Chicago project thrives under resident management PUBLIC HOUSING

July 06, 1991|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau of The Sun

CHICAGO -- LeClaire Courts, a maze of two-story row houses set among leafy side streets in western Chicago, seems a far cry from the crime and grime of most other large public housing projects in the city.

But it was not always so. Drugs and gangs ruled here, too, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to Rosie Garrett, a 53-year-old LeClaire community organizer.

"We had our share of problems," she says.

Now, after managing the project through their own corporation for the past five years, LeClaire tenants are cautiously considering the feasibility of buying the property under the federal government's new HOPE program for low-income homeownership.

"Personally, I look at ownership with a great deal of excitement," says 50-year-old Irene Johnson, who heads the LeClaire management corporation.

She acknowledges that not all of the approximately 600 families who live there are as enthusiastic as she is . But she maintains that it is because few know much about HOPE or how it works.

"Own? I would love to own," says 64-year-old Lillian Long. "Maybe the lotto will buy it for me. Then I will have something to leave to my children and grandchildren."

Mrs. Long shares a four-bedroom apartment with her daughter and grandchildren and says she has been entirely dependent on Social Security since her husband died 23 years ago.

The Department of Housing an Urban Development looks hopefully to LeClaire and other projects in cities such as Boston, St. Louis and Washington to provide proof that HOPE can succeed. Their successes, HUD officials maintain, would serve as a catalyst for ownership in other areas and eventually throughout the country.

Besides differing architecturally from the high-rise projects, LeClairediffers in the demeanor of its tenants.

As they tell it, during the Chicago Housing Authority's notorious phase of neglect and mismanagement in the early 1980s, LeClaire residents were outraged by the decline in basic services and decided to take charge of their own affairs.

With the help of a local community activist, they formed a tenantscommittee, launched neighborhood cleanup campaigns and organized residents' patrols, carrying baseball bats and cameras, to chase the gangs, prostitutes and drug dealers from the streets.

"The CHA figured we were crazy," Ms. Garrett says. "They didn't BTC want to turn the development over to unprofessionals like us."

But the residents persisted, and by 1986 they had won official recognition from the Housing Authority as the first resident management corporation operating in Chicago. There are now seven.

The LeClaire residents corporation has saved more than $1 million by carefully accumulating funds from a private grant and subsidies from the municipality and the CHA, Mrs. Johnson says. It plans to use the money to carry out extensive renovation of the aging and leaking roofs.

Critics argue, however, that places such as LeClaire cannot be regarded as models for all housing projects.

If LeClaire's prospects seem good, they maintain, it is only because, as a row house complex, it can be more easily managed than a high-rise. It is blessed with substantial private sponsorship beyond its CHA and HUD subsidies, it boasts a strong, well-educated leadership, and it has been under a form of resident management for almost eight years.

HUD spokesman David Caprara replies that such criticism underrates the ability of poor people to take care of themselves.

Ownership, he says, is a powerful incentive: "It's an amazing contagion that can turn things round for people. It injects dreams."

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