Public housing residents deserved better.
That’s what Mayor Richard M. Daley said in 1999 when he launched what was touted as “the largest, most ambitious redevelopment of public housing in the United States.”
The Chicago Housing Authority’s massive “Plan for Transformation” would tear down Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes and other high-rise housing projects that had deteriorated into what officials acknowledged was “some of the worst housing in America.”
The CHA would replace that housing by building new, mixed-income developments. At the same time, it would also fix up some of its low-rise and senior buildings and issue more Section 8 “housing-choice” vouchers, which provide poor people with subsidies to help them rent privately owned apartments or houses.
Now, 18 years after Daley proclaimed that lives would be transformed along with housing, the CHA is ready to declare victory. By the end of this year, the Plan for Transformation will be completed, the head of the city agency says. That’s when he says its central promise — to rehabilitate or rebuild 25,000 apartments — will be fulfilled.
“At the end of 2017, we’ll reach that count,” says Eugene Jones Jr., appointed interim chief executive officer of the CHA by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015 and given the permanent job last year.
But there are plenty of doubters that the Plan for Transformation actually will be completed by then — among them CHA residents, aldermen, even officials with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the city agency and pays for the housing vouchers. In particular, federal officials point out that the CHA still has to follow through on HUD-funded plans to rebuild the sites of former high-rises.
“There’s just a lot going on in Chicago, whether they get there this year or not,” says Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesman. “The prevailing sense here is that they won’t. But we’re following developments very closely. And we’re encouraged by the direction and the commitment we’re feeling from senior leadership at CHA that we may not have been getting years ago.”
Even if the CHA does what Jones says, the completion of the Plan for Transformation will have come eight years past the original target date.
It will have taken nearly twice as long altogether as it was supposed to.
And the results will differ in key ways from what was promised, a Chicago Sun-Times examination has found, particularly regarding the amount of housing for families.
Initially, the CHA committed to replacing or rehabilitating more than 15,000 apartments for families. Seniors lived in the other 9,500 units, all of which would be rehabbed.
By the time the CHA declares it has met its commitment, 11,000 of the 25,000 apartments will be set aside for families, agency records show — nearly one-third fewer than what was promised.
That loss is in addition to 13,000 other apartments the CHA tore down and didn’t intend to replace.
Altogether, that would leave the agency with at least 17,000 fewer apartments for families than it had 20 years earlier, though that number could end up being even larger. The CHA has yet to identify more than 800 of the 1,600 apartments it says it will deliver this year, agency records show.
In the years since Daley made his promise, the CHA has asked to be freed from some of the rules it operates under, as well as to be given extra time to fulfill its promises. And HUD has allowed that.
As a result, Chicago officials have been allowed to include a range of different types of housing in what they count toward reaching their goal. That’s changed the math in those original promises, the Sun-Times found:
• By the end of this year, about 42 percent of CHA units will be in family, mixed-income or scattered-site properties. The original plan called for that number to be about 62 percent.
• About 39 percent of the apartments will be set aside for seniors — up slightly from the 38 percent that was envisioned.
• Another 15 percent will come through “project-based” vouchers, in which apartments in privately owned buildings are reserved for those given government rent subsidies. Those weren’t counted as replacement units in the original plan.
• About 1 percent of the apartments will be for special needs residents, such as victims of domestic violence — also something not originally envisioned.
• The remaining 3 percent of the units haven’t been specified.
Over time, the new math could result in fewer apartments being available for CHA tenants. That’s because most of the project-based apartments aren’t permanently set aside as public housing. Some are reserved for CHA residents for 30 years, records show. Other contracts, though, are for as little as one year.
And some of them, in for-profit buildings, are relatively costly.
Also, the CHA has counted hundreds of apartments toward its Plan for Transformation goal even though they are privately owned, were built or rehabbed before the public housing makeover even began and served low-income tenants for years before the plan was created.
That includes 14 units in the four-story San Miguel building in Uptown. The property was rehabbed by a social services agency in 1994, and the CHA agreed in 2011 to subsidize those 14 apartments, which account for about 20 percent of the building. The CHA then added those apartments toward its Plan for Transformation tally.
The CHA also is counting 108 apartments at Anchor House in Auburn-Gresham, which has housed some voucher recipients since 1997 — two years before Daley launched the Plan for Transformation.
“If you’re counting these other units that already existed before the plan, it’s a shell game,” says Rod Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, a Bronzeville community organization.
CHA officials say the agency is providing a vital service by preserving apartments that already were serving low-income people. And they argue that project-based vouchers are a creative way to spread affordable housing around the city. Most of the short-term contracts renew automatically, they say.
The CHA clearly has made strides in improving public housing. More than 4,000 families who were living in CHA apartments when the Plan for Transformation was launched are now in new or rehabbed public-housing units. And through partnerships with nonprofit organizations, it has helped build or preserve housing aimed at Hispanic families, veterans and domestic violence victims.
The CHA’s now-demolished projects were notorious in part for being clustered in poor, segregated areas. The new units are sprinkled across more blocks throughout the city. Still, they remain heavily in majority African-American neighborhoods. Six of the 10 neighborhoods that gained the most CHA families since 2000 are largely African-American. Two others are majority Hispanic. Not one is majority white.
More than half of the apartments for public housing families in Chicago are clustered in just seven neighborhoods: Riverdale, the Near West Side, Douglas, the Near South Side, Oakland, Grand Boulevard and West Town. In 2000, though, those same areas accounted for almost two-thirds of CHA families.
Of the city’s 77 designated community areas, 27 have fewer than 10 families in CHA public housing — the same as in 2000.
Emanuel was the vice-chairman of the CHA board when the Plan for Transformation was launched. He lauds Jones’ work, saying: “Under Gene Jones’ leadership, the Chicago Housing Authority has made significant progress moving the plan forward and has pursued partnerships that will strengthen communities throughout Chicago. Development of affordable housing is happening in all areas of the city.”
The mayor credits Jones with “a variety of innovative partnerships with city agencies and the private sector, like co-locating housing and library developments and mixed-income, transit-oriented development. At the same time, CHA is investing in its residents through employment placement, services and investment in resident-owned businesses.”
Still, as HUD officials note, the CHA hasn’t come close to completing federally funded plans for many of the sites of the former public housing towers. There are blocks-long stretches of vacant land along South State Street, for example, where thousands once lived in the Robert Taylor Homes, empty fields along Division Street that once were part of Cabrini-Green and unused buildings along the north branch of the Chicago River where the Lathrop Homes still await redevelopment.
And the need for subsidized housing hasn’t abated. The CHA says it now has about 40,000 names on its waiting list to receive a housing voucher. That number would be higher if the agency hadn’t put a cap on it and stopped taking names.
Jeanette Taylor put her name on that list in 1994. She was a young mother then, with three kids, living in a one-bedroom apartment in Bronzeville and hoping to get a bigger place. After more than a decade, the CHA offered her an apartment. But she says she didn’t take it because her 18-year-old son wouldn’t have been allowed to stay with her — he didn’t meet work requirements even though he’d just graduated from high school.
Now 42, Taylor says it’s as hard as ever to find an affordable place to live. Four kids and her mother still live with her, and she says that her pay as an education organizer for the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization barely covers her bills, including the $1,000-a-month rent for their apartment in Woodlawn.
“I’ve been telling people, if you don’t make over $50,000, you won’t be able to afford living in Chicago after a couple of years,” Taylor says.
“We need those homes,” she says of the family housing on which the CHA has fallen short.
Armesha Jones, 46, lived with her kids in a Cabrini rowhouse from 1999 to 2007. A decade later, she’s happy to be living in a CHA unit in a new, mixed-income building that went up on Division Street after the Cabrini-Green high-rises were demolished. But she looks around and wonders where the families have gone who still need public housing and says the new buildings around Cabrini can’t “camouflage what’s going on in the city.”
“I still think they have a lot of work to do,” Jones says of the CHA.
On the South Side, Willie Reed, 56, used to live in the CHA’s old Ickes Homes. When the last of Ickes was leveled in 2010, he moved down State Street to the CHA’s Dearborn Homes. But he can’t understand why it took until last year for the agency to come up with a plan to redevelop what was once the Ickes Homes. And it includes just 244 apartments for CHA residents among its nearly 900 units. More than 800 families lived there before the buildings came down.
The CHA “ain’t been doing their job,” Reed says. “We’ve been out of there since 2010. It’s 2017.
“I’d like to see them building it back, letting people come back. I think they should get more than 200 units. I don’t think it’s going to happen, though. It is what it is.”
Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, a coalition of community groups and unions, echoes those complaints.
“There’s not enough family housing,” Levinger says. “Then, these neighborhoods on the South and West Sides that have been dismantled by the Plan for Transformation — there’s a responsibility by the CHA. The CHA should fulfill its commitments.”
Jones says that’s what the agency is aiming to do. But he says it’s especially difficult to build enough housing for families due to the housing market and neighborhood resistance.
“We want to do more, no doubt about it,” Jones says. “But you have to understand the NIMBYism in a lot of those communities.”
He says the Plan for Transformation was intended to be flexible.
“It wasn’t real specific,” Jones says. “So you can pursue different avenues and get to the total.”
One example of the CHA’s new approach is a development to be built near Sheridan Road and Devon Avenue in Rogers Park. A private developer, Three Corners Development, plans to build a residential tower next to an existing CHA senior building. In the new building, 65 of the 111 apartments will be reserved for CHA residents through project-based vouchers. A Target store will go on the first floor. It’s supposed to be completed by late next year.
Ald. Joe Moore (49th) says the agreement with Target should be a money-maker for the CHA, which will own 40 percent of the retail partnership. And the developer gets a guaranteed rent stream through the contract to house CHA residents.
Public-private partnerships are “really the only option they have,” Moore says of the CHA. “It’s a way of stretching the dollars, giving the CHA a way not only to create more affordable housing but to maintain what they have.”
The apartments will count as replacement units for the Lathrop Homes seven miles away at Diversey and the river, which will lose hundreds of CHA apartments when the site undergoes a major redevelopment.
But most of the Rogers Park apartments have just one bedroom — not ideal for parents with kids.
“It’s not a location that’s conducive to a lot of families,” Moore says. “It’s a building next to a senior development. But there is a demand for one-bedroom units. There’s a lack of housing for everybody.”
That worries Levinger, the housing activist. “Where are the two- and three-bedrooms being produced?” she says.
For three years, Levinger’s group has been prodding aldermen to pass what it calls the “Keeping the Promise Ordinance.” The measure would require the CHA to add one unit of public housing every time it loses one. It also would place limits on the use of CHA land for anything but housing. The ordinance has been stuck in the City Council’s Housing Committee, chaired by Moore, an Emanuel loyalist.
“You might as well call it the ‘Breaking the Promise Ordinance,’ ” Moore says. “What it does is put so many additional bureaucratic hurdles in place, it would basically make it impossible for any private developers to work with the CHA.”
Levinger says a legal mandate is the only way to get the CHA to follow through on its mission of building housing. She points to the $379 million in cash the agency was sitting on as of its last annual financial statement — a figure the CHA says is now down to $237 million.
“In my world,” she says, “the housing authority would be a crusader.”
How 3 longtime tenants view CHA ‘transformation’
ETTA DAVIS, 62, DEARBORN HOMES
All these years later, Etta Davis, 62, is back where she was before the Chicago Housing Authority began work on the Plan for Transformation. And that’s fine with her.
She thinks the CHA’s Dearborn Homes development —16 mid- and high-rises on South State Street — was vastly improved by a gut rehab completed in 2011. And that makes her wonder why the agency didn’t take the same approach with its other properties.
Davis first moved there with her teenage son in 1994 after a workplace injury forced her to leave a job with the Postal Service. Gang wars flared up regularly.
“It was no joke,” she says. “They were shooting from 27th [Street] to 29th. I had to jump on the ground and stay down. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I moved my son into a war zone.’ ”
Many gang members didn’t live there but used it as a drug spot — “three cars lined up next to each other, selling drugs.”
The redevelopment made a difference, as did better management, according to Davis. “I thank God for the rehab. . . . It made people feel proud. You didn’t have to worry about the sinks flooding or the pipes busting. You have nice, new apartments with air conditioners.”
Davis now works with the Hope Center, pressing the CHA to build more housing. “I’ve lived in public housing for more than 20 years, and I can say that it does work,” she says. “It’s like a community to me. We’ve gotten a bad rap.”
The CHA says the housing crash stalled its plans to redevelop other properties, including former projects along South State Street that remain vacant. Davis doesn’t buy that: “For that land to sit there vacant for 17 years is ridiculous.”
ARMESHA JONES, 46, CABRINI-GREEN / DIVISION STREET
Armesha Jones can’t believe she’s living in what used to be Cabrini-Green. “I would never have imagined Division Street could be this beautiful,” she says.
Jones, 46, was a young mother with four kids when she moved in to a Cabrini rowhouse at 532 W. Chestnut in 1999. “I had a two-bedroom at the time. I used bunk beds — girls on one side, boys on the other.”
A neighbor taught her to navigate gangs’ territories. “She would tell me, ‘Don’t come to Division — take a different route.’ ”
Jones always worked — at Starbucks, then at a medical center. She tried to keep her kids safe and busy. But her teenage son got involved with a gang, and one night the police brought him home after catching him with cocaine and a gun. She was grateful he wasn’t in jail, or worse.
“He gave my son a second chance,” Jones says of the officer.
By 2007, she’d had a enough. “I said, ‘I’m moving out. I don’t have the money, but I’m going to make something work.’ ”
Jones and her kids moved from apartment to apartment. Years later, she learned she had the right to go back to a redeveloped Cabrini building — one of the promises of the Plan for Transformation.
Her kids are grown now, working and on their own, and Jones lives in a new mixed-income building on Division in a CHA unit. About a third of its 106 units are reserved for CHA residents. Some other apartments are “affordable.” The rest are market-rate, with some CHA tenants living there with the help of a CHA-issued housing voucher. Jones says her share of the rent is $407 a month — about a third of the total.
“That’s something I can afford,” she says. “I have a south view that’s phenomenal. I love the environment” — there’s a Target down the street, built on former CHA land, and a new park on the other side of her building. “All these amenities, we didn’t have that then. To go out and walk around, to go into a park and watch my granddaughter play, it would have been impossible in 1999.”
WILLIE REED, 56, ICKES HOMES / DEARBORN HOMES
Willie Reed remembers when the Ickes Homes on the South Side were a mixed-income community. It was the 1960s. Soon after he was born, he and his family moved in to apartment 204 at 2222 S. State. Ickes had just opened seven years earlier.
“It was beautiful down there,” says Reed, 56.
He remembers climbing trees and eating candy in them. Come December, every Ickes building had a Christmas tree on the roof. He’d walk outside, and people greeted him like family. And the CHA took care of the place.
“At the beginning, they were fixing things up. When I was 5, 6 years old, I can remember them waxing the hallway. When I was, like, 11 years old, I got a job sweeping up, cleaning the buildings up…. But, over time, they started deteriorating.”
Families moved out. Gangs and dealers moved in.
The CHA “could have gotten rid of that crowd, and it would have made it better.”
Reed’s strategy for avoiding problems: “I minded my own business, and I worked.”
In 2006, the CHA started emptying the buildings. Reed, who was on the maintenance staff, helped board up and close them. He’ll never forget seeing the building where he grew up demolished.
“When they tore down my building, I sat there and cried,” he says.
The building next to his, at 2322 S. State, got the wrecking ball, too, even though it had just been rehabbed.
Reed and other residents had to move out. He got laid off. The last of the Ickes buildings was torn down in 2010.
He moved a few blocks down State Street to the Dearborn Homes. “I like it,” he says, “but I wish I was back home.”
Since 2010, the former Ickes site has sat empty except for the south end of the property, turned into an athletic field for Jones College Prep, which is two miles away in the South Loop.
Last year, the CHA finally announced redevelopment plans: a new, mixed-income development along South State, from 22nd to 24th, where the Ickes Homes once stood.
The agency says it will include 887 apartments — 244 of them for CHA residents. But more than 800 families lived there when the buildings came down.
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.