For CHA ‘Transformation,’ success still elusive
November 6, 2009

Roosevelt Square residents Anthony Embry and Loretta Hendrix meet for the first time. Embry was one of the first residents to move in to Roosevelt Square and is thankful for the great differences over living in the high-rises.

By Jean Lachowicz

Location, location, location. That real estate marketing mantra helps explain why Chicago’s Plan for Transformation for public housing is reporting mixed results as the plan marks its tenth anniversary.

According to The Third Side: A Mid-Course Report on Chicago’s Transformational Public Housing, recently released by Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI), a decade after Chicago began a systematic overhaul of its distressed public housing, residents’ fates differ starkly depending on where they live.

“Midway through the Plan for Transformation, we have a tale of two cities,” said Hoy McConnell, BPI’s executive director. “CHA [Chicago Housing Authority] families in new mixed-income communities now live in conditions indistinguishable from economically better off neighbors. That’s a major achievement that would have been considered impossible 20 years ago.

“At the same time, far too many public housing families live in environments virtually identical to those that triggered the $1.6 billion overhaul of public housing. That must change if Chicago is to uphold its promise to ‘rebuild’ the lives of all its public housing residents,” McConnell said.

BPI’s senior staff counsel, Julie Elena Brown, has worked on housing litigation and policy development since 1989. She explained, “The ‘traditional’ 100% public housing projects, those that are not being converted to mixed-income communities, remain plagued by poverty and crime.

Also, many families that were relocated did not receive adequate services and assistance during the plan’s early years.

“On the other hand, residents living in areas such as Roosevelt Square [replacing the ABLA Homes] are doing very well and taking advantage of the area’s opportunities,” Brown continued. “The Near West Side is a good neighborhood with jobs, stores, community institutions, and raised expectations. Now we see residents who are much more vocal about the way they want their communities to be in terms of safety and amenities. They might not have called the police to complain about loitering before, but now that they live in their new units they seem to have very different expectations.”

Economy’s impact

When Roosevelt Square construction concludes, the development will feature 2,441 units in single family houses, townhouses, six-flats, twelve-flats, and mid-rise elevator buildings, all in brick and masonry with open balconies and decorative iron fencing. Current economic conditions have stalled the development, however.

“Mixed-income development requires people who have jobs and income,” said Brown. “Plans for Roosevelt Square, West Haven, and Rockwell Gardens have definitely been compromised by the current economy. Rentals and sales throughout the city have been negatively affected as well.”

Karrie Dickson of Related Midwest, the project’s developer, said, “of the 2,241 residential units planned for Roosevelt Square, 650 are done, and that is because home sales are slow in today’s market. But we are very committed to the neighborhood and to the project.

“We continue to move forward with the retail side of the project,” Dickson went on. “A new CVS just broke ground on Roosevelt and Racine, a new 5,000 square foot restaurant/café just got its building permit at Taylor and Lytle, and a letter of intent was just signed for another restaurant on Taylor Street. We believe that building up the retail will be good for condominium sales when the market
gets stronger again.”

“We are working closely with our partners at Heartland Housing and Quest Development as well as the City departments and Habitat, and we are managing the rental apartments,” he added. “The original schedule probably assumed that the for-sale side of the development would take care of itself, especially with the homes’ affordability, but this is an extremely complicated project. We are very proud of how it’s going, but it definitely is not going according to the schedule any of us expected.”

According to BPI’s report, the housing crisis is only one of five major challenges to mixed-income communities’ ultimate success.

Those challenges are:

1. spotty development of retail and service establishments and other needed facilities and services;

2. unsatisfactory performance in establishing good local schools;

3. unclear data on whether public housing residents of these communities are receiving adequate social services;

4. lagging efforts to help develop a sense of “community”;

5. the current market downturn, which has virtually halted development of for-sale housing, has put achieving the originally planned income mix at risk.

D. Bradford Hunt, associate professor of social science at Roosevelt University and author of Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing, said, “Almost nine years into what was billed as a ten-year program, the City has completed only 30% of the plan’s most ambitious element—tearing down entire housing projects and replacing them with new neighborhoods where poor, working-class, and wealthier families would live side by side.”

Hunt cited the history of public housing in Chicago, which always has suffered from the “social disorder created when the working class leaves a community, youth density becomes unnaturally high, and rents which are tied to income fluctuate with the economic conditions.” He said that the bottom line is that CHA had 43,600 units before the Plan for Transformation, and by 2015 will have 25,000 units. Many of those units will continue to concentrate large numbers of poor families with large numbers of children in relatively small areas, he said.

BPI’s Brown, however, contends the greatest shortage continues to be in affordable housing for large families, so “we support larger units because families with lots of people and extended families need them.”

Plan supporter

Deverra Beverly, a community leader at ABLA Homes for more than 25 years, raised her six children at ABLA and become the local advisory council president as well as a member of the CHA Board of Commissioners. Although an ABLA resident her entire life, Beverly strongly supports the Transformation Plan and tearing down the old buildings.

“They call me ‘the peacemaker.’ I make peace with everybody,” she said. “Why would I want a big building [high-rise] standing over me, people afraid to come out, drug dealers all over?” Beverly asked. “What is better than to build something new for them?” Beverly also serves on the University of Illinois at Chicago Neighborhoods Initiative and recently was named founding chair of Chicago’s new Public Housing Museum, and serves on the University Village Association as well.

The Plan for Transformation began in 2000 with approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It is the largest, most ambitious public housing redevelopment effort in the United States, with the goal of rehabilitating or redeveloping Chicago’s entire stock of public housing. By the end of the plan, workers will have renovated or built 25,000 housing units consisting of 7,697 family units in mixed-income developments, 9,434 units in senior buildings, 2,543 rehabilitated units in scattered sites, and more than 5,000 units in traditional public housing.

The plan goes beyond public housing’s physical structure, aiming to build and strengthen communities by integrating public housing and its leaseholders into Chicago’s overall social, economic, and physical fabric. Under the plan, all residents who move out of public housing may choose to move to an opportunity area (an area in which fewer than 24.9% of the population is below poverty level). Also, families in the Housing Choice Voucher program who are making a second move will receive counseling and support services to help them move to an opportunity area.

According to the Coalition to Protect Public Housing (CPPH), however, mixed-income development in Chicago might be inclusive in name but remains exclusive in practice. Due to rigid tenancy requirements, policy analysts estimate that only 11% of tenants will be eligible to return to their redeveloped communities.

According to CPPH, the Transformation Plan altered the CHA’s role from a housing provider to a “facilitator of housing opportunities.” Instead of building actual replacement units, the CHA now gives most lease-holding tenants subsidies to find their own housing elsewhere, a daunting task considering high levels of racism and classism in the private market.

Since African American women head 84% of public housing families, and a majority of public housing residents are younger than 21 (64% in Cabrini-Green, for example), the plan disproportionately affects the lives of young black women. CPPH reports that more than 6,000 Cabrini-Green residents have moved out with Housing Choice Vouchers, and therefore fewer than 100 families have moved into new units in the community.

Although City officials guarantee that all lease-holding tenants will have apartments in these developments, which contain between 10% and 30% public housing units, many residents remember the permanent displacement of African Americans under urban renewal plans in the 1950s and perceive these as empty promises.

In response to BPI’s analysis of the Plan for Transformation’s first decade, the CHA issued this response: “The landscape of public housing in Chicago has changed dramatically over the last ten years. Properties that were blighted, isolated, and hopeless have been replaced with communities that are increasingly vibrant and viable. These new communities offer public housing residents and their neighbors a greater opportunity to engage in diverse social and economic activities.

“Is it perfect? No, but CHA continues to work toward the laudable, fundamental goals of the plan. While we remain committed to producing the 25,000 units, the current time table is equally driven by the urgency to improve the quality of life for residents. We are assured of one thing: the realities of public housing here in Chicago prior to the Plan for Transformation have been drastically improved.”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.