Housing USA: Chicago

6 min read

Demolish? Yes. Rebuild? No.

Chicago, IL — Public housing has long been one of America’s top examples of government failure. From urban renewal, through the construction of high-rise ghettos, to demolition and rebuilding, the story has been about optimism and good intentions, followed by mismanagement and delay. Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city, has long been proactive about advancing the federal government’s public housing agenda. It thus embodies these highs and lows.

I saw the residue of this during a recent trip to Cabrini-Green on a prototypically cold Chicago fall afternoon.

The once-notorious project has always been well-located– flanked in each direction by upscale Near North Side commerce, and blocks from the Gold Coast along Lake Michigan. In its worst era, Cabrini-Green functioned like a self-contained war zone amid this wealth; even after its housing was demolished, the land has never, under Chicago Housing Authority management, really reintegrated into the city. There is some housing, schools and retail, but the area is still an open wound of vacant space amid prime real estate. Other Chicago land masses once used for public housing also remain underutilized.

Its story dates to the post-WWII era, when Chicago began slum clearance efforts that became known as “urban renewal.” Before then, southern blacks had moved into Chicago’s south and west sides and, much like New York City’s Harlem, these areas grew celebrated for their entertainment and culture, but also admonished for their substandard housing conditions. So the city, using federal money, tore down what were called “blighted” neighborhoods, and replaced them with vertical tower projects surrounded by lawns. Cabrini-Green, which contained 3,607 units within 23 high-rises, joined projects like the Robert Taylor Homes and the Ida Wells Homes, as part of a vast CHA portfolio.

Although urban renewal is criticized today as social engineering gone wrong, that wasn’t initially the view, says Alden Loury, director of research for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a local think tank. His grandparents moved to Chicago from Memphis in the 1940s and, because of segregationist policies, settled into the rundown south side. When they were relocated into the modern, spacious LeClaire Courts—an early public housing project that was later demolished—they viewed it as an opportunity. As Loury described, Chicago’s black population then was “literally living on top of one another in slum conditions in the Black Belt, in Bronzeville…so for many of the black families who were the first to live in these spaces, I don’t think they saw it necessarily as some kind of death sentence.”

But as decades passed, these projects lost their novelty. Federal money dried up, the CHA proved an incompetent landlord, and stricter tenant income guidelines made them lower-class ghettos. By the 1980s, the national media was doing blistering profiles of Chicago’s projects. A 1989 CBS news special noted that in the previous year there had been 200 people shot or stabbed within Cabrini-Green’s 70 acres.

Such conditions were common in public housing nationwide, creating a consensus among planners about the flaws of the towers-in-a-park model. Throughout the 1990s, HUD allocated money to demolish them and rebuild new structures with lower densities and mixed incomes. Much of that money arrived in Chicago, where 18,000 public housing units were demolished, under the promise of replacement. But the problem, says Dick Simpson, a former alderman and political science professor for the University of Illinois at Chicago, is that the city “did the first part but not the second.”

In 2000, the city launched the $1.5 billion “Plan For Transformation,” which would provide vouchers, public housing repairs, and new mixed-income developments to be leveraged through private investment and tax credits. Seventeen years later, the program has had mixed results, especially depending on how one views the complex issue of public housing to begin with. One positive is that many residents left the government rolls altogether, finding market-rate housing. Others were housed through vouchers, which are seen by advocates as a way to deconcentrate poverty and by critics as something that further uproots public housing families.

But to Simpson’s point, the Plan For Transformation has not been successful at helping public housing residents return to the neighborhoods they were removed from. A September report by the Chicago Sun-Times found that, despite CHA nearing its goals of building or restoring 25,000 units, it took twice as long as expected, and 13,000 demolished units have never been replaced.

The reasons cited by the report, and confirmed by those I interviewed, summarize why public housing redevelopment has lagged elsewhere. Primarily, the mixed-income model first envisioned by HUD does not seem desirable either to developers or consumers. Developers, said Simpson, don’t want to build sub-market-rate units on expensive land, since subsidies often don’t make up the difference. And many consumers don’t want to integrate across class lines, given the cultural divides between market-rate and public housing tenants.

Perhaps a bigger obstacle is the regulatory burdens, such as the expectation that projects should have lower densities. Mandating this for centrally-located areas is a great way to scare off investment.

Trying to put low-density projects in outer neighborhoods, meanwhile, is politically tough, since they are rejected by affluent residents.

“We want to do more [housing], no doubt about it,” CHA executive Eugene Jones, Jr. told the Sun-Times. “But you have to understand the NIMBYism in a lot of those communities.”

As a result, much of the CHA’s land remains underutilized, or altogether fallow. Along with Cabrini-Green, there is empty land and vacant buildings inside the Robert Taylor Homes, the Lathrop Homes, and other demolished former complexes. Even the so-called successful projects, such as the Henry Horner Homes redevelopment, plop fundamentally suburban-style projects on land that is often a mile or two from downtown.

This is somewhat the fault of Chicago’s hyper-local political process, in which planners, public housing residents and surrounding neighbors squabble about ideal densities and building characteristics. But the greater flaw has been the idea that government should control and engineer land in the first place. In Chicago, this has produced a seven-decade cycle of demolition, construction and more demolition, with families being uprooted in the process. The net result has been fewer available housing options.

Story Contacts:

Alden Loury
Director of Research, Metropolitan Planning Council
Staff contact, Emily Blum, eblum@metroplanning.org

Dick Simpson
Professor of Political Science, University of Illinois at Chicago
Former Chicago Alderman, 44th Ward, 1971-1979