Shuttered buildings at the Lathrop Homes in May 2014 Credit: Maya Dukmasova

In a win for fair housing advocates, on Thursday a federal court issued an order committing the Chicago Housing Authority to retaining 525 subsidized housing units on the north side. These units will replace the 525 public housing units that will be lost on the site of the Lathrop Homes as a result of the redevelopment anticipated to begin in 2017.

Though advocates consider the court order a victory in the ongoing fight to preserve affordable housing in integrated north-side neighborhoods, the terms of the order also raise concerns about how long low-income families could count on these new units, and how long they may have to wait for them.

The redevelopment of the Lathrop Homes has been a contentious part of the CHA’s Plan for Transformation for the past 16 years. The 925-unit low-rise development, nestled on 35 acres of land between the western border of Lincoln Park and the Chicago River, is one of just two remaining public housing developments on the north side. Though in the early 2000s the CHA remained committed to keeping Lathrop as an all-public housing development, talk of transforming it into a mixed-income community began in 2006. In anticipation of the redevelopment, many families—as well as the Boys and Girls Club housed on site for decades— moved out.

Currently just 144 Lathrop units are occupied. But remaining residents and allied neighborhood groups have continued to challenge the CHA’s redevelopment plans, drawing public attention to the importance of preserving the large stock of family-friendly public housing units in an integrated neighborhood with ample job opportunities, access to transportation, and good schools.

Over the past year the redevelopment plan (led by a team of for-profit and nonprofit real estate developers) has more or less solidified: some Lathrop buildings will be torn down and replaced, while others—those on the National Register of Historic Places—will be rehabbed; the site will become a mixed-income, mixed-use residential and commercial community. In total, the redeveloped site will include 494 market-rate units, 401 public housing units, and 221 tax-credit-financed affordable units. Throughout the planning process, developers have complained of constant stalling by the CHA and obstruction by resident advocates, while advocates and residents have decried the developers for what they see as opaqueness in planning and the CHA for abandoning their interests.

One of the most significant bones of contention has been the 525 units of public housing that would be lost on the Lathrop site under the current plan. Over the past several months, fair housing groups and lawyers representing public housing residents filed briefs in federal court asking a judge with oversight powers tied to a landmark 1966 civil rights lawsuit to push the CHA into a firm commitment. The court order issued Thursday requires the agency to replace the 525 family housing units either by building new units or by entering into long-term contracts with private owners in designated north-side neighborhoods.

“I think this is a good order—this is what the community asked to have happen,” says Kate Walz, an attorney with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law who represents community groups advocating for the preservation of the lost Lathrop units. However, Walz also argues that observers should “be vigilant” regarding the sort of units that are actually produced—ones large enough to accommodate families struggling to find affordable housing in the private market, or ones that will serve the most easy-to-house CHA families.

“It would be a hollow victory if in the end most of the units are one-bedroom units,” says Walz. “We know larger families struggle in the voucher program to identify larger housing.”

Another point of concern is the possibility that project-based vouchers—a five-to-20 year contract between a private owner and a housing authority to maintain a privately owned unit as public housing—will make up the bulk of the replacement units. The court order specifies that to count as a replacement unit the contract must be made for 20 years; if the CHA enters into a project-based voucher contract for, say, ten years, then the unit only counts as half of a replacement. It remains to be seen whether the court order will lead to the creation of lots of short-term affordable housing units, or provide housing approaching the long-term affordability of true public housing units.

Lathrop residents and their allies had wanted the court to require at least a 99-year commitment for affordability.

“But I guess some gain is better than no gain,” says J.L. Gross, a veteran and 27-year resident of Lathrop who has been a leading voice for the community. “We’ll accept it, but it doesn’t mean we’re not gonna push for something longer.”

The order doesn’t commit the CHA to any time line for delivering the 525 replacement units. And history has shown that the CHA is more than able to drag its feet on nonlegally binding promises—the so-called Plan for Transformation was supposed to deliver 25,000 units of public housing by 2010 but remains unfinished nearly seven years past that deadline.

The CHA didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Update, December 27, 11:53 AM:

In a phone call with the Reader Tuesday, CHA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan noted that the CHA has entered into its agreement with public housing residents willingly.

“We think it’s significant that both sides have reached this agreement in the best interests of the future of Lathrop,” Sullivan said.

She also noted that the court order includes a commitment from the CHA to create 105 senior housing units on the north side, in addition to the 525 family units.