Making the dream affordable

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Making the dream affordable




Image Caption: Burch Village manager Karen Hite walks through the Champaign public housing complex Friday. The Champaign County Housing Authority and the city of Champaign plan to raze the 52-year-old complex later this year and replace it with new housing. Photographer: by John Dixon

Article: CHAMPAIGN - Burch Village, the public housing complex on Bradley Avenue at Fourth Street, has seen a lot of living in its 52 years.

It has not aged gracefully.

The wear and tear is beginning to show on the institutional-style, tightly compacted apart- ments that squeeze some 200 poor people into its 66 units.

The Champaign County Housing Authority and the city of Champaign are now planning for its replacement. Government officials hope to do it on an expanded site, with a variety of housing styles for people to choose from.

It is an expensive and disruptive proposition, but at this stage, far less disruptive than the discord that accompanied the many earlier phases of urban renewal and fair housing movements that have checkered the community's history.

"Some of the people are excited about the move," said Burch Village manager Karen Hite. "Some are just happy to have a roof over their heads. That's the most important thing to them."

Residents will be offered alternative housing or Section 8 housing vouchers during the relocation and will be given the opportunity to move back into the new housing if they meet the federal criteria, housing officials said.

The city has been working with a variety of other government officials, advisory groups, residents of the complex and residents of the surrounding neighborhood to evaluate the neighborhood's needs and work toward solutions acceptable to everyone.

It has been a peaceful process, snagged more by bureaucratic problems than the shrill political and racial divides that accompanied the debut of public housing here more than 50 years ago.

Newspaper reports tell of Burch Village's construction being held up by opposition to where a companion complex to be called Bradley-McKinley, now Joann Dorsey Homes, was to be built. The papers matter-of-factly described Burch as the "Negro" complex and the Bradley-McKinley project as the "white" complex. While there was debate over where to build, there was little sentiment expressed that there was anything inappropriate in the segregation.

"That's just the way it was. It was more or less an accepted fact," said Malcolm Green, 76, who was Burch Village's first manager, at the age of 26.

While Burch Village is considered substandard by today's standards and has had a notorious reputation at times, Green said that when it opened in 1951, it was a salvation for the poor and a stepping stone to independence.

"Everyone was excited with Burch. It was new and improved and so much better than where they came from," he said. "I had a great sense of satisfaction being able to help so many people with the privilege of living there."

Hite, the current manager, said that in some respects, Burch hasn't changed.

"I have some very good residents here trying to pull themselves up," she said. "I know you read about the crime, but that happens everywhere, even Cherry Hills. The location isn't relevant."

Green was one of many who got a step up because of the existence of Burch Village. While a manager there, raising his young family in Apt. 34, he got a chance to move to the new Crispus Attucks Place subdivision to the east. He and his father, Romeo Green Sr., a blacksmith for Illinois Central, dug the foundation by hand and raised the house.

Green went on to put on three additions, became a city housing inspector and later a housing administrator at the University of Illinois. He still lives in the same house, next to neighbors who also made the transition from Burch to single-family home ownership.

"There've been a lot of improvements in this area in my lifetime. Not that we can't do more," Green said. "There is a lot of sentiment attached to Burch Village. It was a very close-knit neighborhood at one time. But improvements are needed, and we can't rest until they are made."

Now Burch is substandard in part because it is not handicapped-accessible, and its windows and its washer-dryer hookups don't meet city codes. Those are pretty pedestrian violations compared with what it replaced.

Burch came about in part because of the work of an interracial committee of activists, including Green's late brother Romeo Green Jr., the Northeast Improvement Association, the League of Women Voters and other progressives concerned with the living conditions of the city's poor.

People were living in shacks, coal sheds and garages.

"We'd had a lot of migration here, and people were renting out anything they had," Green said. "There had also been some fires where some young people had died because of electrical problems."

Until Burch Village and Bradley-McKinley, the only public housing that existed was 20 units at Fifth and Columbia for black people and 20 units on Harvard Street for white people. Those units were temporary army barracks known as "tip-tops" for their tin roofs.

From the beginning, Burch had more applicants than it could house. As people moved in, the city began to crack down on substandard housing. Eighteen of the 20 shacks from which new Burch residents were moving were immediately de-clared "unfit for human habitation" and torn down by the city.

Most were in the old Oak-Ash area, on Poplar, Ash and Fourth streets south of Bradley.

About the same time Burch Village was getting under way, Charles Phillips, a civic leader in the black community, saw a need for quality single-family homes for blacks. Phillips put together a grass-roots coalition of friends and acquaintances to buy 10 acres of farmland, and Ozier-Weller Homes agreed to do the development. Families who wanted to build each put in $350, and soon a new subdivision of 70 homes grew into Carver Park, named for George Washington Carver, a famous black scientist and inventor.

The success of Carver Park was such that Ozier-Weller was hired in 1953 to build the 38-home Crispus Attucks Place subdivision, named for the first man - and first black man - killed in the Revolutionary War.

Burch is named for Nathaniel Burch, a Champaign High School football player who withdrew from school in 1943 to join the service. He became an airplane mechanic and was killed in an airplane accident in 1945 at Davis Field in Tucson, Ariz.

In the ensuing urban renewal following Burch Village's construction, the city would clear all the Oak-Ash area, replacing it with the Martin Luther King Subdivision, itself with a street named for Charles Phillips, and earlier versions of the public housing that exists today.

In recent years, the city and the housing authority have worked together to redevelop the old Parkside Manor into Oakwood Trace Townhomes. Crime-plagued Mansard Square has been cleared, and the city hopes to have ground broken this year on 15 new homes on the Mansard Square property.

Burch Village is the last piece of the neighborhood's renewal to get attention. Attention to other problems throughout the neighborhood is planned, too, from sidewalks to landscaping.

Kerri Forsyth, the city housing coordinator, said community participants made it clear the neighborhood's revitalization could not be successful without addressing Burch Village.

"This is the last piece of the puzzle to make this neighborhood an attractive place to live for everyone," Forsyth said.

New Burch won't look like old

CHAMPAIGN - Burch Village will not look like Burch Village of today when its replacement is complete.

There aren't a whole lot of specifics beyond the fact that Burch will be torn down later this year.

Larry Davis, director of the housing authority, said a mix of housing styles is planned. Though the ratios aren't set, it will include a mix of low-income housing, tax-credit-assisted or moderate-income housing, and market-rate housing. That translates into apartments, townhomes, duplexes and single-family houses.

Davis and city officials hope to acquire farmland to the north and perhaps a Champaign Asphalt Co. satellite plant to the east to expand the footprint of the Burch Village. The existing footprint would only allow about 50 units under current federal Department of Housing and Urban Development standards, he said.

Sixty-six units are currently occupied, and four have been declared unsuitable for housing.

"Reduced density is required by HUD," said Kerri Forsyth, the city's housing coordinator. "Reduced density, a mix of housing and attention to the broader neighborhood are all criteria we need to address to qualify for HUD funding."

Depending on the mix of housing styles, the land acquisition required and a host of other factors, the price of Burch Village's replacement could run anywhere from $7 million to $20 million. While most of the financing is anticipated to come from HUD's HOPE VI grants, the city has already committed $400,000 from its federal housing money to the project and could lend its bonding authority to the developer as well.

Officials are working with the development firm of Brinshore-Michaels Development of Chicago to do the redevelopment. Brinshore-Michaels did the redevelopment of Robert Taylor Homes and Henry Horner Homes in Chicago. Forsyth said the key staff member of the project also worked on redevelopments in Peoria and Springfield.

By contrast, in 1950, the housing authority hired the John Felmley Co. to build both Bradley-McKinley and Burch Village, each 70-unit complexes, for a total of $1.2 million.


J. Philip Bloomer




January 5, 2003

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J. Philip Bloomer, "Making the dream affordable," in eBlack Champaign-Urbana, Item #249, http://eblackcu.net/portal/items/show/249 (accessed July 14, 2020).

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