CHA use of stimulus money to demolish Ickes buildings questioned

Chicago Housing Authority board members yesterday approved the use of federal stimulus money to demolish six buildings at the Harold Ickes project on the South Side.

The move came as housing advocates from the Chicago Rehab Network raised concerns about whether stimulus dollars should be spent on knocking down family housing.

The federal stimulus bill means big money in the pocket of the CHA - more than $143 million for public housing revitalization. About $3.2 million is set aside for the demolition of the buildings at the near South Side public housing development, according to a document on the city's Website.

But Kevin Jackson, executive director at the Chicago Rehab Network, says tearing down these buildings doesn't create housing or many jobs.

Affordable housing allows families to have more money in their wallets that can flow back into the community, Jackson says.

"If you put money into preserving housing, it then would be, continuing forward, an economic asset," says Jackson. "When we tear something down, there's no necessary economic result."

Other housing advocates agree and are concerned Ickes is being demolished without reason. Janet Smith, a housing expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wonders if the money could be better spent.

"It costs a lot to build new housing," says Smith. "It doesn't cost as much to rehab it."

The Ickes buildings aren't a feasible rehabilitation project, says CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar. He says the buildings are "vacant and uninhabitable."

"We do not feel that we are diminishing affordable housing stock by removing uninhabitable units," says Aguilar. "Blighted, unsafe, unsanitary units do not meet our definition of affordable housing."

The list of CHA stimulus projects also includes $24 million for the installation of security cameras. That money, says Smith, could be better spent on providing decent homes for Chicago families.

"Cameras don't create jobs," says Smith. "It's not the same as creating jobs that lead to housing at the end of the day. You can't live in a camera."

Smith says CHA should take a serious look at rehabbing Ickes before taking a wrecking ball to it.

CHA official Charles Hillman said last week that rehab isn't a possibility for Ickes because they are high-rise towers instead of the low-rise buildings being built under the Plan For Transformation.

But Smith says buildings at Ickes aren't any taller than those at Dearborn Homes, another public housing development less than a mile away. Dearborn is currently undergoing rehabilitation and $28 million in stimulus funds will go toward completing the project.

Jackson also doubts the argument against high rises. He says many factors contribute to the success of a community, not just the shape of the building.

"It's not the design of housing, per se, that constitutes the character of people or communities," says Jackson. "People are living in high rises downtown. It shows that it's a housing delivery system that works."

Aguilar says Dearborn was slated for rehab from the beginning of the Plan for Transformation, while Ickes was not. He did not elaborate.

Without a plan in place for what is going to be done at Ickes, Smith is very concerned about CHA's commitment to rebuild there. Over the years, she says, Ickes has gone from a place to put CHA families affected by the transformation to a desolate landscape slated for demolition.

According to the 2009 Plan for Transformation document, CHA will build 312 public housing units on the site by 2015. But Smith says the current move to demolish casts doubt on what Ickes future will be.

Either way, she says, tearing down Ickes won't be much help for the economy.

"It creates jobs if it leads to the production of new, better quality housing," says Smith. "But if there's not going to be any replacement, it's not a good use."

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