#138 Nov/Dec 2004

Tearing Down the Community

A year after she left Chicago’s notorious Robert Taylor Homes public housing development, 30-year-old Lee-Lee Henderson said she was ready to return. “I’d rather live in Robert Taylor,” she answered […]

Seth Tisue, CC BY-SA

Public housing demolition in Chicago

Seth Tisue, CC BY-SA

A year after she left Chicago’s notorious Robert Taylor Homes public housing development, 30-year-old Lee-Lee Henderson said she was ready to return. “I’d rather live in Robert Taylor,” she answered when asked whether she would prefer to live among private-market neighbors or public housing residents. A curious reply when one considers that popular and academic opinion has written off high-rise public housing as harmful for poor families. Yet this single mother of two, who has lived most of her life in public housing, says quite confidently that she prefers to inhabit the dark, distressed corridors of Robert Taylor. Sitting in the house that she moved into after leaving Robert Taylor, where rats are coming up through the vent from the basement, and where the landlord has repeatedly refused to make repairs, it is easy to understand why. Soon after stating her desire to return to Robert Taylor, Henderson says, “It was not supposed to be this way. They told us they were tearing down the buildings ’cause we would have a better life. I’m still waiting.”

Henderson is the poster child for the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) ambitious “Plan for Transformation” – which seeks to demolish thousands of units of the city’s public housing stock. She works 20 hours a week, pays her rent on time and receives government assistance in the form of food stamps and health care. The CHA Web site and promotional materials prominently feature women like Henderson. They are the souls to whom the federal government and local housing authorities have promised a better life in return for signing on to the plan to demolish public housing. Henderson is emblematic of the tens of thousands of Chicago public housing tenants who have apparently suffered from isolated project living.

Under the “Plan for Transformation,” the CHA will tear down the eyesore high rises of Henderson’s community and other “severely distressed” developments around the city – approximately 20,000 units – and move tenants into the private market, where they will supposedly integrate seamlessly into the social mainstream.

Chicago is at the midpoint of this federally sponsored initiative. Three-quarters of the units slated for demolition have come down and the land is now being cleared for redevelopment by private developers handpicked by the Daley mayoral administration. The project tracts will be replaced with mixed-income housing, where some tenants will return to their original neighborhoods to live among middle- and upper-income renters and homeowners. Indeed, some of the families may exercise their “right to return” as early as 2005. Overall, roughly 75 percent of all CHA families have expressed an interest in returning to their old neighborhood. Yet, conservatively, fewer than 20 percent will be able to return because units for poor families do not meet demand and the eligibility rules for poor families are prohibitive. The Relocation Rights Contract, which specifies the rights of the CHA families and the obligations of the CHA, offers the right to return to all lease-compliant families but does not guarantee that all families displaced by redevelopment activity will be able to return to their original site. According to the contract, in order to be lease-compliant a public housing tenant should: 1) be current with rent or be in a payment agreement, 2) have no utility balance with the CHA or be in a payment agreement, 3) be in compliance with the CHA lease and 4) have a good housekeeping record.

In Chicago’s public housing, Henderson is in the majority because of her age and race, but, in addition to young African-American women, there are Russian and Chinese immigrants, disabled persons, senior citizens and veterans. Notwithstanding this diversity, Henderson represents families across the country who are struggling to find their place in a reconstituted public housing program. As public housing authorities shift from acting as builders and managers of housing to serving as asset managers in charge of distributing resources to prominent private developers, families like Henderson’s must rest their hopes on the ability of the free market to meet their demands for decent, safe, affordable housing.

Moving On Up

Much of the current effort to transform dilapidated public housing is the result of early-1990s government studies that questioned the viability of America’s public housing program. In 1989, Congress appointed the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing to evaluate the state of U.S. public housing. The HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) program, created in 1992 as a result of the commission’s report, proposed the demolition, modernization and redevelopment of at least 86,000 public housing units over 10 years.

Although the program has enabled city governments to clear up poorly utilized lands and spur new public housing development, critics have charged that HOPE VI has paved the way for rapid demolition without building new units. As of 2003, HUD had approved about 135,000 units for demolition. This far surpasses the original goal proposed by the Commission, leading critics to charge that HOPE VI and other development initiatives offer municipalities an easy way to tear down low-income units without adequately replacing them.

Calls to end the nightmare of high-rise projects have a long history. Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes received sharp criticism from architects, journalists, law enforcement officials and tenants themselves almost immediately after they were built in 1962. While St. Louis’ infamous Pruitt-Igoe development was demolished in the 1970s, it was only in the late 1980s that urban centers seriously considered a large-scale urban renewal program. City leaders wanted to accommodate a growing interest in urban living among white suburbanites, and they labored to find new sources of tax revenues. The strategically placed downtown and central city projects were the obvious targets. Their depressed land values and diminished tax base made them receptive to eminent domain and renewal initiatives that could replace the poor with upper-income constituents. In large cities like Baltimore, Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Seattle, and smaller cities like Tucson and Albany, one can drive through inner-city streets and find stadiums, townhomes, research centers and single-family homes standing on land where public housing once stood.

The language of HOPE VI – and public housing transformation in general – did not, however, proceed from the premise of increasing city coffers. The ostensible motive was to end the isolation of tenants from the wider city. The supposed barriers were twofold. One, public housing tenants were deleteriously affected by living in areas of concentrated poverty, where schools were in poor shape, the local economy was sputtering and crime and gang activity were entrenched. With public housing labeled a failure, it seemed reasonable to send families to the private market with a rent subsidy – the Housing Choice Voucher. And two, public housing families were held back by their neighbors who, according to conventional wisdom, were dependent on welfare, had numerous social problems, lacked a mainstream work ethic and were a bad influence on one another. The prevailing idea was that, with vouchers, tenants could separate off from one another and meet new, employed, law-abiding neighbors.

Lee-Lee Henderson understood the reasons for the demolition of Robert Taylor. She believed the transformation plan was a legitimate opportunity to improve her life. It was not easy for her to relocate, despite the obvious problems in her community. Earning about $8,000 a year as a receptionist, she does not make enough to support her two children, so she has to rely on her neighbors and the local community. (Only about 10 percent of her neighbors work, and a similarly small percentage get less than $10,000 a year through government public assistance.)

In Robert Taylor, Henderson lived with her mother, who was not on the lease but who provided her free childcare. Several local storeowners offered her credit when she ran out of money for food and household items. And, in her building, she bartered with friends, exchanging a few diapers for a cup of sugar. As she often says, “Poor people help poor people. They have no one else, so they know how to help each other get by.” Leaving Robert Taylor in 2002 meant saying goodbye to neglectful police and violent gangs, but it also meant leaving behind all of these invisible social supports.

To date, the CHA has demolished 23 of the 28 buildings in Robert Taylor. Since the redevelopment began, the agency has not fulfilled its obligation to track relocating families, and its relocation efforts have not produced the planned results. Because CHA public housing stock has been home to many different types of residents, including undocumented residents and squatters, fears of homelessness and “lost” households abound. Several factors have contributed to the flawed relocation process: tenants’ tendencies to relocate into high-poverty African-American neighborhoods, counseling agencies relocating families into certain segregated areas, families’ limited exposure to Chicago’s more diverse middle-class neighborhoods, the limited capacity of the CHA and limited social services information being provided to families. Available information suggests that some families are unable to find private-market housing and so are consolidated into other public housing developments around the city. According to our Robert Taylor Relocation Study (a long-term study tracking a large sample of Chicago public housing residents), in 2003 24 percent of families were consolidated. Tracking is the cornerstone of the public housing transformation, because only those families who remain connected to the housing authority will be given notification of social services, relocation assistance and, of course, the date at which they can return to their new home, in their old neighborhood.

Those CHA families who have managed to move to the private market have had varying experiences. Conservatively, based on our research, about 20 to 25 percent boast dramatic improvements in their living situation. This is not insignificant, but it certainly is not stellar, given that since 1995, over 80 percent of tenants have moved to areas with at least a 30 percent minority population and greater than 24 percent poverty. This is a violation of the CHA’s own relocation objective of preventing further segregation and poverty concentration. (It has also led residents to file a lawsuit against the agency.) In theory the voucher units undergo an extensive inspection process so that families do not face conditions similar to the projects that they leave behind. But in the poor, segregated areas, as was Henderson’s experience, slum landlords make quick-and-dirty repairs, and the units are never rehabbed properly.

A recent report by the Residents’ Journal and The Chicago Reporter found that CHA tenants were moving into neighborhoods that had higher crime rates than the projects, and that CHA failed to secure the developments during the transformation process, leading to escalations in criminal activity.

Whither the Light and the Tunnel?

Soon, Lee-Lee Henderson will receive a notice that redevelopment of mixed-income housing will commence at the Robert Taylor Homes. If she meets all eligibility requirements, in addition to being lease-compliant, she may exercise her right to return to the neighborhood and a new home. The “site selection” criteria are strict, and somewhat unrealistic for public housing families. The mandatory 30-hours-per-week work requirement will disqualify the vast majority of tenants, who have childcare and family obligations, notwithstanding the fact that there are few jobs available for those with minimal education and work experience. In addition, residents must submit to mandatory drug testing, have no record of rent and utility delinquency and adhere to rules against taking in friends and relatives.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the transformation process is that residents are returning to the neighborhoods around the projects. Nostalgia may be a factor, but the social supports they spent years, if not decades, building up are not easy to cast aside. They patronize the same churches – where pastors give them free food and job assistance. They commute with their children for miles to attend the schools around the projects. They have trusting relationships with teachers who understand their plight. In their old neighborhood, shopkeepers still give them credit and hospital staff may find them free prescription drugs. Our study shows that 54 percent of the residents visit their old community at least once a week.

Through the same research, we found that 76 percent of a tenant’s social network is comprised of other public housing inhabitants. Because most of these families are in their old neighborhood, it’s not so surprising to learn that families are going back to their project communities in order to find support and to make ends meet.

Clearly, much of the federal legislation supporting public housing transformation is modeled on an individual nuclear family that will move to a middle-class neighborhood, find a job, eventually buy a home and invest in the market. Neither the HOPE VI program, nor the legislation supporting it, takes into account that poor people live in networks and that they are materially attached to their communities. What government needs to do, at all levels, is rethink and realign plans intended to transform public housing policy. This is wishful thinking, however. The Bush administration has fetishized “homeownership” as the solution to America’s housing needs and has continued the Clinton-era work of dismantling the country’s subsidized housing program.

The implementation of HOPE VI in Chicago shows serious structural problems. Not enough new units are being constructed. Families still cannot find housing outside the poorest, racially segregated communities and, out of sheer frustration, many are dropping out of the public housing system. These problems do not invalidate the benefits that families can experience in the private market, but they do show that families who relocate leave behind more than just the projects. And that tenants, like Lee-Lee Henderson, are still waiting for the promise – that life outside of public housing will be new and improved – to be fulfilled.


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