TOPICS > Economy

Public Housing Renewal

September 18, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: 41-year-old Melody, who did not want her last name used, may soon be losing the only housing she has. By day, melody walks the grounds of Chicago’s Ida B. Wells Housing Development. Legal residents still remain in wells, but it is in the process of being demolished as part of the most ambitious public housing renewal plan in the country. It is the already vacant and boarded up units where melody and other illegal squatters sneak into to try and get a night’s sleep.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What’s the hardest part about staying in a place like this?

MELODY: Surviving, eating, maintaining your hygiene.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: College educated, but now drug and alcohol addicted, she prefers the bug infested apartment without electricity to a homeless shelter.

MELODY: In a shelter you have a lot of rules and regulations. Even in shelter you have to leave at 5:00 in the morning. You can’t come in until a certain time some days, and then you’re dealing with so many people, kids, all sorts of people. So this is a little bit more private. I mean, it seems horrible, but it’s private.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Melody and 384 other squatters at this project, including 94 children, are about to lose the only living space they have, because the replacement housing which is being built is intended only for those who are already living there legally. Melody is trying to get into drug rehabilitation, reclaim her four kids who are living with her sister, and turn her life around before the last of these old units are torn down by the Chicago Housing Authority, or CHA.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What’s going to happen to you when these buildings go down?

MELODY: I don’t know. I haven’t thought quite that far in advance. Well, hopefully my life will be in another perspective, okay, and I won’t be in this predicament, okay? But until that happens, I just try to deal with things on a daily basis, and always thinking positive that things are not going to continue to be like this, okay?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Do you think CHA has any obligation to you to find you housing?

MELODY: I think so, considering the fact that Chicago Housing Authority and this is a low- income complex, and you knew the situation and you know that you have residents that live here with zero income.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Squatters aren’t the only ones who wont be able to take advantage of new and rehabbed replacement housing being built by CHA under a $1.5 billion federal grant; neither will residents whose leases no longer are in compliance. 20 percent of Well’s 2,000 remaining residents have lease violations, such as late rent payments. There are also several hundred others, including all of the women in this room, living illegally with friends or relatives. The CHA stopped giving new leases when the renovation plan began in 1999. Shawana Chester and her four- year-old son moved in with a legal lease holder when she could not find an affordable apartment in the city. She doesn’t know what she will do when the building goes down.

SHAWANA CHESTER: I won’t have nowhere to go unless I can go with her and she has somewhere to go. You know, that would be my situation unless I can hurry up, find me a place, which is hard to do in Chicago, because they want so much money. CHA, I don’t think they help people enough.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The federal funding which is responsible for public housing renewal plans in Chicago and other cities specifically forbids using any of its money to provide for those not holding legitimate leases. But Mary Cunningham, the author of a just-published study on the remaining residents at Ida B. Wells, thinks that such restrictions are just going to cause more homelessness nationwide, and she says that CHA has a responsibility to help the poorest of the poor.

MARY CUNNINGHAM: I think the CHA and the city have a responsibility to make sure they have, as the buildings are coming down, that they have transitional housing, that they are not becoming homeless. They are… the people that it’s hard to muster sympathy for, you know, that have drug addiction problems, they have been living on the streets for a very long time, and a lot of them don’t have children with them, they may have children somewhere else. So they’re sort of the folks that are ignored in the system and I think that this is a really good opportunity as this whole building comes down to target those folks and make sure they get adequate housing.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Washington- based Urban Institute that sponsored Cunningham’s study recommends an amnesty for those who have lease violations to bring them back into compliance, as well as transitional housing for those living in CHA units illegally. CHA CEO Terry Peterson says Chicago was granted a federal waiver to use $2 million to build 200 units of transitional units for squatters and other illegal CHA residents. He acknowledges that is hardly enough units, but he draws the line at an amnesty for lease violators saying it would not be fair to all the residents who have followed the rules. And he says the point of transforming public housing is to change the dismal record of the past.

TERRY PETERSON, CEO, Chicago Housing Authority: Public housing was the dumping ground. It was the housing of last resort, and as a result anything was acceptable at public housing. I mean, and those are the things we are trying to change today. You cannot say that public housing is going to the dumping ground for everybody that’s homeless and all of that.

SPOKESMAN: Two, one. (Explosions)

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Citywide, 7,000 units have been demolished since the redevelopment plan was approved in 1999. Most were high rise developments where neglect had left residents in deplorable conditions. To date, 10,000 new or rehabbed units have been completed to replace the demolished housing. In a unique aspect of the plan, 30 percent of the replacement housing will be mixed income housing, where market rate rental and for-sale units are indistinguishable from those units reserved for public housing residents. Peterson says the mix is the key to the plan’s success.

TERRY PETERSON: This is something that I think will end the isolation of public housing residents. Hopefully it removes the stigma associated with living in public housing, but I think at the end of the day here’s the most important thing about it, is that it will allow us to create an environment for children who currently live in public housing to be able to realize their full potential to become whatever they want to become in life. There is no way you would have mixed income communities of public affordable market rate housing if you were going to have CHA as nothing more than a dumping ground again. It would never work.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Peterson also points out that many more people are benefiting from the citywide public housing renewal than being hurt by it. Dalphine Allan-Jasper and her three children have one of the new units of replacement housing. It is right around the corner from what’s left of the Henry Horner housing development, the place Allan-Jasper and her family called home for 21 years. Horner has been described as some of the worst, crime-ridden, rat infested public housing in the country. Allan-jasper says leaving Horner has changed her life.

DALPHINE ALLAN-JASPER, Public Housing Resident: The way that I can remember feeling was like there was no way out. I felt like I was just hitting a dead end. I never thought I would be at this point, and I never thought I could dream of wanting more and that’s what I want, more.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The new apartment has meant a different way of life for her children as well, particularly her oldest son, Lionel.

LIONEL ALLAN-JASPER: It was like moving to a whole different city. Like, I see some people that I know from then they moved around here, too, but, you know, most of the bad people stayed.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: By 2009, the CHA promises 15,000 additional units will be available, enough to house all public housing residents who have valid leases. It is the fate of the illegal residents that remains in question.