For many residents, living in federally subsidized housing is bad enough.
But a year ago, tenants in Chicago’s largest such development considered themselves in the worst-case scenario.
Residents of the Lawndale Restoration property, which houses 1,240 units spread throughout 100 buildings on the city’s West Side, were about to be forced out of the property. Cecil Butler, a west side property developer and president of the property’s management company, had fallen behind on mortgage payments and allowed the buildings to fall into extreme disrepair.
As a result, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development planned to foreclose the property and cancel its Section 8 contract. HUD planned to provide eligible tenants with vouchers to relocate. Most of the residents, though, wanted to stay in their homes.
“I wanted it to remain project-based and intact,” said Lynn Hankerson, who lives at the property’s building on 418 W. 15th St. “I did not want to leave after living there for 18 years. I was accustomed to the neighborhood, I knew the community and it was close to my job.”
Chicago ACORN, a community organization for low- and moderate-income families, contacted the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center for Poverty Law to help the residents. The Shriver Center co-filed a class action lawsuit in May 2005 against HUD on behalf of the Lawndale tenants and ACORN, alleging the department acted illegally by refusing to maintain the property’s Section 8 contract.
After a lengthy legal battle, HUD agreed in settlement negotiations last December to rehabilitate one-third of the property’s units and preserve them as subsidized housing. The remaining units will be closed and eligible tenants will receive housing vouchers.
At an awards luncheon last Wednesday hosted by the Shriver Center to recognize
the team involved in the suit, the degree of the victory was still in question.
“It’s not a legal win in the traditional sense, but from our point of view, it’s a step in the right direction,” said Katherine Walz, one of the lawyers representing the residents and Chicago ACORN. “The main thing was that we didn’t want the residents to be the recipients of the management’s failure.”
Many of the Lawndale Restoration residents considered the result a direct triumph. “If you knew from whence we came to where we are now, you’d know it’s a win,” said tenant Clara Fulwiley. “We went in with the knowledge that it’d be a foreclosure, and we’d have to leave.”
Ninety-three percent of Lawndale Restoration’s residents are considered low-income, making less than 30 percent of the area’s median income of a little more than $18,300. Walz said had they been forced to leave the property, they might not have found homes.
“They would have received vouchers, assuming they were eligible,” she said. “But the voucher system is not as reliable as it used to be?”it’s continually a target for cuts, and we were concerned they would receive the vouchers, then hear the program was out of money.
“We hope that this case brought national attention to the fact that project-based housing must be preserved,” Walz said, adding that project-based housing is a viable option for low-income residents, particularly as the nation faces an affordable housing crisis.
Walz said Lawndale Restoration’s residents did not want to leave the community they knew, which was starting to revitalize. The condition of the property’s buildings, however, was uninhabitable in many parts.
“The waiting list for the Chicago Housing Authority has been closed for years, and almost all the waiting lists in the state are closed or will be soon,” she added.