Champaign Housing Authority Considers Demolishing Third Black Neighborhood

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A protest was held before the board meeting of the Housing Authority of Champaign County (HACC) on Thursday, August 23, 2012 by those questioning plans to demolish Bristol Place, a largely African American neighborhood on the North End in Champaign. This comes on the heels of the demolition two public housing units, Dunbar Court and Joann Dorsey Homes, also largely comprised of black residents. Local authorities have ambitions of eliminating all signs of poverty, while failing to address the basic needs of those less fortunate.

Bristol Place is a neighborhood of seven square blocks north of Bradley Avenue and east of Market Street. There are between 75-100 homes that would be slated for demolition. Champaign city officials have told the Champaign News-Gazette they are willing to use eminent domain to remove homeowners. A recent study conducted by University of Illinois professors Stacey Tutt and Andrew Greenlee found 93 percent of those interviewed in the neighborhood were categorized as low-income. Four people reported living in their home for 30 years and one had been there for 50 years. Two houses in the neighborhood were built by Habitat for Humanity.

The protest outside of the Housing Authority in downtown Champaign was led by Terry Townsend, African American activist and former Housing Authority commissioner. After the demonstration was announced, the issue was pulled off the board’s agenda. Regardless, a large crowd of people filled up the seats in the audience of the board meeting. During public comment, Townsend addressed the board and outlined his demands:

1.    Preferences: Enact for homeless persons, disabled persons, and seniors
2.    Resolution 2012-27―Preferences for persons “displaced by governmental action and applicants living or working in Champaign County”: Defeat or rescind
3.    Bristol Park Project (City of Champaign): Discontinue involvement with this project until Dorsey and Dunbar Court projects are complete, and internal Housing of Authority of Champaign County issues are resolved
4.    Bedbugs and infestation: Organize a campaign consistent with HUD Notice 2212-12
5.    Housing Referral Service: Meet with community stakeholders to assess the feasibility of establishing the aforementioned service
6.    Investigation of the living and housing conditions of the Bristol Park Neighborhood: Empanel a group of outside experts
7.    Resignation from the Regional Planning of Ed Bland, HACC Executive Director, as the RPC low income representative. This position is an apparent conflict of interest and undermines the authority of the Housing Authority of Champaign County’s Board of Commissioners
8.    Housing Authority of Champaign County By-laws: Revise to be consistent with the Illinois Housing Authority Act, especially as it relates to conflict of interest
9.    Joann Dorsey: Retain the name.

Townsend also announced the organization of a coalition called the Committee for Affordable Housing. Members of the Tenants Union, the Ministerial Alliance, Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, and others were present to show their support and collect more information.

After some discussion of the issue, board member Janice Mitchell said that the HACC had not heard any proposal from the City of Champaign. The board voted on whether or not to invite Champaign to explain its plan. The vote was split 3-3, with board members Margaret Neil, Grant Henry, and Eddie Adair voting “no,” and Ed Bland, Rev. Bishop Gwin, and Janice Mitchell voting “yes.” Board chair Al Anderson abstained from the vote, as his term expired on July 31, 2012 (Champaign Mayor Don Gerard gets to choose his replacement and is surely expected to pick someone favorable to the city). Until the new chair is selected, there could be no action on the vote.

Documents provided to the author by Townsend reveal the intentions of Champaign administrators to tear down the neighborhood for redevelopment. A report on the “Bristol Park Neighborhood Plan” by City Manager Steve Carter, dated May 4, 2012, speaks as if a partnership had already been formed, “The Housing Authority is currently drafting an intergovernmental agreement that provides for Section 8 vouchers for all eligible households.”

The report also makes explicit the desire to shift the cost of more than a million dollars to the Housing Authority. In Carter’s own words, “This partnership would significantly lower the amount of required City investment for relocation by instead shifting the cost to the Housing Authority through the issuance of Section 8 vouchers. The estimated five year value of the Section 8 contribution from the Housing Authority is $1.1 million.” Yet the long-term costs of Section 8 vouchers beyond five years could increase, making the Housing Authority more of an “equal partner.” The total redevelopment is expected to cost the city of Champaign $7.4 million.

The problem is that this plan is not in accordance with the requirements of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Two letters obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reject a proposal made by Housing Authority director Ed Bland’s. On July 12, 2012, Cynthia Harvey of HUD’s Chicago Field Office said in a letter to Bland that the HACC could not give preferences to residents in order to “target specific developments.” There is a list of approximately 400 people waiting to receive Section 8 vouchers, housing assistance provided to low income residents in all of Champaign County.

On August 13, 2012, a second ruling was issued, this time from the Washington D.C. office of HUD. Sandra B. Henriquez, Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing, sent a letter affirming the earlier ruling and highlighting one section that states clearly, “preferences must be consistent with fair housing and civil rights laws.”

Anybody who has been watching in recent years has seen the gentrification of Champaign. On the North End, “redevelopment” means the removal of black and poor people from sight.

About Brian Dolinar

Brian Dolinar has been a community journalist since 2004.
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