The CHA Plan: A Defining Moment

Introducing The View From The Ground

The View From the Ground is an occasional publication of the Invisible Institute–a set of relationships and ongoing conversations grounded at the Stateway Gardens public housing development on Chicago’s South Side. In the tradition of human rights monitoring, our aim is to deepen public discourse about “the transformation of public housing” by providing reliable information about conditions on the ground. We hope you will find The View useful. Please spread the word to otherswho might be interested.

Building being demolished

The demolition of a public housing high-rise is a dramatic process that unfolds over several months. It begins slowly. The building, at once monumental and doomed, resists the first blows from the wrecking ball. It doesn’t give way easily. Then, gradually it is laid open, exposing the intimate domestic spaces of the families that once lived there. At a certain point in the process, as rebar breaks through concrete like bones through flesh, the scene evokes images of Beirut and Oklahoma City. Toward the end, oddly shaped remnants stand like the ruins of a dead civilization. They mean something, but what? Finally, the rich, intricate weave of a singular community is reduced to several piles of materials: concrete to be recycled, metal with salvage value, a miscellany destined for the dump. Its work done, the demolition crew departs, leaving behind an expanse of urban prairie. New perspectives open up. The city appears in a different light. And, if we don’t avert our eyes, absence begs questions about the fate of fellow citizens for whom this place was home. Where did they go? How are they faring? This scene has been repeated many times in Chicago neighborhoods over the last few years. And it will be repeated many more, as the Chicago Housing Authority moves forward with its “Plan for Transformation.” Under the Plan, all 55 high-rises in family developments across the city are to be demolished. Thus far, some 30 have been razed. And developers have been selected to transform various developments into mixed income communities. This restructuring of the city dwarfs the urban renewal of the 1950s and 60s. It can only be compared to the period after the Great Fire of 1871. It will entail the relocation–in many instances the forced relocation–of as many as 14,000 families, some of whom will be called upon to move at least twice. It has profound implications not only for public housing residents but for all Chicagoans. Yet we do not begin to have a public discourse commensurate with its importance.

When HUD approved the Plan for Transformation, it granted a series of waivers from federal regulation that, taken together, give the City substantial local control. With local control comes local accountability. There are, however, few mechanisms in place to enforce that accountability. No elected official consistently speaks on behalf of public housing residents. Press coverage is, at best, intermittent. Academics have shown little interest. Non-profits and philanthropies have been largely ineffectual in deepening public understanding of what is at stake.The upshot is that the most marginalized, disenfranchised citizens in the city confront great concentrated political and economic power with virtually no mediating structures. At the same time, the absence of vigorous democratic discourse also handicaps honorable public officials within the CHA. It is one of the ironies of democratic practice that public officials, who often go to great lengths to deflect public scrutiny, are among its greatest beneficiaries. Sustained public debate provides them with information they would not otherwise have and can serve to enlarge as well as constrict their freedom of action. Our present discourse about public housing, by contrast, is largely innocent of facts. It is governed by a crude symbolic equation: CHA high-rises represent assorted urban evils, and the wrecking ball represents “progress.” This symbolism eclipses a series of questions about the implementation of the Plan for Transformation–about the facts on the ground–that demand sustained public inquiry and discussion:

  • Insofar as the Plan involves dispersal of CHA residents through the Section 8 program, does the private real estate market have the capacity to absorb those who exercise this option? How is the Section 8 program being monitored to avoid abuses at both the individual and community level?
  • Insofar as the Plan involves redevelopment on site, does the CHA have a viable financing strategy to insure that the promised redevelopment takes place? It has demonstrated that it can raze buildings, but can it rebuild on the scale required?
  • The relocation process is procedurally complex. It demands high levels of competence and care in implementation. Will the private management companies and CHA asset managers charged with implementing the process honor these standards? If they don’t, how will we know?
  • Is there an adequate infrastructure of supportive services in place to meet the needs of the thousands of families affected by the Plan? If not, how can CHA justify going forward with the relocation process until there is?
  • Does CHA have the capacity to keep track of those who are relocated? One measure of this capacity is past performance. The benefits of the Plan for Transformation are available to those who were lease compliant as of October 1,1999. Does CHA know the whereabouts of those who satisfy these requirements and have moved out of CHA developments since October 1, 1999?
  • As the CHA diverts funds to redevelopment, can it provide sufficient resources to maintain safe, decent living conditions for residents in currently occupied buildings?

There has been much debate over the last few years about the merits of the Plan. Some have argued that it is a land grab disguised as enlightened social policy. It is, they claim, less a strategy for addressing the consequences of failed policies than for disappearing the victims of those policies. Others have argued that it is a pragmatic, well-conceived effort, necessarily limited in scope, to transform public housing in ways that will benefit current residents as well as other interests. After extended negotiations, the resident leadership of CHA, Congressional representatives, and various civic organizations supported the Plan on the condition that it be implemented in a manner consistent with its stated goals.This is a defining moment. If the CHA goes forward with the relocation and redevelopment processes without having put in place adequate procedural safeguards, supportive services and capacity to track residents, it will have disclosed something essential about the character of the Plan. Whatever its stated goals, the operational meaning of the Plan will be clear: the replacement of high-rise ghettoes of concentrated public housing with an invisible ghetto of vulnerable, inadequately housed families conveniently relocated outside our field of vision. This need not be the outcome. But hope is a strenuous discipline. It demands that we acknowledge the history of abandonment that created present conditions and that we openly confront present realities. In the end, the greatest danger posed by our impoverished discourse about public housing is that we will fail to see and so will waste opportunities for humane, pragmatic strategies that are well within our reach.

Eerie image of partially demolished building