Fifty-nine-year-old Natalie Saffold walks slowly down the sidewalk, her hands tightly clutching to her walker.
Every few paces she pauses and looks over the land spread before her. Wire fence surrounds 44 acres of overgrown grass, dandelions, and trees—a lot more trees than she remembers.
This lot was once the site of LeClaire Courts, a public housing development around two miles north of Midway Airport on Chicago’s southwest side. As Saffold walks, she points to things that remind her of days past.
This site was once filled with 600 two-story row houses that stretched along Cicero Avenue from 42nd to 45th Street. That red concrete pillar there was once the start of her fire lane. That vacant space there was once a convenience store. And here, on 45th Street between LaCrosse and Lamon, was her home.
“My unit sat right along here,” Saffold says, positioning herself across the alley, next to a large tree split through its trunk. “My front door was right here.”
It’s 35 degrees in April, and it’s hard to tell whether the tears that form at the edges of her eyes are caused by the cold or by melancholy.
Built in 1950, LeClaire Courts was an early attempt at integrated, low-rise public housing. And unlike Chicago’s more infamous high-rise housing projects—the towers of Cabrini-Green or Robert Taylor Homes—LeClaire had an almost suburban feel to it, with its sprawling layout and proximity to Cicero. Over the years the complex was home to thousands of low-income African-Americans living in a stable residential area that, over time, has become largely Latino.
Almost a decade ago the Chicago Housing Authority told residents they’d have to leave; LeClaire was slated for redevelopment as part of the agency’s Plan for Transformation, a ten-year initiative to tear down most of the city’s public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income developments containing a combination of public housing, market-rate, and affordable units. The CHA intended to build a 900-unit mixed-income development to replace LeClaire, and promised Saffold and her neighbors they could return once LeClaire was renovated. But today, five years after the complex was demolished, the sprawling site is still vacant.
A number of residents, including Saffold, still want to come home. And under the terms of the Plan for Transformation they have an official “right to return.” But for years the CHA has refused to answer their questions about whether, when, and how the site will be redeveloped. Plans to use part of the site for a charter school have only added to residents’ frustration and sparked a new set of tensions. “I’m almost at the point that I’m ready to get me some lawyers,” Saffold says.
It’s hard to imagine that LeClaire Courts was once one of the most desirable public housing projects in Chicago. The development’s neatly trimmed front yards were a source of pride for residents who spent summers outside barbecuing and mingling with neighbors who were more like family.
“The camaraderie was absolutely wonderful out there,” remembers 66-year-old Sandra Walton, who moved to LeClaire in 1971 and lived there for decades. “People have this perception of people that live in public housing—that they don’t work, they’re lazy—and that’s not it. There were nurses, and CTA drivers, and just an array of people. We all took care of each other like a village.”
In 1987, LeClaire became Illinois’s first public housing community managed by residents. In its prime the site included a day care facility, a computer lab, and a resource center. But like many public housing developments in Chicago, it had its troubles. Throughout the years, crime, high unemployment, and poor property maintenance plagued the site.
Saffold and her three children moved to LeClaire in 1981. She joined its local advisory council and served as secretary for four years before becoming its president. It was during her tenure that the CHA hatched its plan to redevelop the site.
Initially, residents were told units at LeClaire would be rehabbed in phases, and that they could remain while the work was going on, moving to other units while theirs were being worked on. But the CHA soon deemed the buildings too physically damaged to save, and, according to agency annual reports, began evaluating “redevelopment alternatives.” As a result, the agency stopped leasing units when residents moved out, leaving them vacant and boarded up.
The vacancies began to worry residents, who felt the decreasing occupancy levels were a risk to their safety.
Tenants continued to leave without being replaced, and in 2009 the CHA board ended LeClaire’s HUD housing assistance payment contract—federal money that helped subsidize half of LeClaire Courts’ units—essentially dooming it to close.
—Twenty-Second Ward alderman Ricardo Muñoz
Residents—who were still under the impression they’d be able to remain at LeClaire while their homes were being rehabbed—were given 90 days to move out.
But Saffold resisted the housing authority’s demand, and attempted to organize others to join her.
“I was trying to get people to stay,” she explains. “I said, ‘Let them take us to jail. At least we could go in front of a judge and plead our case.'”
But many of her neighbors feared losing their subsidized housing. One by one, they packed their things and left.
The CHA offered residents relocation options that included living in another public housing development or receiving a temporary housing choice voucher, also known as Section 8, which can be used to subsidize the rent for an apartment on the private market.
Walton took the temporary voucher and moved to an apartment in Marquette Park. Saffold relocated to a two-story unit in Bridgeport Homes. The date of her exit is still firmly etched in her mind: September 18, 2009.
“I was hurt,” she says. “I felt like I was betrayed.”
By the month’s end, all 200 families that remained would be out of LeClaire.
Today, Saffold and her former neighbors feel like they are living in limbo. What was intended to be a brief wait has extended into seven years of uncertainty.
Saffold’s frustration has only grown. Although she’s fond of Bridgeport, it’s never felt like home.
“We’re still here waiting,” she says.
In 2011, after demolishing the complex, the CHA suspended plans to hire a development team for LeClaire, “pending review and further consideration,” according to agency annual reports. In 2014, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, a public-private organization, completed a transportation study of LeClaire that suggested any redevelopment plan include a mixed-use retail, medical, and institutional complex on the site.
Yet no definitive plans emerged.
Former residents say they haven’t even been able to confirm whether the redevelopment would still include 300 units of public housing as was initially promised (alongside 300 market rate and 300 affordable units).
Neither has the area’s alderman, the 22nd Ward’s Ricardo Muñoz.
“[CHA is] really hard to get through, even for an alderman,” he says during a recent visit to his office.
—Former LeClaire Courts resident Natalie Saffold
Muñoz says he first met with CHA officials in 2011, when LeClaire was redistricted into his ward. He presented the CHA with a plan he calls “a perfect trifecta,” wherein LeClaire would be divided into three parts: one-third housing, one-third institutional, and one-third commercial.
If Muñoz’s plan were to be implemented, it would leave less room for housing than CHA’s original proposal. He estimates there would be a maximum of 250 to 280 units, a third of which would be public.
Asked if he was worried his plan would break CHA’s promise to build 300 units of public housing, he says, “Oh, they’re going to break their promise. They haven’t kept a promise in the last 20 years . . . I mean, they knew they couldn’t keep their promise. I don’t know why they did that, but that’s CHA.”
But even as it has stalled on LeClaire, the CHA has been collecting federal funds linked to its redevelopment. According to HUD documents, from 2013 to 2016 the CHA received $2.93 million in federal Replacement Housing Factor Funding for LeClaire. The program designates money for the redevelopment of CHA sites, although the agency isn’t legally required to use the money for the specific development earmarked for funds.
The CHA declined to address Muñoz’s remarks or a list of other questions. In a statement, agency spokesman Matt Aguilar said that “the CHA has a working group and continues to work with the Alderman, residents and other stakeholders to create a community-driven plan that will determine the future of LeClaire Courts.”
Saffold is part of the working group. But, she says, the CHA has not met with residents in over a year.
Last November the Academy for Global Citizenship, a public charter school that’s been located in the neighborhood since 2008, agreed to purchase just over six acres of LeClaire land from the CHA. The academy has two campuses—one on 47th Street and another in the annex of Phoebe A. Hearst Fine Arts Magnet School on Lamon Avenue. The land, valued at just over $1.5 million according to CHA documents, is meant to house a new single campus for the school. Although AGC reps say the sale isn’t final yet, in June the academy released plans for its new campus. It includes a state-of-the-art sustainable building with a three-acre urban farm and greenhouse.
The plan has reignited former LeClaire residents’ anger and frustration about not being able to return to their homes, and inflamed tensions between former residents and charter school parents and teachers. Some former LeClaire tenants wonder why land they consider theirs is being turned over to a school their kids might not even be able to attend, and they fear that a new campus will cause the population of Hearst to drop and eventually force the school to close.
These tensions surfaced in a public hearing in January, when Donald Cole, a representative of the LeClaire/Hearst Community Organization, interrupted testimony in support of the new campus with his fervent opposition.
“AGC is not wanted,” he said, addressing a room full of faculty, parents, and students.
Saffold doesn’t visit the LeClaire area as much as she’d like to, but when she does, she notices the changes. Old neighbors have moved out or passed on. Businesses have closed down and new ones have opened in their place. And black families, once the majority in the neighborhood, are now scarce.
Still, Saffold dreams of returning.
Over the years, the list of LeClaire residents with a right to return has dwindled from 400 families to fewer than 40. Some no longer qualify for return or have died. Others have simply lost hope of ever returning and have made their temporary homes permanent.
But the low numbers don’t deter Saffold. She thinks CHA still has an obligation to rebuild LeClaire, both for the former residents who still want to return, and to provide housing for other low-income Chicagoans.
“Even if it gets to two people wanting to come back . . . let other families that need them come,” she says. “They want to try to use that excuse that numbers are getting lower. Quite naturally people get discouraged. . . . They might move on, they might be tired of waiting. But I know some families out there need them housing. Whether we go back or not, they should build them back.” v
This story was produced as part of a fellowship with the Social Justice News Nexus, based at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.