Kicking The Pigeon #8: The CHA Plan and Public Safety

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The launching of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation in 1999 promised an end to the abandonment and exploitation of CHA communities. Terry Peterson, the CEO of the CHA, is eloquent on the theme that public housing residents are citizens of Chicago with equal claims to its services. Among the first things the City did after launching the Plan was to disband the 270-member CHA police force. The policing of public housing was shifted to the Chicago Police Department, which created a public housing unit and, drawing on a $30 million federal grant for the purpose, hired additional officers to staff it.

The attractive principle that CHA residents are full citizens of the City turned out in practice to be less a new standard of care and accountability than a rationale for shifting federal resources intended for public housing residents to other city agencies, such as the Department of Human Services, the Park District, and the Department of Aging, as well as the CPD. By the end of 2004, the CHA had transferred more than $60 million from its budget to the CPD. (If one adds CHA funds given to the CPD specifically for the Cabrini-Green and Henry Horner developments, the total comes to more than $70 million.) One can imagine arguing that this transfer of funds was required to facilitate a transition to a new regime of respectful, sustained law enforcement. That is not, however, the argument the CHA made. Rather, it stated in a resolution presented to its Board of Commissioners that the funds were being transferred to the CPD for the purpose of securing “supplemental police services, which are defined as over and above the baseline police services provided to residents of the City of Chicago.”

The CHA reiterated its stance on public safety for its tenants in a 2003 exchange with Thomas Sullivan, the former U. S. Attorney who served as the independent monitor of the relocation process during 2002-2004. In one of his reports, Sullivan had expressed concerns about unchecked gang activity in buildings undergoing relocation and in buildings to which families were being relocated. The housing authority stated in its reply:

CHA has provided a higher level of security for CHA residents than any citizen of Chicago receives through the Chicago Police Department.

It’s hard to know how to characterize this statement. Sullivan called it “incredible.”

Over a period of five years, I witnessed the entire relocation process at Stateway. I frequently visited each building as it went through relocation; and I lived through the process on a daily basis in the building where my office was located. There is no reason to assume conditions at Stateway—relative to other developments undergoing relocation—were uniquely bad. On the contrary, one might expect them to be somewhat better, if only for public relations reasons, in view of the proximity of the police headquarters two blocks away

Yet at no point during these years was effective, respectful policing provided on a sustained basis. The reality at Stateway—and, I assume, at other communities being “transformed”—is that, as the onsite community contracted to six buildings, then to four, then to two, and ultimately to one, the quality of policing did not significantly improve. In their final months, the Stateway buildings descended into purgatorial conditions exploited by both the drug trade and by police officers parasitic on it.

That is not to say that the policing of Stateway has not been better at some times than others. For some months last year and early this year, in response to complaints from the resident council, there was an around-the-clock police presence at 3651-53 S. Federal, the one surviving high-rise. It took the form of a squad car parked in proximity to the building. The officers rarely got out of the car, but at least they performed a scarecrow function sufficient to deter open drug dealing. In recent months, the police presence has been intermittent, and drug dealers have been drifting back into the building.

Whatever the fluctuations in police presence over time in response to crises and public pressure, there has been no evidence of a plan or strategy to provide minimally adequate law enforcement to public housing communities on a sustained basis. Just as the City did not maintain the buildings in the expectation they would soon be demolished, so it did not invest in nurturing the relationships necessary to effective law enforcement. After all, what does “community policing” mean in the case of a community in the process of being dismantled?

In retrospect, it is clear that CHA’s public safety plan for these communities has been their erasure. Such is the logic of abandonment: conditions that should be the basis for calling public institutions to account are invoked by those very institutions in support of their agendas. Thus, the CHA’s failure to maintain the high-rises becomes the rationale for their demolition. And the CPD’s failure to provide adequate law enforcement in public housing communities becomes the rationale for obliterating those communities and starting over. This logic helped create the space through which, according to residents, the skullcap crew moved, living off the land and abusing community members at will, in the last years of high-rise public housing.

To be continued…