Build housing, not new high school, on land promised to displaced CHA families

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A vacant lot at West 24th and South State streets is the site of a proposed new high school to serve the Near South Side.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Dozens of residents gathered last week to lambaste the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Housing Authority for a land grab designed to further disadvantage Black families left behind by the destruction of public housing. 

That land grab is Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to expedite construction of a new high school on CHA property near Chinatown. Lightfoot recently even dismissed and replaced one of her own School Board appointees in order to remove opposition to the plan.

The proposed site for the school was promised by city leaders as a new housing site for those displaced from the CHA’s Harold Ickes Homes, which were demolished between 2009 and 2010. Yet Lightfoot’s plan appears to be moving forward, despite significant opposition and even though nearby high schools like Phillips, Dunbar and Tilden have the capacity to easily absorb more students with expanded programs and resources.

Organizers from the Chinese community have even implored the board to consider building the new school in the new ‘The 78’ community area instead of on CHA property.

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Over 200 residents in CHA’s Dearborn Homes signed a petition stating they don’t want the school on the Ickes site, but do want the housing.

There’s also plenty of misinformation from CPS about who the new school would serve.

The mayor claims it would primarily serve nearby Black communities — where many people lost housing access when public housing like Ickes and Robert Taylor Homes were razed — yet enrollment would likely be quite different. Remember that CPS previously tried to close a highly-rated nearby elementary school with an overwhelmingly Black student body, National Teachers Academy, in order to re-open it as a high school to serve incoming freshmen from South Loop Elementary — a school with a much higher-income and white student body. (NTA parents sued CPS for violating their civil rights and stopped the closure.)

So it’s more likely that the proposed new high school would more closely reflect the demographics of South Loop, and of selective enrollment schools that have become more white and wealthy since CPS’ federal desegregation consent decree ended in 2009. 

Meanwhile, the need for housing is clear.

Black and Latino neighborhoods continue to suffer a negative impact on housing access and housing values because of the city’s history of redlining and discrimination, as a report issued by the office of Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas in July demonstrated.

Over 800 families were displaced when the Ickes homes were demolished. Now, 244 CHA families who were promised replacement housing are rightfully demanding it — not a high school — on land promised to them.

Instead of giving away that land, the mayor must focus on fulfilling the promise to those who have waited far too long for a right to housing. 

Estimates also suggest that nearly 170,000 people are on CHA waiting lists for housing, an enormous and growing number since the agency’s “Plan for Transformation” kicked off the largest destruction of public housing in the nation’s history. 

Chinatown families do not want to locate the school on property promised to Black families in need of housing. Groups that include the Coalition For A Better Chinese American Community and People Matter have called for alternative sites, including The 78 along the Chicago River.

Other groups like the Hope Center, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Raise Your Hand and Northside Action for Justice have also called for $20 million in grants to schools like Kelly, Dunbar and Phillips that have experienced decades of disinvestment and whose enrollment is likely to be negatively impacted by a new school.

Imagine if the city made a real commitment to affordable and public housing instead of using land promised to former CHA residents to build schools that will disproportionately serve whiter and wealthier residents. What if we used the Cook County Land Bank and reformed scavenger sales to provide housing for those on the CHA waiting list and for homeless students and families?

What if Lightfoot made good on her campaign promises to honor the democratic sentiments of public school families via an elected school board, and enacted a real estate transfer tax to help fund housing for any and all of our housing-insecure families? 

Then, we might be on the path to narrowing racial disparities rather than exacerbating them.

Jackson Potter is vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

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August 30, 2022 at 04:01PM

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