Chicago Public Housing
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ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In big cities across America, the consensus is public housing doesn’t work. And in Chicago, it’s coming down. Chicago began using federal housing dollars to blow up or knock down high-rise public housing in 1993. The plan shifted into high gear when the city signed a $1.5 billion deal with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under the plan for transformation, Chicago will destroy more public housing than any city in the country, and many public housing residents thought it was time.
GLADYS McINNEY, RESIDENT: They’ve finally arrived. They’re coming down. Now we’re going to get some nice housing here in the community.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Fifty-one high-rises are slated to go down, nearly 14,000 units. Ironically, this is being done under Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration. Daley’s father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, is credited with building much of the high-rise public housing his son is now tearing down, though the current mayor says his father never really wanted the high-rises.
MAYOR RICHARD J. DALEY: They wanted families, and they wanted walk-ups to basically make it part of the community. The federal government said, “No way, it’s high-rises or you get nothing.”
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So he took the high-rises.
MAYOR RICHARD J. DALEY: Oh, yeah. Everybody took the high-rise across the country.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But packing poor families with children into high-rise housing eventually led to disastrous living conditions. Author Susan Popkin describes those conditions in her book “The Hidden War: Crime and the Tragedy of Public Housing in Chicago.”
SUSAN POPKIN: I think these buildings were probably among the worst places to live in the country when they were opened. I’ve been in this particular building when the incinerator was backed up to the seventh floor, and the smell was just unbelievable. The elevators frequently broke down, and people had to climb up the 15 flights of stairs. The scariest thing about this building is the hallways on the inside, and the gang members would knock out the light bulbs, and it would be pitch black inside.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Since the high-rises began coming down, the debate over what should replace them and who should live there has been fierce. Terry Peterson heads the Chicago Housing Authority, or CHA.
TERRY PETERSON: We’ve said that we’re going to create mixed-income communities. We’re not looking to build 100 percent public housing back on site. The past 30 or 40 years have showed that it doesn’t work.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And Chicago has led the nation in creating mixed-income communities. New market-rate townhouses have sprung up in the shadows of the dilapidated towering high-rises; public housing residents mixed in with owners who have paid top dollar for their new home. The mixed-income approach has worked best in the neighborhood surrounding the notorious crime-ridden Cabrini Green development.
MARSHA CROSBY, RESIDENT: When I come, walk down the street and come home, I feel so proud, you know, this is where I live.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: After living in Cabrini Green for 25 years, Marsha Crosby became one of the first to be chosen to sign a lease with the CHA for one of the 40 new units set aside in this complex for Cabrini residents. Another 318 new single-family homes, condos, and townhouses are being sold at market-rate prices.
MARSHA CROSBY: When I have friends or family come over, I feel so proud, you know. Actually more people visit me now, and there’s no shame, you know. I just… I feel good. I just feel good. It makes me feel better about myself.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Yet it’s only a half a block from where you used to live.
MARSHA CROSBY: Only half a block. Only half a block.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: How many worlds away?
MARSHA CROSBY: A thousand worlds away. You know, like, across the ocean.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Crosby was thrilled to get her son out of Cabrini Green. Now 15, he was only ten when his schoolmate, Dantell Davis, was shot in the head walking hand- in-hand with his mother from his CHA building across the parking lot to his grade school. The killing changed her son.
MARSHA CROSBY: When I really noticed that it was really bothering him, it was almost New Year’s, and he said, “Oh, mom, it’s 1997. I’m still alive.” I mean, that just broke my heart.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Now, as Crosby shows off her new two-bedroom apartment, her son’s room is a favorite spot.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And how does he like his room?
MARSHA CROSBY: He loves it. He loves it.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Crosby admits that she was a little nervous when she first moved in, worried that her neighbors might treat her family differently because they had come from Cabrini.
MARSHA CROSBY: At first I felt a little uncomfortable, but the longer I live here, got to know my neighbors, I have wonderful neighbors, I don’t feel uncomfortable any more.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Her next door neighbor, 27-year-old saleswoman Susan Fox, was a little nervous, too, as she considered plunking down $140,000 for a two-bedroom condo just across the street from Cabrini Green.
SUSAN FOX: There was some reservation buying, I guess just with everything that’s going on in the city, you know, the changes, and I figured, you know, I’m going to take a risk.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What did your friends and family tell you?
SUSAN FOX: There was probably more no’s, like “don’t do it.” But, you know, I’m the one that’s going to be over here, so I went ahead. We had to go with my gut feeling.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A little over a year later, her condo has nearly doubled in value, thanks in part to the investment the city has made in the area: A new police station; a renovated park; a new library and new school; and, to many the surest sign of a hot neighborhood, a new shopping center with a Starbucks. But there are questions about how well mixed-income communities will work in areas of the city where the real estate market is not as hot, and CHA board member Ernest Gates admits that some CHA tenants weren’t ready for their replacement housing.
ERNEST GATES: You had people that were moving out of the high-rises, moving into scattered sites and then to the new housing, and there were a series of problems that were erupting in those units. There were people that were mopping carpets, for example. There were some units were being completely trashed inside of a few weeks.
SPOKESPERSON: You know, Miss Ward, I want to see everything.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: As a result, $37.5 million has been included in the plan for transformation to help residents with the transition from high-rise living to their new homes. Clearly the plan for transformation is working for tenants who’ve obtained replacement housing like this, but the question remains, will there be enough replacement housing for those tenants still in the high-rises scheduled to come down? CHA Chief Terry Peterson insists that the housing will be there.
TERRY PETERSON: That $1.5 billion will assure that at the end of the day that we produce 25,000 units of new or rehabbed units for the residents who currently live in public housing.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And how many residents are going to need that public housing now?
TERRY PETERSON: Right now there are 24,700 and about 73, approximately, residents living within the Chicago Housing Authority today.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But for Legal Assistance Foundation Lawyer Richard Wheelock, the numbers don’t add up.
RICHARD WHEELOCK, Legal Assistance Foundation: The residents are very concerned, because the CHA is planning to rehab or build on 25,000 new units over the next five years, but if you consider that they’re going to demolish all the high-rises and put back in place low-rises– that is, decrease the density– and then of what you put back on site, only a portion of which will be public housing, then the question immediately arises: How are you going to put all the families back on site that you’re moving off site?
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That’s what worries Juanita Williams. She was Marsha Crosby’s next-door neighbor at Cabrini Green. Now the building is scheduled for demolition, and she is not sure what she, her daughter, and two grandchildren will do.
JUANITA WILLIAMS, Public Housing Resident: I’m hoping that I can be able to find me a place, you know, so I just won’t be out on the streets now, and I’m hoping they will try to find me a decent place to stay, you know– if it’s not over here on the North side, maybe out West or South or one of them.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Do you have any guarantee that they will?
JUANITA WILLIAMS: Ain’t no guarantee about nothing, but I’m hoping they will.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Actually, thanks to a federal lawsuit, Williams has a better guarantee for replacement housing than CHA residents who do not live in Cabrini Green. Richard Wheelock filed the lawsuit on behalf of Cabrini residents, challenging an earlier demolition plan for the development. A consent decree ending the four-year-old legal battle was signed in August.
SPOKESMAN: There are provisions in the consent decree that guarantees the right of return for lease- compliant families to come back, and there’s an innovative provision in the consent decree that allows the residents to partner with the private developer in the development that’s going to occur on CHA land. So that will add an additional layer of resident participation in the process.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Wheelock hopes the consent decree will be the model as the CHA works to provide replacement housing when the remaining high-rises fall, but in the plan for transformation less than a quarter of the replacement housing will be new construction, and none of that construction has begun yet. The rest of the 25,000 residents will be eligible for housing vouchers or renovated low-rise CHA housing. Housing activist Rene Maxwell says that’s just not good enough.
RENE MAXWELL, Coalition to Protect Public Housing: The Coalition to Protect Public Housing asked for a moratorium to stop the demolition until replacement housing is built. We just ask in humanity’s sake that they would think about people first.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: To complicate matters, a 20-year-old federal court decision known as the Gatreaux Case, designed to increase integration, prevents the CHA from building replacement housing on CHA land unless it can be shown that a racial and economic mix is possible. That works in the Cabrini Green area, but other developments throughout the city are in neighborhoods that are at least 80 percent minority. That raises the specter of high- rises being torn down with nothing remaining but vacant lots. The mayor says it may be time to take a new look at Gatreaux.
MAYOR RICHARD M. DALEY: What the people say, “I want to stay here, mayor.” We said, “fine.” I have no problems. If they want to stay, let’s keep them there, because they know it’s getting better, and why should, when it’s getting better, they have to leave? And that’s one of the issues with the Gatreaux decision, a federal court decision, they have to look at.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the federal court has shown no inclination to modify Gatreaux, leaving many CHA residents watching the wrecking ball and hoping there will be a home for them when the one they live in is on the ground.