City, housing authority grapple over public housing

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Over the past decade, communities across the country have demolished or sold hundreds of thousands of public housing units.

Danville is aiming to be such a community.

Though it has yet to redevelop a single public housing unit, city officials and Housing Authority administrators are grappling over the future of Fair Oaks, the area’s largest family occupied public housing complex, and plans for its own public housing stock.

What’s more, city officials have also been slapped with a housing discrimination complaint based on a city plan to reduce public housing by more than half.

This plan prompted federal officials to halt nearly $1 million in community development block grant money for the 2012-2013 fiscal year until city officials revised it to include “revisions that do not call for decreasing public housing and steps Danville will take to affirmatively further fair housing,” according to federal housing officials in a response to a request for information from in May.

City officials complied by the May 25 deadline to revise their plan to federal requests and officials confirmed the approval of the upcoming year’s funds earlier this month.

Danville uses the money to fund home improvement and neighborhood improvement projects. The largest portion of money funds economic development projects.

The housing discrimination complaint and subsequent federal investigation remain open.

Public housing and Danville

Public housing was established by the federal government to provide decent and safe rental housing for eligible low-income families, the elderly and persons with disabilities. Today, there are more than 1.2 million public housing households nationwide.

Low-income housing advocates estimate that about 10,000 public housing homes are demolished or sold every year.

“This level of loss of homes affordable to the lowest income people tears a big hole in the American safety net,” said Sheila Crowley, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in a release issued earlier this year.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development clarified its process for selling or demolishing public housing properties.

Fair Oaks is the largest public housing complex in the city of Danville and represents the densest part of the city. Built in 1942, the complex contains 326 family units packed in uniform red brick townhouses on more than half a square mile of land.

Factories and warehouses – some vacant – surround the Fair Oaks complex. There’s only one convenience store within walking distance and it’s at least two miles to any schools or grocery stores.

Fair Oaks resident Corey Dorsey doesn’t think this is fair.

“It’s inhumane, if you ask me, you know what I’m saying,” said Dorsey. “We separated from all the stores, we not around anybody, we have really nobody but us.”

Dorsey was homeless in Chicago when he decided to come to Fair Oaks. He had heard from friends that it would be easier to survive.

Unmarried black females, raising children on extremely low incomes, disproportionately populate Fair Oaks.

Dorsey’s girlfriend Kiki Jones is one of those women.

She is 24, and raising her five-year-old son Pierre in a Fair Oaks housing unit. She came to Danville in 2008 from a women’s shelter in Crystal Lake, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. She said Fair Oaks is not a place she wants to raise her son.

“It’s kind of crazy because I don’t let my son outside like that because the kids are corrupted, too,” said Jones. “I really am leery with Fair Oaks.”

Though she has worked at a Wendy’s restaurant and at the local factory in the past, she currently makes money doing other people’s hair. She said right now, money is not a problem for her, partly because of the price of rent at Fair Oaks.

Since moving in together last year, Dorsey and Jones have been paying $17 a month to live in a two-bedroom apartment.

Properties like Fair Oaks are like other big public housing projects in that they represent what bad public housing looks like, according to Danville community development manager John Dreher.

“Almost every city in American realized over the last twenty years that model doesn’t work very well,” said Dreher. “It becomes a dead-end trap for the residents. And they started replacing it with more scattered site, or uplift it. Our housing authority didn’t do that. So we’re kinda like the last kid on the block to modernize.”

Danville Housing Authority Director Greg Hilleary agrees that the current setup of Fair Oaks is not ideal and realizes that the city is behind the curve on developing better housing. But, he said, change can’t happen all at once, which is what he believes the city is proposing to do.

“I don’t disagree that redevelopment should happen,” said Hilleary. “I think we’re just disagreeing on how. And I truly believe that additional housing needs to be in place before we start knocking down buildings. We’re going to have to prove to HUD that we can house folks before they give us permission to tear anything down.”

Fair Housing Lawsuit

Since 1970, the population in Danville has decreased more than 25 percent, from about 42,000 in 1970 to about 32,000 in 2010.

Several large companies like GE and GM shut down factories and moved elsewhere, taking well paying jobs with them. In 2010, approximately 21.4 percent of the Danville population was living in poverty, compared to about 13 percent in Illinois and 14 percent in the country.

One of the City of Danville’s future plans include reducing public housing  by more than half, primarily by demolishing Fair Oaks, 85 percent of which is made up of black residents.

The proposal to shut down public housing has come under much scrutiny and debate, some citing racial discrimination.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating in response to a housing discrimination complaint case filed by four women who lived in Fair Oaks. Three have since dropped out since the complaint was filed in 2010.

Attorney Katherine Walz of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law is represented the women.

“To use affordable housing as a cover for racial discrimination is particularly abhorrent,” said Walz. “And we hope that the city can turn towards a new path or being accepting, and inclusive and a welcoming community not just to long-term existing residents that may or may not be white but to all members of its community.”

Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said someone’s race or where someone is from has nothing to do with it.

“I don’t care where people come from when they move to this community, Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Los Angeles, New York,” said Eisenhauer. “But we have to make sure that the programs we offer in this community are successful programs within our community.”

The mayor said he disagrees with how public housing currently operates. He thinks longtime residents of Danville should be able to receive priority over other applicants.

The Danville Housing Authority provides 537 subsidized housing units and administers 525 housing choice vouchers, otherwise known as Section 8.

Of the 537 housing units, 377 are for families while the other 190 are for the elderly or disabled. Until recently, the city recommended that the Danville Housing Authority to reduce public housing units to 211 and vouchers to 397.

Section 8 vouchers are used to supplement a person’s rent. In other words, the tenant would pay part of the rent, and the Housing Authority that provided the voucher would pay the remainder. With the voucher, someone can move anywhere in the country where there’s a landlord willing to accept the voucher as payment.

There is currently a waiting list for both vouchers and public housing in Danville. Black people make up 80 percent of the voucher wait list, and 89 percent of the public housing wait list.

The lawsuit claims that reducing public housing assistance will mostly impact black individuals in Danville.

Fair Oaks resident Corey Dorsey said that decreasing public housing and section 8 vouchers should be out of the question.

“There’s a lot of people out here that need this public housing, a lot of people that depend on it,” said Dorsey. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to decrease public housing but I think it’d be a better idea to expand it. Stop isolating us. We isolated out here. It’s just like being in jail.”

Former Chairman of the Board for the Danville Housing Authority Mike Puhr said he told investigators from HUD that he didn’t think the city was necessarily discriminating against anyone.

“I told them that I did not feel that there was any intent to discriminate, it was more the mayor’s concerns about can his community continue to sustain with the limited resources with the number of public housing units and the number of Section 8 vouchers,” said Puhr.

Plans for Redevelopment

Danville community development manager John Dreher said that the undeniable trend in Fair Oaks isn’t fair to its residents.

“Fair Oaks has 320 something units and although no one intended it this way, it has ended up being 80 percent African American female under the age of 25 with children, no husband,” said Dreher. “It’s a singular demographic, and that’s not good for them or anybody else. It’s also gotten a reputation where, I know there are some very nice people that do live there, but nice people don’t want to live there.”

City and housing authority officials disagree on how public housing should be redeveloped, under the city’s push to close Fair Oaks and decrease the number of housing choice vouchers.

Danville Housing Authority Executive Director Greg Hilleary doesn’t see how that’s possible.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that we can just arbitrarily kick 300 families to the street, not house them, because that’s illegal, we’re going to have to house them,” said Hilleary. “But in order to do that there’s going to have to be changes either on the Section 8 side for funding to issue those vouchers or we’re going to have to have someplace else to house them. And I think that’s the philosophical difference that we seem to have that we need to work out.”

Both the city and the housing authority agree that the high density, one demographic public housing complex is not ideal. Instead, they hope to move on to what they call a mixed income model of public housing.

A study commissioned by the Danville Housing Authority concluded 466 additional units of public housing are needed to meet current demand.

But Dreher said that that figure is just unacceptable.

Expanding public housing, he said, is not the right direction to take. Instead, helping people move out of public housing should be the city’s main goal.

“We just happen to think that the expansion of more and more and more free housing doesn’t really help anyone,” said Dreher. “I know that sounds awfully rough when you’re the person out there who needs it, but we’d rather lift that person to productivity than just park them in an apartment and walk away and leave them for 50 years, and that’s kind of what the housing authority has been doing.”

At the time of this interview, Corey Dorsey had been living in Fair Oaks for a year, but he understands why people would end up staying for an extended period of time.

“People done fell into the comfort of $17 a month for rent or light/heat program, or programs to help pay your bills, you know,” said Dorsey. “And it takes responsibility from people of getting up and getting out and getting their own. It’s technically almost baby-fying them. They almost robbing us of our will to live, robbing us of our survival skills almost, by baby-fying us.”

Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said that the housing authority’s reasons for not pursuing funding for redevelopment are just excuses.

“What’s been so frustrating to me however is the long delay after delay, excuse after excuse as to why we can’t move forward in a direction of providing a far more successful housing environment than what we provide today,” said Eisenhauer.  “There’s no question in my mind, and while I recognize it’s going to take time and money, we should already be moving in the direction of having hired and architect, laid out what a mixed income living arrangement should look like. We should be out knocking on doors, looking for funding, finding out what state and federal program exist. We’re not doing any of those things. And again that’s a charge that the housing authority has been given by this administration that unfortunately they just haven’t picked up the ball and ran with.”

Hilleary said that this discussion should have started a long time ago.

“I think one of the important things that needs to happen is much more communication,” said Hilleary. “We need to work on this problem together. It hasn’t been that way. It’s been tear it down and then deal with it later. That’s not how we need to work on this.”

The housing discrimination investigation is ongoing. For now, there are no direct plans to demolish Fair Oaks.

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