A new account of the rise and fall of Cabrini-Green

Journalist Ben Austen has a new book titled High-Risers that chronicles the development and tearing down of the Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s north side:

But what caused Cabrini-Green to deteriorate almost immediately after its opening? In “High-Risers,” Austen suggests the repeated, systematic failure of the institutions and people enlisted to run Cabrini-Green fueled its notoriety and downfall. “In every area we examined, from finance to maintenance, from administration to outside contracting, from staffing to project management, from purchasing to accounting, the CHA was found to be operating in a state of profound confusion and disarray,” wrote Oscar Newman in the book “Defensible Space,” which Austen quotes. “No one seems to be minding the store; what’s more, no one seems genuinely to care.”

And yet, Austen’s book is not a detailed deconstruction of the causes of Cabrini-Green’s difficulties. Instead, he uses a novelistic structure to weave a tale about the other side of Cabrini-Green: its inhabitants.

Austen offers the stories of a few Cabrini-Green residents as they move in and out of the projects. There is Kelvin Cannon, a highly intelligent and charismatic resident who grows from precocious and superstitious kid to convicted criminal to high-ranking gang member in only a handful of years. There is Willie J.R. Fleming, who leaves Cabrini-Green after relocating to south suburban Dolton with his mother, only to return less than a year later. The quiet of the suburbs proved too uncomfortable for Fleming, who, despite the promise of a college athletic career, squanders it all away back in Cabrini-Green after throwing a punch…

Austen writes with a lyrical, poetic affection for the four main characters. Here we see there are as many Cabrini-Green origin stories as there were people living in Cabrini-Green. To merely stereotype is to willfully ignore each resident’s humanity. Austen deftly tells the stories of Wilson, Fleming, Cannon and another woman, Annie Ricks, without distance, bringing readers intimately into their lives. It is compelling writing, sure to separate Austen’s work from other, more anthropological examinations of Cabrini-Green.

Rarely does public housing in the United States, let alone a notorious project, receive much attention from journalists, scholars, or the public. Yet, this is a unique site. This kind of change does not occur often in American urban neighborhoods: poor black neighborhoods are not typically the target of gentrification efforts.

The story of this project is still not complete: even though the high-rises are no longer there and the buildings and neighborhood now there are hard to distinguish from other up-and-coming Chicago scenes, there are still public housing residents present (in addition to former residents who are now elsewhere) as well as memories (which could fade with generations but that could also remain in more institutionalized forms like a public housing museum in Chicago). Like many other urban neighborhoods, Cabrini-Green may be erased from a map or largely from sight but it may continue to shape not only that particular space but the whole city.

Redevelopment of Cabrini-Green continues with new mixed-income and mixed-use project

The Chicago Housing Authority announced earlier this week that a new developer has been chosen for one of the Cabrini-Green parcels:

On Tuesday, the Chicago Housing Authority‘s Board of Commissioners greenlighted El Paso, Texas-based Hunt Development Group to lead the project, which will include a mix of one- to four-bedroom apartments and condominiums at Larrabee Street and Clybourn Avenue. A 21-story residential tower will include 183 units for CHA residents, 82 units at affordable rents and 217 units at market rates. The development also includes several connected midrise buildings and low-rise town homes with 1.2 acres of public open space, according to a CHA statement…

It will collaborate with Imagine Group, a minority-owned developer, and Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, a nonprofit community development group known for its work helping to bring retail to underserved areas such as Englewood and Pullman…

The firm also has redeveloped several former public housing sites in other parts of the country, including Atlanta and El Paso. It has a division which focuses on privatizing military housing. In all, Hunt has developed more than 90 projects and 12,000 units in a mix of affordable and public housing in cities including Chicago, Dallas and Honolulu, according to a CHA statement.

The project is expected to begin in 2018, the CHA said. Developers haven’t been chosen for the other Cabrini-Green redevelopment projects, according to CHA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan.

I’m sure the retail efforts and the construction of a 21-story tower will get a lot of the attention and a certain narrative will continue: look at the good things that are coming out of a former public housing site. But, the real issue is how public housing residents do in the new units as well as those living in the affordable housing units. If this simply becomes another sector of Chicago that is providing nicer housing to middle- and upper-class residents, it is a missed opportunity.

Updating the last few years of (private sector) history of Chicago’s public housing

By now, a number of scholars have effectively explained the problematic history of Chicago’s public housing. But, as this new piece from Curbed Chicago suggests, the most recent years have involved a lot of change. Here are some interesting tidbits from this recent history-in-the-making:

Holsten’s answer is emphatically yes. He specializes in mixed-income and affordable housing, and has developed $500 million worth of it since 1975. But building a mixed-income building is one thing. Forming an actual community across racial and class lines is another. “Our job as developers is much more than financing buildings and property management,” he says. “It’s trying to build community. That’s the hardest part.”…

One sticking point is the issue of density. Chicagoans feel burned by their past experience with high-rises. And the city has a tradition of homeownership that’s different from other very large American cities. Chicago’s famed “bungalow belt” of brickworker cottages built in the early 20th century offered waves of immigrants affordable single-family homes, and preservationists have formed a nonprofit to protect them.So the CHA’s residents would prefer a house and a porch of their own, but that desire often runs counter to the need to accommodate the thousands who have been displaced…

Between 2008 and 2012, the CHA issued about 14,000 fewer vouchers than HUD funded, building up a surplus of $432 million and earning a rebuke from HUD Secretary Julian Castro. (The CHA says its reserves have since been cut and will be spent down by the end of 2017.) A Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association investigation found that four out of 10 voucher units have been cited for building code violations in the last five years.

I am skeptical that the private sector alone can solve these housing issues. The free market tends to lead to exclusion and profit-seeking. It doesn’t provide many solutions to correcting existing inequalities, which in the United States tend to connect race, social class, and housing. See an earlier post for a number of the bad outcomes that can result from a free market approach to housing.

On the other hand, the Chicago Housing Authority has done little good. And Americans from the beginning have been ambivalent about involving government in housing. There is little chance that the government will do much more to provide housing – even as the need for affordable housing is great in many cities – because it is a difficult issue in which to find much support.

Perhaps there is a third approach: the US government props up the mortgage industry! Probably not a good long-term solution but this is what we have and it is a system that privileges homeownership.

The difficulty in returning to public housing

Once people left public housing high-rises in Chicago so that they could be demolished, it was difficult for them to return to new (and limited) public housing units:

Despite the promises that everyone could come back, the numbers don’t add up. The decrepit, infamous Cabrini-Green had 3,600 public housing units. When the rebuilding is complete in 2019, there will be around 2,830 units. Only 30 percent are for families in public housing. Got that? Fewer than 900 units.

The screening process is the next barrier. People are kept out of the new neighborhood if a family member has a single arrest record—even if no charges were pressed. Public housing residents have to submit to mandatory drug testing every year. They can have no record of rent and utility delinquency. They cannot take in friends and relatives. New rules in the neighborhood include no smoking, no barbecuing, no loud music, no washing cars on the street…

But coming back to Cabrini was a huge disruption to her family. Her 17-year-old daughter had a misdemeanor for fighting at school. Brewster had to send her daughter to live with relatives in order to keep her lease…

Another reason most people from Cabrini haven’t come back: finances. Moving is expensive and disruptive, and poor families can’t easily absorb these hits twice when they move away from bulldozers.

And is there any surprise that some residents at Cabrini-Green fought the demolition? The alternatives to even bad public housing high-rises are often not much better. As is also noted in this article and backed up by research, vouchers only go so far as well as many former public housing residents end up in other poor neighborhoods.

It does seem that once the HOPE VI program started in the 1990s, public housing has become less and less of a public issue. Public housing has never been popular in the United States – it took quite an effort to even start a federal program – and efforts in recent decades have moved to decentralize public housing units, limit who can access benefits, and reduce funding for programs. Yet, there is still significant need in the United States for reasonably-priced housing in decent neighborhoods (for example, see the waiting list in Chicago). I would suggest the free market hasn’t done too well in this area; many builders and developers will go for more money rather than supplying needed housing, many residents don’t want cheaper housing or certain kinds of residents nearby, and local regulations including zoning laws often make it difficult to pursue affordable housing or innovative solutions.

Luxury apartments with Cabrini-Green heritage

A new luxury apartment building on the location of the Cabrini-Green public housing high rises appears ready to build on the site’s heritage:

A new luxury apartment tower at 625 W. Division Street is set to open this autumn, delivering 240 new rental units and 5,500 square feet of retail space to the former Cabrini-Green area. And instead of fighting the neighborhood’s name or trying to rebrand it as something else, developer Gerding Edlen is perfectly fine with describing the area as Cabrini-Green. In a press release, a Gerding Edlen rep states that they are very well aware of what is happening in the area and want to embrace the neighborhood’s past. “With Xavier, we had an opportunity to be part of the continued story of this neighborhood,” their Director of East Coast and Midwest Acquisitions Matt Edlen says, “We are particularly conscious of this neighborhood’s rich and long standing history, and feel the project will have positive long-term impacts on the area.” In embracing the area’s history, Gerding Edlen might help other developers come to terms with and accept the Cabrini-Green name and the neighborhood’s next chapter—which is looking to be dominated by high-end rental towers.

Designed by GREC Architecture, the 18-story tower dubbed Xavier is not unlike many other luxury towers being built throughout the greater downtown area. It’ll boast many upscale amenities such as a fitness center, both an indoor and outdoor dog run area, an outdoor terrace and pool deck and a rooftop lounge space. The LEED Gold-certified tower will also include some high tech offerings like electric car charging stations, and its units will feature finishes made some sustainable materials and Nest thermostats.

Presumably, the new building will be cast as part of the rebirth of the neighborhood. New residents can be part of something new. But, how exactly do the luxury apartments fit with the legacy of the public housing project (which could be remembered by different people for their crime, lack of maintenance, a land grab by the city) or even with the Little Sicily area that preceded the high rises? (Hence the name borrowing from Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants.) Who exactly gets to decide what the new neighborhood will be called – new developers, former residents, others? Location names aren’t just geographic; they have social connotations that often do not change quickly.

Those opposed to the teardown of the high rises might see this as another instance of whitewashing history by removing public housing residents from the public eye. In a few years, perhaps Cabrini-Green will simply mean another luxury apartment neighborhood outside of Chicago’s Loop.

Over 2,000 new housing units in CHA proposal for Cabrini-Green site

Redevelopment at Cabrini-Green continues with the Chicago Housing Authority’s unveiled proposal this week for over 2,000 new housing units:

Last night, the Chicago Housing Authority formally unveiled its most recent and fully detailed proposal for the nearly 65 acres of land that once belonged the massive Cabrini-Green housing project. Earlier this year, the CHA unveiled a draft plan for the site, which sought to draw out an idea of where housing, retail and new park spaces would be located, however, last night’s meeting offered a clearer picture of how many housing units are planned for the area. The large area will be redeveloped in three phases, and will ultimately produce 2,330 to 2,830 new residences.

Currently, developers are swarming in with new retail and apartment projects, but some are arguing that the new plans don’t offer enough density. Private developers will compete to build new structures on the large parcel of land, with the first phase delivering 970-1,270 units, according to DNAinfo. The balance between market rate, affordable and public housing has not been unveiled, however the CHA could get started on the first as early as late next year.

This is valuable land as larger parcels like this, particularly on the North Side and near other desirable locations, are rare. I would imagine there will be no shortage of developers who have ideas of how lots of money can be made. Of course, this was one of the arguments of residents and critics of the plan to tear down the high-rises: was this really about providing better public housing and housing opportunities for residents or was this about opening land on the North Side for developers?

Plans for more mixed-income housing at Cabrini-Green site

New plans are in the works for more mixed-income housing on the site of the former high-rises at Cabrini-Green:

As Cabrini-Green continues its march into history books, new residential developments are springing up throughout the 65 acre site of the former public housing project. Enter the Parkside of Old Town development, which is bringing hundreds of new residences to the former Cabrini-Green site. The first couple of phases of the development started a few years ago, but now Holsten Real Estate Development and the Local Advisory Council of Cabrini plan on starting the next phase of the project, which will bring even more new apartments and townhouses to the area. In total, 106 apartments and seven townhouses will make up the new Phase IIB complex, with 36 units reserved for CHA residents, 27 units at affordable rental rates, and 43 apartments will be rented at market rate. 94 apartments will be housed in a nine story building, with the seven townhouses connected to the back of the building. A second three story building will be situated nearby, with the remaining 12 apartment units. Designed by Landon Bone Baker Architects, the new mixed-income development is certainly a departure from the monolithic towers that once stood at the site.

As some of the residents noted in response to plans from the city to tear down the high-rises, this is some valuable property. At the same time, this isn’t a “huge” development and one of the images showing the new buildings suggests there is still a good amount of land left in the area for even more development.

parkside-4.jpg