For decades, public housing Chicago has been synonymous with the very worst of what government has provided as shelter for poor people. The 28 high-rises that accounted for much of the public housing in the city became monuments to crime and decay that defied improvement. Stories like the rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl in 1997 made national news. A lack of building maintenance led to deaths: Three children died in a fire because of a broken elevator that prevented firefighters from reaching the 14th floor in time to rescue them.
The city tried, but never managed the fundamental transformation that was so obviously required. Then, slightly more than 15 years ago, Chicago embarked on just such a plan to improve the lives of the families that called public housing home.
Broadly, the new plan introduced three options: vouchers for residents to choose their own homes, mixed-income housing to remove the isolation of many of the most poor residents and improved public housing. But the $1.5 billion Plan for Transformation, which included the demolition of 18,000 units and the rehabilitation or new construction of another 25,000, has had mixed success.
Today, about 80,000 public housing residents in Chicago are on a waiting list for vouchers. Fewer than 20 percent of former public housing residents now live in mixed-income housing. And researchers are just starting to understand the trauma caused by involuntary displacement, especially for children.
Susan Popkin, one of the smartest and most thoughtful observers of Chicago’s housing history has—for the past 30 years—visited families, monitored living conditions and tried to make sense of the ways urban revitalization has created unintended complications. Now, the applied sociologist and senior fellow at the Urban Institute has written No Simple Solutions: Transforming Public Housing in Chicago. She sat down with Politico Magazine to talk about what solutions worked and what didn’t.
How did public housing in Chicago start?[Prior to World War II], the city council put [housing] in poor African-American neighborhoods and destroyed the slums to put them there. They deliberately sited them in segregated neighborhoods. And then they built the expressway. State Street Corridor used to be the biggest stretch of public housing in the whole world, and they put the Dan Ryan Expressway right alongside it.
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Then they built the buildings with the worst possible materials, so that elevator housing was on the top of the buildings, which in Chicago winters is just insane to me, and they were built with cheap concrete so that they were deteriorating; they had pockmarks in them. They didn’t put drywall in most of the units. They didn’t have closet doors; they didn’t have covers on the light bulbs; they didn’t have covers on the radiators.
In your book, No Simple Solutions, you ask whether the next stage of public housing in Chicago worked. Do you think the plan lived up to its promise?
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.
Was that an improvement?
It was a housing intervention, and people got better housing and a safer neighborhood, and that’s a big [improvement] given how Chicago was when it started. But they were a dreadful housing authority; they were the bottom of HUD’s management list. HUD had actually taken them over in 1995 to try to show they could turn public housing into a public good again. And they were charged with this huge transformation plan, which was the biggest in the country, and there was nowhere in the country that knew how to do those crazy development deals. They were really complex financial deals because of the public-private mix. The thought that they were going to be able to pull that off and deal with the needs of the people who lived in the houses was pretty daunting.
And they didn’t at first. They really struggled with relocating the residents. The people who were living there at the time were the people who had not gotten themselves out during the really awful days or they were people who were sticking around because they were community leaders and really committed.
There were a lot of people with criminal records, and records of violence, and mental health issues, and physical issues, complicated lives, and they didn’t volunteer to go; it was involuntary relocation. Given the history of race in this country they thought it was a land grab and they were very suspicious, angry, scared. Some of them had never lived anywhere else, and neither had their parents, and so it was really very frightening and destabilizing. So the fact that it came out as well as it did, I think, is something to celebrate. And then we need to take a hard look at what it didn’t do.
What was the role of the private developers?
Not just in Chicago, but over the past couple of decades there’s been a big privatization of public housing. Public housing came down all across the country under the HOPE VI program [a federal program to transform public housing into mixed-income developments]. A lot of them are nonprofit good-guy developers, and some of them are for-profit. They came in and redeveloped a lot of these properties as mixed-income communities. There are, I think, 11 of them in Chicago now.
How is that working?
They have built some lovely things, and I think it’s working out to the extent that they’re all functioning and they’re making money and they’re staying open. There was a theory that this wouldn’t just be a nicer place for people to live, but that it would also mean that the poor families in public housing would have these higher-income neighbors and they would give them more social capital, more access to jobs, the ability to move ahead. That is not bearing out. These are nice places for everyone to co-exist, but they are not integrating very well with each other.
The public housing residents are generally families with children, and the homeowners or the higher-income tenants might not be, so already there’s a divide. There are class differences; there are race differences. The homeowners complain about the public housing residents sitting on their stoops. Public housing residents feel like they’re being scrutinized all of the time.
So even in mixed-income developments, there hasn’t been as much progress as you hoped.
There was a lot of hope that because of the research that I had been part of in the Gautreaux [Project] demonstration [a court-ordered desegregation program], if you help people move to a better place, everyone would have jobs and their kids would do better in school. And I think that was unrealistic, given who lived in public housing at the time the big push for transformation started in the 90s.
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.
Were there other issues after the recession?
That was something the foreclosure crisis really affected. A lot of landlords had bought properties speculatively, because they knew there was going to be this big influx of voucher holders coming out of the public housing. So they fixed up their units, and then when they were foreclosed on, they just walked away from the houses. And the tenants were kicked out too and left to deal with it. That was one of the hardest periods.
There’s also this big worry that the way that housing authorities have been given to deal with this is the RAD program [Rental Assistance Demonstration, the federal program implemented in 2012 under the Obama administration], which basically allows them to convert their public housing to project-based Section 8, which means [the housing authorities] can get a mortgage in the private market.
The housing authority still owns it, but it takes out a mortgage on the value of the land and then they can get some money for the capital repairs. It changes the financing. Both of the things—the mixed income and the RAD program—are the privatization of public housing I was talking about.
Right now there are a limited number of housing authorities that are approved for RAD. They have to figure out how to do it. I think it’s a big risk for some of the smaller housing authorities. So we could be losing our public housing in a lot of small cities and rural areas that can’t get the money to finance them.
What do you imagine will happen under the Trump administration?
There is a lot of worry. Housing authorities were already tremendously underfunded because of the budget sequester, so the last time housing authorities got a bump was the budget recovery act after the recession of 2009. And then when the Republicans took back Congress and put the Budget Control Act in place [in 2011], that has been slowly reducing the amount of funding for housing authorities.
And the stock of public housing around the United States is old, for the most part. Except for these new mixed-income developments, we really haven’t built much since the 1970s, and so you have this big backlog now of capital needs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.