Daley's legacy on Chicago public housing

Cabrini Green and Altgeld Gardens try to fit within larger communities

January 21, 2011

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In 1999, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley masterminded the controversial, Chicago Housing Authority Plan for Transformation.

The idea was to root out concentrated urban poverty and create 25,000 units of housing.
The plan tore down high rises, rehabbed apartments and built new mixed-income communities.
Now, Daley’s preparing to leave office, and as he does, he leaves behind an enormous, unanswered question: can public housing actually integrate into the fabric of an economically diverse city?
 

ambi: Cabrini cranes
 
This is the sound of cranes knocking down a public housing high rise at Cabrini Green last year.
 
It’s also the sound of a plan in motion – an ambitious plan to remake public housing.
 
Mayor Richard M. Daley on the Plan for Transformation:
 
DALEY: From San Paolo all the way to Paris – guess what they’re talking about? High rise public housings and how many socioeconomic problems they have in these with gangs, guns and drugs; destruction of their family. So again transformation for CHA has been working and we’re been very proud of that, which is important.
 
Daley’s father – Richard J. – was on watch when many high rises went up.
 
Richard M. was responsible for the current plan to tear them down.
 
Housing expert and attorney Alex Polikoff articulates the big idea behind this Plan for Transformation.
 
POLIKOFF: A vast literature has told us something with great clarity now. Namely, that large, urban enclaves of exclusively poor families isn’t a good idea either for the families over the long-term or the surrounding communities. Simply rehabbing physical shelter without paying attention to socioeconomic dynamics is unwise.
 
The plan’s physical consequences are visible.
 
Take the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens.
 
Ten years ago they stood like a wall along the Dan Ryan Expressway.
 
Today, they’re gone.
 
In several public housing developments, CHA has carefully-engineered a new mix of housing: one third public, one third affordable, and one third market rate.
 
That plan to integrate poor people with higher-income households has been moving along – but not all that fast … and sometimes not that well because of class conflicts and people being unceremoniously moved out of their apartments.
 
ambi: running water
 
Ora Jones makes coffee in her two-bedroom apartment.
 
She lives in a part of Cabrini Green many people aren’t aware of - not the high rises … but the rowhouses just a few blocks away. Most of the rowhouses are boarded up, but Jones lives in a newly refurbished one. She moved in last spring and loves the new look: grass in the backyard and community barbeque grills.
 
JONES: I think they’re wonderful because the back is beautiful. I used get up in the morning, get my coffee and go out there and sit.
 
During the younger Daley’s era, Cabrini, near Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, has been transformed into a mixed-income community.
 
But it’s not clear whether it makes sense to economically integrate Cabrini even more.
 
Again, the Plan for Transformation is supposed to remake developments into thirds – market, affordable and public housing. But that one-third number has just been a guiding principle. Right now Cabrini has more market-rate units than public and affordable units … combined.
 
Residents like Jones think more of Cabrini should be reserved for poor people, especially when she looks around and sees pricey condos and new businesses.
 
JONES: Why should it just be a third? How many people would be left here on a third?
 
CHA has stopped rehabbing the rowhouses.
 
If it transforms Cabrini too much … it’ll have to move out some public housing residents – and they might end up in neighborhoods with fewer services and jobs.
The tenant leadership worries about that prospect.
 
And so do some housing experts.
 
SMITH: So when we look at what we’re trying to solve with public housing redevelopment, we know that mixed income is not the panacea. It’s not going to solve all the problems.
 
Janet Smith is a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
 
SMITH: When you want to talk about mix, you want to look at it at scale. Right now if we just look at a two or three block area and say oh, there’s concentrated poverty, we have to get rid of it, we have to realize that those folks have the ability to walk across the street and be in million-dollar homes. Literally. I mean, literally $3 million dollar homes are across the street on Chicago Avenue.
 
CHA officials say there are no details yet on what will happen to Cabrini’s row houses. It’s rehabbed 146 of them. It still hasn’t said what it intends to do with the 440 that are left.
 
CHA CEO Lewis Jordan:
 
JORDAN: We’re sitting down now talking again with stakeholders in the community asking as we continue the process of creating better housing where the rowhouses are – what should that product look like?
 
Daley’s push to remake public housing is complicated by a simple fact.
 
Chicago is a big place – so it’s hard to apply one principle like “economic integration” across all of the developments.
 
For example, Altgeld Gardens is a community of rowhouses.
 
Unlike Cabrini – Altgeld’s not in an up-and-coming neighborhood.  It’s in a de-industrialized section on the city’s southern edge, along the Calumet River.
But the CHA is stopping rehab work on Altgeld … just like it did at the Cabrini rowhouses.
 
Again, CHA’s Lewis Jordan.
 
JORDAN: We’re looking at the overall Altgeld Gardens community and in trying to get a broader neighborhood community perspective of what our next steps are.
 
CHA didn’t slate Atlgeld as mixed income. There’re no high-income households nearby. Jobs are scarce. And businesses have mostly shied away, too.
Redevelopment at Altgeld is tricky in a way never seen at Cabrini.
 
JORDAN: The fact that it’s out so far when you look at not only the housing there but the lack of economic infrastructure. There’s a lack of businesses – it’s just isolated.
 
WILLIAMS: The residents don’t feel that we’re isolated. The only thing problem that we have is – we don’t have a grocery store.
 
Bernadette Williams is president of the Atlgeld tenant council.
 
Williams says there’re some good things happening at Altgeld. There’s a lot of open space. Urban farms are taking advantage of that.
 
And, there’s word the Chicago Transit Authority might extend the Red Line train to Altgeld. That might bring some vitality, too.
 
Williams has a vision for Atlgeld that she’s let the higher ups know. She wants to prevent it from being an island of poverty.
 
WILLIAMS: We was asking them to change like the structure and the income levels so it won’t all be low income moving back in because we don’t want the development to resort back to what it used to be because people with no income – it seems like people with no income really don’t care where they live.
 
CHA is tightlipped about the future of Altgeld and Cabrini.
 
The Plan for Transformation’s directive to economically integrate places like Altgeld and Cabrini has attracted challenges and criticism.
 
And it could get more – the Plan’s got another five years to go.
 
Or … that might change, if Chicago’s new mayor feels like going back to the drawing board.