A proposal to build a public high school in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood isn’t a done deal but the land swap that it involves isn’t a new method.
The Chicago Housing Authority board voted last month to submit an application to the federal housing department to lease land at 24th and State Street — part of where the former Harold Ickes Homes existed. In exchange, CHA would get two additional parcels of land a few blocks away for the ongoing redeveloped mixed-income Southbridge, where the South Loop meets the South Side.
For more than a decade, CHA has transferred land on former public housing sites for a CVS pharmacy, Mariano’s, Target and XS Tennis. Earlier this year, CHA approved a measure that starts the process for the Chicago Fire men’s soccer team to build a training facility with a youth component on 25 acres of vacant land at the former ABLA Homes on West Side.
These amenities are on the footprint of new mixed-income housing developments, part of the ambitious Plan for Transformation that promised to change the scope of public housing from one of racial and economic segregation. But 23 years later, residents who were promised to come back are still waiting for housing to be built at many sites as construction has lagged. Vacant land remains on the State Street corridor, in particular. CHA, for its part, has determined that housing alone won’t create thriving communities, especially at locations that weathered decades of disinvestment. Jobs and economic vitality are at stake, officials say, and the number of promised units isn’t diminished with the land deals.
But residents feel a record of broken promises and want to return to places they once called home.
“I don’t have a problem with them building any entities where you bring in money into the communities. But I do have a problem with them not building the return units of CHA. They continue to sell CHA land, but they’re not building the housing,” said Etta Davis, a tenant leader with the Dearborn Homes.
For example, CHA promised 1,000 public housing units at the former Ida B. Wells Homes. Through September 2016, there were 277 units that had been developed. In 2022, another 20 are supposed to be built.
“CHA starts everything but they never finish; they are hurting us,” said Beverly Feagins, a former Ickes resident who now lives in the Dearborn Homes.
Meanwhile, CHA CEO Tracey Scott said concentrated poverty and concentrated public housing has not worked.
“And so given that, the vision around mixed-income housing, mixed-use developments, is to create the stronger community that supports residents’ growth, supports children and their education and supports their health and wellness,” Scott said.
According to public records, here are details on some notable CHA land deals:
In 2011, the board approved a land transfer agreement with the Target Corporation near the former William Green Homes at the northwest corner of Division and Larrabee streets. The exchange involved three to five acres of equal land value (and the land CHA received has remained undeveloped.) During the term of the proposed hiring agreement, Target extended 75 job offers to CHA residents.
In 2014, the board approved a purchase and sales agreement with XS Tennis on vacant Robert Taylor Homes land at 53rd and State Street. XS Tennis offered to pay CHA $2 million and to provide commensurate benefits to CHA residents in the form of scholarships and jobs equivalent to $2.6 million over a 10-year period for a total value of $4.6 million. As of December 2021, 20 CHA residents were recruited and hired for construction positions; 355 CHA residents received XS Tennis scholarships; 355 CHA residents received academic tutoring from XS Tennis; CHA residents received 31,950 hours of tutoring from XS Tennis; 160 CHA residents attended summer camp and eight jobs were offered to CHA residents.
In 2015, CHA entered into an agreement with Pershing King Drive LLC, which helped develop a Mariano’s on the site of the former Ida B. Wells development. As part of the agreement, the developer was to set aside 40% of construction contracts to women- and/or minority-owned businesses. Mariano’s hired 97 CHA residents. Mariano’s paid CHA $5.44 million for the land.
“It also provides our children ways that they can grow and [consider] career opportunities. The Fire is committed to also providing directly those career opportunities in terms of internships and jobs, both during construction and after construction,” Scott said.
As those conditions are negotiated, Scott says this is a chance for residents to voice their concerns and shape what front- and back-office jobs can be had with the soccer team.
In 2009, CHA started making small decisions to sell or transfer land to commercial entities and, in 2013, CHA continued to dispose of public land. Amy Khare has been documenting. She is research director of the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities at Case Western Reserve University and studies land deals in Chicago.
“Some of that land has been used for really interesting, and one could argue very positive contributions to the neighborhood — all of which are amenities that leaders within communities of color have long demanded,” Khare said.
At the same time, she points out thousands of people are waiting for housing.
“So it’s a real dilemma when we see a public agency whose mission is to deliver affordable housing, making decisions to again transfer land out of public control and placing it into the private market,” Khare said.
Khare said her issue isn’t with what’s being created, but how.
Her critique of the Target deal near Cabrini is that the swapped land included parcels spread throughout the Near North Side. “And therefore difficult to build housing on because it was land that couldn’t be for a large, multi-unit development but rather smaller parcels where only single-family homes or other types of dwellings could be built. Why would the agency make a decision to move a large parcel out of possession and, in an exchange, take land that they may or may not be able to build upon?” Khare said.
And even though the proposed CPS neighborhood high school isn’t a done deal, residents say they will continue to organize and demand their concerns — particularly their call for the construction of public housing units — be taken seriously.