The demolition of high-rise projects like the Cabrini-Green Homes, seen here in May 1997, cleared the way for rapid gentrification. Brian Jackson / Sun-Times file photo

The CHA’s great upheaval — a Sun-Times/BGA special report

In 1999, Mayor Richard M. Daley boldly promised to transform public housing in Chicago — in part by tearing down the high-rise housing projects that lined the city’s expressways and surrounded the Loop.

Today, nearly every Chicago neighborhood — and almost every suburb — has felt the impact of the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation,” a Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association analysis has found.

In the city, areas surrounding the Loop still have hundreds of subsidized-housing tenants, but demolition of high-rise projects like Cabrini-Green has cleared the way for rapid gentrification by wealthy whites and businesses.

South Shore is the new subsidized-housing capital of Chicago.

Of 245 suburbs in the six-county metropolitan area, 193 — almost four of five — have seen an increase in the number of subsidized-housing households. As in the city, the overwhelming majority of those families are living in apartments, townhouses or single-family homes they rent with the aid of government subsidies known as Section 8 vouchers.

“This has been a game-changer in different ways for neighborhoods,” says Andrew Greenlee, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The plan was not only about transforming public housing but also fundamentally changing the neighborhoods across the entire city of Chicago.”

While the Plan for Transformation aimed to break up heavy pockets of poverty created by expansive public housing projects, “in some ways, [it] reinforced historical divisions,” Greenlee says, displacing families and continuing racial and class segregation.

“What we have here is a story of noble intentions but also unintended consequences.”


A ‘Plan’ to fight ‘worst housing’

At the time the Plan for Transformation was presented, concentrated poverty, high crime, decrepit building conditions and a long history of mismanagement had turned many of the CHA’s developments into what officials acknowledged was “some of the worst housing in America.”

For massive housing projects such as Cabrini-Green on the Near North Side and the Robert Taylor Homes along South State Street, federal and city officials — including Rahm Emanuel, then the vice chairman of the CHA board — decided the solution was demolition. A total of 18,000 apartments would see the wrecking ball, to be replaced by mixed-income developments. Other CHA properties would be extensively rehabilitated. In all, Daley and the CHA promised to build or rehab 25,000 units.


Razing high-rises reshaped city — a Sun-Times/BGA special report

As subsidized housing spreads, suburbs face rising number of poor

Most of the CHA’s 16,800 families would have to move, at least temporarily. Those deemed by the CHA to have followed agency rules would get a “right of return” — the opportunity to go back to the rebuilt units or to move, with the aid of a Section 8 voucher, to privately owned housing.

Experts predicted most displaced CHA residents would move to other African-American neighborhoods where they could find apartments cheaply and quickly.

Lee Lee Henderson, a former Robert Taylor Homes resident, has moved repeatedly since leaving the housing project. | Jared Rutecki /Better Government Association

Lee Lee Henderson, a former Robert Taylor Homes resident, has moved repeatedly since leaving the housing project. | Jared Rutecki /Better Government Association

That’s what Lee Lee Henderson did. Using a Section 8 voucher to rent it, her first house was on a rundown block in Englewood — next to a vacant lot infested with cat-sized rats, she says.

Henderson, 41, a former Robert Taylor Homes resident, can still rattle off the addresses of the homes she’s rented since then — 11 of them — as she tried to find a safe and well-maintained place for herself and her two children. They’re now living on the first floor of a two-flat in West Garfield Park on the West Side. It’s not far from where she works at a YMCA.

Still, she wishes some things had been different. She doesn’t think the CHA gave tenants enough time or help to adjust. “They should have thought this process through before they took our homes away.”

What happened to those whose lives were disrupted by the upheaval? Examining a wide range of data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, CHA, U.S. Census Bureau and elsewhere, the Sun-Times and BGA found:

• Of the approximately 16,800 families living in CHA buildings at the end of 1999, 4,100 of them — 24 percent — were in mixed-income or traditional public housing in Chicago at the end of 2015.

• Another 3,500 — 21 percent — moved into privately owned housing with the help of housing vouchers from the CHA. Though they moved to areas across the city, most of these former CHA tenants now live in just 10 neighborhoods on the South Side and the West Side: South Shore, Grand Boulevard, Auburn-Gresham, Washington Park, West Englewood, Austin, Roseland, Woodlawn, Greater Grand Crossing and Englewood.

• About 6,100 former CHA families — 36 percent — have died or violated their lease terms.

• The CHA doesn’t know where thousands of others ended up. Officials say about 3,100 families didn’t respond to inquiries. And the whereabouts of those who’d been staying in CHA apartments under leases in someone else’s name — estimated to be thousands more — also are unknown.

“A relatively small number were able to move back to these mixed-income developments,” says Paul B. Fischer, a retired Lake Forest College urban affairs professor who has been studying public housing in the Chicago area for decades. “Many of them probably feel that’s an improvement. The families that chose a voucher, how they ended up, it’s very hard to say.”

CHA officials say thousands of former public housing tenants now live in areas that are safer and more racially and economically integrated.

Also, Molly Sullivan, a CHA spokeswoman, says, “Chicago has been the testing ground for new ideas and strategies — many of which are working and some which have provided lessons learned.”


Beyond the projects

The demolition of the high-rise projects represents just a part of the shift in the region’s approach to housing for the poor since 2000. As the six-county Chicago area has grown more racially and economically diverse overall, the CHA, 13 suburban housing authorities and HUD all have increased the use of Section 8 vouchers — either with “housing choice” vouchers, which cover all or part of the rent for apartments or houses leased from private landlords, or project-based vouchers allotted to specific apartment complexes.

As a result, the number of households getting some kind of public housing aid in the six-county Chicago area rose by about 30,000, from 100,696 in 2000 to 131,011 last year, according to HUD data.

Most of that rise — 20,000 households — was in Chicago. After the CHA razed its high-rise developments, it nearly doubled the number of housing choice vouchers it issues.

As of the end of last year, Chicago had 89,500 subsidized-housing households with a total of 187,600 residents — 7 percent of the city’s total population.

About three-quarters of those people were getting housing assistance through programs administered by the CHA, with the rest living in developments overseen by HUD.

The spike in vouchers, combined with the demolition of the high-rises, has had a dramatic effect on Chicago neighborhoods:

• South Shore — a predominantly African-American lakefront neighborhood with a mix of $500,000 homes, high-rise condos and multi-unit rental buildings — now has the most households receiving vouchers or living in public-housing properties: 5,096. It’s followed by the Near West Side (4,386), Austin (4,203), Uptown (4,164) and Grand Boulevard (3,767), according to CHA and HUD data.

• Seven of the 10 city neighborhoods with the most subsidized housing units are predominantly African-American. So are all 13 neighborhoods with the biggest gains in CHA vouchers.

• The neighborhoods with the fewest households getting a housing subsidy are all on the Northwest Side or the Southwest Side: Edison Park (7), Mount Greenwood (10), Norwood Park (25) and Archer Heights (32). All are majority-white but Archer Heights, which went from majority-white to Hispanic between 2000 and 2010.

• Nearly 1,200 subsidized families have left the Near North Side and Near West Side since the high-rises of the Cabrini-Green and Henry Horner Homes developments were torn down. Both projects have been replaced by mixed-income developments that include hundreds of public housing and voucher households mixed among market-rate units. High-income residents and businesses have flocked to both areas.

Ald. Leslie Hairston. | Sun-Times

Ald. Leslie Hairston. | Sun-Times

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), whose South Side ward includes a large swath of South Shore, says the CHA either steered families to the neighborhood or did nothing to prepare for them moving there.

“I doubt that everybody who was in a housing project woke up one day, stretched their arms and said, ‘I want to move to South Shore,’ ” Hairston says. “To take people from one area to another is not a transformation.”

That neighborhood doesn’t have the resources to help everyone in need of social services, according to Hairston, who says, “I am still working with the CHA and encouraging them to put resources in communities to help people lead healthy lives.”

CHA officials say they provided social services to former public housing residents from the start of the Plan for Transformation and continue to offer counseling and other support to families with vouchers.

Eugene Jones Jr., tapped by Mayor Rahm Emanuel last year to head the CHA, says the agency has nearly delivered the 25,000 units it promised — though it initially pledged to do so by 2010, before repeated extensions.

The agency’s job, Jones says, is to provide affordable housing. Many people getting housing assistance end up in segregated areas, but Jones says that’s their choice, often to stay close to their families, friends, jobs and schools.

“I can’t fix the segregation problem,” Jones says. “If we help desegregation, that’s great. But it’s not the mission.”

A suburban shift

Some of the former city-dwellers appear to have ended up in the suburbs, which census data show gained 105,500 black residents between 2000 and 2014 — a 22 percent increase — while Chicago’s black population dropped by more than 200,500 people — roughly 19 percent.

William Sampson. DePaul University

William Sampson. DePaul University

That doesn’t surprise DePaul University sociologist William Sampson, who says he thinks the Daley administration and the CHA always intended to displace African-Americans.

CHA high-rise tenants should have gotten more relocation assistance, Sampson says, but “the politicians don’t have to worry much about the response from the public about how poor non-whites are treated. Those folks don’t vote a lot.”

The growing racial and economic diversity in the six-county area outside Chicago has been accompanied by an increase in subsidized housing:

• Between 2000 and 2015, the number of subsidized households in the suburbs went up from about 32,300 to 41,500 — a 28 percent rise, with more than 84,000 people living in those households.

• The rise in subsidized units outside the city has been clustered in several south suburbs, including Park Forest, Calumet City, Dolton and Lansing; the far north suburbs around Waukegan and Zion; and the southwest corner of DuPage County.

Lillie Martin never lived in public housing, but she used a housing voucher to move from Chicago to Calumet City nearly 20 years ago. At the time, Martin, who’s African American, was adopting a son out of foster care and wanted to raise him in a safe, racially mixed community. She ended up in a two-story apartment building on a quiet street up the block from her son’s neighborhood elementary school, where she volunteered.

Her son’s now in college, and Martin, 77, is no longer as enamored as she once was with her neighborhood. People are moving away. Homes are sometimes left vacant — including one next door to hers. Sometimes, she doesn’t feel safe.

“It has changed,” she says.

Contributing: Data Reporting Lab editor Darnell Little

Brett Chase is an investigator for the Better Government Association.


The Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s online portal, “A Picture of Subsidized Households.” The analysis included households living in public housing or receiving Section 8 vouchers to help pay their rent. HUD programs aimed at seniors were not included.

This data was analyzed by census tract in the city of Chicago and by municipality in the six-county suburban area for the years 2000 and 2015.

In addition to the HUD numbers, the Sun-Times and BGA acquired and analyzed extensive records from the Chicago Housing Authority, including data showing the number of households at every CHA-owned property in 2000 and 2015.

These stories also include U.S. Census Bureau data on race and poverty analyzed by census tract in Chicago and by municipality in the suburbs.


In 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority embarked on the largest public housing makeover in the country. The Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association have been examining the effects of the city’s massive “Plan for Transformation.” Click below to read earlier stories.

Chicago’s public housing divide — March 13, 2016

You paid to build them, now you pay to lease them — March 14, 2016

Emanuel blasts CHA voucher program as policy ‘gone awry’ — March 16, 2016

CHA moves to strip aid from suspect in gym murder — March 20, 2016

Cashing in on the CHA — April 24, 2016

CHA tenants shivered until city sued landlords over heat — April 25, 2016

CHA might take over Section 8 from contractors in wake of reports — June 12, 2016

The downtown skyline provides a backdrop May 31, 1996, to the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project, now torn down. Beth Keiser / AP file photo

The downtown skyline provides a backdrop May 31, 1996, to the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project, now torn down. Beth Keiser / AP file photo

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