CITY HALL — A redevelopment plan for the 32-acre Lathrop Homes site along the Chicago River took a major step forward Thursday, gaining approval from the city's Plan Commission after three hours of debate and testimony.
The passing of the plan, controversial for its inclusion of only 400 public housing units (less than half of the housing complex's original total) was called a "huge victory" by Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st).
The redevelopment will be a mixed-use project meaning there will be market rate, affordable and public housing units. Lathrop, one of Chicago's first housing projects, originally had 925 units and was 100 percent public housing.
The plan was approved by a vote of 6 to 2, with one member recusing themselves. It includes 50,000 square feet of commercial space and 1,208 housing units at a ratio of approximately 36 percent public housing, 20 percent affordable housing and 44 percent market rate.
The comprehensive proposal also includes significant landscaping and the addition of three streets.
The project is slated to be built in three phases. The first includes 470 units and would entail large-scale historic preservation on the north side of the property.
“Under the terrible reputation of the CHA they let Lathrop Homes deteriorate. We all know that," Moreno said. "…. Today is the day that we start to actually act on our promise."
A major sticking point at a public meeting to discuss the proposal in early February was the demand that the Chicago Housing Authority commits on paper to constructing 525 public housing units on the North Side to compensate for the fewer public units in the new proposal.
Moreno said he would defer the proposal until that paper was presented to him, using the Lathrop Homes redevelopment as a bargaining chip to try to force the CHA to spend a portion of its reportedly $430 million in reserves on new housing on the North Side.
On Wednesday the CHA's new CEO Eugene Jones, Jr., sent a letter to Moreno stating that "CHA is committed to producing 525 new housing opportunities, in general and opportunity areas in the north side of the city, understanding that the timing will be based on the availability and price of properties which must be in accordance with existing law."
While the letter was vague in any sort of plan for those 525 or a timeframe, Moreno called it significant due to the word "committed."
"What we have been fighting for for five years was a commitment letter from the CHA, a letter that says we are committed," Moreno said after the Lathrop Homes project was approved.
Moreno said he had been unable to get that commitment from the previous four CHA CEOs over the past five years. Jones took over as CEO in June.
Numerous housing activists and current residents of Lathrop Homes spoke out during Thursday's meeting calling for a more specific commitment from the CHA for those 525 public housing units that were lost.
"There is no plan," said Christopher Wilmes, an attorney who has been representing the Lathrop Homes Local Advisory Council for the past year. "Respectfully, we believe Alderman Moreno you have broken this promise."
Moreno shot back during a lengthy tirade on the state of affordable housing in Chicago, arguing that the Lathrop Homes project is a significant step forward.
"The easy thing to do is delay," Moreno said. "Lathrop Homes residents have been delayed at least 15 years, at least 15 years."
The possibility of finding sites for hundreds of public housing units on the North Side would be a difficult fight, according to Jones, who spoke briefly during Thursday's meeting.
"We are concerned about cost, location and HUD approval, but that's our promise and that's our commitment," Jones said.
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), a member of the Plan Commission, said he would pitch in to help.
"I am confident that the alderman is going to make sure those other units are put in place throughout the area and anything I can do to help with that effort let me know, as a matter of fact I’ll take some of those folks in my ward," Burnett said.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), whose ward includes a small portion of the Lathrop Homes site, but much of the area surrounding it, was not at Thursday's meeting.
His chief of staff, Paul Sajovec, spoke just before the commission voted, telling the body that Waguespack opposed the plan.
One of Waguespack's main concerns is the creation of a new tax increment financing district on the site and the use of TIF dollars to help pay for affordable housing units, which he opposes.
During February's community meeting on the redevelopment, the developers stated TIF money would be used to pay for the affordable units as well as infrastructure on the site, but neither the developers nor Moreno had a figure for the cost of the project or how much TIF money would be used.
No one on the development team, nor any other aldermen or city officials mentioned the new TIF district during Thursday's hearing.
Moreno slammed Waguespack, one of the city's leading progressive aldermen, for opposing the plan, calling it "the height of hypocrisy."
Ald. Joe Moore (49th) backed Moreno, asking Sajovec when Waguespack would allow affordable housing in the 32nd Ward. Waguespack has previously been criticized for not requiring developers to build affordable units on-site, rather allowing them to pay into a fund.
"The challenge is trying to find locations on the North Side for more than 500 units. That's a challenge," Moore said, adding that "NIMBY-ism" in North Side neighborhoods would fight any sort of housing proposal.
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