Comfortable Apartment, But ‘Neighborhood Is Trouble’

Living in North Lawndale on Chicago’s West Side, a Section 8 voucher recipient looks to get out of the area.

Taura Willhite | Sun-Times photo

After moving around the city for years, Taura Willhite is glad to now be in a comfortable apartment, with a landlord who’s prompt to respond when she calls with a maintenance request.

What she doesn’t like, though, is the area around the three-story greystone in the 1600 block of South Homan in North Lawndale where she lives. It’s bad enough that she wants to move out.

“The neighborhood is trouble,” says Wilhite, 40, a disabled mother who lives there with the help of a Section 8 voucher from the Chicago Housing Authority. “There’s a lot of drug sales and gun violence.”


Related Article: Cashing In On The CHA


Under its “Plan for Transformation,” the CHA demolished badly managed, high-rise housing projects in “the largest, most ambitious redevelopment effort of public housing in the United States.” The aim was to help people find better housing options and, with that, to improve their prospects for work, education and quality of life.

“We want to rebuild their souls,” former Mayor Richard M. Daley said of the city’s public housing residents.

Taura Willhite Chicago Housing Authority

The CHA provides Taura Willhite with a housing voucher to live in this six-flat, center, on South Homan Avenue. Her landlord plans to rehab the abandoned building next door. | Brian Jackson / Sun-Times

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More than a decade and a half later, Willhite lives on a trashed-out block that includes 76 CHA-subsidized residents — among them former tenants of the long-gone high-rises. Amid vacant lots and boarded-up homes, they live in 14 buildings, some of them with a history of code violations.

In 1966, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lived just a short walk away from here while waging his Chicago campaign “to help eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment.’’

Fifty years later, vacant lots dot the block where Willhite lives. The buildings there include a century-old single-family home and four three-flats built during the housing boom of the early 2000s.

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In the past year, the police have logged 67 crimes on this block — including drug dealing, armed robbery and aggravated battery. Shootings, sexual assaults and other violent crimes have been reported on neighboring blocks.

Yet landlords have bought clusters of buildings there and elsewhere on the South Side and the West Side at very low prices, often leasing them to Section 8 tenants, whose rents are subsidized by the government. In many cases, they’re hoping the neighborhoods will improve so they can sell at a profit.

“Part of my motive is financial,” says Marcin Kania, who leases an apartment to Willhite in a redeveloped a six-unit building and plans to rehab an abandoned building next door. “Right now, it is a great time to purchase the property. I’m hoping that this area in 20 or 30 years will turn into Logan Square or Humboldt Park.”

Willhite says she moved here because she’d been a victim of domestic violence and needed a place to live. She uses a cane because of a disability and has struggled to find housing that’s accessible, affordable and safe. As a result, Willhite has lived in a number of apartments in the 15 years she’s participated in the voucher program.

Willhite found her current apartment through a newspaper ad last year.

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In 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority embarked on the largest public housing makeover in the country. Today, the Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association continue their examination of the effects of the city’s “Plan for Transformation.’’

“I didn’t know the neighborhood was like this,” she says.

Willhite has sent her 12-year-old son — the only one of her three kids still at home — to live with her brother in the suburbs. She told a housing counselor, hired by the CHA, she wants to move as well.

“I said I don’t feel safe,” she says. “They said I had to wait until my lease is up.”

That’s not until August, when Willhite says she hopes to be moving “somewhere that’s nice.”