Judge limits discovery in suit over Chicago Housing Authority's redevelopment plans for Cabrini-Green rowhouses

By Jonathan Bilyk | Jul 11, 2014


Some of the final remaining residents of public housing in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green rowhouses have been dealt a setback in their effort to persuade a federal judge to compel the Chicago Housing Authority to halt its plans to redevelop their mostly vacant apartment homes into a mix of public assistance and “market rate” units.

U.S. District Court Judge Marvin E. Aspen last month ruled the plaintiffs – a collection of former Cabrini-Green residents represented by an advisory council – cannot have unfettered access to CHA documents and other materials under discovery, and must allow the housing authority to show, under its current redevelopment plan, that “all of the families the plaintiffs represent will be afforded the opportunity to live on the Near North Side.”

By limiting discovery, the judge said he was sparing the CHA and the court from “an undue burden or expense for CHA and an inefficient waste of resources.”

“If we find that CHA plans to build sufficient public housing units in an opportunity area for all of the Rowhouse families, then Plaintiffs’ claim may have been addressed successfully by CHA,” Aspen wrote in granting the CHA’s motion for a protective order to limit discovery.

Aspen's June 24 ruling is the latest step in a years-long legal fight over the fate of the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood.

The rowhouses have stood as some of the final fully public housing in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

Beginning in 2006, the CHA offered the residents of about 440 of these rowhouses vouchers to temporarily relocate while the CHA renovated the dwellings. However, in the years since, those renovations have mostly not materialized, and according to reports, the units have deteriorated.

In 2011, the CHA announced it intended to redevelop the rowhouses into a mixed-income neighborhood. Under this proposal, a third of the units would remain public housing for low-income residents; a third would be offered to moderate-income residents whose annual income rises to about 60 percent of the region’s median income for a household of four; and the last third of the units would be offered at “market rates.”

The plaintiff residents, represented by the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council, a federally recognized representative agency for the development’s public housing residents, filed suit in 2013 to block the redevelopment plan.

They argued the plan violated federal housing law and would compel them to relocate to highly racially segregated areas of the city with higher crime, less economic opportunity and worse schools. They also claimed the CHA had “reneged” on a promise to keep the rowhouses “100 percent public housing.”

“In effect, 400 families will have to start over in areas that are poor, segregated, and, under the CHA’s own standards, ‘low opportunity,’” the council asserted in its suit.

The CHA, according to court documents, responded, in part, by saying it believes “there is sufficient housing on the Near North Side to accommodate the displaced rowhouse families."

The plaintiffs then sought discovery rights to “engage experts to analyze the information that CHA provides” to support its assertions that the area near Cabrini had enough housing for the displaced residents.

The judge, however, said he thinks the residents’ case rests on that question, and, if the CHA answers it sufficiently, the complaint may be resolved.

The judge gave the CHA until Aug. 15 to provide evidence to support its assertion in answering discovery. He also set a Sept. 12 deadline for the plaintiffs to respond and CHA until Sept. 22 to file its reply, with a hearing slated for Oct. 30.

The CHA, according to court records, is represented by Jeffrey Bensley Gilbert and Thomas Edward Johnson of Johnson, Jones, Snelling & Gilbert in Chicago.

The plaintiffs, through Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council, are represented by Chicago attorneys Veena K Gursahani, Richard Francis O'Malley and Steven Joseph Horowitz of Sidley Austin LLP and R. Elizabeth Rosenthal, Lea A. Weems, Richard M. Wheelock and Lawrence Davis Wood with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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