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.