Chicago’s Public Housing: Willful Neglect

Against the Current, No. 86, May/June 2000

Jamie Owen Daniel

Just a few days before Christmas, the Chicago Tribune ran an article under the whimsical title, “Another Can of Worms for CHA.” (CT 12/23/99) This report described how, in its rush to force a group of recalcitrant residents to move from one poorly maintained building in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing complex to another before the holidays, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) had cut off power to the building.

It did so even though residents, some of whom had lived there for several decades, had begged that it be left on for a few more days, just long enough for them to move the community service organizations and resident youth businesses that were housed in the building.

These community services included a USDA-approved food pantry that fed up to 100 area families each week, and a library with a few donated computers.  The youth businesses were an indoor aquaculture farm that raised tilapia fish to sell to restaurants, and a red worm, or “vericomposting,” farm that produced nutrient-rich worm castings sold as fertilizer.

These resident-run enterprises provided young people a chance to earn pocket money and learn the responsibilities involved in running a business, and gave adult volunteers a chance to mentor them. But the CHA and its CEO, Phillip Jackson, apparently could not see the value in any of these enterprises.  They installed a few electric space heaters, but then turned off the building’s electricity.  Of course, space heaters don’t work without power, and the temperature in the farm rooms quickly dropped below freezing.

Residents returned to find both the fish and worms frozen, the food pantry and library ransacked, and the computers stolen by scavengers.  Rather than expressing any regret about this needless destruction of community organizations that represented years worth of committed volunteer work, Jackson made fun of the residents’ loss, implying in his comments to the press that they were more worried about saving worms than people.

Unfortunately, the destruction of the children’s fish and worm farms at the Robert Taylor Homes and Jackson’s flippant response were nothing new. Both were typical of the callous disregard with which the CHA has treated its residents and their communities ever since it began relinquishing its historic role as a provider of affordable housing to very low- income people.

Long crippled by internal corruption and incompetent administrations, the CHA began openly disinvesting in its residents as soon as the federal government decided to “get out of the public housing business.” This decision coincided with the campaign to dismantle welfare “as we know it” (although the only people who use this phrase are precisely those who don’t know it at all).

This decision was signaled by the 1995 revocation of the 1937 Housing Act that had required that any unit of public housing that was torn down had to be replaced, and a 1996 federal law requiring the demolition of public housing buildings deemed “non-viable,” i.e. not worth repairing.

In the more than four years since, the CHA has positioned itself in a patronizing and often openly adversarial stance toward residents, a process that has culminated in the CHA’s massive “Plan for Transformation” which was approved by HUD on February 5. (See note 1) According to its own numbers, this plan will use an anticipated $5 billion HUD dollars over the next ten years to reduce the number of public housing units available to the more than 60,000 families currently seeking them from 38,776 to 24,773, a loss of some 14,000 units in an already woefully inadequate system. (See note 2)

According to recent estimates by critics of the plan, the number of senior units available will increase to 9,480, while the number of family units will drop to 15,293, a loss of more than 1,000 units.  And even this number is misleading, since the Plan also states that it will require that only half of its rehabbed units be leased to families earning 0-30% of Chicago’s median income of $63,800, or less than $19,500.

Only 1.6% of families in public housing earn more than $20,000, with most earning less than $10,000 annually.  According to The Chicago Reporter, this means that “16,183 families could be vying for half of the available family units–7,647.” These numbers do not take into account the 29,715 families presently on waiting lists for public housing. (See note 3)

The official numbers of people who stand to be displaced and/or left homeless if the plan is carried out are daunting enough.  But because of deliberate actions taken by the CHA to threaten, bully and harass residents into leaving their public housing units before they had to provide HUD with any numbers, the actual numbers of people who have already been displaced are much greater.

The CHA’s figures refer to the number of present lease-holders, but it is well known that those numbers do not correspond to the number of families who actually may be living in a unit, as leaseholders often take in family members or friends who cannot obtain leases.  In addition, the CHA’s numbers do not include the thousands of people driven out of its buildings by the CHA’s deliberate practice of not addressing infestation, plumbing, and heating problems in a timely fashion.

This practice caused irreparable water damage from leaks or burst pipes; in January of 1999, the CHA had to move Robert Taylor residents into hotels because many buildings had no heat, and residents had to rely on space heaters or stoves in units whose walls were often covered in sheets of ice from burst pipes.  CHA also often simply left empty units to the mercy of the elements, rendering them susceptible to rat and vermin infestation and making them obvious choices for drug users.

These factors combined to an unprecedented degree during the two years before the Plan was drawn up, causing some residents to simply give up and move out of their units, and thus out of the CHA system.

In this way, CHA has effectively “disappeared” thousands of people who had been or were eligible to be residents, thus creating more palatable numbers so that it could present its plan to HUD as affecting far fewer people than it actually does. It also did this so as to calm public anxiety about what are sure to be the plan’s considerable negative social effects, such as radically increased homelessness, and the further concentration of poverty in already impoverished segregated neighborhoods.

Importantly, it also did this so it could retain control of the public record, since, once people have left the CHA, the agency does not keep track of what happens to them, and they fall, as it were, under the statistical radar.

Who Benefits?

Under the Plan, CHA will demolish all fifty-two of the present high-rise buildings, including much of the Cabrini-Green complex just north of the Loop, and all twenty-fiv buildings remaining at Robert Taylor, located along South State Street.  Perhaps most importantly for residents, it will turn over to private investors and management companies the responsibility for the building and maintenance of the new “mixed income” housing that is supposed to replace the present low-income complexes.

In fact, HUD originally balked at the Plan precisely because of what Assistant Secretary Harold Lucas referred to in an October 7, 1999 letter to CHA executives as “an unprecedented degree of privatization.”

CHA will accomplish this radical privatization by means of the waivers it has requested from nearly every federal law and regulation heretofore available to residents to protect them from precisely the private and ruthlessly market-driven interests that will now be deciding where and, to a great extent, how they will live. As resident leader Francine Washington put it, “waivers are going to give CHA a free ride.” (See note 4)

So what will be the role of the Chicago Housing Authority once it has turned over the responsibility for providing and maintaining housing for people who cannot afford market-rate housing to private developers?

According to the Plan, CHA will devote its energies (and federal funding) to its new role as a middleman in the now market-driven business of privatized public housing; it will function henceforth merely as a “facilitator of housing opportunities” and what is euphemistically termed “human capital development.”

What this means is that it will act on behalf of private developers and maintenance companies to screen out any potential “undesirable” residents whose presence in the new “mixed income” developments might discourage middle-class people able to pay market rates.

Who is meant by this is clear in the Plan’s new criteria for qualifying for a CHA unit. The new CHA rental policies will no longer offer housing based on need. Instead, it will “employ admissions preferences aimed at families who are working.”

Although the CHA knows full well that the majority of those applying will be women with dependent children, nowhere does the Plan suggest that it will make sure there are living wage jobs for these women.  Nor does it mention how they will find or afford adequate day care if they do find a job. Any applicant with a record of refusing employment, those with bad credit ratings, and those with records of late rent payments will not qualify, nor will people with records of drug-related arrests or felons.

People not working because they are either in college or a work-training program will be exempt from the work requirement, since this indicates what the Plan calls their “willingness to be self-sufficient.” Such residents are celebrated as “upwardly mobile families,” and preference in assigning new housing will be to homeowners or potential homeowners.

As if these economic criteria, all of which imply that residents who aren’t working are not worthy of a roof over their heads, weren’t enough, low-income potential residents must submit to “housekeeping inspections” where they currently live. One wonders whether higher income homeowners whom the private developers want to attract to their “mixed income” communities will also have to have their present homes inspected before qualifying for a mortgage.

Residents must also be willing to submit to “parenting classes” and “lifestyle choice training.” In other words, they must agree to present themselves as helpless and inept, and in need of “training” in the most basic life skills.  They must agree to the terms of privatization, according to which anyone who is not both economically self-sufficient and upwardly mobile is unworthy of citizenship.

As this article goes to press, public housing in Chicago is in an in-between stage in the great CHA transformation plan. It has not yet been “transformed” into the New Urbanist fantasy of rich and poor happily sharing common public space before retiring to their separate but equal private residences.

But if the CHA has its way, Chicago’s public housing also clearly will never again be allowed to encourage the kinds of tightly knit, interdependent low-income communities in which people share public and private space in ways inconceivable to most middle-class folks, including the advocates of New Urbanism. (See note 5)

Throughout this transition period, which culminated in HUD’s official approval of the transformation of the CHA from a provider of safe, affordable housing for disadvantaged communities to a “facilitator” of resident placement for private developers, residents consistently have been denied a meaningful voice in deciding what will happen to their homes and families.  They certainly did not have a chance to help draw up the “Plan for Transformation,” a draft copy of which was distributed to resident leaders “for comment” only shortly before it was submitted to HUD.

Why residents have been shut out is clear.  For, to the same extent that it privileges the private market and its demands, the Plan treats residents and their demands as pesky impediments to the proper use of public housing.

This was reflected in a recent statement by Daniel C. Levin, speaking on behalf of the Habitat Co., the developer with the most to gain when the Plan goes into effect.  Complaining about Cabrini-Green residents demanding a voice in the restructuring of their communities, he said: “The residents, of course, think that they should have a veto, so that makes them a very powerful special interest group that has slowed down the process.”

Now defined by the CHA and private interests as a problematic special interest group, thousands of Chicago’s CHA residents, most of them Black women and children, have continued to raise their voices in protest against what some have rightly referred to as “urban cleansing.” (See note 6) But it is increasingly unlikely that they will be heard-their voices are being drowned out by the deafening roar of all that private money.


Jamie Owen Daniel teaches in the English Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is president of the Marxist Literary Group, serves on the board of Chicago Jobs with Justice, and is a member of the Workers’ Rights Board and of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing.

ATC 86, May-June 2000