Myths and Realities of Homelessness and Poverty: A Plan for Transforming Cities

By Jane Ramsey
President, JCUA

Jane Ramsey Lectures at Iowa State UniversityThis lecture was delivery by Jane Ramsey on Feb. 29 at Iowa State University. Her appearance was cosponsored by the College of Design, the Department of Community and Regional Planning, the Graduate Community and Regional Planning Club and the Committee on Lectures.

We are here tonight to explore the myths and realities of homelessness and poverty, through the lens of Chicago’s supposed “transformation” of public housing. How fascinating that a path has been forged between Chicago and Iowa by some former residents of public housing and others who were forced out of the housing market as a result of the “transformation.”

Let me begin by sharing with you my somewhat unique vantage point as this story unfolded.

It began, coincidentally, for me as a University of Chicago graduate student in 1976 when I was placed as an intern with the city of Chicago’s economic development department, then called the Mayor’s Committee for Economic and Cultural Development. Following my internship I was hired on as a city planner…getting an invaluable, first-hand education about Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Chicago Machine.

Truly, as a naïve young woman , I wouldn’t have believed Mike Royko’s book, “Boss” if I hadn’t observed the machinations first hand.

As a city planner, I was assigned to work with the Industrial Council on Goose Island, adjacent to the Cabrini Green housing development. A report came to my attention that was done by the Real Estate Research Corporation regarding Cabrini Green. It turns out the companies in the area, coincidentally supporters and funders of the Chicago Machine’s campaign coffers, wanted to expand. The report recommended and described the process for tearing down the Cabrini Green housing developments. However, the report was too hot at the time and never saw the light of day.

Some time later, I left my job with the city and began working as an advocate with Cabrini Green residents who voiced concerns that the Chicago Housing Authority’s plans to demolish Cabrini had more to do with the city’s desire to obtain the valuable Gold Coast land than the CHA’s public message regarding concern for the well being of the residents. I wished then, so much , that I had taken with me a copy of that report which made the city’s and CHA’s intentions quite clear, exactly what the residents knew and feared.

That brings me to my primary context for acting as an advocate with public housing residents, well, truly as a critic , of the CHA’s plan for transformation. In 1979, I joined the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, or JCUA, where I have since worked.

JCUA, a civil and human rights organization, was founded in 1964 to combat poverty, racism and anti-Semitism in partnership with Chicago’s diverse communities. With grassroots community organizations, JCUA organizes communities, builds coalitions, and educates and mobilizes the public regarding social and economic justice issues. High on its list is working with low income and minority communities on issues of housing.

In the 1960s JCUA worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he moved to Chicago’s West Side, bringing the civil rights movement north to challenge Chicago’s housing and school segregation practices. JCUA placed a staff member with Dr. King to help organize his campaign to end the slums.

In the 1970s JCUA filed suit as part of the Contract Buyer’s League to help African-American home buyers who were wrongfully evicted and victimized by the illegal practices of redlining and panic peddling, as well as the legal yet morally corrupt contract sales. JCUA as well has and continues to work with community organizations fighting to preserve affordable housing in the face of gentrification and with others who are seeking fair housing and an end to racial steering of renters and buyers.

Since 1990, JCUA has also employed a community development strategy, partnering with nonprofit development corporations to build and preserve more than 4,000 units of housing in Chicago for families and individuals with extremely low incomes. We have advocated with local, state and national governments for housing subsidies and funding, and have helped to create shelters, single room occupancy buildings, apartments and some single family homes. We know housing. And we know how tight the market is for housing for very low income individuals and families. So when, in the 1990s the Cabrini Green residents came to us with an urgent request to help save their public housing, we did not hesitate.

Around the time the residents approached us, CHA had begun to engage resident leaders in drafting plans for their communities. They were in the process of doing so, had in fact just about completed the process, when, in 1996 congress changed Section 18 of the United States Housing Act to eliminate the requirement of one-for-one replacement housing. That provision had protected public housing residents by codifying that they could not be removed from their public housing unit until a comparable unit was available for them to move into, i.e., one for one replacement. However, in 1996 when that provision was eliminated by Congress, locally, the CHA, under the control of Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley, pounced upon the opportunity to move forward with its long-desired demolition of Chicago’s public housing.

Shortly thereafter, I received an odd call from an official high up in the midwest’s regional Housing And Urban Development (HUD) office. He asked me to meet with him and shared confidentially with me that he had met with city and CHA officials and that together they had agreed to a plan to take down Cabrini Green. He showed me the blueprints.

The official also shared with me what he was willing to do for the residents, and what the city’s officials had committed to doing. However, he feared they would not hold up their end of the plan…which was why he leaked the story to me, knowing very well JCUA’s propensity for speaking out in the face of injustice and hoping that I would do something.

I confronted him as to why he thought taking down hundreds of units of housing and displacing the families was OK. His response was telling and disturbing. What I am about to share with you is absolutely true, though very hard, even today, for me to fathom.

He responded that by taking down the public housing now, low-income residents in 50 years would be living in better conditions and the immediate sacrifice of the current residents was worth that end goal. I shared with him, someone I knew to be affluent and never in danger of being on the same streets he was so willing to risk for the residents, that I was more concerned about the current Cabrini residents than the hypothetical ones 50 years from that moment. That surreal meeting still amazes and infuriates me.

Soon after, HUD issued a requirement that housing authorities across the country take down their high rises, over 100,000 nationally, 14,000 in Chicago. It soon became clear, however, that most or all of Chicago’s existing public housing was at risk of being demolished, including the low rises in good condition such as Lathrop Homes. Four years after the change in federal law, the CHA implemented the details of the Plan for Transformation. The plan included demolition beginning in the year 2000, not of 14,000 units but of 38,000 units of public housing. CHA committed to building back within 10 years a total of 25,000 units of housing – an economic and physical impossibility to which they now admit.

Meanwhile, the changed law propelled the Cabrini Green residents to organize. They asked us at JCUA to help them conduct a press conference where they would voice their concerns and opposition, urging that the process already underway which included public housing residents planning their own communities be allowed to move forward.

Following the press conference, which brought residents together from all across Chicago, the groups met to determine their future actions. As a result, that same day, the Coalition to Protect Public Housing was formed, joining together public housing residents, who led the coalition, with civil rights, community, and academic organizations, including my own. For the next several years, JCUA’s role was to facilitate the growth and effectiveness of CPPH and ultimately, to help it stop the demolition without first replacing public housing in Chicago.

The tactics CPPH utilized were multiple. We filed and organized around a lawsuit…and won the replacement of several hundred additional units of public housing, as well as the residents’ right to manage the property. We testified at board meetings of the Chicago Housing Authority, urging them to put a moratorium on the demolition of public housing. We held large-scale public meetings and rallies, to educate the residents and the public. We sat with the media, newspapers, radio and TV to get the story from the residents’ point of view into the press.

We had an old-fashioned sit-in at HUD that importantly resulted in HUD’s commitment to us that they would institute a relocation contract and plan for any resident prior to displacement. This has occurred, though problems with the relocations abound. As well, HUD committed to conducting a market survey of available affordable housing in Chicago and to forbidding CHA from proceeding with demolitions if the findings of the market survey showed that housing was not available.

On this last point it became clear which branch of government held the power….and it wasn’t the federal government.

HUD did indeed conduct a market study…and then refused to allow it to be released. We and the community demanded HUD release their findings…to no avail.

Finally, the researchers leaked the story and HUD had to formally release it. Their findings were that Chicago had a deficit of 153,000 units too few of affordable housing. Notwithstanding the findings and HUD’s commitment to stop the demolitions, CHA nonetheless continued aggressively to demolish, unfazed by HUD, community concerns, or residents’ endangerment.

We had to step up our pressure. The coalition pursued a human rights strategy. International human rights law clearly identifies housing as a human right. The coalition wrote a letter to Miloon Kothari, then United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, inviting him to meet with the residents in Chicago to hear their grievances regarding the displacements. To their credit and delight, Kothari, accepted.

He came to Chicago, met at Cabrini Green with the residents, and proceeded to issue findings which were shared with CHA and the mayor that their grievances were correct and their displacement illegal according to the International Declaration of Human Rights of which the U.S. is a signer. As a result, the pace of the demolitions slowed.

Today, all of the Cabrini high rises have come down, which, at its peak housed 15,000 people in 3,600 housing units. Left are the low rises where CPPH chair and long-time activist Carol Steele lives. Though the CHA is trying to oust Steele and the remaining residents to enable the creation at Cabrini of “mixed income housing,” Steele has vowed to remain. The impact on residents who have had to move has been devastating. Steele shared one story of a friend:

“Let me tell you about a woman I will call Mary,” she said. “Mary has eight children and was a former resident of Robert Taylor Homes. In 1996, she moved out of her unit because she was told that she could use a Section 8 voucher to get a better apartment somewhere else in the city. Yet she was not guaranteed a right to return once her unit was redeveloped. Since then, Mary and her family have moved at least 12 times because they cannot find safe, stable, secure housing.”

Mary is not alone. Many other residents who are awarded Section 8 vouchers are unable to find adequate apartments that meet the conditions of the voucher, and some who have found housing report that landlord discrimination is rampant. Other residents are not even given vouchers, because they are deemed non-lease-compliant because of drug-related arrests, outstanding bills or other—often minor—factors.

Other problems abound for the displaced residents, not the least of which is the loss of their community, extended families, and resources. The public doesn’t get this. They think of public housing solely as horrific places. Yet, for many it was home, their community where networks existed that were counted on for friendship, family, child care help, extended credit, part-time jobs. Residents displaced taking Section 8 often fell victim as Mary did. Residents not taking Section 8 and thus retaining their right to return when (and if) public housing units were created were relocated “temporarily” to other housing developments most often in communities as impoverished and segregated as the ones from which they came. Some were relocated to communities of rival gang members, endangering the families and making it very difficult for the youth to walk to school, necessitating that they cross rival gang lines. Still others who opted for the limited number of mixed income units that have become available have found the social interactions strained.

Though CHA was to track those relocating, they themselves admit to having lost track of over 2,200 households. If and when housing becomes available for any of these families, they cannot be reached to be informed that they may return.

CHA today claims that the Plan for Transformation has been a great success and that they are 80 percent complete. However, many dispute these figures. For example, the number of family units created seems to depend upon units created not as a result of the transformation plan but as a result of developments created outside the context of the plan and due to lawsuit rulings. Other numbers cited may be temporary private housing provided to CHA for their use. Not new and permanent CHA created units. Even the rosiest CHA figures admit that thousands of the anticipated 25,000 units projected by 2015 are not completed and, given budgetary challenges, may never be. And if they are, it is far short of the original 38,000 and farther still from the demand for units with thousands of families on CHA’s current waiting list.

Just last month I was invited by the CHA to a “stakeholders” group of faith leaders to provide input for what the CHA is calling the “Plan for Transformation 2.0.” Too cute. Too corporate. I was joined at the meeting by several ministers. We were asked to be frank and share some feedback for the newly installed head of CHA appointed by Chicago’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel. He seemed forthright and articulate, though most of his predecessors similarly have been good public figures– who do what City Hall demands.

The feedback we shared in part had to do with our concerns for CHA’s lack of credibility in what it says and does. The director feigned being taken aback. I asked about the figures given for people relocated and was told that a full report could be found on CHA’s website. I tried. Not so. As well, all of their numbers on the site are sketchy at best so though I was trying to view the results with fresh eyes, I came away with my skepticism intact.

However, the stories aren’t all bleak. The Urban Institute reports to having interviewed many families from one of the developments who feel safer and healthier after their move. Regardless of where they have moved, most families in our study are living in considerably better circumstances. However, the study also highlights the serious challenges that remain, most significantly, residents’ extremely poor health and persistently low rates of employment.

Further, despite their improved quality of life, most CHA families continue to live in poor, predominantly African-American communities that offer limited access to economic and educational opportunity.

Families like Charlene Jones and her three kids, who left the now torn down Ida B. Wells in 2005 and owns her own home in Roseland, say it has brought positive outcomes.

Given that the Plan for Transformation is being held up as a model to the nation and one to be replicated, the harm inflicted upon many residents by the displacements and the mixed reviews by others are of great concern. Before cities rush to replicate Chicago’s experience, we hope that the negative impacts experienced by many, as well as the sheer loss of affordable housing units, are taken carefully into account. As well, the positive, neutral and negative impacts upon other communities, from those like south suburban Harvey with a majority of impoverished families, to Rogers Park on Chicago’s North Side to Iowa City or Ames are also part of the story.

Concerns include the receptivity of the receiving communities where families who are, or appear to be from public housing, are judged in part on the basis of their appearance, economic status or cultural differences instead of their assets. These families, refugees from a city with 153,000 too few units of affordable housing before 38,000 units of public housing were torn down are seeking healthy communities, good schools and jobs…just like the families already residing in these communities..

Other issues remain to consider such as who else benefits or is harmed by the transformation? Certainly, many developers and other contractors have benefitted. Millions of dollars in contracts were handed out to implement the demolition and redevelopments. As well, non-profit agencies have benefitted with contracts to be service providers. However, housing and other public projects not related to the Plan for Transformation have had less success due to the concentration of public and private resources to fund the plan.

Notably, one major foundation has been from the onset heavily tied into the Plan for Transformation, invested in its success ….and unfriendly to critics. In fact, at the onset of the plan, the foundation quite forthrightly, ceased funding for all groups, including my own, found to be critical.

Creating the model for mixed-income communities where the poor reside invisibly alongside more affluent families may be the centerpiece of the transformation plan.. A limited number have resulted but with little impact given the very small number of public housing residents accommodated. The Coalition to Protect Public Housing’s rallying cry has been to “mix us in, don’t mix us out” referring to the fact that around Cabrini many beautiful improvements have been implemented as part of the plan, including a new school, fire and police departments, a grocery store and other amenities. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Cabrini residents were not among those who could stay and benefit. Beautiful , yes, only not for them.

“Deconcentration,” as well, occurred with a high price, the loss of the residents’ communities, multiple residential and school moves, moves into dilapidated Section 8 units and a lack of social interaction in the few mixed-income communities. However, the positives that were reported likely are also in units where there has been a deconcentration such as reported by Charlene Jones who now lives with her children in a single family home.

To conclude, it turns out that the Plan for Transformation embodied many myths and exacerbated homelessness. The plan has impacted thousands of residents of public housing as well as thousands more families and individuals competing for scarce affordable housing. It has also resulted in some successful transitions for families who have been relocated into , or found, improved housing and healthier communities. It has enriched the coffers of developers and their contractors and supported numerous agencies.

As well, the plan has cleared valuable land of notoriously blighted buildings, enhancing the value of existing neighborhoods and resulting in new housing for more affluent families. Some of the land cleared remains vacant, including the former sites of the vast Robert Taylor properties on the South Side. And, the market rate housing in many of the mixed income developments has not sold well.

However, the media stories, politicians’ claims of success, and foundation proclamations are consistent in their embrace of the plan’s progress even while the CHA’s website and reports are grossly unreliable and incomplete.

Some transformation chapters are yet unwritten as Lathrop and Cabrini low-rise housing residents battle to preserve what remains…the last hurrahs, led by feisty, tenacious tenant leaders.

The stakes are high for public housing and low income residents across the country living in and in need of safe, affordable housing as policymakers judge the efficacy of Chicago’s plan. Hopefully, their planning will be driven by the best interests of the most vulnerable in their communities and not clouded by political expediency or greed.

My appeal to you is this: our role as planners, sociologists, activists, community members, is to be thoughtful, vigilant, rational and resilient, and to ensure that the human right to housing, and our prophetic obligation to seek justice are upheld in the creation of communities. We must do no less.

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