By Hal Dardick
Tribune staff reporter
Published September 12, 2005
About 18 months ago, Latoya Barnes was forced out of Altgeld Gardens on Chicago's Southeast Side, where her mid-rise apartment building was slated for rehabilitation.
The 20-year-old woman and her two children moved to Evergreen Terrace, a federally subsidized 356-unit apartment complex on Joliet's near west side where she is now raising three children and working nearby in retail sales.
"From the moment I moved in, I wanted to move right out," Barnes said one recent afternoon. "There's drugs. There's nastiness. My kids can't come outside because of the nastiness. They're [urinating] in the hallways. ... There's kids out here who want to sell weed--little kids."
Those woes, say politicians from the City Council to the U.S. Senate, are the reason Joliet should be given a chance to buy Evergreen Terrace--through a judicially forced sale, if necessary--to remake the complex.
But Evergreen Terrace owners and operators and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials are offering a different solution: refinance the complex to pay for improvements that would cut crime and upgrade living conditions.
Which proposal will win remains to be seen. Both advanced in recent weeks, as two lawsuits involving the complex wended their way through state and federal courts.
What is clear is that residents, politicians, bureaucrats, owners and managers all agree that something must be done, that the 36-year-old complex doesn't live up to HUD's responsibility to provide "decent, safe, sanitary and affordable housing."
Police average five trips per day to the complex, on occasion for major violent crimes, including a 2003 killing possibly linked to drugs, and frequently for drug dealing, including the arrest of a complex manager this year.
None of the elevators work. The one remaining playground, everyone agrees, is inadequate. The parking lot is full of holes. The stairways have a foul odor. Residents complain of bug infestations. Appliances are aging.
Barnes blames fellow tenants, visitors and Burnham Management Co., which runs the complex.
"The best idea is to give everyone a Section 8 and give them a time limit to get out of here," she said, contending the complex is beyond redemption.
That view is shared by local politicians, who have called Evergreen "a blight on the community" and "a hellhole."
They tried to stop HUD from authorizing the plan to refinance the complex, which has been owned by New West for 24 years. HUD approved the deal Tuesday, however, and now has 60 days to close on it.
Officials from New West, which along with Burnham Management is controlled by the family of Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Gidwitz, argue that refinancing would allow them to fix up the complex and preserve affordable housing for tenants.
A majority of the tenants are poor, African-American single mothers and their children.
"We believe that the housing is sorely needed in the neighborhood, and we are going to make it better," Burnham Management President Herb Halperin said.
"The solution that we are offering is one that does not abandon the interests of the residents who live there," he said.
Burnham's view is shared by high-level HUD bureaucrats. They say a city purchase of the property, most likely to raze its seven buildings to make way for a mixed-use development with fewer subsidized units, could leave a significant number of residents without a home.
Also backing the refinancing effort is the Chicago Rehab Network. Director of operations Rachel Johnston noted that the complex, on 7 1/2 acres along the Des Plaines River, is near downtown jobs and trains.
Joliet politicians say that affordable homes are available and that refinancing is not the answer.
They argue that a decade of prodding New West and Burnham Management has failed to improve conditions.
"Clearly, the management team has failed on its part and does not deserve another opportunity," said U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.). "Time and time again, the management team has promised to make changes and has failed to follow through."
Backed by Weller, the City Council last month took the unusual step of launching condemnation proceedings, a lengthy and potentially expensive process that could end with a judicially forced sale of the complex to Joliet.
"It's filthy and unsafe, and people shouldn't have to live in those conditions," Deputy City Manager Jim Shapard said. "If they wanted to fix that up, they could do it. ... They don't want to spend their money. They want to spend yours and mine."
Three years ago, New West sought refinancing through HUD's Mark-to-Market program, said Charles Williams, who oversees the initiative as deputy assistant secretary of HUD's Office of Affordable Housing Preservation.
Under that program, HUD could approve higher rents for the complex, where rents are subsidized under the Section 8 program. The approval of higher rents and mortgage insurance provided by HUD would allow New West to borrow funds to improve the complex.
If the deal is closed, New West would spend $3.5 million on upgrades in the first year and $1.83 million in the next four years. After that, about $2 million would be spent over 15 years. That money would be spent on the 241-unit Phase I of the complex. A Phase II refinancing plan is in the works.
In the first year, Phase I work could include "a state-of-the-art security system" with fencing, a gatehouse manned around the clock, an extensive video-surveillance system and electronic key cards and visitor passes.
Other initial upgrades would include repairing elevators, rebuilding the parking lot, adding playgrounds, extensive landscaping and moving often-vandalized lobby mailboxes to the guardhouse. All new kitchens and bathrooms would come in the first five years.
After HUD approved a similar plan in 2003, Weller, then-U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, Councilman Tim Brophy and other Joliet officials flew to Washington, where they met with then-HUD Secretary Mel Martinez. As a result, that deal never closed.
If it had, residents already would have seen improvements, Halperin said. "The real victims here are the residents," he added.
Since then, the dispute has spilled into the courts. New West filed a federal suit against the city, accusing it of waging "a campaign of harassment, political influence and deception to force Evergreen Terrace and its low-income residents out of Joliet."
The city, in turn, filed suit in Will County Circuit Court seeking nearly $300,000 from New West for providing off-duty police to patrol the complex.
While the battle raged, HUD, now led by Secretary Alphonso Jackson, continued to evaluate the refinancing, signing off on it less than a week after Weller and U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama asked him to hold off to give Joliet a chance to move on condemnation.
"Our major concern is that we improve the affordable housing, that we improve the conditions for the residents there," said HUD's Williams, who called the council's move to condemn the property "unfortunate."
Barnes and several other residents interviewed at the complex this summer said the refinancing plan would not help. But others interviewed last week said they were glad HUD approved the refinancing.
Debra Pickering, 47, who works in food service at a school, said she likes living at the complex, particularly because she doesn't have a car.
"Everything is in walking distance for me," she said.