LeClaire Courts used to be a model for public housing across the nation. Tenants there thrived on self-sufficiency. At one time, they even managed the low-rises for the Chicago Housing Authority. Now LeClaire Courts’glory days are gone. And for some tenants, day-to-day living at LeClaire is fearsome because of crime. It’s prompted a group of residents to organize a mass exodus out of the housing development.
LeClaire Courts is tucked away off of Cicero Avenue – just blocks north of Chicago’s Midway Airport.
A couple of resident leaders drive me around the property. It’s a maze of brown apartments, more than half are vacant. Close to 300 families live here.
This is why Jessie Carr, Jackie Norwood and community activist Stanley Horn don’t want us walking around. Their fear is palpable.
We pull up into the parking lot behind Mary Simmons Lewis’ apartment. The senior citizen is raising four grandchildren. Simmons Lewis would only talk through the car window.
SIMMONS LEWIS: I try to stay in the house at all times. I come out now during the day – see how quiet it is now? By 8, 9:00 you better close the doors. At 10:00, that’s the worse. And you better not be outside because you don’t know what gang member wanna shoot somebody and you don’t know where the bullets are going to come from.
According to the Website chicago.everyblock.com, there were dozens of crimes around LeClaire’s premises from May to June. For the first seven months of 2007, the Chicago Police Department recorded hundreds of crimes.
Jessie Carr is president of the LeClaire Courts Community Development Corporation that is spearheading an exodus. Staying here is…
CARR: Well, it’s very nerve-wracking. I don’t like living like this. Also, it’s not the way of life.
Approximately 70 families want to leave LeClaire and find project-based Section 8. In that scenario, the federal housing authority would give vouchers to tenants so they can live together somewhere else.
LeClaire residents have found a nonprofit housing developer in Florida who’s scoping foreclosed property in Chicago. The developer says he’d find the financing to buy and rehab a building. It could cost up to $8.5 million.
Housing experts say this kind of deal has happened in other cities.
Wes Finch is the Florida-based developer. Money isn’t his primary concern. Under the residents’ plan, the Chicago Housing Authority wouldn’t necessarily spend any money.
FINCH: The CHA would have to first and foremost and most importantly bring a political will they want this happen.
LeClaire was constructed in 1950. It has yet to be overhauled under the CHA’s sweeping Plan for Transformation. Lewis Jordan heads the Chicago Housing Authority. He’s met with LeClaire residents.
JORDAN: I said bring me something to react to. Give me a plan. Show me numbers and things of that nature. And it’d be something we’d look at. Haven’t heard anyting since.
Residents say a plan will be in his hands once they identify an apartment building. Even if CHA gives their move the green light, there’s still a bureaucratic hoop. People at LeClaire think of themselves as one community, but according to government bean-counters, they’re actually two communities at LeClaire. Half is part of a project-based Section 8 development. The other half is under CHA. The Section-8 residents might get moved out next year anyway and federal funding could put them in a new development of their own. But people in the other half might get left behind - the government just wouldn’t want to mix the two kinds of funding.
Residents like Jackie Norwood say they could care less about the red tape.
NORWOOD: Just because we stay in LeClaire Courts projects does not mean we’re poor trash. We’re people, too. I would like to live like anybody else, you know what I’m saying?
LeClaire residents want to stay together for many reasons: it’s hard for individuals to find housing in the private market; they want to create a new community with amenities like Head Start and they want safety plus cleanliness.
But as one resident told me, leaving LeClaire would give her the opportunity to finally breathe easy.
I’m Natalie Moore, Chicago Public Radio.
RELATED: Crime statistics for LeClaire Court [pdf]
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