The Transformation

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The Chicago Housing Authority lucked out with its acronym–you can’t spell “change” without “CHA”–and the organization has emphasized this theme all over its website. According to CHA CEO Lewis Jordan, the agency’s “Plan for Transformation,” which started in 2000, is the “largest and most ambitious redevelopment effort of public housing in our country’s history.” CHA has already begun a series of demolitions, relocations, renovations, and new constructions–yet it remains to be seen how much can truly be changed.

By CHA’s own admission, Chicago had “some of the worst housing in America” before the recent plan was enacted. Former high-rise housing projects, such as Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, were criticized for their dismal living conditions, endemic gang violence, and cross-generational poverty. Many experts believed that the small-scale reforms and improvements suggested by some would not have been able to save the projects. According to CHA’s Annual Plan for 2000, “despite repeated attempts at reform, real and lasting change has been elusive.” The current plan involves rebuilding or replacing 25,000 public housing units–the number of occupied units in 1999. Residents have a “relocation rights contract,” which gives them four options: a permanent housing choice voucher, a rehabbed scattered site unit, a rehabbed unit in one of the traditional public housing developments, or a new unit within a mixed housing development.

At its 2000 launch, the Plan was allotted ten years to complete. But it’s 2011, and the Plan is still a work in progress. In 2006, the deadline for the Plan’s completion was extended to 2015. The 17,000-odd public housing units that were closed down or razed have been replaced by approximately 18,000 new or remodeled units. Of those, only 3,000 are mixed-income–less than half of the 7,697 units CHA planned for. Mixed-income housing is dependent on a federally funded voucher program, which pays a portion of a family’s rent each month to improve their access to housing in a variety of neighborhoods. There are currently 40,000 on the waiting list to participate in the program.

Mixed-income housing is a focal point of the Plan for Transformation, in part, because of its bold social goals. According to Sara Voelker, the project coordinator for a University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration study about mixed-income development, the “idea is that this is a strategy for de-concentrating poverty,” creating developments that include three “segments of the income spectrum”–“one third public housing replacement, one third tax credit or affordable units, and one third market rates.” The city wants to redefine public housing, destroying the qualities that made the high rises dangerous places to live–“plagued with crime and drugs” and with a “high concentration of extremely poor families.” The Plan is conditioned on the hope that if they live in a diverse community, the poor will not see themselves as stuck in their current economic situation. Voelkner’s study, meanwhile, is a look at how people live in this sort of structured diversity.

“We’ve done interviews with residents of five of the ten sites, and there’s a mixed experience,” she says. “Almost everyone really likes the units; they’re really nice buildings in good locations, and the communities are generally safer than they were before. There’s some tension around who has kids and who doesn’t, and how you live in a community where there’s these different populations. How you get to know people, how to make a community.”

CHA’s vision for safe, integrated housing is a far cry from the reality, as residents move into neighborhoods  that are still under construction. “The slowdown of the market has really impacted a lot of these places, and a lot of the other amenities and stores that were supposed to come into these neighborhoods were slow or nonexistent,” Voelkner says. “That makes things difficult for people–they don’t have a grocery store close by, there’s still a lot of empty lots.” Although Voelkner’s study is not an attempt to assess the success or failure of mixed-income housing, her findings do show that as long as the developments remain a work-in-progress, any real evaluation is impossible.

CHA still considers the limited progress it has made to be a sign of success, especially in light of the housing market crisis. “I want to be really clear [that] we’re not giving this message that we’re behind or [that] issues are getting in the way of our success. We’re adapting and changing to the market conditions,” Jordan says in a WBEZ podcast. “We’ve created a better quality of life than what we had people living in before we started this.” In 2009, 68 percent of the promised replacement housing was finished, but CHA has not posted an annual report on its website since that year. Though the plan is taking longer than expected, CHA continues to emphasize the headway its made while calling for increased community support, hiding the missed finish line of 2010 behind the title “ten-year milestone.”

There is some concern, however, that the move to tear down the projects is more symbolic than effective. In a podcast, Nicki Bazer, an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, described the catharsis of the long-awaited evacuation of the Cabrini-Green high rises. “I think [when] every resident of Chicago drove down State Street or saw [the developments] from the road there was just an overwhelming sense of guilt or frustration…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.”

As Cabrini-Green is put to rest, it is CHA’s intention to offer mixed-income housing as a replacement. In reality, however, this is not the case. Many of the former residents of the high rises do not qualify to live in the new communities–criminal background checks, credit checks, and a higher number of hours involved in the work requirement make it impossible for many individuals to make the move. And although there is a one-to-one correspondence of new or rehabbed units with the number of people who had registered leases in 1999, there is no way of knowing how many people lived in the units without having registered. Also, the number of spots available within the mixed-income developments is a relatively small fraction of the total public housing units in the city. As a result, the number of tenants who will actually move into these particular communities is relatively small; and for now, the communities themselves are incomplete. The destruction of the high-rises and the introduction of a new possibility are just pieces of the bigger plan–they’re not the only changes happening, and they’re not the only ones that need to happen in order to achieve a full transformation.

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