The Sun Sets on 660 West Division
Thelma Hicks moved into 660 West Division in 1972. Looking around the small white room on the first floor, she remembers almost everyone of the young women here for the meeting being born.
“A lot of these girls sitting here now, I watched them grow up.”
But the other side of the room, she says, she doesn’t recognize – the wall of Chicago Housing Authority officials who are here to tell her her building will close down in just 30 days.
“All the people that you see here – we never see them until now. The only time we see them is a time like this,” says Ms. Hicks.
The three remaining “whites” left at Cabrini-Green are all scheduled to
close this year, according to CHA’s plans. But 660 is the first to go.
CHA officials say there are too few families and too much crime in the
building to allow it to stay open. They’re doing an “emergency
transfer,” which means that instead of the usual 180-day notice they
give, residents have 30 days to find a new place to live.
It’s not how it’s supposed to happen.
Every time a public housing building closes in Chicago, it’s governed
by a document called the “Relocation Rights Contract” or RRC.
Basically, the RRC guarantees that the original residents of public
housing get to come back if they want to.
It gives an emergency provision for closing buildings – the 30-day
notice Ms. Hicks will receive Friday morning – but the lawyers who worked
on the original RRC say it was for things like building fires, basement
floods or roof collapses (you know, emergencies…). It wasn’t meant
for standards like low-occupancy and crime, says Rich Wheelock,
attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation, which creep up slowly and
can often be predicted.
In fact the RRC specifically reads: “CHA will not use the emergency transfer provision for the purpose of building consolidation.”
And when I talked to residents, they say crime hasn’t gone up in the
building. In fact, says Carol Steele, president of Cabrini-Green, 660
has a much lower crime rate than the two other buildings.
From January through June of 2009, there were 18 incidents at 660.
Compare that with 34 incidents at the Burling building and a whopping
73 incidents at the Larrabee.
And low occupancy isn’t a surprise either.
CHA staff has been meeting with residents over the past couple months, offering Section 8 vouchers to those residents who wish to move.
Ms. Hicks already has hers, in fact. But after you get your voucher, then you have to look for a place. And when you find one you like and that falls under the Section 8 guidelines (which isn’t easy, especially when you consider schools – Thelma has to figure out where she can live with her grandson), then it has to pass inspection. And then you can move all your stuff out of your life-long home and into another apartment.
None of this was good news to residents last night. The room was packed, and although questions started off quietly enough, it got riled up pretty quickly. I took a little video so you could see just how contentious these meetings can get.
In general, public housing meetings can be loud. When you’re talking about people’s homes and lives, things get emotional. And most of the time, the questions people ask are unanswerable: why is this happening? how can we stop it? Officials don’t have good answers, at least not answers that please anyone at all.
Making this whole thing even more confusing is a new legal document called the Memorandum of Agreement.
Here’s the lowdown: the rest of Cabrini is covered by a consent decree, a legal pronouncement that any demolition and redevelopment has to be carefully negotiated by lawyers, the CHA and Cabrini resident leaders. But the remaining high rises weren’t covered, so last month, CHA signed the Memorandum of Agreement saying that if they wanted to do any involuntary relocation (i.e. 30-day notices), they have to negotiate with the local resident council and their lawyers first.
“They haven’t followed it which is kind of ironic,” says Rich Wheelock. “We just signed the damn thing in July.”
According to Wheelock, CHA has said 660 isn’t covered by this new agreement because they mentioned it was closing while the agreement was being negotiated.
CHA officials say they have followed the agreement.
“CHA is confident it has followed an agreed-upon procedure to close 660 West Division and is happy to defend its position in court,” says CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar.
I’m still waiting for more answers back from CHA. At the moment, there’s no demolition scheduled for 660. Occupancy, they say, is lower at 660 than at the other two buildings, but I haven’t gotten the actual numbers yet.
But to residents of 660, the memoranda, contracts, levels and notices are just details. The long and short of it is that they have to leave home. And many of them don’t like their options.
They can either take a Section 8 voucher or move into the 1230 Burling building. Alther Harris, who’s lived in 660 for 29 years, says she can’t, she won’t move into 1230.
Ms. Harris’ son was born in 660 almost exactly 29 years ago – July 28th 1980. A year ago, he was in the 1230 building when he was shot in the leg by someone who ambushed him from behind. He spent 22 days in intensive care and eventually lost his leg.
Although her son is doing better, Ms. Harris isn’t. The stress has caused health problems. She can’t eat or sleep. Her heart races whenever she thinks about that day.
“I look over at that building and I get weak all over. What is I gonna do? I’m going to die. What on earth am I going to do?”
Thelma Hicks understands that 660 will have to close. She’s not bothered by the Plan for Transformation in general. She says she was here when Cabrini was really bad, and she always knew it would come down. For her, it’s not the what, but the how that she can’t stand.
“I can’t understand it because I know by law we’re supposed to have 180 days,” she says. “I don’t know why they’re doing us like this. It might not be that we’re right, but they should not do it this way.”
Note: If you saw my note yesterday that I was on vacation, it’s alright to be confused. The exact minute I posted that, I got an email from one of my sources, telling me about this meeting. So, yesterday, I went with my sister and her boys to the Sears Tower, a boat ride on Navy Pier, over to Cabrini, and back to Navy Pier for the ferris wheel, Cirque Shanghai and fireworks. Yes, I am a bit bizarre.