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Housing Wed Nov 14 2012

What's the Future of the Lathrop Homes?

The Architects Newspaper recently reported on the latest controversy in the ongoing saga of the Lathrop Homes. With new designs pending, community groups and the aldermen associated with the project are in arms. They feel that the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) has pulled a "bait and switch" for their input in the future of Lathrop. Initially accelerated towards renovation with Lathrop's recent induction into the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year, it appears that all three proposed plans don't reflect the desired number of units or a satisfactory level of historic preservation for the CHA's critics.

The CHA seems eager to move forward with one of the proposed plans, not just because the restoration has dragged on since 2001, but because it means they can move on to 21st century developments that favor mixed-income and scattered site properties, and away from the bleak memories of the old projects. To Lathrop's credit, they don't come loaded with terrible memories of other sites such as former Mayor Jane Byrne's failed stint at Cabrini-Green, the stories of police officers fearful of gang barricades in the Robert Taylor Homes, or "Girl X." In fact, in many ways the Lathrop Homes have experienced some levels of success--mainly stemming from the fact that they are surrounded by an affluent community on the North Side of Chicago, and were designed as low-rise units with lots of green space. The Architects Newspaper also points to its diverse population as one of the success factors too, as Lathrop has an even "mix of white, black, and Hispanic residents."

Lathrop's challenges in the past decade have come more from bureaucracy and funding issues than gang violence. The CHA made plans to restore the nearly 75-year-old community back in 2001, but to what degree and ultimate result have still been undetermined. Only now does it seem that action on actually doing something with the project is imminent: completing a restoration or a renovation plan that ultimately puts more residents in homes.

That's the biggest issue with Lathrop. Vacancy. For a big public housing community in Chicago, one regarded as one of the better ones, there just aren't enough people living there. Earlier this year Chicago Magazine wrote about the vacancy issues at Lathrop, where they noted that 82 percent of the units were unused. Many residents have complained that the CHA has purposefully left those units empty, as it's easier to redevelop the site if there's only a small population to displace. Though this policy may be intentional, it also reflects the catch-22 the CHA has been in since it was made clear in 2001 that a major renovation (or demolition) would be on the horizon. As a recent CHA promotional video shows, many units are unlivable. In order for the CHA to lease out these units, they need to get brought up to code. But what's the sense in spending the resources to fix up apartments that might not be around for much longer? The question is how much longer--currently the CHA has a list of residents looking for housing that well exceeds the available units. Every day a vacant unit goes unused at Lathrop that could go to a family in need.

Now, with the recent vote from the CHA board towards construction the homes may be one step closer to having a desirable occupancy.

One thing's for sure. The public housing era that erected developments of towering monolith apartment structures is over. Part of the reason for that is the success that was seen in the Lathrop Homes. Whatever plan the CHA chooses, we're going to see something different and hopefully something remarkable in the next iteration of this community. If you'd like to see for yourself, the CHA will be having open houses this week at the Lathrop Homes to solicit community ideas and feedback.

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