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The vacant lot at 5406 N. Winthrop is ugly but innocuous looking, filled with knee-high weeds that climb up and around a cyclone fence. But last month the lot became the subject of a heated legal battle when members of the Edgewater Community Council, a local group, went to court to prevent the Chicago Housing Authority and the Habitat Company from building a six-unit building for low-income families there.

A judge ruled against the community group, arguing that it had no legal right to intervene in the matter. Now it looks as if the building will go up within the next year (though Habitat officials would not comment). But the judge’s decision hardly settles the long-standing debate over where the city should build housing for its poor.

“We already have more low-income housing than just about any other community in the city,” says Patricia McGuinness, chairman of ECC’s housing committee. “That’s enough. How much more can one community take? We’re just little folks slugging it out from the trenches, and it seems the CHA is against us.”

Not all her neighbors agree.

“The beauty of Edgewater is its diversity,” says Mimi Harris, who works for a local social-service organization and lives in the area. “But I get the feeling that some people–some poor people, I should say–aren’t so welcome here anymore. Rents are going up in Edgewater, they’re not going down. There’s a problem of displacement. I hear about it all the time from the people who come to my office. Let me tell you: I lived in Old Town when it was integrated. Now it’s all upscale. And I think it was a better neighborhood then.”

Such confrontations have been part of city politics since the 1940s, when an enlightened liberal named Elizabeth Wood ran the CHA. Wood argued that the CHA should scatter low-rise public housing units in neighborhoods throughout the city to avoid massive concentrations of poor. Her proposals generated such a storm of protest from white middle-class communities that the city’s aldermen used their clout to bounce Wood from office. Her successors built high-rise projects, like the Robert Taylor Homes, in a handful of all-black neighborhoods.

In 1966, a CHA tenant named Dorothy Gautreaux sued the CHA, arguing that its policy of limiting public housing to black neighborhoods was discriminatory. A federal judge agreed. But the city–under mayors Richard J. Daley and Michael Bilandic–refused to comply with several judicial orders to scatter units throughout white neighborhoods. The city appealed; the case dragged on for years, during which time no public housing was built; and a shortage of low-income housing was born. In 1979 Mayor Jane Byrne agreed to scatter units throughout the city. Sites were selected and buildings bought. But the CHA proved so hopelessly inadequate at managing the project that most of the buildings remained boarded up and few if any new units were built. On three occasions Alexander Polikoff, Gautreaux’s lawyer, asked the federal court to pass control of the program from the CHA to a receiver. In December 1987, a federal judge appointed Habitat as receiver.

Habitat, says Polikoff, has done an excellent job. “Despite all the HUD regulations, they’ve started building 101 town houses on 11 sites in ten wards,” he says. “They’ve rehabbed over 200 units, buildings that were vandalized and boarded up.”

For the most part, Habitat’s work has generated little attention. Then word slipped of their plan to build on Winthrop. That’s when the Edgewater Community Council rebelled.

“There was an immediate reaction against this plan,” says Alderman Mary Ann Smith of the 48th Ward. “And for many good reasons.” For starters, the CHA has a lousy track record managing scattered-site units, Smith says.

“We have had to go to war against the CHA in the past, particularly over two scattered-sites in our community,” says Smith. “These buildings were operating just fine; people were living in them. Then the CHA decided to convert them into low-income units as part of the scattered-site program.

“They bought the buildings and evicted the tenants. But they couldn’t get their act together. The buildings just sat there vacant. It was goofy. They kicked people out of good housing in order to make housing for the poor. No wonder people don’t trust the CHA.”

In addition, Smith and the ECC argue, Edgewater is already saturated with subsidized housing. Indeed, the north-lakefront community is one of the few economically and ethnically integrated neighborhoods in Chicago. The ECC estimates that there are 740 low-income subsidized housing units on Winthrop and Kenmore between Bryn Mawr and Foster.

“It’s not scattered-site if they put most of the units in one neighborhood,” says Smith. “It’s not good public policy to saturate a neighborhood with any kind of housing, including high rises or upscale town houses. We’re raising legitimate questions.”

They also object to the proposed building’s design. “They’re building it lot line to lot line; that’s poor planning,” says Smith. “It’s going to be too congested for the people who live there. Scattered-site housing is supposed to improve living conditions for poor people. I’d like to see a little bit more creativity, don’t just dump something on a site. What really bothers me is that there are whole areas in the city that don’t have any low- income housing.”

An ECC survey taken in 1984 showed that 35 percent of the CHA’s scattered-site units were concentrated in just four of the city’s 77 communities (Edgewater, Logan Square, Uptown, and South Shore) and that more than half of the city’s communities had none. (It should be noted that almost no suburbs make any effort–whether volunteer or court ordered–to build low-income housing.)

“I met with Habitat officials and I said, ‘Why don’t you build in Lakeview or Lincoln Park,'” says Smith. “They said, ‘We can’t afford to–the property costs too much.’ So you see, they are concentrating in certain affordable areas. It’s not fair and it violates the scattered-site intent.”

But Harris maintains that the ECC’s fears are exaggerated. “When I drive up and down these streets I find it hard to distinguish the public from private housing,” she says. “There are scattered-site units in Edgewater that are lovely, which the tenants take great care of, where they have flower gardens in the front.” She thinks one Habitat low-income project, a building called the Pines, even helped revive the community. “It was a solid chunk of investment. Before that there were a lot of fires and vandalism around here.”

In recent years, property values have risen and many young professionals have settled in Edgewater. But ECC members worry that the neighborhood’s prosperity hangs on a scale that could tip the other way if too many low-income units are built.

“We’re talking about a dependent population with many needs,” says Charlie Sachs, ECC’s executive director. “There are a handful of families who bring problems with them. They can damage a neighborhood.”

And he says the man who owns property next to the lot at 5406 N. Winthrop has threatened to sell. “He’s afraid his property will be ruined,” says Smith. “It’s a shame, because he’s put so much in it.”

Yet people buy and sell property all the time for all sorts of reasons. Most likely if the fellow on Winthrop does sell, he’ll sell for a lot more money than he paid.

“Prices are going up around here,” says Harris. “That’s what’s so weird about ECC’s complaint. Someone’s building upscale town houses right now just down the street. How can you say low-income housing has hurt Edgewater?”

Chances are the residents in the low-income building would be black. But ECC members insist race is not their concern. They point out that many opponents to the building, including the property owner next door, are black. “You can’t be against integration and live here,” says Smith. “Edgewater is integrated, and that’s not going to change.”

But the ECC suit does argue that “the area is experiencing substantial resegregation, being less than 1 percent black in 1970, 17 percent black in 1980 and 30 percent black in 1988.”

It concludes that the proposed units would “hasten the creation of a racially segregated area” and violate the rights of residents “to live in a racially integrated area.”

That claim, Harris maintains, is unwarranted and offensive.

“All sorts of people are moving to Edgewater, including Hispanics, Asians, Russians, not just blacks,” she says. “Why is it that people only use the term resegregation when the black population goes up? Take Old Town, for example; now that’s resegregation. It used to be black, white, Hispanic, poor, and middle-class. Now it’s only upscale white. But people say, ‘Hey, that’s great.’ They certainly don’t call it resegregation.”

Both ECC and Harris will keep watching the situation. “I only hope we can keep some perspective,” says Harris. “We have a lovely community. One little building can’t change that.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.