Chicago aldermen: from selecting public housing sites to blocking affordable housing

Even as Chicago’s mayor suggests more interest in affordable housing, a new report from the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance shows how Chicago aldermen used “aldermanic prerogative” to slow down, water down, or reject certain kinds of housing projects:

Much of the City Council’s power over development is unwritten and informal.

Typically, if a development in a ward needs a zoning change or permit, and the development is not supported by the alderman of that ward, the proposal is voted down if it ever reaches the full City Council. In some cases, a developer can make a proposal, and the presiding alderman or zoning advisory council will dictate changes — such as how many of the apartments will be condominiums and how many should be set aside for lower-income residents. Those negotiations have to be navigated before the proposal can reach the City Council. The development proposal can also linger in the zoning committee, which is another way it eventually dies from inaction…

The study’s authors examined how zoning laws were used to keep low-income public housing residents confined to certain communities and how private market rate housing has been engineered to confine lower-income residents to specific neighborhoods. They also reviewed case by case what happened with most recent efforts to create affordable housing across Chicago…

The report suggests that in order to ensure affordable housing, the city has to take steps to change the way business is conducted and develop a citywide protocol. That plan would have to force each ward to bear some of the weight of producing affordable housing.

Given Chicago’s long history of residential segregation, I would suggest this is primarily about race: wealthier and whiter neighborhoods do not want black and non-white residents to be able to move in. While the issue may seem to be housing with cheaper values or the preference that neighborhood residents have for local control, at the root, this is about controlling who can live in certain places. If given the opportunity, local officials will claim they are simply representing the interests of their constituents.

And this aldermanic power regarding housing has a long history. Here is part of the tale regarding the early days of public housing in the city retold in Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here (p. 21-22):

The city’s aldermen first bullied the state legislature into giving them the power of selecting public housing site, a prerogative that had previously belonged to the local housing authority.

Then a group of leading aldermen, who were not above petty vindictiveness, chartered a bus to tour the city in search of potential sites. On the bus ride, they told reporters that they were out to seek vengeance against the Chicago Housing Authority and the seven aldermen who supported public housing, and they chose sites in neighborhoods represented by these aldermen. Like prankish teenagers, they selected the most outrageous of possibilities, including the tennis courts at the University of Chicago and a parcel of land that sat smack in the middle of a major local highway. The message was clear: the CHA and its liberal backers could build public housing but not in their back yards.

The complexes were not, in the end, built at these sites. Instead, they were constructed on the edges of the city’s black ghettoes.

In many instances, the primary way black and other non-white residents have been able to move into new city neighborhoods or suburbs is when whites are willing to leave.

 

A lottery for limited affordable housing housing, part one

Affordable housing is in short supply in numerous American cities and an example of a lottery for 95 affordable housing units in San Francisco illustrates the issue:

Subsidized housing is often rationed this way, by lottery. Many apply, few win, most are disappointed. The process is meant to be more fair than first-come, first-served. But lotteries make literal a deeper unfairness. For homeowners, the mortgage interest deduction is available to anyone who qualifies. For poor renters, there is never enough housing assistance to go around…

Amid all the wealth in this neighborhood, a one-bedroom at Natalie Gubb Commons would rent for around $1,000 to $1,200 a month, a three-bedroom up to $1,700. Apartments next door were three times as much.

That discount is possible through a mix of resources. Mercy Housing, the project’s nonprofit developer, effectively got the land free as part of a city requirement that the neighborhood’s redevelopment include affordable housing. The market-rate developer next door was subsidizing the project, along with city funds. Revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade emissions program helped. And Mercy used the backbone of nearly every affordable housing project in America, federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits

But the tax bill’s implications for poor renters will be more profound. The odds are likely to grow worse than these: Last year, 53 households applied per each new affordable unit at The Meridian in Los Angeles; 84 for every home at Parcel 25 in Boston; 391 for each unit at Stargell Commons in Alameda, Calif.; 979 for every home at Our Lady of Lourdes Apartments in New York.

This is a reminder of both the acute need for affordable housing in more expensive cities as well as the limited approach to the issue from the federal government. Places that are often held out as the promise of America for their cultural diversity as well as their economic potential – such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, etc. – are often difficult places for those who are middle-class and below.

Additionally, the federal government has never wholeheartedly committed to helping provide housing for all. As the article notes, American housing policy subsidizes single-family homes. This has been an intentional policy choice for decades, beginning before the post World War II suburban boom and then continuing through mass suburbanization as well as into the twenty-first century. It would be difficult to have a direct national political conversation about this since it tends to happen through elected representatives who rarely discuss housing and through various government agencies. Also, it is hard to know whether all those people who have moved to single-family homes in the suburbs have done so because that is what they truly wanted among numerous equal options or they were pushed to some degree by the political and cultural leanings in those directions.

There is another intriguing aspect of this article: both how the lottery is discussed as well as how the lottery is conducted. More on this in a post in a few days.

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.

Public housing may not just be about the housing

Public housing expert Susan Popkin argues that simply replacing the units from Chicago’s public housing high-rises may not be enough:

I think it was a partial victory. It was a whole lot more successful than anybody expected at the beginning. The odds of it being an absolute failure were pretty high. In the first phases of the plan, they were really struggling to get the buildings down and get people out of them, and they had 11 buildings they had targeted to relocate people from. So people ended up moving from one bad unit in a building that was slated to come down to one that was going to come down later…

So there was a lot of hope that it would do more than just improve people’s physical circumstances. It did reduce anxiety, which is important, but it really took extra wrap-around services before we saw real improvements in people’s mental health and their employment. They’re still very poor, but they’re working more. I think that there was recognition that the people in public housing really need a lot of the services they weren’t getting.

One of your arguments is that providing housing alone is not enough.

Especially not for the kids. The biggest disappointment for me was even when we got the wrap-around services, the parents were doing better, but they were still reporting that their kids were really struggling. And when we talked to the kids, the kids were talking about fighting, feeling really rejected in their new community, doing badly in school—not all, some of them were OK—but a higher proportion than we would have wanted to see.

The physical form of public housing may have changed from high-rises to mixed-income neighborhoods and more decentralized units but some of the basic issues are still the same: are there enough units? Are these units better than substandard and not always located in poor neighborhoods? Are there services available for public housing residents? This is not to downplay the importance of decent housing – it is an overlooked essential in the United States since where you live tends to determine many life outcomes – but it is really about housing plus the community and the opportunities that are or are not available.

A related question: what is the timeline for declaring the Plan for Transformation a success or failure? I wonder if the Chicago Housing Authority and city would rather just not recognize the results of the project at all.

CHA’s Plan for Transformation didn’t transform public housing much

A new report from WBEZ suggests the Chicago’s Plan for Transformation has not met its goals:

Now, more than 17 years and $3 billion later, only 7.81 percent of the 16,846 households under the Plan For Transformation live in mixed-income communities, according to data from the CHA obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act through a joint study by WBEZ and Northwestern University’s Medill Social Justice News Nexus.

The rest of the households?

  • 20.81 percent live on a Housing Choice or Section 8 voucher
  • 15.97 percent live in traditional public housing
  • 11.99 percent were evicted
  • 9.59 percent have died

The remaining 33.82 percent are living without a government subsidy.

The Plan For Transformation is the largest remake of public housing in the nation. It has simultaneously produced new communities and tracts of vacant land, gentrification and segregation throughout the city.

Arguably, the most “successful” part of the Plan for Transformation was limiting the visibility of public housing  by demolishing high-rise buildings. But, that did little to help the public housing residents or the neighborhoods in which the high-rises were located (Cabrini-Green is an exception because it was already located near wealthier and whiter residents). All that money and effort…could it have worked out better if it (1) wasn’t managed by the CHA (which has a poor record over decades of providing public housing) or (2) wasn’t located in Chicago (the one Rust Belt city that has supposedly made it but still has serious problems including residential segregation)? Efforts elsewhere have also been mixed – leading to the thought that perhaps the federal government can’t do much in this area. This doesn’t mean that the idea of public housing is worthless but maybe that issues of race, class, and residential segregation are really difficult to overcome.

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.

CHA takes care of its own finances, waiting list grows

The Chicago Housing Authority doesn’t exactly have a distinguished history in serving those that need housing and that trend appears to be continuing:

While tens of thousands of families languished on a waiting list for assistance, the Chicago Housing Authority paid off practically all of its debt and overfunded its pension plan, according to a report released Friday by the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

The agency also socked away hundreds of millions of dollars in cash reserves even as its ambitious plan to replace thousands of demolished public housing units lagged years behind schedule…

By the end of 2016, the waiting list for housing assistance stood at more than 119,000 households…

Originally, the [Plan for Transformation] was supposed to be completed in 2009, but by then the CHA had delivered just 71 percent of the promised units. The goal was eventually pushed back to 2015. By the end of that year, however, more than 2,000 units still hadn’t been built, the report found. The plan is now expected to be completed by the end of this year.

As the article notes, this is an interesting contrast to many other governments and taxing bodies in Illinois that are struggling to meet their budgets and fund their pensions. But, the trade off here repeats a pattern that the CHA has followed for decades: it doesn’t actually provide enough housing for the needs of city residents.

Once the public housing high rises were torn down (such as the Cabrini-Green towers coming down several years ago), the topic of public housing has not received much attention from the media or the public. However, why don’t we hear more about the slowed Plan for Transformation? What about the growing waiting list (it is not a new problem)? Ultimately, have the efforts since the early 2000s actually improved the housing situation in Chicago or simply moved the problems around (and out of the public view)?

I know there is a lot of concern about the lack of trust the public has in government institutions. From my perspective, a lack of trust in the CHA is entirely warranted (it may never have been warranted given its checkered history) and it would take a lot to reverse this.