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Displaced: Tougher rules for Chicago's subsidized housing aim to sweep social problems away

The social ills that once plagued Chicago public housing can be eliminated with a few swings of a wrecking ball. Drug dealing, gang shootings, economic isolation and squalor will be displaced as housing projects throughout the city are torn down.

Without question, the Chicago Housing Authority is working to change the appearance, the quality and the culture of public housing. But the agency also is building a new set of challenges along with the mixed-income housing that is replacing the former projects. There will be tougher requirements to get into fewer subsidized units, putting the most disadvantaged former public housing residents at risk of finding themselves in worse predicaments than before. And those who lose out will have to find someplace else to live, even if it's in the streets. Critics say the city is just pushing the old problems onto other communities and agencies.

In late March, some of the last survivors of former Chicago public housing projects congregated outside the Ida B. Wells project's "extensions," their new home. According to one old-timer relaxing with his friends on a warm spring day, "All of the original people are gone." 

Farther north on State Street, the Harold Ickes Homes are strangely quiet. Several structures sit boarded up, and the foyers of the buildings are empty. The only sign of movement comes from the blue flashing lights on the Chicago Police Department cameras scattered throughout the development. 

A few blocks south, the last white brick, 17-story project located on Federal Street in Chicago's historic Bronzeville neighborhood waits to be torn down. It's the last remnant of Stateway Gardens. The neighboring Robert Taylor Homes, marked as some of the worst in the nation for their concentration of poverty, are completely gone. In 2000, the U.S. Census Monitoring Board stated that, out of those Robert Taylor Homes residents who were screened, 84 percent earned less than $10,000 annually.

The hollow project stands in an oasis of new condos, single family homes and town houses that sell for anywhere from $200,000 to $600,000 a unit. Commercial developers now control the land, and new construction is replacing the dilapidated Robert Taylor and Stateway Gardens buildings. 

The new commercial-rate units, marketed as Park Boulevard and Legends South, "are selling like hotcakes," says Bryan Zises, spokesman for the Chicago Housing Authority. In fact, Park Boulevard is a stone's throw from the fairly new White Sox stadium and the rapidly growing Illinois Institute of Technology campus.

While the commercial-rate units offer new opportunities for those who can afford them, the loss of subsidized units creates uncertainty for the neighborhood low-income residents. According to a 2003 Ford Foundation report, the 4,321 Robert Taylor units were reduced to just 2,400. By the time the project is done, the city will lose 14,000 public housing units, according to the report, CHA Relocation Counseling Assessment, published by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization.

A third of of the new units will sell at market rates. Another third will be built for middle-income families. And the final third will be set aside for subsidized residents. Yet the eligibility requirements will put even these units beyond the means of many former public housing residents.

Residents will need to work at least 30 hours a week or attend school to be eligible to move back. They also must be current on rent and utility payments and have an established credit history.

But evidence shows most public housing residents could have a hard time staying employed. The Metropolitan Planning Council, in a 2005 report that used data from the Chicago Department of Human Services, concluded that 44 percent of public housing residents who were involved in job training, counseling or other programs to help them stay employed didn't finish high school. More than 60 percent read below the eighth-grade level. Less than a third of heads of households worked consistently for an entire year.

Most public housing residents would have to find jobs accessible to public transportation to meet the income requirement. Sue Popkin, a researcher for the Urban Institute, found that only one in eight public housing residents has a driver's license. One in five owns a car that runs. 

In De Facto Shelters: Homeless Living in Vacant Public Housing Units, Popkin wrote that 73 percent of public housing residents reported criminal or legal problems that threatened their eligibility to move back in. Some are experiencing problems with landlords demanding more money for additional family members living in the households. Others have been harassed by local gangs in their new communities.

Furthermore, if residents want to remain lease-compliant, they must refuse shelter to their children and relatives who are released from prison. Along those lines, all members of households older than 18 must pass criminal background checks. Those who have records of assault, drug, homicide, murder, domestic violence, burglary, theft, weapon, sexual assault or home invasion convictions within the previous three years will be denied. Households that have records of disturbances in prior housing won't qualify.

Family members with a history of drug abuse are subject to drug screenings and a rehab program approved by the housing authority. Once they move in, residents are subject to regular housekeeping checks.

Zises, the housing authority spokesman, says re-entry is a problem that goes beyond the agency's regulations. "There is not an easy answer to the complex question of how to deal with criminal background checks," he says. 

He adds that the authority does consider special circumstances, but for the most part, applicants must wait three years after convictions to be eligible to move in.

The primary goal, he says, focuses on eliminating economic segregation.

"The bigger picture is that we know what happens when you isolate. You create islands of poverty. That was the problem with the original plan. It wasn't smart to isolate."

Zises stresses that the new plan works and that there have been few problems with residents meeting requirements, developers selling units or public housing residents integrating into the new communities. He says one or two families have been unable to adjust and have been asked to leave the new structures. The agency has helped more than 3,000 residents get jobs, increasing the  percentage of residents employed from 25 percent to 38 percent. 

Nevertheless, many former residents won't make the cut under the new requirements. 

In the early stages of the plan, housing projects that failed federal standards for remodeling were systematically shut down and put on demolition schedules. The tenants of those buildings had two options: either sign up for a housing choice voucher, formally known as Section 8, a federally funded housing assistance program, or sign a contract to move back into rebuilt developments. Relatives and friends living with leaseholders had no such rights. Some became homeless. 

"While the CHA didn't have a legal reason to provide many of these people with housing, does that mean they shouldn't have a moral reason?" says Brady Harden Jr., president of Inner Voice, a Chicago organization that provides assistance to the homeless. 

"How many of us have relatives that need to live in our households from time to time?" 

But it's unclear who bears the responsibility for ensuring that so-called squatters have a place to live. 

"It shouldn't be the homeless shelters," Harden says. "Somebody thought the public housing residents would disappear, but they reappeared in the shelters." 

Harden says his organization previously had a good working relationship with the housing authority. For instance, he says, the authority would allow some of his clients to live in abandoned structures as a way to prevent vandalism until the buildings were ready to be rehabbed or demolished. Now, Harden says, he doesn't even call the agency when he meets a family that needs housing.

"The CHA should have a sign, 'Homeless people need not apply,'" Harden says. 

The waiting list includes more than 40,000 people for the estimated 25,000 units, 20,000 of which will be set aside for returning public housing residents. Harden says the wait is a big deterrent. 

"We used to keep statistics of how many displaced public housing residents were coming to homeless shelters. Then we stopped," he says. 

However, Harden says he remembers finding shelter for about 25 families immediately after the housing authority first started tearing down buildings. Many of them were single mothers with two or more children.

Willie Fleming organizes events for the Coalition to Protect Public Housing, an advocacy group of residents and social service agencies. He also lives in Cabrini-Green, a community of housing projects made notorious by media coverage of its gang wars and random shootings. Cabrini-Green sits a hop, skip and jump from Chicago's downtown area and is surrounded by $400,000-and-up town homes and new developments. 

His organization says the housing authority's use of vouchers is ineffective and that residents with vouchers face discrimination trying to secure roofs over their heads. He says 85 percent of previous public housing residents have been forced to move into property-poor areas that have high rates of crime. He attributes this to the time restrictions on finding housing under the voucher program.

"You can't take those vouchers to the Gold Coast or to Lincoln Park because most landlords aren't going to accept them," he says. 

Fleming and Harden agree that new requirements may be difficult for residents. However, Zises of the housing authority disputes those claims, saying there isn't proof. 

A study administered by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago shows that 64 percent of 223 leaseholders said they felt better about their opportunities, 29 percent said they felt the same and 7 percent said they felt worse. Eighty-one percent of 94 residents surveyed on the housing voucher plan said their life opportunities were better since they moved. 

Zises says while housing residents are concentrated in certain areas, he doesn't attribute the clusters to discrimination.  "Some residents need that social network, so they move near friends and family."  

The requirements and the relocation process made the Coalition to Protect Public Housing take action. The organization filed a federal lawsuit against the housing authority to address relocation issues for Cabrini-Green residents. 

"The enforcement of the rules for residents to move back into public housing is less than fair and intentionally biased," says Fleming.

He adds the group deals with complaints from residents who have experienced hardship when trying to relocate with housing vouchers. He says most find shelter in Englewood and on the far South and West sides of Chicago, locations that can be miles away from their old units. 

"Some of these new areas are far worse than where the residents have left," he says. "I thought the idea was for residents to better themselves." 

Not everyone thinks the new rules are unfair, though. "Since the very beginning of public housing, there have always been screening requirements," says Barbara Jackson, past resident of the Washington Park Homes on Chicago's South Side. "This is nothing new."

Jackson says she lived in Chicago public housing when people followed the rules and the housing authority did its homework by screening residents. The second generation of her family to live in housing, she watched as housing developments deteriorated. Unlike some of her friends, Jackson moved out before the agency's 10-year Plan for Transformation got under way in 1999. 

Somewhere along the way, maintenance of the units dwindled, rules stopped being enforced, young people without guidance moved in and the screening process was watered down, she says. She points to lack of funding. 

"I definitely don't think the new requirements are unfair," Jackson says. "Some residents are just used to living 'the old type of life' where they can do just about whatever they want." 

Others, including Fleming, aren't as sure. "Why are the rules different for residents living in public housing or with housing vouchers than those who wish to move into mixed-income housing?" Fleming asks. 

He adds that he feels the agency is more concerned with the profitability of development. "I wish anyone good luck in finding out the truth. They'll have to dig through piles of greed to get to it." 

Zises says the agency spends more than $22 million to ensure it meets the needs for all lease-compliant public housing residents, whether those needs include job training, literacy or drug rehab programs. The authority puts about $180,000 into each new unit set aside for public housing residents, and the developers pick up any additional costs.

The agency plans to operate 31 supportive service offices to connect residents to job training, adult education classes, employment assistance and counseling services. Substance abuse referrals also are available. 

Harden of Inner Voice says the supportive programs are outstanding; however, he has mixed feelings about the city's transformation plan.

"Don't get me wrong, I love the new buildings," Harden says. "They are beautiful, but they don't help our clients." 

Inner Voice operates nine homeless shelters throughout the city and is involved with 11 more. The organization operates on the near West Side of Chicago near a new mixed-income community called West Haven, which stands in the former spot of the infamous Henry Horner Homes, the subject of the book, There Are No Children Here. The neighborhood is steps away from the newest professional stadium built for the Chicago Bulls and the Blackhawks.

"We live in the shadows of Henry Horner, but our clients can't get in," Harden says. 

The biggest challenge for public housing residents and homeless people wanting to move into the mixed-income communities is the income and job requirements, according to Harden.

He says some of the requirements create another formula for disaster. "We don't want the crime element in public housing. We want safe housing. But what if Daddy wants to come home after being incarcerated and get his life together? What are we going to say, 'Daddy is not worthy to live with you?'" 

Harden says chasing fathers out of the house isn't the smartest thing to do. "We saw this with welfare reform. It causes other problems down the road when people are trying to raise their children without fathers in the household." 

The more than 40,000 families on the public housing waiting list remains an issue. The federal government has cut funding for public housing, Zises says. 

"[The] waiting list and the national problem is a very serious issue; however, we can only do as much as we can with the money that is given," he says. "We can't do more. We can't solve the world's problems in a vacuum." 

Finding out how many residents will be able to meet Chicago's requirements will have to wait. Unforeseen construction costs have slowed the agency's transformation plan, delaying the plan's timeline for completion until 2015.

In the meantime, the biggest challenge may not be for the city as much as for the former residents who wait for public housing. 

Editor's note: Deanese Williams-Harris, Illinois Issues' graduate Public Affairs Reporting intern, lived in Chicago's Washington Park Homes and Stateway Gardens public housing projects before her family moved to the North Side. Her parents were among the first families to move into the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens. As an undergraduate student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, she researched media coverage of public housing residents before the demolition plans were drafted.

Illinois Issues, May 2007

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