I have for the past year, and for that I am grateful. Writing has always been a difficult space for me to navigate, equal parts compulsive necessity, agonizing drudgery, and freeing meditation. Writing is still (and I imagine always will be) difficult for me, but I am coming closer again to the feelings of freedom and flow that first drew me to journals, essays, stories. 

I don’t know what that means for this site, but I am hoping I will find a way to talk about affordable housing that is meaningful and authentic to me. 

Yesterday I marched with church leaders, neighborhood advocates, and affordable housing residents to protest the decision by the Chicago Housing Authority and the Chicago City Council to create a mixed-income development in place of the largest (and most beautiful) public housing campus in the city. Lathrop Homes was the first public housing complex built in Chicago, opening in 1938 It was designed before the CHA realized it could make more money by skimping on materials and building-layout, before economy and bureaucracy  ruined the organization. It is a small-scale, with multiple two- and 3-story bricks apartment buildings situated around central courtyards. There are 925 units total, on approximately 30 acres. There is plenty of green space. 

Lathrop was intended to give working class, mostly white, veteran families support. It was the only public housing project on Chicago’s far north side. By the 1970s, the color of residents turned a shade or two darker, as black and Latino families moved in. It remained working-class. Residents raised families there, staying for decades in some cases. 

The development is on two major bus routes which extend north/south and east/west and run past three train lines; Lathrop’s location is far enough from the Loop downtown to feel like a residential neighborhood but its proximity to public transit connects it to all parts of the city. It has become a highly desirable area. 

Because of its desirability, the streets around Lathrop now host an increasing number of market-rate condos, apartments, and houses. The tax base is growing. Dreaded gentrification is encroaching on Lathrop from all sides. And now, after years of work on behalf of neighborhood allies to find a solution that would benefit those who rely on government support for housing, a development plan has been approved, in favor of households who can afford market-rate. 

Lathrop has the capacity to house 925 families. Over the past 15 years, the number of occupied units has dwindled to 150. The buildings are all in need of extensive renovation but, rather than use the funds they have earmarked for renovating units, the CHA has allowed vacated units to remain empty, refusing to renew leases, rent the units to new families, or complete needed repairs. The once-lovely complex looks more like a ruin than a habitable living place. 

The sight of aged abandoned or dilapidated buildings takes me back to my childhood when my interest in buildings was sparked. I was captivated by the way beauty hid beneath a surface or dirt, peeling paint, rotting roofs, and sagging walls. I wanted to preserve the homes I saw along the highway leading to downtown Los Angeles; once single-family dwellings in aspirational neighborhoods, they are now apartments crammed with families and crying to be remembered as they once were: splendid. 

Although my career in historic preservation was abandoned in favor of writing about the built environment, historic structures still captivate me. I have followed the story of Lathrop Gardens since I first discovered the structure on a run past its grounds in 2011. The brick walls do not sag, nor are they covered in peeling paint, but they still evoke the sort of connection I felt to the homes in downtown Los Angeles. 

I was gladdened when Lathrop was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, and had hoped this would help preserve the public-housing status of its apartments. As a historic building, Lathrop is eligible for federal tax credits and financial incentives that could help offset renovation costs. The CHA, however, seems dead-set on denying housing to its constituents. 

Should the proposed plan come to fruition, 400 units will be public housing, 220 “affordable” low-income (I am not sure what metrics they are using to determine affordability), and 494 market-rate.  Nineteen of the thirty-one historic structures will receive gut-rehabs, and a few new buildings will be constructed. There will also be retail space and a public riverwalk.

Were this a new complex, I would be impressed by the proportion of public to market-rate housing. Few places come this close to a one-to-one ratio. But this isn’t a new development and the CHA is effectively removed more than 500 public-housing eligible units. With an already bloated waitlist, deleting apartments from its portfolio seems imprudent at best. The Authority’s CEO Eugene Jones claims the lost units will be replaced, but refuses to commit to a new location or timeline to development. Given the CHA’s lackluster ability to follow-through on replacing public housing, I and other advocates are not impressed. 

Hence yesterday’s demonstration, one final effort to catch the attention and sympathy of Mayor Emanuel. Multiple people were arrested after hours of occupying a vacated unit on the Lathrop property, in solidarity with one woman who has been on the CHA waitlist for twenty years. They have all been released and are more ready than ever to make their requests for providing housing as a human right, and to call on the CHA to keep its promise.