LeClaire residents angry over decision to close housing complex

Residents crowded into the community center at LeClaire Courts last night to rally against the proposed closing of the Southwest Side Chicago Housing Authority development.

“They voted to shut it down. It seems like they just want us to be gone,” says Natalie Saffold, LeClaire’s leader. “Where are we gonna go?”

Just a few months ago, Saffold says, she was promised by CHA chief Lewis Jordan that the agency would close parts of LeClaire, but keep other buildings open.

So when a CHA commissioner came to her after last week’s meeting and told her the agency had decided to shut down her public housing complex, she was upset.

LeClaire Courts is one of the properties still waiting for a plan for redevelopment. The sprawling complex of low-rise buildings is actually made up of two developments – LeClaire Courts and LeClaire Courts Extension.

Legally, only the Extension is public housing. The other half is a subsidized voucher-based property. It's owned by CHA but paid for through the HUD Section 8 program.

Last September, CHA let HUD know that they wouldn’t need money to operate that half of LeClaire anymore because they were planning on closing it down.

Yesterday, residents received letters notifying them LeClaire would be closing entirely.

Jordan’s letter states that CHA has determined it’s too costly to keep LeClaire open for any of its residents.

“It was finally determined that the cost of bringing LeClaire Courts units up to the standard mandated by Federal regulations … was excessive, and would diminish already scarce funds needed for the eventual redevelopment of this property,” said Jordan, in the document.

Emma Washington, a LeClaire resident for 30 years, says a letter isn’t good enough.

“[Jordan] should have called a meeting and explained himself,” says Washington. “He should have kept his promise. He said he was going to keep his promise.”

Washington says she and other LeClaire residents aren’t going to sit back and let CHA close LeClaire without their input.

“My plan is to stick it out and fight,” says Washington.

Robert Whitfield, attorney for the central body of public housing representatives, says they may have a good shot, considering that closing LeClaire wasn’t on in the CHA’s plans for this year.

Whitfield came out to talk to residents Wednesday evening. He said CHA’s 2009 plan doesn’t say anything about shutting down all of LeClaire, and without a formal amendment to the plan, the housing authority can’t close the complex.

“Every public housing agency is required by statute to submit a plan every year. That plan must detail what they will do at each development,” said Whitfield. “Everybody has rules to play by. That includes public housing agencies.”

Whitfield and Saffold say they’re working on a letter to Lewis Jordan, detailing their concerns, and expect Jordan to come out to LeClaire next week for a town hall meeting.

CHA spokesman, Matt Aguilar declined to answer questions regarding the change of plans at LeClaire or Jordan’s promises to residents. CHA did provide a copy of the letter sent to Natalie Saffold, which details that LeClaire residents will be moved out of the complex by the fourth quarter of 2009.

Saffold says fighting the move won't be easy, but they're organizing to keep LeClaire open.

"If we're going to fight this, we're going to have to stick together," says Saffold.

Coming tomorrow: Government watchdogs say the CHA broke the law by secretly moving to close LeClaire Courts.

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.