Advocates worry CHA is pushing residents out of Lathrop Homes

Robin James came to fill out her Housing Choice Survey at the Boys and Girls Club near Lathrop Homes last night, but it doesn't mean she's leaving.

"I don't want to go nowhere," says James. "Work around me. I'm going to stay right here."

Residents gathered yesterday morning and evening to fill out the surveys, letting the Chicago Housing Authority know whether they'd like to stay in Lathrop or move out.

For now, there's no plan set to for what will happen with Lathrop, a public housing development on the North Side, and some housing advocates think the surveys are a ploy to get residents out so they won't be able to any future plans for rehabilitation.

"They hope that a large number of people are going to request vouchers which will give them a reason to close down buildings and get people out," says Richard Wheelock, attorney for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Wheelock says if Lathrop loses enough residents, they won't have a strong enough presence to support their own vision for their home or oppose plans to bring in a large number of market rate units.

"The leaders are calling for an affordable housing plan, and that's not what CHA wants," says Wheelock.

But CHA officials say the new surveys are just about giving Lathrop residents options, not about pushing them to leave.

“With the Plan for Transformation nearly 70 percent complete, we are exploring ways to allow residents with a right of return and who have not officially started the relocation process the opportunity to have as many options and as much information about those options as possible,” says Lewis Jordan, CHA CEO.

Kellie O'Connell-Miller, interim director of research, reporting and communication, says residents can choose to stay at Lathrop, both as a temporary and permanent option, and don't have to take a Section 8 subsidized voucher to live in the private market. 

"It's not mandatory. It's voluntary," says O'Connell-Miller. "It's just an option to move if people are interested in moving."

Residents who lived in public housing before the Plan for Transformation began have the "right to return" to public housing. When filling out their housing choice survey, they can choose to take a permanent Section 8 voucher, a temporary Section 8 voucher with the option to return to public housing, or to move to another public housing development where units are available.

If residents choose to take a permanent Section 8 voucher they no longer have the option to move back into public housing.

She also says CHA does track residents who have the right to return when they move so that they are able to offer them the choice come back to public housing.

Residents at Lathrop are still concerned that large numbers of people taking Section 8 vouchers, either permanently or temporarily, will weaken their ability to have a say in what happens in Lathrop in the future.

"I don't know if it's a push out," says Robert Davidson, "but I think it's an unfortunate circumstance when they say, 'You gotta choose something,' when you don't have to."

Davidson says he and many other residents want Lathrop to remain public housing and affordable housing instead of becoming a mixed-income community, which would bring in a large number of market rate units. With less residents living there, he says, there are less people to advocate for their view. 

"That would be an easy way out to get the market rate without an argument," says Davidson.

Some residents will be leaving Lathrop, even if it's just for a while. Vanessa Evans has lived at Lathrop for 20 years and has chosen to take a temporary voucher until Lathrop's transformation is complete.

Evans says she's choosing to move because of her children. She has five children, three of which are boys in their early and mid-teens, and she's worried about their future.

"The way Lathrop is set up right now, there's gang bangers and drug dealers," says Evans. "One of my sons is 14 years old, and he's not doing right here."

Evans will use her voucher to live on the North Side in a community she hopes is safer for her children.

"It's time for a change. I'm not afraid of change," says Evans. "It will give him a fresh look on life and will be better for him."

Housing advocates are concerned that not everyone is making an informed choice like Evans. Stephanie Villinski, lawyer at the Legal Assistance Foundation, says the lack of a plan for Lathrop is motivating some people to move simply because they don't know what the future could hold.

"We're in year-10 of the Plan For Transformation, and they still don't have a plan?" says Villinski. "Is there really going to be a choice for people in the end?"

Villinski was on hand yesterday to let residents know they don't have to leave. She hopes to lessen the confusion for residents and help them explore their options.

"My goal was to let people know what their options are - that people know Lathrop is a temporary and permanent option."

CHA officials will be on hand to help residents fill out housing choice surveys from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. tomorrow 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.