JOLIET – Michael Simelton watched last week as workers loaded into trucks the belongings of the first resident moving out of Des Plaines Garden Homes.
“This is a great day,” said Simelton, CEO for the Housing Authority of Joliet. “We’re seeing the vision come to life.”
In a matter of months, wrecking crews will tear down most of Des Plaines Garden Homes, the 1950s-era public housing project that was the first built by HAJ. The apartment complex will be replaced by a mixed-income subdivision that HAJ sees as the future of public housing.
Wayne Sellers, the first resident to move Thursday, said he plans to come back.
“I didn’t have no problem here,” Sellers said, explaining his plans to move into the new Water’s Edge, a development of 68 single-family homes and townhomes to be built at the same site. “It’s going to be a new neighborhood and everything.”
But other Des Plaines Garden Homes residents said they were happy to leave and were not planning to return.
“This type of environment is not where I want to raise my kids,” said Anwanna Pierce, who has a 4-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter.
Pierce has lived at Des Plaines Garden for a year. Before that, she lived three years at Fairview Homes, another HAJ apartment complex for low-income families.
“It’s a dangerous environment,” said Pierce, who said she was the victim of a crime at Fairview. “People who don’t live here come here and dirty it.”
Section 8 opportunities
Pierce had been trying for five years to get a Section 8 voucher, which provides federally subsidized rent payments to landlords who accept it. The vouchers are tough to get, and the waiting list is long. But everyone forced to move out of the 122 units to be demolished at Des Plaines Garden got one.
Most have expressed enthusiasm about the opportunity to move.
Even Cynthia Pitchford, a public housing resident for 33 years and someone who had an opportunity to move out on a Section 8 voucher in the past, is glad to be going.
“I’m ready,” Pitchford said during an interview in her apartment – still cozy and furnished since she is not close to moving yet. “All this time I’ve been here I’ve been on resident councils or working in housing maintenance. This is the first time I can focus on myself.”
Pitchford has been an active public housing resident. One reason she’s stayed, she said, is she felt a need to help other residents. She’s been involved in after-school programs for children. She taught housekeeping classes.
Having seen how much help some public housing residents need, she wonders how well they will do on their own.
“I try to tell them they’re going to take that crutch away from you,” Pitchford said. “I had people who didn’t know how to use a plunger.”
Because of her experience in housing maintenance with HAJ, Pitchford not only knows how to use a plunger, she can do plumbing and drywall. She has worked on furnaces. On one recent visit to a potential new residence, she pointed out to the landlord that the water heater was broken.
Pitchford lost her HAJ job as the agency cut its staffing by about one-third. She is now taking classes at Joliet Junior College, where she expects to graduate in May and work in special education.
HUD and public housing
The HAJ layoffs were driven by funding cutbacks from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and HAJ’s own need to get control of its finances.
The number of employees at HAJ is down from 70 in 2012 to 43 today.
The decline in federal funding is one reason to move to new housing models, Simelton said.
“I think we can all see the trend of what’s happening at the national level with funding for public housing,” Simelton said. “The amount of funding has been shrinking for years. Knowing that, you have to come up with innovative ways to stay afloat as an agency.”
HAJ tore down another housing complex – Poole Garden Homes – in 2007. Those apartments were replaced with Liberty Meadows Estate, a mixed-income subdivision with duplexes, single-family homes, and rent-to-own options that make it possible for residents to become homeowners.
The new developments are built with support from tax credits and private investors. The mixed-income nature of the developments mean more residents are contributing their own money. And the ownership option creates more of a neighborhood environment – hopefully without the crime that often plagues urban public housing.
Back to the future
While these redevelopment projects may reflect the future of public housing in Joliet, Simelton believes they also are a throwback to the original intent of public housing.
HAJ celebrated its 70th anniversary this year, which takes the authority back to 1945. The first housing authorities were created in the 1930s, Simelton said.
“Somewhere along that time, housing authorities lost their way,” he said. “They were content with just managing public housing. The intent was to create affordable housing.”
The difference, Simelton said, is that public housing has become “very generational” for some families instead of a step up. The hope with the new subdivisions is that opportunities for ownership will make residents more independent.
Fairview Homes is the last large-scale, low-income family housing complex in Joliet. But HAJ also has begun to seek HUD approval for demolition of Fairview.
“The government no longer is investing in developments like that,” Simelton said.