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Chicago public housing residents:
Kicked out

June 7, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

FIFTY-ONE high-rise buildings coming down. More than 18,000 apartments destroyed. Some 42,000 people forced out of their homes. Nearly 40,000 on an indefinite waiting list for housing.

You might think that these numbers document a refugee crisis after a war. But they're actually the projected results of the Chicago Housing Authority's (CHA) "Plan for Transformation."

The CHA is preparing to tear down all of the city's traditional high-rise housing projects and replace them with "mixed-income" developments. But project residents who are dealing with the complicated procedures and restrictions for relocating fear--with good reason--that they could get left out in the cold.

In many ways, the Plan for Transformation is a war--a war on Chicago's poor and overwhelmingly Black public housing residents. NICOLE COLSON reports on the hidden housing crisis facing tens of thousands of people in Chicago.

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CHICAGO'S PUBLIC housing system has been called the worst in the country.

It's not hard to see why. Look at the high-rise buildings in projects such as Cabrini Green on the North Side and Stateway Gardens on the South Side, and you'll see broken and boarded-up windows on almost every floor.

Soot marks remain around many windows where the city never bothered to repair apartments that caught on fire. Puddles of water stand in the hallways, broken light bulbs hang in nearly pitch-black staircases, and graffiti is everywhere.

There's no denying that these buildings are some of the bleakest places in the city. But they weren't always like this. It took years of calculated neglect by politicians for Chicago housing projects to reach this point.

When the CHA was launched in 1937 following the passage of the U.S. Housing Act, its mission was to "improve people's lives by building subsidized housing for low-income families unable to obtain decent, safe, and sanitary dwelling units within their income-paying abilities."

As late as the 1950s and 1960s, public housing was a sought-after alternative to the broken-down apartments and inflated rents of the slumlords. But the Democratic political machine under Mayor Richard Daley had different ideas. Over time, the CHA projects were used to warehouse and segregate poor Black residents from the rest of the city.

Today, there's little that's "decent, safe and sanitary" about the city's public housing high-rises. For decades, city officials ignored not only routine building maintenance, but severe problems such as burst pipes, faulty electrical wiring, broken heating systems and even fire damage.

In 1995, Chicago's public housing system was judged to be so wretched that it was taken over by the federal government's Department of Housing and Urban Development. But instead of revitalizing public housing in Chicago, the takeover set the stage for the current crisis.

In 1996, Washington ditched the Housing Act altogether. In its place, it came up with a wide-ranging housing law that, among other things, established what's become known as the "viability test."

Under the law, if officials judge that it's more expensive to rehab a public housing building than to tear it down and give residents Section 8 housing vouchers to subsidize the cost of rent paid to private landlords, they're required to demolish the building. In Chicago, almost 18,000 public housing units failed the test--a full 58 percent of CHA apartments.

The 1996 law also suspended the "one-for-one replacement" rule that required a new unit to be provided or built for every public housing unit demolished. That cleared the way for the Plan for Transformation--a barely disguised land grab that allows property developers to get their hands on prime real estate, while leaving public housing residents wondering where they will live.

Under the plan, the high-rises will be pulled down, and "mixed-income" developments will go up in their place. But even the CHA admits that there won't be nearly enough housing units to go around.

Only one-third of the new units will be reserved for public housing families (earning up to $19,500 per year for a family of four). Another third will be rented or sold at reduced rates to low-income families (earning $19,500 to $47,800 per year for a family of four). The rest will be sold or rented on the open market.

The CHA admits that 98.4 percent of current public housing families earn less than $20,000 per year--meaning that an overwhelming majority of families won't be able to get into the new developments.

According to the Chicago Reporter, "16,183 families could be vying for half of the available family units--7,647." And that number doesn't even include the more than 29,000 families currently on the waiting list for public housing.

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TO GET into the new developments or to relocate to other public housing apartments, residents will face new hoops to jump through. Any resident with a record of refusing employment won't be allowed back into the mixed-income developments. Nor will those with bad credit ratings, previous drug- or gang-related arrests, or a history of late rent payments.

As if that weren't degrading enough, public housing residents applying for units in the new developments will be required to undergo housekeeping inspections--and to attend parenting classes and/or "lifestyle choice training" if the CHA demands it.

In short, the CHA plan treats public housing residents "as if they were bad children, rather than people who have managed to get by and raise children in circumstances most middle-class people can't imagine," as the Coalition to Protect Public Housing put it in a statement. "[Q]uite simply, middle-class suburbanites who now want to move back into the city want access to the land under public housing to create communities that are not meant to be either mixed income or mixed race."

Many residents are certain that they'll lose out. "There's no way that they're letting us come back here," one woman at the Cabrini Green housing project told Socialist Worker. "You look across the street there--they're advertising for new houses that are going to cost $500,000 and $700,000. You think that they're going to let us all move back in next door once some rich white people buy their houses there? No way. They want to keep us out."

At Cabrini Green--which is located just west of the superrich Gold Coast along the city's north lakefront--the transformation has already begun. Developers have built a sprawling new shopping center, with a Dominick's grocery store, Starbucks coffee shop and a Blockbuster video store.

The sick irony is that public housing residents used to have to travel for miles to get to a supermarket--because companies didn't think it was profitable to build one in a poor neighborhood. Now new stores are flocking to the area--just as public housing residents are being driven out.

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FEW PEOPLE who live in Cabrini Green cherish the rundown buildings that they're being forced out of. Resheena, a seven-year resident of Cabrini, said that she wouldn't mind if the project were pulled down--as long as residents have somewhere decent to live.

But that's never going to happen, she says. "It might work out for some people, but I think a lot of people are just going to be lost," she said. "It's really going to take a toll on a lot of people, a lot of families. This one building here, everybody's kin. They're not used to being without their families. They're going to have to go borrowing and begging. A lot of them are going to be homeless."

T.C., a maintenance worker and resident of Cabrini Green for more than 30 years, says that he'll move to his cousin's Mississippi farm when he's forced out. "I'll take as many of these people with me who want to go," he said. "But I can't take everybody with me. I guess the rest will move out west or down south [in the city]. They've got the money to fix Cabrini up. But right now, there's a lot of politicians with nothing but greed for money. Greed, that's all it is."

At Stateway Gardens, many residents share the skepticism. "I've lived in Stateway since I was four," said Sheronda Washington, who recently graduated from high school. "It's going to make a heavy impact when the buildings come down. There's a lot of people living in these buildings. Once they get torn down, a lot of people aren't going to have anyplace to live."

The truth behind CHA rhetoric

CITY OFFICIALS have the gall to claim that the Plan for Transformation will help public housing residents--by relocating them into mixed-income and racially diverse neighborhoods. But the evidence so far suggests that most families end up in other segregated and poor neighborhoods--only further away from the central city property that developers have their eyes on.

According to a study by Lake Forest College Professor Paul Fischer, of 1,000 families from the CHA, "almost 80 percent of relocation families are living in census tracts that are over 90 percent Black, and over 90 percent are in census tracts that are under $15,000 median income.

"If the purpose of tearing down the high rises was to improve the quality of lives of the vacating tenants, indications so far are not very helpful."

"How can they try to evict her"

ONE OF the most frightening things for the CHA residents being pushed out of their homes is the uncertainty. Their futures can be thrown into chaos if officials decide they aren't "lease-compliant"--the most important requirement for residents to come back to a CHA unit when their project is shut down.

As John Bartlett, of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization and the Chicago Coalition to Protect Public Housing, told Socialist Worker, the CHA is using "lease compliance" as a weapon. "I think it's important to clear up what they're saying when they say that there isn't a 'valid lease,'" Bartlett said.

"Oftentimes, it's that a parent has died, and the kids have stayed in the apartment. Or it'll be some kind of situation where the children are still living there, and somebody else has come in to take care of them, and [the CHA] will say, 'Oh, they don't have a valid lease.' We've had people come to us who say that [the CHA] is asking for money that was owed a long time ago. They say the tenant never paid it, knowing that tenants aren't going to be able to prove this one way or another. Or they make up little rule violations. There are many ways that they can claim people aren't lease-compliant or don't have valid leases."

Citywide, an estimated 14,000 public housing residents don't have a valid lease. "I'm raising money now for one family to find them a place to stay," said April Nichols, who works for the CHA and has several family members living at Stateway Gardens. "The woman is so sweet. They actually tried to evict her. Her one daughter is strung out on drugs, and she has eight kids. How are they going to try to put her out on the street like that? Just because she doesn't have them all listed on her lease and she's behind in her rent?"

"I talked to the legal department, and they gave her until Tuesday of next week. By that time, if I'm lucky, I'll have enough money to put them somewhere where they can at least live for a little while."

Punished for being poor

CHICAGO IS the third-largest city in the richest country on Earth. It's home to some of the wealthiest multinational corporations in the world. The "Magnificent Mile" shopping district--just one mile east of Cabrini Green--oozes wealth and power.

Obviously, the money exists in Chicago to fix up and maintain existing CHA buildings, making them places where people would be proud to live--and to build more housing throughout the city. What's more, politicians could spend money on programs to create jobs that pay a living wage. Instead, they punish the most vulnerable people in the city--for the "sin" of being poor.

"I think it all depends on where your priorities are, both as a city and as a nation," says housing activist John Bartlett. "In European countries, it's generally 20 percent of the housing on average that's subsidized. In the U.S., it's 4 percent. Right there, you can see that there's a huge difference in priorities."

It's a sick system when luxury condos go up in place of public housing, and poor people get tossed out of their homes to make room for a Starbucks. We need a different kind of society altogether--where people would never live in fear of not having a decent roof over their heads.

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