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Feds accuse Aurora Housing Authority of ‘intentional discrimination’ in handling of development

Updated: January 23, 2014 6:42AM

Adjusting for size, Jericho Circle was to Aurora what Robert Taylor Homes was to Chicago — an infamous, rundown public housing development forbidding to outsiders and no picnic for residents, some of whom considered it home just the same.

Nobody could really quarrel with the Aurora Housing Authority when it received approval in 2010 to tear down the dilapidated 145-unit complex amid plans to replace it with a smaller, mixed-income development. It wasn’t worth fixing up.

But now federal officials have cited the housing agency for violating civil rights and fair housing laws by failing to follow through on redeveloping the site with new affordable housing.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development accuses the Aurora Housing Authority of “intentional discrimination” in its handling of Jericho Circle, an accusation that local officials say completely misinterprets their efforts.

Ever since the decision to tear down the 28-building complex, the site on the west edge of Aurora has been the focal point of a dispute between fair housing advocates and city officials over plans to rebuild.

City officials ended up blocking rebuilding efforts, with Mayor Tom Weisner going so far as to replace board members on the Aurora Housing Authority who had tried to move forward with a redevelopment plan.

Weisner and others argue the site is doomed to failure because it is too isolated to properly accommodate the low-income families with children it would serve.

The housing authority subsequently withdrew its plans to rebuild and is instead pursuing a proposal in conjunction with the city to rehab foreclosed homes for use by families on its public housing waiting list.

That resulted in complaints being filed by HOPE Fair Housing Center and by two former Jericho Circle tenants who are being represented by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

Kate Walz, director of housing justice for the Shriver Center, hailed HUD’s decision.

“This sends a message to local governments who obstruct the development of affordable housing by controlling the actions of their local public housing authorities,” Walz said.

That’s a message some people would probably like to resonate in the city of Chicago, where redevelopment of former CHA public housing sites has slowed to a crawl.

While I can’t say the Aurora case will have any impact on the CHA’s efforts, I’m sure the HUD finding at least will draw the interest of former public housing residents still looking for the agency to make good on its promises to create replacement housing.

But HUD’s message is not being accepted in Aurora, which accuses the “outsider” housing groups of misunderstanding the situation and HUD of failing to properly investigate.

Among the findings the city says HUD has wrong is its implication that this was a racial issue involving efforts to keep poor blacks out of a more affluent white area.

Rick Guzman, Aurora’s assistant chief of staff, said a closer look at the census data shows the area is 38 percent Hispanic, putting whites in the minority.

There’s no questioning Jericho Circle was a racial stress point in Aurora.

Residents blamed the housing agency’s management for the poor condition of the property. Neighbors, well, you know who neighbors blamed, because it’s not as if any of this is unique to Aurora.

“They stereotyped us,” said Tonya Hayes, 35, who lived at Jericho Circle with her husband and three children for three years before being forced to move by the demolition. “They made us look like we were animals, and it was their fault because they didn’t keep up the property.”

Hayes, one of the complainants against the Aurora agency, said she and other tenants were misled.

“They promised us it would be rebuilt, and we would have first option to return,” said Hayes, who received a Section 8 voucher as a result of the demolition and used it to move to Hanover Park.

While Hayes said she would love to return to a new apartment at Jericho Circle, which she said would be more convenient to her doctors, Guzman said former residents would be better served by the city’s scattered site plan.

“This has been frustrating for us,” Guzman said. “We’re trying to be innovative.”

In his letter to the housing authority, Maurice McGough, HUD’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity regional director, said it would be HUD’s preference to reach a voluntary compliance agreement with Aurora officials.

If not, “compliance may be effected by the suspension or termination of or refusal to grant or to continue federal financial assistance, or by any other means authorized by law,” he wrote.

That’s how a federal lawyer says: we can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way.

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