Wednesday, January 21, 2015

By Chuck Sweeny
Rockford Register Star

Aldermen on Tuesday night, on an 8-2 vote, turned down the Rockford Housing Authority’s request to support a $28 million competitive grant application to eliminate the Fairgrounds Valley housing project and replace it with 270 units on three, west-end sites in the area recently dubbed “Ellis Heights.”

Let’s place this vote in context: Rockford’s housing authority historically crammed apartments into large projects in out-of-the-way parts of the city, so they wouldn’t be seen by most people. We weren’t unusual; most cities did this. Uncle Sam encouraged it.

The first such Rockford proposal came in 1966, when the housing authority sought to build a massive housing project — up to 1,000 units — across from Auburn High School at Cottonwood Airport, isolated from shops and jobs.

Organized west-side residents, including my parents, stopped that project. They advocated instead for scattered sites spread throughout the city.

Some scattered sites were built but big projects were constructed, too. The most notorious project was the Fairgrounds Valley project. On the banks of Kent Creek, south of School Street, the housing authority in 1968 jammed hundreds of low-income apartments into the site of the former Hess & Hopkins leather works.

Within a year, School Street and the working- and middle-class neighborhoods from Kilburn Avenue to Central Avenue had sprouted a forest of For Sale signs. All Fairgrounds did was spread poverty and instability to a wider portion of the west end of Rockford. It also made a lot of money for developers building east-side subdivisions.

A similar phenomenon occurred around the Jane Addams project on the near southeast side on the former campus of Rockford College (now Rockford University.) Once an area of beautiful homes, occupied by faculty and administrators of the college, the building of the dense housing development, also in 1968, hastened the surrounding neighborhood’s quick decline. (Jane Addams has recently been demolished and replaced with newer, less-dense housing that is to be supplemented with market rate housing.)

Other large, dense low-income housing projects had similar effects. By the late 1960s, when Rockford got into the housing project business in a big way, other cities had begun to realize that the strategy of cramming poor people into dense housing projects and high rises was making things worse, concentrating poverty and the problems associated with poverty into small plots of land.

Now we’re trying to undo what the federal government told us to do 50 years ago. The goal now is to de-densify low-income housing and mix market rate housing with it.

Along with most aldermen, Mayor Larry Morrissey doesn’t believe the grant proposal by the RHA did that adequately.

“I don’t like the specific site proposals given to the council to review,” Morrissey told me Wednesday. That doesn’t mean he wants to do nothing.

Read more: