Grove Parc’s development prospects still hazy

By Tyler Warner

A group of Grove Parc residents gathered last week for their regular Wednesday night meeting in the office of Southsiders Together Organizing for Power (STOP). The agenda for the night contained a singular item that seemed almost impossible three years ago when the Chicago Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced the planned foreclosure of the Woodlawn apartment complex. That item was a victory party.

Those in attendance had cause for celebration. On January 15, the members of STOP and the residents of Grove Parc saw the fulfillment of one of their primary objectives: the transfer of Grove Parc’s management from Habitat Company to Preservation of Affordable Housing, Inc. (POAH). The change in management was the result of a ruling by HUD, which determined that the property’s owner, the Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corporation (WPIC), had to provide a plan for the redevelopment of the dilapidated property or face foreclosure. The decision was then made to seek new management and ultimately a transfer of ownership.

The apartment complex, built more than 50 years ago at the intersection of 61st Street and Cottage Grove, is showing more than its age. Boarded-up windows have become a common sight around the complex. Residents complain that the management has increasingly failed to respond to tenant complaints.

“When I came here in 1991, Grove Parc had 22 maintenance men,” said Faith McGhee, an active member of the Grove Parc leadership team and a long-term resident of the development. “When you put in a work order, it would happen that day. Now almost nothing ever happens.”

Residents and HUD both acknowledge that crime, as well as vandalism of the property, has become a major source of concern.

Grove Parc resident and leadership team member Lonnie Richardson, who is also a member of a number of community policing organizations, pointed to the architecture of the building as a major facilitator of crime in the neighborhood. Blind corners, labyrinthine cement staircases, and deep-set entryways conceal criminal activity from the street, which makes policing the area especially difficult.

The complex, made up of two mid-rises and a number of row houses, has become a notable focus for HUD. According to Ed Hinsberger, the director of HUD, the apartment complex was becoming a risk to its residents. The failure to properly address these concerns led to two consecutive failed housing inspections and, ultimately, foreclosure.

Despite these concerns, the planned foreclosure prompted a strong reaction from residents and community organizers such as STOP. After temporarily halting the foreclosure, HUD proposed a number of prospective redevelopment plans to the residents. When these ideas failed to meet the approval of the tenants, the Grove Parc leadership team initiated its own nationwide search for potential developers. Under the tenant organization’s stipulations, the new developers would have to agree to preserve at least 300 of the 500 units on location, with the remainder scattered throughout Woodlawn.

According to POAH, members of the leadership team contacted the Boston-based management company after STOP learned that they had successfully acquired and renovated a similar property in nearby Kankakee, IL. POAH manages over 4800 previously “at-risk” rental housing units across the country.

Several members of the team pointed out POAH’s history as a champion for low-cost housing.

“We’re happy to have POAH on our side,” said McGhee. “I feel as though they are going to help make manifest the vision we have for Grove Parc.”

Five blocks to the north of Grove Parc, officials at the U of C have also been paying close attention to the fate of their neighbor. However, according to Hank Webber, vice president for community and government affairs, the University views its role as primarily advisory.

“Our role is mainly to encourage and support the Woodlawn residents,” he said. “This is a decision that is not and should not be made by the University, but by the Woodlawn community.”

Webber, who currently serves on the board of WPIC, said that the most important aspect of the recent progress made in Grove Parc has been the development of a consensus among key organizations within the Woodlawn community regarding the future redevelopment of Grove Parc. He also added that he was favorably impressed by POAH’s national record.

“I think steps are moving in the right direction,” he said.

However, HUD stipulations require that POAH provide a plan to assume ownership of the property by this month or it is likely that the foreclosure will move forward.

“If there is no plan submitted [by POAH] very shortly, we would have to foreclose,” Hinsberger said. “The residents are living in some pretty bad conditions.”

While all parties involved in the decision-making process agree that these conditions demand attention, the nature of that change has become a source of much debate. Tensions between the Grove Parc residents and HUD reached a boiling point in June when a planned meeting between Hinsberger and members of STOP and the leadership team resulted in the arrest of Richardson and several others after a heated confrontation at the HUD office.

Before POAH is able to purchase the property, they must complete a unit-by-unit inspection of the apartment complex. According to Karen Blomquist, manager of communications for POAH, the purpose of the inspection is to determine the financial feasibility of the transaction as well as the burden on the residents that would be incurred through redevelopment.

If, following its inspection, POAH agrees to assume ownership, HUD is willing to work with the developer, but Hinsberger remains unsure whether retaining Grove Parc is the best option. While he said that HUD provided tenants with a proposal including similar numbers of on- and off-site subsidized housing to the tenants’ expectations, he also stated that housing vouchers were also a consideration.

Housing vouchers are intended to provide an amount of subsidization equal to the amount provided by project-based housing, but can be used to move from property to property. Project-based housing, on the other hand, is tied to a specific location. Under both plans, recipients are expected to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent. HUD then covers the difference. Currently, Grove Parc consists of 100-percent project-based subsidized housing.

“Some have said that vouchers don’t provide the same security as project-based housing,” said Hinsberger, “but in HUD’s eyes, vouchers are virtually the same thing, except that they allow you to move across the country.”

In response to the presentation of vouchers as a possibility, Richardson said that a survey distributed by the leadership team found that only a very small percentage of tenants favored a voucher system. This stands in contrast to a previous survey conducted by HUD, which found that well over 50 percent of respondents would accept vouchers. Richardson said that he was aware of HUD’s survey results, but that they were misleading because the survey was conducted before the voucher system and other options were sufficiently explained to the residents.

While the Grove Parc leadership team and STOP have served as the primary representatives and organizers among the Grove Parc tenants, other residents have taken matters into their own hands. Last February, resident Luna Stewart filed suit against the Habitat Company.

The case, which is still pending, alleged that Habitat had failed to pay tenants the interest on their loans and had failed to disclose the violations cited during the HUD inspection, both violations of the Chicago housing code. According to Stewart’s attorney, Mark Silverman, the infractions on the part of Grove Parc’s former management entitle Stewart and her fellow tenants to twice the value of their security deposits and the equivalent of one month’s rent, which he is seeking.

For Silverman, however, the case is about more than a few thousand dollars. After being approached by Stewart in order to fight the foreclosure, Silverman determined that foreclosure was nearly inevitable and so turned his attention to fighting Habitat in other ways.

“I’m not a real optimist…If the place is going to get shut down, I’d like [the tenants] to leave with something in their pockets,” he said.

Habitat representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Prior to any additional steps by either HUD or the leadership team, the residents of Grove Parc will have to wait for POAH to finish their inspections. Even so, McGhee, a longtime tenant, is not about to relinquish her claim on Grove Parc.

“I have a history in this community,” McGhee said. “This is where I live. This is where my family attends church. Here we’re surrounded by the best of parks and the best of transportation and the best of events. I don’t want to leave my community. I don’t want to be displaced.”