Emanuel inherits complex public housing legacy

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As Rahm Emanuel begins his term as Chicago mayor, one daunting challenge he inherits from his predecessor has barely been mentioned: how to finish nationally watched public housing reforms while the city is drowning in debt.

CHICAGO (AP) — As Rahm Emanuel begins his term as Chicago mayor, one daunting challenge he inherits from his predecessor has barely been mentioned: how to finish nationally watched public housing reforms while the city is drowning in debt.

A half-century ago, Mayor Richard J. Daley built miles of concrete high-rises to house — or, as critics said, warehouse — the city’s poor. Decades later, his son tore most of them down in an ambitious improvement project.

The younger Daley demolished or renovated infamous developments like Cabrini-Green and scattered an estimated 100,000 of Chicago’s poorest residents into other living arrangements such as mixed-income developments and private apartments paid for with rent vouchers. Now it will be up to Emanuel to keep the commitment to those reforms even while making deep financial cuts.

Last month, as Richard M. Daley approached retirement, the Chicago Housing Authority released a first-of-its-kind report on residents who were forced to leave the high-rises. It concluded that the changes made life safer, more stable and more hopeful for thousands of families.

But while Daley was praised by some for abandoning the high-rise system, housing advocates say the changes have done little to break the grip of poverty.

"As an urban-development strategy, the transformation is an A. It gets a far poorer grade if it is approached as a strategy to help low-income populations to achieve social and economic stability in their lives," said Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who spent 18 months living in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes as a graduate student in the early 1990s.

Some observers, like author Alex Kotlowitz, fear the disappearance of the high-rises means Chicago’s poverty has passed out of sight and out of mind.

When the high-rises existed, "you couldn’t drive into the city from the west or south side and not notice those monoliths that rose to the heavens," Kotlowitz said.

The towers were a constant reminder that parts of the city "were completely neglected," said Kotlowitz, whose 1992 book "There Are No Children Here" chronicled the lives of two brothers in the Henry Horner Homes projects. "And now that’s gone."

The first Mayor Daley didn’t want high-rises and had been warned they’d be hard to manage and unwholesome for families. But the white voters who were the backbone of Daley’s political machine didn’t want public housing in their neighborhoods. Plus, empty land in the city was scarce, and the federal government balked at the cost of low-rises.

So up the high-rises went, and every dire prediction came true. The buildings were not well-maintained, and crime, gangs and drugs soon became rampant.

In 2000, the housing authority launched its Plan for Transformation, which is slated to be complete in 2015, five years behind schedule. As the plan was being developed, Emanuel was vice-chairman of the housing authority — a job he held from 1999 to 2001, before he was a North Side congressman and White House chief of staff.

He now concedes the effort needs improvement.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Emanuel said the plan’s primary goal — short of ending poverty — was to eliminate the isolation of high-rise residents from the wider society.

"In every way, the residents were literally cordoned off," Emanuel said. The vision was to reintegrate them by transforming public housing.

"There have been successes. There have been clear setbacks," he said, noting how the depressed housing market made it difficult to complete the plan. "From where we came from, (the new situation is) far superior, and there’s more to be done."

Other cities — including Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Seattle — have undertaken similar overhauls. New York City kept its high-rises and had more success maintaining them.

For some CHA residents, the demolition was a catalyst to seek a better life. For others, the plan has not moved them any closer to self-sufficiency. They still cannot find work, still suffer substance-abuse problems and still rely on government help to survive. And many continue to live in neighborhoods that are less diverse and more dangerous than the rest of Chicago.

"They tore down our buildings, and they told us we were going to move out into the world, and they were going to take care of us, and we were going to be fine … and none of it was true," said Catherine Means, who lived in the Stateway Gardens complex in the late 1990s. "It was always warm. It was near transportation. It wasn’t hard — we only had to pay a little bit of a rent, and a little bit of a light bill, and you were fine."

Means, a single mother of five, has had trouble making ends meet since leaving for a private-market apartment she pays for using CHA vouchers. Now, she said, she’s still unemployed, and her heating and utility bills are "out of control."

But Diane Wallace, 52, and she and her asthmatic children do not miss the lack of security, frequent floods and resulting mold in their home at the ABLA Homes near downtown.

"I got tired of the violence. It wasn’t a decent place to raise my kids, I just wanted to get out of there," Wallace said. The projects were "a place for me to lay my head until I get something better, then I moved on," she said. "The only which way I’m going is up."

In its report, the CHA said more residents are reporting employment — from 15 percent when the Plan for Transformation began to 42 percent now. And average incomes are up from $10,000 to $19,000. The housing authority’s CEO, Lewis Jordan, acknowledged the numbers need to increase, but said the progress represents "incremental steps."

Of the 16,500 families displaced, 56 percent remain in the CHA system, according to the report. The agency says it has lost track of 13 percent, while another 9 percent have been evicted. Small percentages are living in private housing and some have died.

Venkatesh doubts some of the numbers. He believes CHA has lost track of at least 40 percent of relocated residents.

Still, he’s hopeful that Emanuel will move the city’s public-housing efforts forward.

"He was a champion for public-housing families. He strongly resisted efforts to reduce services," Venketesh said. "He wanted a rational, sane relocation plan."

Associated Press writers Don Babwin and Deanna Bellandi contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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