Lathrop residents to decide their future

Mildred Pagan can't really imagine living anywhere other than Lathrop Homes.

She raised her three kids here and watched them grow into an engineer, a teacher and a dance instructor.

But this week, Pagan, 53, will have to choose her next home, as the Plan for Transformation pushes her way.

"It will be hard for me to choose another place," Pagan says. "If they're going to kick me out, it's going to be very hard for me."

Lathrop residents will fill out their Housing Choice Surveys this week, letting the Chicago Housing Authority know where they want to live once the Plan for Transformation is complete and where they'll go in the mean time.

Resident leadership is trying to help Lathrop families figure out what's best for them, says Juanita Stevenson, president of the local advisory council at Lathrop.

"I've been getting calls all morning from residents," says Stevenson. "They want to know what I'm doing, what they should do, what's going to happen."

For now, no formal plans have been made for what will happen with Lathrop Homes, a complex of low-rise, red brick buildings on 35 acres built in the 1930s in Chicago's Roscoe Village neighborhood. A working group will start meeting next month to discuss possible plans for Lathrop's future.

But even without a plan in place, residents have to choose where they will go while Lathrop is being redeveloped and after the complex's transformation is complete.

For residents, that means three choices, says Stevenson: permanent Section 8 vouchers; temporary Section 8 vouchers with the intention to return to public housing; staying at Lathrop as long as possible, even through redevelopment.

The first choice - permanent Section 8 vouchers - mean residents would get money from the government to move into a private sector apartment. They pay 30 percent of their income towards rent, and the government pays the rest, allowing the resident to live wherever they choose.

But this choice comes with consequences, Stevenson says.

"If you take a permanent Section 8 voucher, you give up your right to return," says Stevenson. "That cancels out everything."

"Right to return" means a public housing resident's right to come back to public housing when the Plan for Transformation is complete, and even to choose to come back to the development they called home. Any resident who was living in public housing on Oct. 1, 1999 has the right to return.

If they don't take a permanent Section 8 voucher, tenants can take a temporary voucher to live in the private market and specify where they'd like to live later — either Lathrop of any of CHA's other properties, says Stevenson.

They can also choose to remain at Lathrop until the rehab is complete, although they may be moved if necessary — for example, in the case of demolition.

Most of Lathrop's 250 families want to stay, says Stevenson, because they love their community.

"Lathrop has always been a diverse community," says Stevenson. "You got black. You got white. You got Hispanic. All living in harmony. You don't find that everywhere in the city."

Many residents have already left Lathrop, says Robert Davidson, a Lathrop resident. He's watched his neighbors move out on vouchers or to other public housing units and wonders if they'll ever be able to return.

"People have been out four, five, six years. We need to put a clear understanding on what temporary is," says Davidson.

Davidson says he wonders where many residents who have the right to return have gone.

"These residents, where are they landing?" says Davidson. "I want a tracking system."

Stevenson says she thinks many residents have moved to housing on the South Side, but is unsure of exactly where. She says CHA promised a tracking system for residents but has yet to deliver.

"We were supposed to keep track of where residents went when they left, but they haven't done it yet," says Stevenson.

As for Lathrop's future, Stevenson hopes for a neighborhood where the working poor can find a place to live and even own a home. She envisions community centers, computer labs, libraries and resources for children and adults.

"I see a beautiful community," she says. "I hope our children will want to come back can say, 'I was here before, and I was part of the history of Lathrop Homes.'"

Mildred Pagan dreams of the same beautiful community, one where she and other single mothers can raise children and watch them become successful. She says filling out her Housing Choice Survey will be easy.

"I will choose Lathrop because it has been my home for 34 years," she says.

Residents of Lathrop Homes will meet with CHA officials between 10 a.m. and noon and 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. today and Thursday at the Boys and Girls Club, 2915 N. Leavitt St.

Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12.