The Near North Side, Bronzeville and Jefferson Park are vastly different communities. But the aldermen representing them all are struggling with how to provide public housing.
On the Near North Side, Cabrini-Green once included high-rises and row houses with a total of more than 3,600 apartments. But the Chicago Housing Authority leveled the last high-rise at Cabrini-Green in 2011 as part of its “Plan for Transformation.”
Since then, new apartment towers and tidy townhomes have risen in the area, and families with a wide range of incomes live in them — including hundreds who’d been Cabrini residents. They are a short walk from locally owned businesses and chain stores including a Target built on former Cabrini land. Crews are working furiously on new buildings on surrounding blocks.
Still, while the CHA says it’s wrapping up the Plan for Transformation, the work here remains unfinished. There’s an empty field, overgrown with weeds, next to the Target. Dozens of the Cabrini rowhouses, built in the 1940s, now sit fenced off and vacant.
Altogether, the rebuilt Cabrini properties are now home to fewer than 500 CHA families — the CHA promised to accommodate 700 families as part of a legal settlement with residents.
Here in one of the city’s hottest real estate markets, the Plan for Transformation hasn’t unfolded smoothly.
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), who grew up in the Cabrini rowhouses, says that, early in the process, “I was getting beat up by the CHA residents, saying I was selling them out. Now, I’m getting beat up by the market-rate residents because they don’t want the CHA residents to come back — even though they knew we made a commitment.”
Like other aldermen who represent wards heavily affected by the Plan for Transformation, Burnett says much still needs to be done. They say they’re trying to bring public housing to their wards in the face of neighborhood resistance, criticism from housing activists, economic ups and downs and worries about repeating mistakes of the past.
Long before the Cabrini high-rises started coming down, the land was coveted by developers for its proximity to the Loop and Gold Coast. Recognizing that, Cabrini residents went to court, winning a commitment to keep 700 public housing apartments in the area and also the right to have a say in the redevelopment process. A nonprofit group formed by the residents’ development council is even part-owner of some of the new properties.
Developers have been required to reserve at least 33 percent of the new apartments for public housing residents. On CHA-owned land, they also must set aside up to 20 percent for other below-market renters or owners. The formula for who qualifies is complicated, but a family of four making $47,400 would be on the high end for renters. Buyers can make more.
Even those building on privately owned land are asked to find space for low-income residents, says Burnett, who, like other aldermen, has virtual veto power over zoning and development in his ward. He points to a 16-story, glass apartment building called the Xavier across Division Street from Target.
“We encouraged them to do 10 percent CHA and 10 percent affordable,” Burnett says.
The building is now home to 24 CHA families.
He says the CHA has been more aggressive about rebuilding public housing under CEO Eugene Jones Jr., who came to the agency in 2015. But while Jones says the CHA will soon meet its 25,000-unit commitment, Burnett says the Plan for Transformation is far from complete because parts of Cabrini and other developments haven’t been rebuilt, as promised.
Burnett says he’s focused on bringing as many CHA units back to Cabrini as possible, “in spite of whatever CHA does. Because I don’t know what they’re going to do, and I can’t control it.
“I grew up over here at the rowhouses,” he says. “This is my legacy. I’m not quitting until I get this done.”
Burnett says it will take years to fill in the rest of Cabrini and bring back more CHA residents.
“Man, I’m hoping it gets done at least in the next six years,” he says. “Having all these people in limbo is terrible.”
On the South Side, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) drives down State Street near 43rd Street in Bronzeville and points out a group of three-story apartment and condominium buildings that went up in the past decade.
The development, Savoy Square, sits on land that once was part of the sprawling Robert Taylor Homes, whose 16-story towers stretched for two miles on the east side of the Dan Ryan Expressway. It was the largest and one of the most maligned public housing complexes in the nation before the last of it was demolished 10 years ago.
Dowell turns onto 43rd, then heads north on Wabash, where there are more homes built to replace some of the 4,300 apartments lost when the Taylor homes were razed. She points out more new homes a couple of blocks away, at 43rd and Michigan — just across from a privately owned apartment building with government-subsidized tenants.
The challenge in a ward with thousands of low-income residents, Dowell says, is finding ways to blend in public housing so no one block has too much of it. That’s the way to avoid past mistakes that saw housing projects become drug- and crime-ridden and doomed to poverty, she says.
“It’s a very delicate balancing act,” Dowell says.
Dowell’s aldermanic office is in a strip mall at 51st and State. Two decades ago, this was the middle of the Taylor Homes. Now, it’s surrounded by vacant fields.
Her ward includes a four-mile stretch of South State Street, from 20th to 55th streets, that was lined with public housing high-rises — the State Street corridor that included the Taylor Homes. Over the past two decades, almost all of those high-rise projects were demolished to make way for new, mixed-income communities like Savoy Square.
So far, though, homes and businesses have sprouted only in patches. Dowell says that’s in part because of the housing market collapse that began a decade ago. But it’s also because she says she doesn’t want to replace the old projects with more clusters of poor people cut off from services and jobs.
The alderman says she wants to see more development like what’s happened at 35th and State. The CHA’s old Stateway Gardens development has given way there to a mix of townhomes, condos and apartments, as well as a business strip that includes a Starbucks and a PNC bank.
Dowell has faced criticism that, like the CHA, she hasn’t moved quickly enough to bring in new housing.
Rod Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Bronzeville, says the construction underway at 54th and State is an example of misplaced priorities. The new building will be a training facility for XS Tennis, a foundation that develops minority tennis players and works with Chicago Public Schools students, helping them find scholarships. The project is to receive $2.9 million in city financing and a $1.5 million loan from the CHA.
“I haven’t got anything against tennis,” Wilson says. “But people need housing.”
They’ll get that, Dowell says, but adds, “State Street can’t just be housing.” She says the tennis center will include athletic facilities, a computer lab and other opportunities for kids who don’t have access to them.
She says plans are in the works to get redevelopment of the State Street corridor back on track.
“My position is that there should be more for-sale housing, which they weren’t able to do during the recession,” Dowell says.
She points out that her ward also includes the CHA’s Dearborn Homes, Wentworth Gardens and Washington Park developments — “all 100 percent public housing” — as well as other rent-subsidized and senior buildings.
More of the rest of the city needs to provide public housing, Dowell says.
“We live in a big city,” she says. “And affordable housing should be in every corner of Chicago and not concentrated in particular areas.”
Ald. John Arena (45th) agrees that every community should have affordable housing, including his more affluent, Northwest Side ward.
Arena has staked his political future on that. He’s supporting a proposed seven-story residential building that would reserve up to 30 of its apartments for CHA residents and 50 for other below-market renters. Preferences for those would be given to veterans and disabled people.
This would replace a vacant building at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy.
Arena says his aim initially was to push for more people to be living around the Jefferson Park transit center a couple of blocks away. He thinks that’s essential for reinvigorating the area’s businesses — which he’s been arguing since before he first took office in 2011. “I ran twice on the plan to add density,” he says.
Affordable housing became part of the plan because that helped the developers get financing, Arena says, and he signed on because it’s needed.
“I know I have disabled people in the community,” he says. “I know I have veterans.”
And Jefferson Park, which he represents, has almost no public housing — just 11 apartments for families, according to CHA records. That’s one fewer than the neighborhood had in 2000, at the beginning of the Plan for Transformation, and accounts for only 0.1 percent of all public housing for families citywide.
But the proposal has been met with strong opposition. Some say it’s too dense for a community of mostly single-family homes. Others, sometimes using racially charged language, complain that crime will go up and property values down.
There were similar fears when a couple of buildings for seniors opened in recent years, Arena says, and they proved false.
“Are there people in this community who are motivated by race and class? Clearly,” Arena says. “But the only thing I can do is take the conversation on its face — that it’s about density and crime.”
He says the developers are waiting to see whether they can get state tax credits to make the financing work, a decision that’s expected this fall.
Arena says the project could offer a model for public housing since it’s part of a private, mixed-income development. He thinks the city might need to create incentives or requirements for public housing in more neighborhoods.
“We have a responsibility in this city to build it in every community,” Arena says.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
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.