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Thursday, March 23

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Airbags

Sometimes you can sense that a conversation is headed towards a disastrous moment, and you feel that welling up in your chest as you try to figure out how to stop it, that terrible sense of urgency. And if you're as slow-witted as I am, this is an especially vicious type of event. Before you can decided what to do or say, the conversation has reached that disastrous moment, that catastrophe, and the awkwardness ensues. And every time you think about it subsequently, you cringe, maybe shake your head a little bit, cover your eyes with your hand. Then you look around and notice everybody on the bus has moved down a seat.

My most memorable "disastrous moment" occurred a couple years ago when I lived in a Section-8 housing complex on the city's Near West Side. I had grown close to many of the my neighbors, who were very friendly and open, almost to the point of suspicion -- inviting me over for dinner nightly, borrowing washing detergent, asking me to watch their kids. I had a friend, an Ohio transplant who lived on the North Side, down to visit and we lounged in front of the building enjoying the sun and lack of gunfire. A neighbor stopped to chat, and the issue of public housing came up. My neighbor, like many of the people in the complex, had been relocated from public housing projects; in her case, the infamous Stateway Gardens which sat east of the Dan Ryan on the city's South Side.

"Yeah, I've seen those," my very good-natured friend said, "They're all coming down, gutted. It's so depressing."

My neighbor nodded. "It's hard to look at, all dilapidated."

My friend went on, and this is where the panic kicked in. "Seriously. I've wanted to go down there and take pictures, that kind of beauty-in-dilapidation, you know? I don't know how the government can just knock down all those people's homes."

Oh, God. "Beautiful? No, that wasn't beautiful. We hated that place. We loved our neighbors, but we hated it. So many kids, their lives just all messed up. Kids getting shot, drugs, gangs. We hated those places, all herded up in there. Honey, it's not beautiful. It was inhumane."

The issue of public housing in Chicago is kind of like one giant disastrous moment. On the one hand, we should be glad to see the housing projects, which were one of the most ill-conceived, disastrous, and cruel public programs in the history of the nation, go by the way side. On the other, there are real people involved, with community bonds and a sense of place. Do we defer their happiness for the happiness of those in the future? Was my neighbor right -- are projects so inhumane that the destruction of community and camaraderie are worth it?

And what's more, is the City handling this correctly?

Unfortunately, much of the discussion and debate of this very complicated issue has come down to simple numbers. There are more units being destroyed and eliminated as public housing (25,000) than are being created (by the end of this phase, about 8,500). What's worse, critics may say, these communities are being torn apart, sent to far-flung parts of the city and, sin of sins, to the suburbs.

I had a friend, a life-long North Sider, tell me she thought the CHA's plan —- the very Stalinist-sounding Plan For Transformation -— was monstrous.

"I know they're rough neighborhoods. But I like having those neighborhoods. I like that they're part of Chicago." Maybe. But did she think the people there like living in those neighborhoods? And are human beings simply props, background for the city's character?

"No, but its obvious Daley is just trying to get rid of the poor."

Maybe, but it seems that the CHA is in a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don't situation. Few forward-thinking Chicagoans don't recognize the explicit segregation of this city. It is built into our language. From our vantage point on the Near West/Southwest Side, we referred to the North Side (north of the Loop, east of I-90/94) as "The Great White North." Many reforms have accused the Democratic Machine of Chicago of keeping the projects around in order to ensure the concentrated "black vote" that keeps elections predictable and manageable. This puts some aldermen -- notably, Dorothy Tillman of the 3rd Ward -— in the awkward position of watching her entire voter base be destroyed as the projects go down, while unable to speak against it because to defend dilapidated, dangerous public housing would be ridiculous.

The idea behind the CHA's Plan For Transformation in exactly what many people have been calling for for decades: the destruction of concentrated public housing and dispersal of public housing in order to diversify neighborhoods and make the city an organic whole. It is harder to deny city service and police protection to the poor, or black, or Latino, when their neighborhoods bump right up next to each other. When ethnic and social groups are integrated, one group's problems become everybody's problem, and the city's social conscience can no longer hide behind property-tax rates.

And to be sure, the Plan For Transformation was not entered into willingly. President Bill Clinton tightened the ship over at the Department of Housing and Urban Development -— which had been left to pot under Reagan -— and as a result, they ordered that the CHA’s housing projects be destroyed or extensively rehabilitated.

The CHA thought they had an elegantly simple plan. Create self-sufficient neighborhoods by blending public housing with low-income housing and market-rate housing. This will encourage corporate participation, defraying some of the cost, and integrate neighborhoods to keep entire city blocks from falling to crime, poverty, and disrepair.

The first problem that popped up -- and the one that has caused the most outcry among the plan's critics —- was relocation. Sure, you could destroy the monolithic projects and replace them with state-of-the-art low-rise housing, but where would you put the people? Some of these projects —- Stateway, Cabrini Green, Addams-Brooks-Loomis-Abbot (ABLA) -— housed tens of thousands of people.  In Cabrini-Green alone, the CHA faced the removal of some 13,500 people.

The CHA's solution was to cycle the residents of the housing projects through "safer" projects, find them alternative housing using Section-8 vouchers (which pay a considerable percentage of the holder's rent, but which also subjects them to strict conduct rules: timely paying of rent and utilities, behavioral strictures, etc.) or, well, forget about them.  Declare them "ineligible" and simply turn their heads as these people fade away.

And not surprisingly, it is at Cabrini-Green that the CHA has shown the least concern for the residents and relocation proved to be a terrible failure. Because of the advanced dilapidation of the project, as well as poor management, drugs, and crime -- one year, more people were murdered in one high-rise than in five North Side wards together —- many of the residents became delinquent on their leases and utilities, unwilling or unable to pay on time, and therefore many of them are not eligible to move into the new developments. Not that they'd have a good chance anyway, since the number of public and affordable housing developments being put up in the area —- one of which developers have dubbed "North Town Village" for some reason -— is minuscule. The CHA is projecting 682 public, affordable, and market-price units, as opposed to the 3,500 public housing units that originally existed. Not only this, but the CHA instituted a seemingly arbitrary June 1999 cut-off for those who were relocated from public housing. So if a resident was granted a Section-8 voucher in 1998, they are no longer eligible for public housing.

On the other side of the coin, there are the Madden-Wells-Darrow Homes, between 37th and Pershing along Cottage Grove. The entire complex was slated for immediate destruction, and the Darrow Homes went down in 2000. The infamous Ida B. Wells homes have served to house those people while new developments go up. Around 2,500 units were on the site, and when redevelopment is finished, there will be 3,000 units -— 1,680 of which will be public and affordable housing, the remaining 1,320 market price. By most accounts, the Madden-Wells-Darrow redevelopment has been a success.

So what's the problem? Is the plan at its root deceptive and exclusionary? Is its execution simply haphazard? Is it doomed to failure, or does it just need time (it is expected to reach full completion by 2010 —- and it's currently ahead of schedule)?

The only conclusion one can reach is that the Plan For Transformation has the right idea -— is, in fact, brilliant in its concept. However, the implementation of the plan has fallen to far into the hands of politicians and politicized civil servants.

It is not wrong, however, to insist on behavioral strictures for public housing residents. Just as public officials and city employees cannot engage in certain activities -— certain types of gambling, for example, or applying for liquor licenses, or conflicting investments within their department —- so neither can those living in publicly-subsidized housing. Makes sense. However, the social service agency created by the CHA to help those who lived in appalling conditions make the transition to a responsible, self-sufficient existence is critically underfunded and lacking in initiative. It is clearly conceivable that this agency, the Service Connector, is reluctant to step on the toes of powerful aldermen and civic groups by actively working to break the chain of segregation. And if that's the case, what's the point?

The Chicago Reporter found that of the families that were relocated, 97% lived in predominately (>90%) or majority (50-89%) black neighborhoods; after relocation, 93% still lived in predominately or majority black neighborhoods. I have a feeling that that 4% difference isn't doing much to stem the tide of segregation. However, after a scathing report by independent investigator Thomas P. Sullivan on the dismal state of the Service Connector, funding has been increased and the relocation process has begun to show its willingness to cooperate with residents.

Is the Mayor secretly under-funding the Plan For Transformation to undermine the ability of the poor to remain in CHA care? That doesn't seem likely, nor is there any evidence to prove it. What is more likely is that traditional Chicago problem: grand schemes, poor planning. The Plan For Transformation will set the tone for public housing all over the country. It is the most ambitious and enormous plan —- at 10 years, $1.5b -— in the history of public housing works. The City and the CHA are simply behind the curve and set to ambitious of deadlines for themselves. The CHA has responded positively to many, though not all, of Mr Sullivan's recommendations, including the very important timetable for destruction and relocation efforts.

The residents of public housing don't want to live in "public housing." They simply can't afford not to. The CHA's plan to integrate public, affordable, and market-price housing has an important, intended, psychological side-effect: it no longer forces the poor to view themselves as preterit, as pariahs. Attaching responsibility to the living in such developments is not a negative: everybody who lives anywhere has the responsibility to be a good neighbor, a good tenant, and a conscientious citizen, or face consequences. Our minds should always be with the poor and the less-fortunate: but in a civil society, one cannot forget the tax-payer, either. Compassionate solutions are always more workable when there is accountability.

That embarrassing moment two years ago on the stoop of my apartment building was the result of misinformation, of compassion without information. We need all the information possible before we start issuing condemnations or congratulations, otherwise that disastrous moment can become another disastrous 50 years.

There is nothing more frustrating than identifying problems but having no solutions. I can offer no solutions, except that we cannot forget. Just as the CHA must learn to not forget those in their care, must not lose track of them, we must not forget the horrors of the public housing projects, and allow those victimized it to melt away into a sea of faces. We have to pay attention that this process, noble in its heart, does not become sinister in its execution.

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Comments

Haydn / November 19, 2003 11:13 AM

The next disastrous 50 years won't take place in Cabrini, or Madden-Wells, or ABLA, but likely in Harvey or Maywood.

What you're forgetting is that the CHA deliberately let its units lapse into a state of disrepair so that it didn't have to replace those units. Part of the "elegant plan" is to reduce state support for housing and shunt people at the very bottom into an eviction cycle and crappy apartments.

The switch may have brought reseg. numbers slightly down, but anecdotal evidence suggests that middle-class black neighborhoods like South Shore, with its seemingly endless apartment buildings, took a beating from the CHA's '90s eviction strategy.
Make no mistake, mixed income neighborhoods and new-low rise housing is a tremendously ambitious project that anyone riding the westbound Green Line can see every day.

But a better answer would be to tell the 50 aldermen to shove it, and divide those units equally throughout the city, ala New York.

The media's coverage of public housing has long been about the violence, drug trafficking and segregation of Robert Taylor and Stateway (Which were racist monuments to keeping Wentworth "the line" that was preceded by IIT expansion and followed by the building of the Ryan and, ultimately, the destruction of working class, quiet black South Armour Square for the Cell. You would now have to walk nearly a mile over 31st or 35th to go between once-adjacent white ethnic and black communities. Another reason to hate new Comiskey.), now-gone Henry Horner, Cabrini and ABLA.

But what of the Lathrop Homes on Diversey and the projects on 31st in Bridgeport (from all appearances, both diverse developments in what must have been, at their building, working class, all white sections of the city)? What of the new, high-priced condos literally across the street from the Lathrop homes?
Why are there no front-page exposes or years-in-the-life books on those homes? Is the story of coexistence and relative safety, and in moderately dense developments not sexy compared to the inner-city stereotypes that manifest so easily in Taylor and Cabrini?

Obviously.

The failure of Americans to adequately fund housing for the neediest will continue, and the latest effort will mean that our ghettoes will continue their trend toward the European model of outer-city slums. No access to transportation and plentiful employment, no chance to be near a vibrant city center that allows all its occupants a glimpse at other lives, and no access, for the most part, to the tax base of one of the world's wealthiest cities.

Just a shot at renting one crappy ranch house after another somewhere in the Wild 100s. I'm sure all former public housing are thankful to Richie, and his father of course, for that.

Ramsin / November 19, 2003 2:36 PM


Thanks for your thoughts, you make some interesting points, although I'm not sure what your gist was, except to talk about stuff that has happened to those in the CHA system.

First off, the Lathrop homes thing is interesting. The CHA has pledged not to limit development to the destruction sites, although how much they're sticking to that isn't sure. On the high-rise sites (such as Stateway and Cabrini and others) they're building on the cleared land, which make sense. Many of the other sites (such as Madden-Wells and projects in outlying neighborhoods) are simply being rehabbed. Certainly, the CHA should consider building or purchasing residential complexes in better neighborhoods and provide vouchers or convert them to public housing (they've done this, somewhat, in Rogers Park).

The plan is not perfect: as you say, the country as a whole has underfunded poverty assistance of all kinds, not just for housing. But the CHA couldn't wait for that to change. To be fair to the CHA and the city, the plan needs to be evaluated in its context, don't you think? Nor did I see the plan was perfect--just that it had the right idea. There has been success at the Horner Homes, for example, and as Phase II reaches completion the CHA will have a pretty good model for the future.

I didn't "forget" that the CHA allowed many of their units to become dilapidated so that the residents wouldn't be relocation eligible (due to the cut-off). In fact, I said it (in the Cabrini-Green example). But unless you have proof that the CHA did this purposely, it isn't really fair to suggest that, is it?

Also, your suggestion that the desegregation numbers are hollow is kind of confusing. You did note that the numbers went from 97% to 94%, didn't you? I thought I made it clear that that figure is laughable as headway to desegregation.

The idea that Chicago is chasing after a European model (projects in the suburbs) is fairly common, the but the analogy is false. European cities consciously built projects in its outlying suburbs because historically, the wealthy have lived in city centers and the poor in the suburbs; dispersal of public housing residents is exactly that, dispersal to a wide array of suburbs; that under 3,000 families have been dispersed to 15-20 suburbs undermines the idea that projects are going to be constructed in La Grange or Elmhurst. Are Harvey and Maywood going to have increased poverty rates as low-income families are pushed out of the city? Probably. But that has little to do with the CHA. As you say, that has to do with property tax redistribution, and other municipal and statewide policies for poverty assistance and slum rehabbing, not the CHA.

Just a historical side note, although many of the housing projects were completed during Daley Sr.'s reign, the horrifying housing crisis and subsequent segregation which caused them was really in the period of 1940-1960 (Daley was elected in 1955), so he can only be held partially responsible. See for example Arnold Hirsch's "Making the Second Ghetto".

Thanks for taking the time to read the column and comment so extensively on it, Hayden. I take that as a great compliment, and this issue certainly requires more debate. Within that debate, I think you'd agree that we must be fair and evaluate the CHA plan within its context. The treatment of the poor in the country, especially over the last 3 years, has been unconscionable at worst, wildly irresponsible at best. We cannot expect the CHA to wait for that attitude to change, especially since HUD forced them into action. Hopefully, the Plan for Transformation will allow the CHA the flexibility to make serious efforts to begin dispersal across all 50 wards and better integrate communities.

seth / November 20, 2003 10:16 AM

> The CHA has responded positively to many, though
> not all, of Mr Sullivan's recommendations,
> including the very important timetable for
> destruction and relocation efforts

Is there some evidence of this? Sullivan was hired by CHA to assess the success of the Plan for Transformation and the Service Connector program. His report was delivered to the CHA and his evaluations kept secret until the report was Leaked to the sun-times.

This is from an article from Nov 5 around the HOPE VI congressional hearings:

>And demolitions have far outpaced construction
>of replacement housing, said Bill Wilen of the
>National Poverty Law Center; in fact the CHA is
>ahead of schedule on demolitions (about 14,000
>so far) while far behind its own projections for
>new construction (about 900, over half at Horner
>Homes, where redevelopment was guided by a
>consent decree won by Wilen on residents'
>behalf). With the rush to demolish, relocation
>assistance has been inadequate, and residents
>moving with Section 8 vouchers have been
>resegregated, Wilen said, although one of the
>program's aims was to break up concentrations of
>poverty.

link

DOesn't sound too much like the CHA has really taken the lessons of the Sulivan report to heart.

Ramsin / November 20, 2003 2:25 PM

Seth-

As I said, the CHA has not been perfect in adopting Sullivan's recomendations, but it has been making some efforts. The "resegregation" is still a problem, but one that even Sullivan feels can be fixed with increased funding and effort by the Service Connector (Also, the story that Sullivan's findings were "leaked" to the Sun-Times is a myth: in fact, the CHA sent the report to the Sun-Times three days before it was published.)

Here is what Sullivan himself wrote in his Report From the Independent Monitor:

"As explained in detail in Report No. 4, many of the difficulties encountered during Phase II were a direct and inevitable result of the tight timetable for building closures -- all set for September 30, except ABLA which was set for October 12 -- coupled with the lack of adequate personnel to handle the rush to move families during the last few weeks of the schedule. That timeline was negotiated by representatives of the CHA and the CAC. Recently, a new schedule has been agreed to by representatives of the CHA and the CAC, resulting in a revised timetable which allows the relocation process to begin immediately, rather than (as in Phase II) with the sending of the 180-day notices, which triggers the rest of the removal process. CHA officials have also arranged for the building closure dates to be staggered, so that not all of the buildings will have to be emptied on the same day next fall.

"The representatives of both the CHA and the CAC are to be congratulated for making these changes, which should help to correct many of the problems that were encountered during Phase II."

Sullivan's own words, and the basis of my statement.

 

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