Chicago's Public Housing Projects
Architecture, racism and even good intentions have conspired to create a poverty trap in Chicago's housing projects. As elsewhere, public housing was first designed in the 1930s as transitional housing for the working poor, often with stiff eligibility requirements that screened out the neediest. Chicago's special problems were born in the 1950s when local politicians, including the mayor, Richard J. Daley, began to use public housing to segregate the city's rapidly growing black population. Meanwhile, city builders had become enamoured of Le Corbusier's vision of urban buildings as "islands in the sky". The result was hulking high-rises in poor black neighbourhoods, the worst of which is an uninterrupted four-mile stretch of public housing on the city's south side.
The Robert Taylor Homes are the hallmark of this corridor&emdash;a clump of more than two dozen 16-storey buildings, identical except for the colour of their brick and the way they face. The result is the biggest concentration of poverty in America. New York and Puerto Rico have more public-housing units (see table), but they are mercifully spread among smaller, less isolated projects.
Some 95% of CHA residents are on some kind of public assistance, compared with roughly 25% in New York. Predictably, CHA buildings are magnets for drugs and crime. For a brief period in March, the postal service refused to deliver letters to the Robert Taylor Homes because the postmen feared for their safety. "Our motto says to deliver mail in rain, sleet, and snow, but it doesn't say anything about dodging bullets," Chicago's postmaster, Rufus Porter, explained.
What set the wrecking-ball swinging after decades of apathy and despair? First, the CHA's legendary mismanagement and lawlessness caused patience to snap. In 1995, the then federal housing secretary, Henry Cisneros, stepped in and took over the agency. Among his reasons, Mr Cisneros cited the fact that two boys, aged 10 and 11, had recently dropped a five-year-old out of the 14th-floor window of a CHA building. Mr Cisneros gave the job of rescuing the agency to Mr Shuldiner, who had run both the New York and the Los Angeles housing authorities. To help him, Mr Shuldiner had the recently created Hope VI programme, which provides federal money for revitalising the worst of public housing; it has made grants to housing authorities in 26 states, ranging from just over $1m in Helena, Montana, to $50m for the redevelopment of Chicago's Cabrini Green. If Hope VI was the carrot, the Republican majority in Congress in Washington soon provided the stick.
Congress passed legislation in 1996 creating a viability test for all large public-housing projects more than 10% of whose homes are empty. The law requires public-housing authorities to decide whether improving such projects is cheaper than simply giving residents vouchers to find private housing. If not, they are to be "removed from the public-housing inventory". A stunning 17,859 units in Chicago failed the test. Their removal has started, in a thunderous crash. But the CHA balked at finding private housing for the 12,000 families affected, partly because money for the necessary vouchers was not available. Instead, the agency has gone back to Washington with a new plan. This would still demolish 11,000 public-housing units, but it would also improve existing housing and build new mixed-income developments. The model is Cabrini Green, which sits near some of the city's most valuable property. The CHA is building a development of which half will be private housing, 20% "affordable housing" (for families with between 80% and 100% of the median income) and 30% homes for those poor enough to qualify for full public-housing help. Will all this make a serious difference? The evidence suggests that it will. In 1966, a Chicago woman who lived in public housing, Dorothy Gautreaux, sued the CHA for using racial discrimination in its selection of sites. As a result, roughly 30,000 CHA residents were given homes in desegregated neighbourhoods either in the city or the surrounding suburbs.
James Rosenbaum, a sociology professor at Northwestern University, decided to find out whether women and children who moved to the suburbs fared better than those who stayed in the city. They did. It took most of them some time to settle in, of course. But after that more of the suburban women than of the city ones got themselves jobs, especially if they had never worked before. The effects on the children were even more pronounced. They were more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to graduate from college, more likely to be employed and then likely to earn higher wages. The CHA plan is not nearly as radical as this. Still, it seems reasonable to think that getting people out of bad neighbourhoods will improve their lives.
Oddly, the housing department in Washington has yet to approve the Chicago plan. The CHA's scheme does not meet the letter of the law; it takes too long; it costs too much. One reason for Washington's hesitation may be that Mr Cisneros, who provided much of the push behind the Chicago plan, has left the department. His successor, Andrew Cuomo, is accused of self-promotion. ("Warm and fuzzy he is not," says one former CHA official.) He is also less committed to the demolition of high-rises; to destroy existing homes, however decrepit, clashes with his long commitment to help the homeless. There are also pockets of resistance among public-housing residents and their advocates.
Some worry that private-housing vouchers merely move the poor around. "If you have thousands of people that you move without addressing their condition, they're just going to be poor somewhere else," says Wardell Yotaghan, a co-founder of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. Others rightly point out that demolishing buildings and relocating residents with private-housing vouchers diminishes the total housing stock. Cynics also suppose that the CHA has begun to demolish buildings because the land beneath them has become valuable. For all this, the Chicago plan has several things going for it. It has the blessing of Chicago's powerful Mayor Richard M. Daley, who knows the city has long had cause to feel bad about its public housing. Perhaps the young Daley can remedy one of his father's mistakes. The mayor has offered more than praise for the CHA; he has put up money, land and improvements in the infrastructure. The city contributed 50 acres for the Cabrini Green redevelopment. Above all, the CHA's ideas bear the imprint of the tenants themselves. The redevelopment plan for each project was drawn up by a professional planner working with local residents. The residents of the Robert Taylor Homes voted to demolish all of their 28 buildings. All this should be good news for public-housing residents. It may also signal something deeper. With unemployment low and the economy booming, the country is beginning to tackle some of its most intractable problems.
Source: The Economist, 11 July 1998.