In 1994, Chicago public housing high rises failed federal government standards. The massive cinder block buildings had become as recognizable as the city’s skyline. They were also viewed as a symbol of failed housing policies that resulted in concentrated black poverty. Critics said the notorious high rises warehoused blacks in destitute conditions; residents decried a lack of investment in their apartments and communities.
Five years later Mayor Richard M. Daley went to Washington, D.C. and got permission to demolish the high rises, most of them erected when his father Richard J. Daley was mayor. Thus, the country’s largest public housing redevelopment program – christened the Plan for Transformation – was born. Its centerpiece was a plan to build mixed-income housing on the same footprint as the old high rises with the following formula for attracting residents: one-third market rate, one-third affordable and one-third public.
The controversial $1 billion-plus plan is scheduled to wrap up in 2015. Under the plan, which is 85 percent complete, 25,000 units will be developed or revitalized. CHA has already moved almost 16,000 family households from derelict buildings. Some public housing families moved into brand new units with higher-income earning neighbors. Others were lost in the system or moved into segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods. An economic downturn and housing crash eventually forced the Chicago Housing Authority to change course.
Now CHA is unveiling “Plan Forward,” the second phase of the original plan. It focuses on acquiring homes in neighborhoods across the city for rehab, boosting economic activity around CHA sites and providing job/educational training for people with subsidized housing vouchers in the city.
“All residents of public housing had been walled off from the rest of the city both by physical, cultural – not just geographic – but services [such as separate security and garbage collection],” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel of the CHA conditions pre-Plan for Transformation. “Now we’ve even got to take the next step further.”
The mayor spoke Saturday at Legends South, on 44th and State Street, a mixed-income development that replaced the Robert Taylor Homes – formerly the world’s largest public housing development. Emanuel served as vice chair of the CHA board in the 1990s when the original plan was in formation.
Multiple tracts of vacant land sit idle on the State Street corridor as development has stalled. One of the new plan’s goals is to tailor the mix of what’s considered mixed income. Another goal is to use CHA-owned land for non-housing development.
CHA CEO Charles Woodyard said various city agencies in the next few weeks will start approaching the vacant land as an asset.
“It’s more than housing. Housing was the foundation. We will work with the private sector and public sector to see if can have job-creating retail. If we can have retail that provides a needed service for our families. We’re going to make sure that the investment that the public makes doesn’t wither and die on the vine because we haven’t completed the community,” Woodyard said.
Thousands of CHA families rent in the private market with subsidized housing vouchers. A recent Urban Institute report praised the inroads CHA has made with resident services but said children have still suffered. New CHA strategies include improved early childhood education, connecting teens to extra-curricular activities and new youth programs for up to 5,000 kids.
One of the problems with the existing voucher program is that many poor families live in distressed neighborhoods such as Englewood or Austin where there’s high crime and few amenities. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t provide enough money for people to live in less segregated, more affluent areas.
To counter that, Woodyard says CHA will acquire and rehabilitate homes and apartments in a variety of neighborhoods.
“One of the things we’re really trying to achieve is to integrate affordable housing into the larger community that is Chicago,” Woodyard said. “It means not just sticking to the South Side. The South Side and the West Side have a fair amount of affordable housing. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure families have opportunities in neighborhoods that give them opportunities.
“One thing we have to understand is our families are used to support systems and familiarity. So some of them may prefer to live on the South Side.” But Woodyard said CHA will give them incentives.
Other highlights from the new plan include an adult literacy pilot program and a recalibrated federal jobs program.
Resident activist Carol Steele runs the Coalition to Protect Public Housing out of Cabrini-Green. She said she’s still concerned about poor residents who lived in CHA back when the plan started in 1999.
“There’s not even enough housing for the people that have the right to return. That’s what I’m looking forward to hearing about,” Steele said. “When are we going to complete these 25,000 replacement units for the residents that are out there waiting to return to their communities?”
Natalie Moore is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @natalieymoore.