Chicago Public Housing Plan Marks 10 Years | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Chicago Public Housing Plan Marks 10 Years

Mixed-income housing is the crown jewel of the Chicago Housing Authority. Ten years ago the agency began its billion-dollar public housing overhaul. The idea behind mixed income is to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and unite different economic classes of people. The Plan for Transformation is behind schedule, at the mercy of a tough economy and subject to ideological debate. 

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The year is 1999 and Mayor Richard Daley decides to make public housing part of his political legacy.

Chicago has become a glaring symbol of public housing ills: crime, mismanagement and poor upkeep. Thousands of Chicago units failed to meet living standards set by a national commission. The U.S. housing department gives Daley control and buckets of dollars … making the Plan for Transformation the largest public housing redevelopment venture in the country.

ambi: Robert Taylor demolition

When the wrecking ball tore into the high-rise Robert Taylor Homes, it demolished the largest public housing project in the world. The last of those buildings came down a few years ago. The razing of high rise apartments is the most visible change the plan has accomplished.

Much more was promised.
JORDAN: We've created a better quality of life than what we had people living in before we started this.

CHA CEO Lewis Jordan says 68 percent of the promised replacement housing is finished. CHA vowed to replace 25,000 units. Jordan says forty percent of heads of household are working – double from a decade ago. And wages for residents have doubled to nearly $20,000 today.

The plan was to be completed next year. Jordan is sensitive to criticism that the project is behind schedule.

JORDAN: I want to be really, really clear we're not giving this message that we're behind or issues getting in the way of our success. We're adapting and changing to the market conditions.

ambi: State Street

I'm walking along a vacant, grassy piece of land along State Street. It stretches for miles. This is the former footprint of Stateway Gardens and the Taylor Homes. Nothing has taken its place and some critics question whether more delays are imminent. The new end date for the plan's competition is 2015.

JORDAN: You ride up and down State Street and I'm sure there's expectations that more has been done or more should've been done. But at the same time I dare say you ride down State Street and you don't see those God-awful buildings that used to be there. I think you see a better quality of life even in absence of buildings.

BAZER: I think every resident of Chicago – the high rise developments when they drove down State Street or saw them from the road there was just an overwhelming sense of guilt or frustration about the fact that this is where all these residents were living. There seems to be this palpable sense of relief and congratulations to CHA on the fact that they've taken these high rises down.

Nicki Bazer is an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago. She advocates for residents. Bazer says CHA has made the problems residents face invisible.

These residents are known as 10.1.99 leaseholders – signifying Oct. 1, 1999. Under the plan, the thousands of people living in public housing on that date have a right to return to permanent housing. Some families now live mixed-income complexes. A portion is in traditional public housing. The agency can't find 3,000 residents while others are in the private market with a voucher.

Nicki Bazer:

BAZER: What we see when we look at those numbers is concern for where these residents have end up. Because a lot of the neighborhoods that they have ended up in are poorer than and more segregated than the neighborhoods they came from.

CHA officials like to point out that relocated residents are spread throughout the city: they comprise between no more than three percent of households in each of Chicago's 77 communities. This is true. But they are not spread evenly. There are far more families living in low-income South Side and West Side neighborhoods. To wit, 222 households are in Englewood; two are in Lincoln Park.

That imbalance has led to lawsuits. The nonprofit Business and Professional People for the Public Interest—BPI—sued CHA in 2003 for placing families in segregated, high-poverty areas. Julie Brown is with BPI.

BROWN: As a result there was a settlement that addressed relocation not just going forward but also for families providing additional options for families that had already been relocated and enhanced counseling. It was a settlement in which CHA agreed to procedures for relocation.

Residents' struggles to be a part of the process has been an ongoing battle.

ambi: Cabrini Green

Nestled in the Cabrini row houses is the Coalition to Protect Housing office. Carol Steele is the chairwoman and a longtime Cabrini resident. Carol Steele's been a part of lawsuits aimed at tempering demolitions until new replacement housing can be built.

STEELE: If you're at the 10-year-end of the plan and you don't have enough housing built then why keep pushing people out of housing if you know you haven't completed your plan. My thing is as we always felt in the beginning it was about land grab.

Three lawsuits have forced CHA to slow down demolition at Henry Horner Homes and sections of Cabrini-Green. And as CHA maps out redevelopment plans, it must now have input from those tenant councils. Cabrini residents also scored a victory with getting additional public housing units in mixed income.

Steele says that fight is also about overcoming stigma.

STEELE: That stereotype of public housing residents being lowest of the low, people need to have a mind change on that because it's a sad situation. Someone always got to have someone to look down on.

The Near North Side Cabrini neighborhood is now a carefully engineered mix of public housing and pricey townhomes. It was the first mixed-income development for CHA.

Today it's considered an unfinished social experiment, one that academics across the country are keeping a close eye on.

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