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Altgeld Gardens: Home away from nearly everything

Altgeld Gardens-Murray Homes is the Chicago Housing Authority’s largest housing development. The predominately Black populated housing complex has 1,198 units spread out over 190 acres. But it is also one of the most isolated housing developments, l

Altgeld Gardens-Murray Homes is the Chicago Housing Authority’s largest housing development. The predominately Black populated housing complex has 1,198 units spread out over 190 acres.

But it is also one of the most isolated housing developments, located just west of the Bishop Ford expressway at the 130th Street exit.

There is only one convenience store located within two miles, so if residents run out of soap, toilet tissue or toothpaste, they have to pay inflated prices. There are no drug stores close by either, so if residents get sick and need prescription medicine, they have to travel.

That is how life is at Altgeld Gardens these days, residents said.

“I feel that we are a city within a city and have little contact with the outside world,” said Tracy Nelson, 34, a single mom of two. “I am not working but going to school to be a certified nurse assistant, and I plan to move to a more traditional community once I start my career.”

Resident Mark Bell, 29, said one thing he does not like about Altgeld is the location.

“Dude, it’s too far. It takes like an hour to get from here to the (Red Line) train station at 95th (Street),” he said. “There aren’t any name brand grocery stores to make small purchases either.”

For residents without cars, there is one Chicago Transit Authority bus, the No. 34 S. Michigan, that goes inside the complex and runs 24 hours. The CTAis also in the planning stages of extending the Red Line train further south to possibly 130th Street and Stony Island Avenue. By doing so, Altgeld residents would be able to access the Red Line faster.

And although Altgeld’s landscape is freshly manicured, the complex sits in a maze, making it difficult for visitors to find their way out and difficult for police and firemen to locate a unit in an emergency.

The main entrance is at 130th Street and Michigan Avenue. And while there are four exits available, a drive through one of these exits would lead back into Altgeld and the main entrance to get out.

“You don’t want to get lost up in here at night. Man, you’d never would find your way out,” said Dwayne Foster, 37, a Altgeld resident since age 10. “To make it in here, you really have to know some people because if you’re a stranger, you can forget it. Anything could happen to you.”

One thing that is quickly noticed about the housing complex is the surrounding stench.

“I don’t know what smells worse, my dirty hamper or the smell from the landfill nearby,” said Crystal Jenkins, 46. “And when it’s hot and humid outside the smell is unbearable. The odor smells like rotten eggs.”

John Porter, 33, describes the smell as much worse.

“The odor is so strong sometimes it smells like a dead cat,” he said.

Altgeld is located near a landfill and scores of other industrial businesses.

The CHA’s $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation project has redeveloped many former South Side housing developments, including low-rise complexes such as the Madden-Wells Homes in Bronzeville now called Oakwood Shores, a mixed-income complex.

But CHA officials said there are no plans to redevelop Altgeld into a mixed-income development. Instead, it plans to rehab 388 units that will include central air conditioning, new counter tops, appliances, cabinets and solid wood doors.

Currently only 654 units are occupied at Altgeld, a little over 50 percent, said Gertte Smith, director of site operations at Altgeld Gardens-Murray Homes.

Each month, tenants are given a utility allowance by the CHA to use to pay their electric and gas bills. If tenants go over their allotted amount, they pay the difference.

There is no water bill because water is included with the rent, said Jadine Chou, a portfolio executive for asset management at CHA.

“So basically the tenants do not have to pay any utilities if they stay within their allotted amount,” Chou said.

Chou did not know the exact allotment tenants are given.

East Lake Management and Development Corp., a Black-owned property management company based in Chicago, is Altgeld’s property manager. East Lake also manages six senior properties for the CHA, according to Eileen Rhodes, an East Lake vice president.

Altgeld has one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments.

“Market rents range from $537 a month for a one-bedroom to $1,175 for a four-bedroom,” said Smith, who is employed by East Lake. Smith added that even if a tenant has no income, the minimum rent is $50. Since the early 1980s, Altgeld residents were mainly the unemployed and single mothers on welfare. But today Altgeld tenants are working-class families, and the complex is now considered a housing development and not the “projects,” Smith said.

One unique thing about paying rent at Altgeld is the choice tenants are allowed to make when signing a lease.

“A tenant can choose whether to pay flat rent or income-based rent,” Smith explained. “With flat rent, a tenant pays the market rate, but with income-base, a tenant pays 30 percent of their household income until they reach the maximum rent for their unit.”

And if a tenant is paying market rent and lose their job or their income decreases, Smith said they could have their rent adjusted.

Additionally, a credit and criminal background check is performed on potential tenants.

“We check for recent (up to three years ago) felon convictions, which would make a person ineligible to live here,” Smith said. “Convicted sex offenders cannot live here either, regardless of their circumstances. There are too many children that live here.”

But some tenants have found a way around the income guidelines by not listing everyone on the lease.

“What are they going to do? Start inspecting units to see if any additional bodies live there?” said Denise, 46, an Altgeld resident, who asked that her last name not be used. “My boyfriend lives with me, and he makes good money as a security guard. And I know a whole lot of single women (at Altgeld) who have men staying with them.”

Troy, 39, an Altgeld resident, lives with his 75 year-old mother, sister and her two sons in a four-bedroom unit. And according to Troy, his mother’s rent is $200 a month, even though he makes $18 an hour working construction.

“Why pay more if you don’t have to?” he said. “By paying cheap rent, we can afford to live a lot better. We have nice furniture, TVs, computers and I finally can afford to drive a Cadillac.”

Smith said there is very little that can be done to stop this.

“Sometimes a neighbor will get mad and tell on another neighbor, and we investigate,” Smith said. “But if the tenant tells us that this person is a visitor, we have to take their word for it.”

CHA rules allow tenants to have overnight visitors for up to 29 days, Smith said.

But aside from the CHA rehabbing units, some tenants said life at Altgeld still remains challenging.

“Not too long ago, a guy was murdered here as retaliation for killing someone else here,” said Bernadette Williams, an Altgeld resident and president of the Local Advisory Council.

“This guy just spent 15 years in jail for murder and then someone let it be known that he was out of jail and on-site, so they killed him.”

But Chou downplayed any crime problems at Altgeld.

“I have been here working as late as 10 p.m., and have walked through the complex only to see people outside relaxing and living peacefully,” she said. “Altgeld is no different than any other Chicago neighborhood battling crime. We have our moments here where things get a little out of hand, but it is quickly addressed.”

Altgeld is named after John Peter Altgeld, an Illinois governor in the 1890s. And because Altgeld is one of the first public housing developments built in the United States, it is considered a historic landmark property.

Wendell Hutson can be reached at whutson@chicagodefender.com.

Copyright 2008 Chicago Defender. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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