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Slowik: Residents, officials celebrate rehab work at public housing sites

Wednesday, February 06, 2019
Daily Southtown
by Ted Slowik

Kathy Harris said she’s thrilled with her new apartment in the Housing Authority of Cook County’s Turlington West building in Harvey.

“It’s just absolutely beautiful and breathtaking,” Harris said. “I have a home.”

Harris and other tenants spoke Tuesday about the impact of a multi-year, $200 million rehab project affecting 1,225 units of affordable housing in the suburbs. Dignitaries gathered in Robbins to celebrate the completion of work at the Richard Flowers Homes, where 100 units for families have been rebuilt.

Harris said she moved to a temporary apartment in her building for three weeks while her unit was renovated. Improvements at many sites featured new floors, bathroom fixtures, cabinets, appliances, windows and painting in addition to exterior work.

“Change is good,” Harris said. “It’s refreshing and it’s healthy.”

In addition to Harvey and Robbins, sites in Chicago Heights and Park Forest are being rehabilitated in the south suburbs. The work also impacts seven northern and western Cook County communities from Arlington Heights to Evanston.

“(This) is the largest preservation effort the suburbs have seen in decades,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is in a heated campaign for mayor of Chicago.

At the Richard Flowers Homes off 139th Street in Robbins, officials showed off an empty, three-bedroom apartment where a family is set to move in next week. When the two-story structures were originally built in 1952, every unit had a first-floor kitchen and living room and bedrooms on the second floor.

Architects redesigned the interiors of 17 units, so now each of those apartments is contained on one level. Nine units that were previously inaccessible to people with disabilities are now available to residents who use wheelchairs, officials said.

Parking lots have additional spaces for people with disabilities and new concrete has replaced sidewalks that were crumbling in places. Workers have installed new playground equipment and will finish landscaping work as weather permits.

The improvements are strengthening the sense of community and pride among residents, officials said.

“We’re having a lot of people leave Chicago and the state of Illinois,” said Cook County Board Commissioner Deborah Sims, D-Chicago. “If we continue to do this people won’t leave.”

The physical improvements to buildings that are nearly 70 years old complement services such as after-school programs and a health clinic in the neighborhood, said Richard Monocchio, the housing authority’s executive director.

“This is really about community,” he said. “We are preserving the existing housing that we have so that families and seniors will have a decent, safe place to live.”

Robbins has about 5,500 residents. The town was incorporated in 1917 and is named for Eugene Robbins, a real estate developer who laid out the village’s early subdivisions.

“We have a rich history here,” Mayor Tyrone Ward said.

Officials initially considered demolishing the aging Richard Flowers Homes structures and other affordable housing sites in the south suburbs, Monocchio said.

“All of the family housing was on our demo list,” he said.

Instead, banks and other partners joined the effort to rebuild homes. Some units were gutted, and workers replaced plumbing pipes and electrical wiring. Roofs and siding were replaced. In addition to replacing stoves, refrigerators and other kitchen appliances, workers installed new furnaces, water heating and air-conditioning systems.

Demand is increasing for affordable housing in the suburbs, said Audra Hamernik, executive director of the Illinois Housing Development Authority.

“Census data tell us that more than 25 percent of renters in Cook County are paying more than 50 percent of their monthly income toward rent,” she said.

Officials said the housing authority used a federal Housing and Urban Development program — Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD — to help finance the capital improvements.

Construction work related to the $200 million rehabilitation initiative began in 2015, officials said. Preckwinkle said she initially was concerned the administration of President Donald Trump might jeopardize financing for work that was underway.

“Given the recent attitude in Washington (D.C.) toward affordable housing,” Preckwinkle said she was concerned about federal resources being available for continued public housing improvements.

“We’re especially proud of efforts in the south suburbs, where the need for affordable housing is growing daily,” she said.

In some towns, the housing authority is relocating residents for about a year while it rehabs buildings with eight to 10 stories and 200 or more units.

In addition to the Richard Flowers Homes in Robbins and Turlington West Apartments in Harvey, south suburban sites being rebuilt are the 75-unit Edward Brown Apartments in Robbins, the 57- and 70-unit Golden Towers I & II in Chicago Heights and the 106-unit Juniper Towner in Park Forest.

Improvements to elevators and fire-safety systems are part of the work at high-rise complexes, the housing authority said. New community rooms, reading rooms and other common-area improvements are featured at some sites.

Twitter @TedSlowik1

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