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LeClaire Courts conundrum

Martha Abraham has lived at LeClaire Courts for over 30 years. She's attended LeClaire Baptist Church every Sunday and raised three children there, all of whom have gone on to get college degrees. She's the woman that other residents come to when they don't know what's going on or who to trust.

But her community is dying a slow, painful death. And while Abraham and others are screaming for life support, city officials say they need to pull the plug.

It came to a head this week, when LeClaire residents sat down in a room with Chicago Housing Authority staff, to talk about closing down the development.

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Martha Abraham (right) expresses her frustration in a meeting of LeClaire residents and housing authority staff, including director of asset management Jadine Chou (left) and resident Michelle Burton (center).

At several points during the meeting, Abraham stood up at the conference table and bellowed, often with tears in her eyes, about the injustice she felt was taking place.

"You told us we can stay here. We love LeClaire Courts. We've been here for years. You gonna take our home from just because we're poor?" shouted Abraham.

If it sounds like the housing authority is the Big Bad Wolf threatening to knock down people's homes, then we just because we haven't gotten to the real heart of the situation.

Here's the skinny on LeClaire: It's a sprawling, low-rise development on the city's far South West Side, out by Midway. It's actually two different developments rolled into one: one part that's nicknamed "city/state" and the other "federal." The federal side is traditional public housing, but city/state is actually project-based Section 8 housing. The distinction is one of boring, complicated housing policy, so let's just say for now that the money for each side comes from two different parts of Uncle Sam's money pot.

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LeClaire Courts federal side

And things at LeClaire aren't so good. Of the 600 units on site, there's only about 180 families living in them. Boarded-up units outnumber the lived-in ones, crime has gone up and conditions are deteriorating. There used to be a computer lab, resource center, and all kinds of activities for kids and families, but one by one, they've packed up and moved out.

The city/state side will definitely be closing this year. And the plan for the federal side is a little sketchy. CHA says it's not closing the federal side right now, but if conditions get too dangerous, they'll have no choice.

With the city/state side closed, only 40 families would remain at LeClaire. And officials say that's treading on dangerous territory.

"At some point, there's going to be so few people out here that it's not gonna be safe," said
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Jordan talks to residents at the LeClaire fieldhouse

CHA chief Lewis Jordan at last week's town hall meeting. "I don't want some child walking past 30 vacant units to get to her house with God knows who's in those 30 vacant units. That's the kind of choice I have to make."

I certainly don't envy Jordan's position. It's a tough one. There are no easy answers on what to do at LeClaire.

Ultimately, the hardest thing about this whole situation is that you have a whole group of people who are so heavily invested in their community. People like Martha Abraham. People who have put blood, sweat and tears into a neighborhood, and ultimately, because it's public housing, they have no say over what happens there.

That fact sort of boggles my mind.

I mean, I know the government pays for it, and so the government decides. But isn't it sort-of weird that the people who live in a place don't have any control? Their lives are in someone else's hands, no matter how much they've invested.

It's such an obvious idea, but so profound. In one sense, the very essence of being American is the idea that you control your life, your home. The whole idea of representative, local government is that people know best what to do with their community because they live there.

But not at LeClaire. 

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Rosie Eubanks and her sister listen for details on what will happen at LeClaire

And so Abraham and others will just have to wait and see what Jordan and his staff decide to do. I asked Matt Aguilar, CHA's spokesperson, if there's a cut-off point for when federal side residents would have to go. He said there's no set point at which federal side residents would have to leave their homes, but if things become unsafe or it doesn't make good business sense to keep LeClaire open, it's going to have to shut down.

Rosie Eubanks has lived at LeClaire for 40 years, working as a pre-school teacher in the local headstart. She told me she doesn't think that other people should be able to make decisions about someone else's community, but that's the way it happens in public housing.

"Because it's low-income, they have the hammer over our heads. What can we say?"



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