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CHA transforming its Plan for Transformation

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The Chicago Housing Authority has spent almost 13 years implementing a sweeping and controversial effort to remake public housing. Among other things, this Plan for Transformation tore down public housing high-rises and in their place put up mixed-income developments. The idea was to de-concentrate pockets of poverty in public housing. CHA is now rethinking its Plan for Transformation amid an economic downturn.

This 1996 photo shows some of the Chicago Housing Authority’s former South Side high-rises, including the Robert Taylor homes, shortly before the agency unveiled its ambitious blueprint for transformation. (AP/Beth A. Keiser, file)

The Chicago Housing Authority dubbed the new plan “2.0,” and Charles Woodyard is leading this recalibration. Last fall Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made Woodyard the new CEO. He came from the housing authority in Charlotte, N. C. He’s got an extensive background in real estate, and he’s brought that outlook to Chicago.

WOODYARD: A public real estate company looks at a community as an asset and tries to determine if the asset is economically performing.

To many residents and housing advocates, the answer is no.

CHA built market-rate housing in mixed-income neighborhoods, but it’s had trouble selling some of these properties because of the housing slump. Many public housing residents got housing vouchers so they could move out of high-rises, but many moved into poor neighborhoods. And CHA demolished thousands of public housing units in areas that already have too much vacant land.

In fact, Woodyard says CHA controls 400 acres, an area bigger than Chicago’s Grant Park. Woodyard says the agency won’t plop houses or apartment complexes on each acre.

WOODYARD: We don’t need to be driven solely by the single-minded goal of tearing down public housing communities and building back public housing communities. The drivers should be to create communities that have other amenities that contribute to a sustainable community such as grocery stores, other retail.

That means CHA wants to improve mixed-income communities it’s already built, and add comforts and conveniences. Take Oakwood Shores on 39th Street near Lake Michigan. It replaced the Ida B. Wells public housing development. There’s not much else in the area except for the newer, mixed-income housing.

Woodyard says CHA’s applying for millions of federal dollars to revitalize the whole neighborhood.

WOODYARD: What I have seen in this city is that there are some major retailers that have come to the table and made things worked. So the thing I’m going to try to do is be creative on how I put our land assets into the mix. Maybe it’s a 99-year lease or maybe it’s a deferred payment after a few years with a balloon payment. I hope I’m not being too technical.

FLEMING: I don’t think Mr. Woodyard is really thinking out the box. I think he’s thinking in the way of the norm. And that’s to always go to the private sector and never going to the people to create opportunity.

J. R. Fleming is a public housing resident activist.

FLEMING: Giving residents the opportunity to own a dry cleaners sounds like a step in the right direction. Giving residents the opportunity to come together and own their own cooperative store makes a lot of sense.

One thing that’s vexed critics of the CHA is how formulaic the original Plan for Transformation has been. The agency’s mantra has been that many of its developments should be: ⅓ public housing, ⅓ affordable, and ⅓ market rate.

But for Janet Smith, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, that approach hasn’t worked because people need much more affordable housing. Smith says 90 percent of Chicago renters who earn less than $20,000 a year spend close to half of their income on housing. That’s the case while there’s a glut of vacant condos throughout the city, and CHA’s been building new, mixed-income developments.

SMITH: Is the mixed-income model the most effective model to produce your housing? The affordable housing is needed, the public housing is needed but the market-rate isn’t necessarily needed. So maybe it’s a way of reframing it so the mix isn’t such a wide range?

So, how does that standard of a third public, a third affordable and a third market rate stand up in the plan 2.0?

WOODYARD: I think that’s an artificial standard.

Again, CHA CEO Charles Woodyard.

WOODYARD: It doesn’t work in every community, so we will probably instead come up with a way in doing a market study for each community so the third, a third, a third, will probably leave us.

But Woodyard says that will likely mean more affordable … not more public ... housing when 2.0 debuts in June.

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