Chicago's plans for restructuring its public housing developments
and ending the "nightmare" of high-rise public housing
living are ambitious: construction of large mixed-income residential
developments; guaranteed relocation of displaced tenants; adequate
living accommodations for those who want to stay in the community;
and an environment free of the scourges of American public housinggangs,
drugs, and crime. At media events celebrating the plans in 1995,
public housing tenants stood alongside then Housing and Urban
Development (HUD) Secretary Henry Cisneros and city officials,
telling reporters that the tenants were grateful for being "freed
to choose" the private housing market. Claiming to speak
for those living in the city's public high-rises, these individuals,
almost always middle-aged and elderly women, asserted that residents
support wholeheartedly the demolition of their current living
Yet beneath these smoothly choreographed public displays lies
a more complicated story. The tenant spokespersons who speak at
such press conferences are not as representative as they might
seem. Indeed, it is no secret that some tenants living in Chicago's
public housing developments question the sincerity of the Housing
Authority officials who equate high-rise demolition with social
HUD likes to tout Chicago as a model for public housing reconversion
in the rest of the country. But in the current environment, what
assurance is there that the displaced tenants will be taken care
of? Subsidies for low-income housing are being cut back. At this
writing, the 1997 housing bill, calling for the demolition and
dilution of public housing projects, has passed the House and
is awaiting action in the Senate. The bill would remove large
numbers of very poor people from public housing without providing
for alternatives. Essentially, it "solves" the public
housing problem by evicting many te nants and importing a better
class of poor people.
Public housing has its problems and there are good arguments
for improving it or eliminating it. But it doesn't look so bad
when the alternative is to be thrown into the low end of the private
housing market, where the social support networks of public housing
communities do not exist.
PUBLIC HOUSING AS A COMMUNITY
In an intensive four-year study of the Robert Taylor Homes in
Chicago, I met hundreds of public housing families and observed
the workings of tenant management, street gangs, and administrative
institutions such as the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and the
local police force. Tenants brought me into their lives and even
allowed me to stay in their apartments so that I could see their
everyday struggles. While this experience made clear the many
hardships of life in public housing, it also disclosed less visible
The people who live in public housing do have resources that mitigate
poverty and social isolation. And existing public housing developments
are often in physically better condition than the surrounding
landscape. In 1986, James Wesley, the CHA's director of technical
services, said emphatically that high-rise public housing buildings
are "not ready for demolition. If you maintain them, they're
going to last forever, just like the Empire State Building."
This is in sharp contrast to other ghetto locales dominated by
dilapidated and boarded-up buildings, burned and razed structures,
and vacant lots.
The private housing market exposes working tenants to great instability.
Private housing residents are shuttled around by rezoning, redevelopment,
renewal, evictions, and slumlord neglect. Residents flee intolerable
sanitary conditions, rats that bite their children, and other
domestic hazards. In this context public housing remains an oasis
of stability not simply for "dependent" single-parent
families, but also for poor and working households who at the
very least can rely on their housing status when all else is in
flux. As a result, public housing is very desirable to many people:
CHA currently has waiting lists of approximately 111,000 (which
includes current tenants seeking to change apartments or switch
developments, as well as families in the "community at large"
seeking public housing in their immediate area and residents of
the "city at large" hoping to enter public housing).
Many tenants in buildings slated for demolition do not simply
see a set of buildings being torn downthey see their community
being erased. They fear that forced relocation to an unfamiliar
neighborhood could well be worse than their current situation.
In many respects, certainly, Chicago's high-rise complexes are
inhospitable environs that house a disproportionate share of the
city's social ills. However, economically distressed private rental
communities also confront high crime, unemployment, and family
instability. All of Chicago's segregated poor African-American
communities face great problems. For example, the Robert Taylor
Homes have an overall unemployment rate around 90 percent (an
official estimate that should be regarded cautiously, since residents
often hide jobs and income), and 84 percent of residents earn
less than $10,000 a year. But the figures for the surrounding
communities are not much better. In Washington Park, two-thirds
of the adult population report no gainful employment and the median
household income is $8,951; in Grand Boulevard 75 percent are
unemployed and the median household income is $7,907. The Chicago
Board of Education staff reported that, based on current dropout
rates, almost 66 percent of Robert Taylor's residents will not
graduate from high school. But the figure in the surrounding communities
also exceeds 50 percent.
The logic that undergirds Chicago's highly touted redevelopment
plans ignores the small but significant benefits that public housing
structures provide to their encompassing communities. In CHA reports
as well as privately submitted development proposals, public housing
communities are represented as lifeless spaces, impediments to
the optimal, market-driven use of the metropolis. To justify the
razing and gentrifying of these high-rises, housing officials
and the Chicago media argue that public housing communities breed
more of society's pathologies than other spaces do. The Chicago
Tribune, for example, "prays" that "the nightmare
[of diseased public high-rises be] ended once and for all."
Armed with the popular appeal of "urban renewal," the
remedy becomes obvious: destroy the high-rise structures and you
destroy the cause of the pathology. What could be simpler?
This line of argument has appeared nearly continuously in both
newspaper editorials and general journalistic reportage on Cabrini
Green, Henry Horner, the Robert Taylor Homes, and other famous
high-rise developments, but it ignores the positive social aspects
of public housing and the real alternatives that residents face.
In Chicago, many of the large high-rise complexes house people
who have lived there for generations. While tenants are obviously
not happy about rising crime, visible street gang activity, and
entrenched drug use and distribution, they nevertheless continue
to rely on important social supports that are located in the community.
Peer and kin networks provide invaluable child care assistance,
temporary shelter, and friendship. Moreover, myriad social control
mechanisms, such as tenant patrols and floor watches, provide
a relative measure of safety and enforcement, not to mention available
lobbyists for more effective policing. "At least around here,"
one elderly resident told me, "we always know who the criminals
When tenants are thrown into the private housing market and forced
to accept housing in an unfamiliar community where police presence
is just as minimal, they will no longer be assured such self-help
systems and relative security. Public housing may not, in fact,
be a significantly more dangerous place to live. In 1995, the
Robert Taylor Homes housed 16 percent of the surrounding community's
residential population and 20 percent of its homicides. The housing
development's per capita annual homicide rate is 1 for every 2,760
persons, compared to 1 for every 3,045 in the surrounding area.
In 1996 public housing residents comprised roughly 3.7 percent
of the city's population, but the crimes to person and property
on CHA grounds were 2.33 percent of the total in the city. Some
violent offenses were higher (homicides were 5.1 percent of the
city's total), but other types of assault and robbery remain close
to the city's rate. The crime rates in public housing are nothing
to be proud of, but they might be even higher if it were not for
the mechanisms the residents have adopted to prevent and respond
to social transgressions.
Because of their size, population, and proximity to transportation
corridors, public housing developments offer affordable goods
and services such as inexpensive clothing and foodstuffs, gypsy
cab service, car repair, and craftsmen (plumbers and painters,
for example). They also currently house thousands of blue- and
pink-collar laborers who work under the table or who accept menial
wages in the mainstream economy. Stand on a street corner near
the Robert Taylor Homes on a weekday morning and you will see
vans arriving to solicit and transport residents to construction
sites, fast food centers, and asbestos firms outside of the city.
Myrna Harris lives in the Rockwell Gardens public housing
development. Though life for her family is hard, her apartment
is a model of cooperation. When a niece loses her menial, part-time
job, she moves into the Harris household with her infant daughter
until other employment can be found. She shares a bedroom with
Harris's teenage son, who is saving up money for the one month's
rent and security deposit required by a local landlord, into whose
apartment he hopes to move with his girlfriend and child. In addition,
Harris's small apartment houses her daughter (who is attending
a local community college), granddaughter (who is enrolled in
elementary school), and uncle (whose job as a short-order cook
currently does not enable him to live alone and simultaneously
meet child support, transportation, and other costs). Each person
contributes to the household by bringing home groceries, buying
supplies, lending money to one another, and babysitting.
This is not the American Dream. But as Harris herself puts it:
"You see how my place is. Ain't no different no place else
in [my] building. People know people around here, [they] help
each other, do what they can. They come and go. They have been
doing that long as I can remember. They start tearing this place
down, it just makes things worse than they already are."
The two principal Housing Authority strategiesgentrification
of existing public housing tracts and "scattered-site"
dispersal of families across the citythreaten these cooperative
arrangements and supports while providing no other alternative.
An earlier and critically acclaimed plan called the Gautreaux
program moved tenants into dispersed private housing by providing
an array of supports ranging from day care to job placement and
training [see Peter Dreier and David Moberg, "Moving from
the 'Hood: The Mixed Success of Integrating Suburbia," TAP,
Winter 1996]. But having been offered only bare-bones relocation
assistance, current public housing residents question whether
a Gautreaux-level commitment will follow their move out of high-rises.
Nor is permitting residents to return to redeveloped communities
necessarily an attractive alternative, especially if the redevelopment
involves commercial gentrification. When hearing of the plans
to demolish the Robert Taylor development, an owner of a nearby
mom-and-pop store said quite directly, "These people are
poor. I give them credit and I let them pay me when they can and
they bring their business to me. You think Jewel [a large grocery
chain] would do that?" Without steady employment, those who
choose to stay may find their new ecology financially out of reach.
This is a real concern for residents living in Chicago's Cabrini
Green development. In the city's redevelopment plan, officials
boast of 2,500 construction and 900 permanent jobs that will be
created in the community. Union card holders, however, are expected
to fill the majority of positions, with only 200 or so jobs remaining
for Cabrini residents.
Bureaucrats and journalists in Chicago routinely manage to locate
tenants who say, "I want to leave public housing." These
cries serve as fodder for editorials that praise the "courage"
of housing officials who are "making the tough choices"
by tearing down high-rises. But these pleas for escape sound different
placed alongside comments like Myrna Harris's. CHA reports do
not convey residents' fondness for the community or their reluctance
to live someplace elseespecially when someplace else is a remote
tract 20 miles outside of the central city (typically polluted
areas without easy access to public transportation or employment
centers) or an apartment in an inhospitable area devoid of family
or friendship. Public housing tenants' feelings about demolition
are more mixed than most of the media allow. Conflict over demolition
leads to discord not just between Taylor residents and CHA officials,
but among tenants.
EMPOWERMENT OR A WORKING FAUCET?
The history of politics and tenant representation in public housing
makes even clearer the dangers of accepting at face value tenant
pronouncements in favor of demolition. In the early 1970s, after
a decade of organized struggle, public housing tenants throughout
the country successfully fought their respective local housing
authorities to win greater roles in management decisionmaking.
In Chicago, tenants were struggling simply for the right to meet
in their apartments. Initially, the CHA argued that "political"
gatherings held in "domestic" spaces were illegal on
the grounds that they were subversive and could possibly lead
to the overthrow of the Housing Authority. Violators of these
regulations were threatened with eviction, a form of pressure
eventually declared unlawful by the courts. But the CHA continued
to place pressure on uncooperative tenants, not only harassing
them but also refusing to service their apartments and relocating
them to apartments far away from friends and political colleagues.
Successfully challenging such tactics, in 1971 Chicago's tenants
elected their own representatives to lobby the CHA on their behalf.
But the CHA quickly adapted and found other ways to minimize tenant
mobilization. By far the most successful method was providing
elected tenant leaders with modest cash and in-kind benefits in
return for their silence or support. Over the next two decades,
this patronage system became entrenched. After a while, cooperation
with officials became the condition for residents' continued receipt
of prompt maintenance services, HUD funds, and even law enforcement.
Some ambitious, idealistic residents do campaign for tenant support
on a platform of reform, empowerment, and more responsible CHA
management. But these assurances can't compete with those of CHA-supported
candidates, who can promise such tangible benefits as immediate
repair of apartments, upkeep of public areas, and increased guard
A MODEL FOR THE COUNTRY?
Chicago has long been at the vanguard of the country's approach
to public housing, setting the standard for the urban renewal
legislation that led to the Housing Act of 1949 and, more recently,
serving as a model for new law enforcement procedures and investment
strategies for the Bush and Clinton administrations. Thus HUD
officials are anxious to see what discussions in Chicago among
the mayor, CHA management, and tenants may portend for negotiations
in other cities.
Observers are paying particularly close attention to the $315-million
Redevelopment Initiative plan for the Near North corridor, in
which the Cabrini Green Homes sit. The area is slated for mixed-income
usage, with row housing, duplexes, and mid-rise buildings alongside
rehabilitated high-rise structures. A new "Town Center with
. . . shopping facilities, new schools, a district police station,
and a library" have been promised; Dominick's, a large grocery
store chain, has already committed itself to becoming part of
this "village of opportunity." More than 1,300 of Cabrini
Green's housing units will be demolished and an estimated 2,000
to 2,300 new housing units will be constructed, some on CHA land
and the others on lots owned by two prominent city developers,
Daniel McLean and Allison Davis. On its face, the plan would at
long last enable public housing residents to become part of working-
and middle-class communities, as opposed to poor and racially
Before the plan was formally introduced, some tenants voluntarily
accepted federally subsidized vouchers for private housing and
left the community altogether. Many others, however, have expressed
interest in staying put. In addition to job allocations in the
construction phase, the biggest source of contention among tenants
and plan sponsors is now over the number of housing units that
will be dedicated to current Cabrini Green residents and the number
given to new "market-rate" tenants. Fifty percent of
the 2,000 to 2,300 units are set aside for people making more
than 120 percent of the city's median annual income ($45,000)
and 20 percent for those earning between 80 and 120 percent ($36,000-45,000).
The initiative allocates only 300 to 325 of new units to people
earning less than $22,500 per year, but 77 percent of Cabrini
Green's 6,000 residents earn less than $8,000 yearly. Fearing
a forced exodus, tenant advocacy groups have filed lawsuits to
stop the redevelopment until families in the community have stronger
assurances of housing.
Given all this, why is Chicago a model for national policymaking?
New York might be a better one. Whereas Chicago's largest public
housing developments are remarkably homogeneous (out of an official
population of 12,000, there are two whites living in the Robert
Taylor Homes), New York has some racially mixed developments as
well as buildings that are in or near multiethnic neighborhoods
and business districts. Chicago's current residential patterns
in public housing are a legacy of the segregationist strategy
of the first Mayor Daley, who offered public housing to blacks
as a form of patronage, with the proviso that it be divided along
racial lines. New York's most successful public housing developments
are economically integrated. Chicago's, in contrast, only house
poor and nonworking families. While Chicago's public housing tenants
have extraordinarily high rates of welfare recipiency (92 percent
in Robert Taylor receive either public assistance or a benefit
such as disability or Social Security), few of New York's tenants
are on welfare. In the mid-1980s, for example, when the national
rate was 44 percent, only 27 percent of New York tenants were
on the welfare rolls, the lowest in the country at the time. Instead
of tearing Chicago's public housing down, it might make more sense
to attract more working families to the existing structures.
It remains to be seen whether tenants of Chicago's high-rise
public housing developments will be able to influence the decisions
to raze their homes and communities. Few promises made by the
mayoral administration and Housing Authority officials have borne
fruit. Years after the fact, residents of a displaced high-rise
public housing community in Chicago's Oakland/ North Kenwood neighborhood
are still wondering what happened to earlier CHA commitments for
guaranteed relocation and the possibility of remaining in the
community if they desired.
Not all the residents who are opposed to the current plans are
against demolition per se. Many are simply fighting to understand
the decision-making process and procure legally binding agreements
that will enable them to live in comparable quarters. The media
and public officials all claim to favor greater "choice"
for the tenants of public housing. The tenants would be delighted
if they would just live up to that ideal.
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