Public housing residents say vacant units no good

With more and more families homeless and looking for housing, residents of Lathrop homes say this is no time to let good apartments go empty.

“What do we want? Housing. When do we want it? Now,” the crowd shouted last night at a march protesting CHA’s policies at Lathrop homes, a public housing project on the North Side, where a majority of the 925 units sit vacant.

“There’s about 600 units that are boarded up, empty – good apartments that can be rented out to families in need,” said Carmen Benabe, a Lathrop resident, at the rally. 

Organizers are asking CHA to put 300 units back into service by 2010. 

Although the housing authority began revitalizing public housing over eight years ago, there’s no plan in place for what will be done with Lathrop Homes. When a resident moves out, the unit is closed, boarded up and left empty. Many residents live in six- or eight-unit buildings where they are the only tenant, according to John McDermott of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

Juanita Stevenson, president of the Local Advisory Council at Lathrop, says the vacancies cause serious problems. 

“There’s a sense of fear in the community. People have a fear of crime, of squatters,” Stevenson says. “People have a fear that someone could do something to them and no one would hear their screams.”

When Georgia Coleman moved into her six-unit building at Lathrop, it was full of families. When her elderly upstairs neighbor moves this winter, she will be the only person in the building. Coleman, 59, says the empty units create trouble. 

“There were a lot of vagrants coming in and getting high and sleeping in the hallways,” she says. “I would call the police, and they would come and get rid of them, but as soon as the police leave they come right back.”

Because she worries about someone breaking in at night, Coleman has started trying to stay awake at night, and sleep during the day, but it’s making her sick. 

“My doctor said ‘What? What kind of neighborhood do you live in? You are gonna go crazy. You can’t live like this in here,’” Coleman says.

Tami Love, Lathrop Homes housing organizer for the Logan Square Neigborhood Association, says the empty units could provide housing to many in Chicago, including those on CHA’s wait list.

“Homelessness has gotten worse. It’s not just homeless men or women, it’s families,” says Love. “These units could be used by families who need them.”

Between 5,000 and 6,000 families are currently on the general wait list for public housing, according CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar.

At a meeting with the housing authority earlier this week, Love said CHA CEO Lewis Jordan told the community leaders that residents who were unhappy with the vacancies at Lathrop could move out, using a temporary or permanent voucher to find new homes.

But Juanita Stevenson says residents here don’t want vouchers. 

“Many of us have had our children in this neighborhood. We have relationships with the schools, with the businesses,” Stevenson says. “A lot of us do not want to go to other communities. We want to live in Lathrop homes.”