An Invisible Community

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 housing—gangs, 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 quarters.

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 betterment.

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.



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 supportive institutions.

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).

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Many tenants in buildings slated for demolition do not simply see a set of buildings being torn down—they 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 are."

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 strategies—gentrification of existing public housing tracts and "scattered-site" dispersal of families across the city—threaten 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 else—especially 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.



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 patrols.



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 segregated ghettos.

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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