Too Far Gone? Ford Heights Looks to Stimulus Funds for Lifeline | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Too Far Gone? Ford Heights Looks to Stimulus Funds for Lifeline

The Cook County Board is doling out federal stimulus money to help towns hard hit by the housing crisis. The long struggling, South Suburban town of Ford Heights wants a piece of the pie. But with limited dollars and many towns in need, is Ford Heights the best place to invest the money? The subject has some planners raising a provocative idea—maybe it's time for some towns to die.

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Driving down Route 30 through the middle of Ford Heights I see the remnants of a battered town. Vacant lots from urban renewal programs, boarded up businesses from when plant closings took jobs away, and hundreds of dilapidated public housing units.

Holly Wright lives in one of those units in the Celina Blake Homes. I was walking around there when Wright spotted me and my microphone. She grabbed my elbow and started talking.

WRIGHT: I have called several times for them to come check the mold and stuff. It's all around the building, would you like to come take a look at it…

She leads me through the kitchen into a dimly lit laundry room. I can see patches of mold the size of my head. We head back outside.

WRIGHT: I have a lung problem called carcadosis and my grandbaby has severe asthma. So I have to move now, I'm very sick now. I'm on Oxygen. I'm going to start crying, hon…

Wright says after living here for 20 years but she's moving out this week. Her neighbor Letish Nichols joins the conversation. She says her apartment doesn't have mold – but it has other problems.

NICHOLS: The place is a mess, you pay all this money they don't really fix the place up or whatever. You have roaches and mice up in the unit. Yes, it's just ridiculous how the projects be looking. I'm trying to hurry up and get out of here, you know. If they get everybody these vouchers like for Section 8 and everybody go find them a house or whatever, I think that would be more better for everybody.

Nichols wants to leave the housing projects, but I ask her, Does she want to leave Ford Heights?

NICHOLS: Well, yes I want to go out of Ford Heights, Ford Heights ain't no good place for anybody to stay. It's just a what you call that – when you're just trapped here. It's not no place for nobody to be at, Ford Heights.
TOWNSEND: Why not?
NICHOLS: The crime, the drugs, the shooting, all of that. Some people don't even let their children come outside and play. You know what I'm saying, they keep them in the house, so…

This spring she may have her chance to leave. The County Housing authority wants to demolish these homes. And that means the 80 families who live here will be looking for somewhere to move.

Now this is a small village. The last Census recorded about 3,200 residents. And every person represents a piece of the tax base. So local community boosters don't want to see anyone go.

That's why Angela Smith is trying to build dozens of houses by the time Spring comes.

SMITH: If those families don't have decent homes to move into as options, they would leave the community.

Smith is the Executive Director of the Ford Heights Community Development Corporation. To build the homes, she needs federal stimulus money from the county. Her long term goal is to make this town the way it was when she was a child.

ANGELIA SMITH: That's when it was a family community and people looked out for each other. You know that old analogy– that it takes a village – that was the kind of community that we grew up in.

She says new homes will draw businesses and jobs to the area and maybe transform it back to the way it was. As she's talking I picture children playing in their yards and parents heading off to work in the morning. But some planners question Smith's vision. They say some towns may be in a hole so deep, it's not worth trying to dig them out.

Terry Schwarz is a Senior Planner with the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative at Kent State University.

SCHWARTZ: Anybody with a big enough checkbook can do a development project, but that doesn't mean that it's still going to make sense 5 or 10 years into the future.

She's says planners in the region need to look at the big picture. In some cases we should encourage residents to move on and allow some places to shrink.

SCHWARZ: There's a fundamental underlying question which is as a region 'Where do we want to live, where do we want to develop and where are those places where we shouldn't develop?'

The most controversial part of this idea – is what happens to residents living in these shrinking towns.

SCHWARZ: If you draw a line around the strongest part of the city and say this is where we are going to invest, what happens is that what little value remains in the real estate in these distressed neighborhoods is completely gone because there is an official policy that says reinvestment is not going to occur here. And that's untenable.

And that's why other planners say we must invest in Ford Heights.

PERRY: I for one believe that when we figure out how to best serve Ford Heights, we learn how to best serve Chicago as a region.

David Perry is the Director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He says stimulus money is intended specifically for struggling towns. Places that are doing well shouldn't get the money. Perry suggests Ford Heights could be built up as a bedroom community for people who work elsewhere.

PERRY: Old thinking about economic development is that we chase the smoke stack. We chase the firm. We want to bring some firms back to employ the people of Ford Heights. Actually the firms may not come back to Ford Heights but the way that people who live in Ford Heights get employed elsewhere in the region might be terribly attractive.

Janice Morrisy is a planner in the part of Cook County that includes Ford Heights. She's Director of the Housing Initiatives in the South Suburban Housing Collaborative. I asked her if she thinks officials should avoid investing public dollars in Ford Heights.

MORRISY: It's hard to say that – it really is. Our job has been to tee up, and to showcase the development opportunities – it hasn't been so much to discourage development, But I wouldn't be surprised if some of those conversations don't start happening.

TOWNSEND: Why now?

MORRISY: The economy and the scarce resources and here do we really need to focus – we need to be lazar sharp and focus and get the most for that investment.

Last Wednesday Cook County commissioners made their decision. Ford Heights will receive nearly $3 million to build 80 new homes. It may be enough to build these houses. But this town continues to face huge challenges. And residents like Letish Nichols still plan to leave.

NICHOLS: You know what, to be honest with you, I've been looking in the papers. I called these two numbers in the paper – one in Lynwood and the other one in Sauk Village. And they're supposed to call me tomorrow. And hopefully I'm going to get one of those houses and that would be a blessing for me. Because it's time for me to make a change for me and my children.

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