In the northern shadow of Chicago Midway International Airport, acres of empty green space sit, holding memories of a long-gone public housing development.
LeClaire Courts was a collection of low-rise apartments where children occasionally took trips to Great America, received presents at Christmas and played at a nearby community center. At one time, residents managed LeClaire and, in later years, crime marred the area. But the fondness from residents never went away. Before the pandemic, up to 1,000 former residents gathered yearly for reunion picnics with a DJ spinning old school soul, steppers and gospel music.
“It was the best one, out of all the [CHA] developments. Everybody looked out for everybody’s kids. People used to sleep with their doors open. It was a big family,” said Ruth Todd, 74, who lived at LeClaire for 30 years.
Brenda Alford moved to LeClaire in the late 1990s. She lived there until 2011 when she was given 30 days to move out with her three children. “They came in one day and said it’s time to go,” Alford said.
The Chicago Housing Authority demolished the last LeClaire building more than a decade ago as part of the billion-dollar Plan for Transformation to remake public housing in the city. LeClaire is one of the final sites to undergo redevelopment. When the teardowns began in the late 2000s, residents dispersed throughout the city.
Now a redevelopment plan is underway to create a mixed-income community with a grocery store and health clinic. It will take years to complete. At a $120 million price tag, the first phase will have 110 units. Up to 40% of those units will be for CHA residents and the rest will be affordable and market-rate housing.
“This is about creating and improving the quality of life for the residents,” said CHA CEO Tracey Scott. This will be the first CHA redevelopment project to break ground since she took the helm of the agency in 2020. “The reason I’m excited is because it’s almost like building the village. You don’t just build housing and hope that everything else will work out, but strong schools, commercial retail, access to health care — all of that is part of the LeClaire vision.” Groundbreaking is expected this summer.
According to public records, only 28 out of 402 eligible households have a right to return to the new LeClaire. Because redevelopment has lagged, most of the remaining families sought final housing elsewhere among properties managed or subsidized by the CHA. Among those families, the majority — 122 — are living in the private market on a Section 8, or housing choice, voucher. Dozens of other residents either died or were evicted. Another 113 families lost the right to return because they were unresponsive to the CHA’s attempts to reach them. However, officials say they are inviting those residents to reinstate their right to return. And to help reach them, the agency places annual ads in eight papers.
Martin Cabrera, of Cabrera Capital Markets, is the lead developer. He said future phases will have units with three to five bedrooms, which will accommodate larger families and is often requested by CHA residents.
“This is something that is going to revitalize the Cicero [Avenue] corridor. It’s going to be a huge economic engine, not just for the immediate community, but for the whole Southwest Side. Job creation projections are 675 permanent jobs and 775 construction jobs.
In the planning for the new community, a LeClaire working group — composed of residents, community leaders and other stakeholders — has met 24 times over the past few years.
Todd and Alford are members of that working group, representing resident voices. They both want to return, and they lament how few people are eligible to come back.
“It’s low because it took so many years. People get complacent with where they were. That’s a long time,” Alford said. She said that has led to a lack of trust in CHA.
Alford said if other former LeClaire residents want to return, they need to contact her and Todd. But CHA residents from other developments are also looking to move into the new LeClaire. Future LeClaire residents will come from existing CHA waitlists.
“I had a young lady text me the other day. I don’t even know who she is. She said ‘Miss Brenda, I want to go on the waitlist. Can you help me out?’ Alford said.
Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.