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05.23.2011
Housing Crunch
Early results of Chicago's public housing overhaul.
Cabrini Green, now demolished.
Paul Goyette/Flickr

It’s been eleven years since the Chicago Housing Authority launched the Plan for Transformation, a program to replace the city’s entire stock of high-rise public housing with low-rise developments. The agency’s first report is out: 32 percent of residents have re-located to new or rehabilitated housing, while 25 percent have moved out of public housing using vouchers.

The plan aims to build or revamp 25,000 units and award vouchers for the remaining 13,000 units that will not be replaced. Eighty-one percent of the promised units are complete, and ten of the city’s most infamous housing projects, including Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, have been demolished. The latter was the largest public housing development in the country, with 28 high-rise buildings that stretched for two miles. The goal, according to the agency, is to end the social and physical isolation and re-integrate residents into mixed-income developments.

So far, the results have been mixed. The report highlights positive changes in the employment rate among heads of household, which increased to 41 percent, and average annual income, which nearly doubled to $19,244 by the end of 2010. But others aren’t as quick to suggest significant economic gains. In a survey of existing studies on the plan, MIT professor Lawrence Vale reports that employment among all working-age public housing residents has remained the same at around 50 percent. Still, he notes that mental health has improved, and that crime around demolished housing projects has decreased dramatically.

The report seeks to set the record straight after criticism that the plan left families to find alternative housing on their own. “There’s a myth out there that we don’t know where our families are. We do know where they are,” said CHA CEO Lewis Jordan, according to the Sun-Times. “And there’s a myth out there that a majority of our families were forced out of the city, which is not true.”

But such an ambitious plan has its shortcomings, say critics who point out that most residents do not end up in prized mixed-income housing. The CHA’s report shows that almost half the residents still with the CHA rent in the South and West side using vouchers, while only 20 percent live in new mixed-income developments and 36 percent live in low-income housing that underwent or is awaiting rehabilitation. Of the original 25,000 households who lived in public housing at the start of the plan, 9 percent have been evicted, 13 percent have not responded to outreach, and 7 percent are renting without a CHA subsidy but have expressed a desire to return to public housing in the future.

A main complaint was that demolition outpaced re-building. Tenants must also pass work requirements and criminal background and credit checks to qualify for mixed-income housing.

Community Builders, the developer of the mixed-income project at Oakwood Shores, also points to the transition to mixed-income housing as a challenge for some residents. “Mixed income sites may be publicly funded, but they’re privately-owned and managed,” said Lee Pratter, a senior project manager. “These are typical urban streets, not the superblocks that used to characterize public housing.” But Pratter also noted that tenants have maintained a vibrant tradition of community organizing. “They come to all the meetings, they vote, and they hold the leadership positions,” she said.

Katherine Fung