CHA flip-flopping on Ickes plan angers residents

In 2006, Audrey Johnson was shuttled out of her unit at 2420 W. State Street at Harold Ickes homes on the near South side and told she would be able to move back in once it was rehabbed.

Later that year, she, her husband and her four children were told to move again with the same promise - they could come back to their building once construction was done.

The trouble is, Johnson says, construction never started. And now that she's learned those buildings she was told she could go back to are going to be razed in as little as six weeks.

So Johnson and her fellow residents are wondering: Just what is the plan for Harold Ickes homes? And if there really isn't a plan, why take out the wrecking ball?

"When people ask these questions," Johnson says, "they [CHA officials] just go around them. What I want to know is - when it's all over, what happens to these people?"

Over the years, the plans for Ickes have never been clear, especially to its residents. They've heard rumors upon rumors, but never a clear answer, says Johnson.

Last week, CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar said that Ickes was not considered for renovations at the beginning of the Plan For Transformation.

But a look at Transformation documents shows a cloudier picture. At the beginning of the Plan, from 2000 to 2003, officials listed Ickes in an undetermined column - "To be rehabilitated or rehabbed."

Then in 2004, CHA suddenly declared it had an answer, listing Ickes with four other developments to be rehabbed.

The plans for 2005, 2006 and 2007 continued in the same vein, saying Ickes would be rehabbed as a traditional public housing family development. 2007's plan even said construction was set to start, with 100 units coming online by the end of year.

In, 2008, the plan suddenly changed, noting that Ickes was among the buildings the CHA had selected for "revitalization."

"Planning for the revitalization of Harold Ickes Homes will continue in FY2008, and the CHA will discuss alternative methods for revitalization," the plan said.

This year's plan put Ickes back where it started - undetermined - but said some demolition might begin.

Aguilar says CHA's plans are continuously changing in response to lessons learned over the 10 years the Plan for Transformation has been in place.

"Based on these lessons, the CHA is constantly evaluating and reevaluating the revitalization options for every site and making changes accordingly," he says.

Even though rehab was in CHA's plan for Ickes for several years, Aguilar says the buildings are "infeasible to rehabilitate."

The main reason CHA gave for demolishing the six empty buildilngs at Ickes was criminal activity.

"Buildings left standing and vacant are a haven for criminal, drugs, and illicit activity," says Charles Hillman, senior vice president for asset management at CHA. "It's incumbent upon the housing authority to demolish any buildings that are a blight to the community."

But 1st District Police Commander Christopher Kennedy says the empty buildings, which have doors welded shut and windows on the lower floors boarded up, haven't been causing problems.

"They are pretty contained and sealed off," says Kennedy.

Taking down the sealed off structures would help police by taking away the blind spots that they were causing in the community, he says. The buildings that are more difficult to deal with are those that will remain - three buildings that are all about half full, with many units vacant, according to Kennedy.

Residents agree that the buildings aren't a problem. Johnson says people mainly stay where their units are and don't hang out in or around the empty buildings.

Johnson says the only reason she can think to demolish Ickes is for development purposes. The South Loop is becoming a very desirable location, and she figures public housing might stick out in the crowd.

"My only guess to why they would tear it down is so that it would blend in with the loop," says Johnson.

Housing advocates say the confusion surrounding Ickes is troubling, especially with how few tenants are left. With only 96 families still residing at Ickes, there's not a lot of residents to put up a fight or demand answers, says Stephanie Villinski, lawyer for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

"It's unfortunate that there's not a lot of tenants organizing in the area, but there's just so few people left," says Villinski.

Villinski says she and many others were surprised by the move to demolish, but doesn't know what, if anything, residents can do to halt demolition or get answers.

"It's like a train that can't be stopped now that it's gotten going," says Villinski.

And that train may be moving faster than CHA is telling anyone just yet. Although the agency recently submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to raze just six buildings, the application contains a letter, dated Dec. 12, 2008, from Mayor Daley to CHA CEO Lewis Jordan, expressing his approval for demolishing all 13 buildings on Ickes' property.

Although CHA claims to be working with residents to come up with a plan, Johnson says she hasn't heard much from the housing authority. She doesn't want the buildings demolished, but even more, she and many other residents don't want to leave their homes.

"It'll just be empty. Just a big old stupid empty space," says Johnson. "I don't want them to come down. No, I want them to fill them up again.

Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12, or megan [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.