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Past the kitchen, we entered the dining room, which opened onto a deck built of beams that looked to be made from recycled pop bottles. The apartment sat close to the freeway and when we stepped out, the noise was formidable. Cars zoomed by, leaving trails of exhaust. But Lara didn't notice. "This is such a beautiful view of the skyline," she said. And, when I finally looked up, I saw that she was right.
You can't be just anybody and liveat Heritage Park. You can't even be just anybody with money. McCormack Baron scrupulously examines each prospective tenant. "The screening is key," says Swain. "It's a great marketing tool."
His company checks for past rental or mortgage nonpayment, unlawful detainers, delinquent consumer debt, and income sources. They also perform criminal record checks, though they do allow for some types of past bad behavior. An applicant can't have manufactured drugs during the past six years, sold drugs during the past three years, been convicted of drug possession during the past eighteen months, or committed a "crime against a person" during the past four years or a property crime during the past two. The only applicants categorically turned away are murderers and rapists.
Perhaps the most invasive aspect of this rigorous, nobody-gets-out-alive screening process is the mandatory inspection of an applicant's current home, during which a Heritage Park representative checks for "cleanliness and evidence of acceptable living standards and personal conduct." Due to overall busyness and staffing shortages, inspections have slacked in recent months, but Swain says they'll pick up again soon. "We have denied people in the past because of these checks," he says, "for health-related issues. It adds comfort knowing that it's the same for everyone who lives there. Tenants know that their neighbors went through the same screening."
In other cities, McCormack Baron's screening has been a problem. At Centennial Place, the 738-unit mixed-income project in Atlanta, which was also built on a demolished public housing site, they had a hard time finding poor people who could clear all the hurdles. While rents for the market-rate apartments soared, some of the subsidized units sat vacant. Susan Eubank, the project's area supervisor, told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution that 213 tenants from the demolished project applied to move back. Only 37 qualified. "It's harder for them to get back in," she said, adding that the development was not intended to be a housing project, but rather an upscale community that accepts some low-income residents.
Swain says Heritage Park has been more successful. Every finished unit is currently rented. And of the 105 completed public housing units, 45 are occupied by returning families. "I think that's a good number," he says. "We took great strides to make sure people who wanted to come back could come back. We did a lot to attract them. Some are living in homes in the suburbs now. Some are elderly and don't want to move. But pretty much everybody who wanted to come back did, around 95 percent of them."
If the project has been reasonably solicitous of poor people on the rental end, it has been less so when it comes to the planned 360 for-sale houses and townhomes. About a year ago, after McCormack Baron opted out of (or was relieved of, depending on whom you ask) the for-sale portion of Heritage Park, the city finally settled on its new developer, Heritage Housing LLC. The homes are now slated to be completed by 2009. They haven't yet been built, save three by the charity Habitat for Humanity.
In 2001, Habitat announced that it had raised $3 million and accumulated 200,000 pledged hours of labor to build 55 houses for families in need. The plan was to break ground in May of 2002, yet Habitat couldn't get the green light from the city or McCormack Baron. Finally, in July '02, Father Michael O'Connell of the Basilica of St. Mary posted an angry letter to Mayor R.T. Rybak. "Unfortunately, our delight in the collective work of our congregants is offset by our profound dissatisfaction with the inexplicably slow pace of progress in construction," the priest wrote. "It is now virtually certain that no construction of Habitat homes will commence during the 2002 building season. We are deeply disappointed and frustrated by these delays and by the lack of information from the MCDA and McCormack-Baron as to how our commitment to produce 55 units will be implemented and scheduled." Rybak, in turn, reportedly told the city to get a move on.
The three nearly completed Habitat houses sit along one edge of Heritage Park. They are quite stylish, sporting rich colors and simple, boxy designs. (For-sale homes, like rental buildings, must comport with the development's standards of design and appearance.) Says project manager Washington, "It's important that the Habitat Homes and the market-rate homes are completed in a timely manner, sooner rather than later. To some extent, they will be a function of the market, of the buying power out there. If folks really want to buy, they will go up really fast. If not, then they will come slower."
In the end, it's on Heritage Park's wealthier tenants that Washington and the rest of the city have hung their highest hopes. If things go as planned, an influx of disposable income will stimulate commercial development along some of Near North's depleted main drags. That would mean that residents could walk just a few blocks south, for example, to Glenwood Avenue--an express target for redevelopment--when they needed groceries or a dry cleaner. "We couldn't have commercial development in a public housing development," explains Washington. "Also, we didn't want to compete with what may be going on on the streets around the development. Essentially, what is necessary for any commercial district are roofs with disposable income." The hoped-for commercial boom would theoretically bring jobs, too, one of the project's ancillary goals.
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