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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 of 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:
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 Rev. Bishop Gwin, Janice Mitchell, and Clyde Walker 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. 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. Protesters held signs that read, “Preference for Seniors, Disabled & Homeless.”
Along with the letter, Patty Smith, Director of Capital Programs for the HACC, wrote to Ed Bland in an email stamped August 13, 2012 at 4:08 p.m., that because HACC is a “Move to Work” program, Cynthia Harvey’s information was “erroneous.”
Nearly 30 minutes later, at 4:41 p.m., I received a second email responding to my FOIA request with a recent ruling 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.”
The presence of city administrators on Thursday was another sign of Champaign’s involvement. Greg Skaggs, Community Development Specialist with the Citiy of Champaign, stood in the distance taking pictures of the protesters. He later attended the meeting, along with Kerri Spear, a programs manager with the city, wearing a Neighborhood Services shirt, who at one point interrupted the proceedings. On June 17, 2012, Spears told the News-Gazette they can carry out similar redevelopment plans in other parts of the city, “We think we can do that with Garwood. We think we can do that with Garden Hills.”
Board commissioner Grant Henry said in the meeting that the board has been “kept in the dark” about the negotiations of the director Ed Bland. Bland is looked upon with suspicion by many members of the community. He resigned from his previous position with the Gary Housing Authority amidst a scandal in which other top administrators were fired or reassigned. A federal report concluded that Bland had “grossly mismanaged” a $1.2 million rehabilitation project. In July 2011, displaced residents from Dorsey and Dunbar had to hold a protest in front of Bland’s office to get an increase in their stipends so that they could afford equitable housing. In September 2011, a story appeared in the News-Gazette about bed bugs that Bland had failed to address at a public housing complex in southeast Urbana.
Anybody who has been watching in recent years has seen the gentrification of Champaign, promoted under the guise of “redevelopment.” In downtown this has meant millions of dollars in tax relief to build “M1,” which recently lost its anchor tenant Jim Gould, and “M2,” which still has many vacancies. The beautification of the Boneyard Creek was paid for with $22 million of TIF (Tax Increment Financing) to correct “blight,” money that would otherwise go to schools, parks, and public assistance. The Champaign city council recently approved $10,000 for each downtown business built before 1940 to give their storefronts a facelift, again tapping into TIF funds.
The hope is to attract students from Chicago, their parents, wealthy alumni, and young professionals of the “creative class” to Champaign. On the North End, “redevelopment” means the removal of black and poor people from sight.