Jane Addams tenants out, but so are bulldozers

A lawsuit filed July 27 in federal court has resulted in a stay of demolition for the Rockford Housing Authority’s (RHA) Jane Addams public housing complex. Prairie State Legal Services and the National Center on Poverty Law filed for plaintiffs Irene Brown and Dorothy Jones. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the RHA are defendants.

Plaintiffs argue the HUD and the RHA violated fair housing laws. The RHA is accused of not proving the obsolescence of Jane Addams, or that it is beyond feasible repair.

Prairie State Legal Services Managing Attorney Cathy Ritt told The Rock River Times: “It’s really a pretty simple legal case. It is a question of whether the Housing Authority and HUD have properly approved the demolition of Jane Addams.” Ritt added: “This isn’t just like a figment of our imagination. This is in federal law. It’s black and white.”

Ritt explained Congress has decided housing authorities must prove structures are obsolete before getting the nod for demolition. Plaintiffs allege HUD found Jane Addams was not obsolete, but approved the demolition anyway.

“They have to prove what is wrong with the place that you can’t live in it, and they have to prove it can’t be repaired within the cost standards that HUD sets out,” Ritt said.

Ritt indicated the partial demolition was approved with the understanding the remainder of the development, Brewington Oaks, will be made more viable. With more than 500 people recently reported on an RHA waiting list, Ritt said this is no time to demolish 84 units of public housing.

“That’s a problem, and it’s illegal,” Ritt stated.

Neighborhood critics have asserted to The Rock River Times most of those on the waiting list are from Chicago, transferring in with HUD vouchers from the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) structures that have been eliminated at the direction of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (D). Lewis Jordan, who was the head of the RHA, is now the head of the CHA.

Concentrated public housing has been shown to be a failure in fighting poverty across the county because it is an outmoded concept with no neighborhood examples to inspire success. Scattered-site housing is the new model that has shown some success.

A July 30 hearing resulted in a temporary agreement between the parties whereby the remaining tenants will vacate immediately and be placed in other public housing until the problem is resolved. Meantime, the planned demolition is on hold.

July 30, City Attorney Jennifer Cacciapaglia indicated: “They entered into an agreement to stay the demolition and to transfer immediately the two remaining occupants. In 21 days, all the briefs have to be written, and then the judge will make a ruling on the issue.”

Because the demolition wasn’t planned to begin until mid-August, Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) isn’t worried about work being delayed.

Brown and Jones, who are African-American, have lived in the complex for 11 and 22 years, respectively, and say they don’t want to leave now that crime is finally on the decline in the area. Ritt argued low-income African-Americans have a harder time obtaining housing than do white low-income renters. Plaintiffs further allege being pressured to move to developments they considered less-desirable.

Neighbors argue, however, the housing development has been a magnet for crime, and they’re happy to see it go.

Ald. Victory Bell (D-5), whose ward is home to the Jane Addams complex, stands behind the RHA.

“We’re trying to de-densify some of these areas where we’ve had a high concentration of subsidized housing,” Bell explained. “We certainly are still sensitive to the people, and I think we’re working with the Housing Authority to come to some kind of agreement on it.”

Mayor Morrissey agrees every effort has been made to accommodate the needs of residents in their relocation process.

“It was a huge concern for the city and for the Rockford Housing Authority that appropriate replacement housing be found for the residents of Jane Addams,” the mayor reported, arguing the need for renewal. “The record is very clear that the old way isn’t working. The poverty’s gotten worse in the City of Rockford over the last 40 years, not better.

“Right now, we have a chance to start moving forward on a revitalization effort,” Morrissey added. “That, combined with various housing initiatives that the city’s pushing for, gives a real chance to bring renaissance to that particular neighborhood, but also set in place a pattern that promises renewal for the entire city.”

Replacement of the Morgan Street bridge is among the projects dependent on Jane Addams being leveled.

Another alderman in the focus area, Doug Mark (R-3), argued the critical need to move ahead with projects the 11th-hour lawsuit threatens to delay.

“We need to look at some of the revitalization issues that we have and move forward on those in a positive way,” Mark said. “We’ve gone through the process to do that, and now it’s time to move that ahead and to take care of those outstanding issues.”

Ald. Carl Wasco (D-4) acknowledged, “Low-income public housing is a part of a big city, but so is revitalization of neighborhoods.”

Morrissey thinks health and safety concerns for neighbors of the mostly unoccupied housing project outweigh any reason Brown and Jones have for wanting to remain in the mostly vacant complex. Eighty of the 84 units have been vacated since HUD approved demolition of the development last fall.

Morrissey presented photos taken earlier in the day during inspections, which revealed break-ins, breaches in firewalls between the units, evidence of drug use and stripped copper wiring. Morrissey pointed out the copper thefts are particularly disturbing because Jane Addams units still have live wires. The mayor added the Fire Department is uneasy with the potential for arson on the site.

Ritt, however, argued the damages shown by Morrissey likely occurred after the units had been vacated and that they are not a reflection of conditions while residents occupied the apartments.

“We had an engineer go through in May,” Ritt said of a report attached to the complaint. “They were far from condemnable at that point.”

Believing the photos clearly show a need for the units to be condemned, Mayor Morrissey indicated the city may be able to move ahead with the demolition if an imminent danger can be proven. Morrissey said the city may file a petition to exercise its own powers to condemn and demolish the complex if it is deemed a hazard.

“This is a huge concern for this city on an immediate emergency level,” Morrissey argued. “Secondarily, I think it’s a huge concern for the city because we’ve been moving forward on various plans for reviving that area.”

The mayor pledged, “I can assure the members of the council and of this community, we will continue to exercise the city’s independent police powers to make sure we’re doing everything we can to assure the safety of all the neighbors in that community.”

The mayor questioned the timing of the “11th-hour” lawsuit, but Ritt said Prairie State has been trying to work with the RHA for months, and the lawsuit should come as no surprise.

“Prairie State wouldn’t have brought the lawsuit just for fun,” Ritt responded. “But when there’s something going on that affects clients who come to us about it, and they’re [RHA and HUD] not meeting the legal standards, we brought the lawsuit. Why it has caused such a fuss at City Hall, I don’t know…It wasn’t intentionally last-minute.”

A status hearing will be held Aug. 10 to verify the court order has been followed by all parties.

from the Aug 1-7, 2007, issue

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