Myths and Urban Legends


There are a lot of urban legends out there about the redevelopment of Chicago’s public housing communities. Urban legends and other myths – like the movie ‘Candyman’ or stories about alligators living in the sewer system. – are useful for frightening children or for a scary night in front of the television. Watching a scary movie will keep kids out of the basement, even when it is time to get the laundry.

But the myths I’m writing about are those that are keeping Chicago Housing Authority officials, advocates and activists from crafting a public housing redevelopment plan that will really work for tenants. These are myths that doom any redevelopment plan because they stop those responsible for developing and implementing any redevelopment plan from going where they should – intellectually, that is.

Myth #1: The Plan Is Too Far Along To Stop Now

In fact, while many buildings have been demolished, just 2,300 families have been relocated since the Plan for Transformation began three years ago, according to CHA officials. Of that number, 1,300 families have moved out of public housing using Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly known as Section 8 vouchers and certificates). One thousand families have moved into other public housing units.

That means that CHA is less than 3 percent of the way through the Plan for Transformation, though it is 30 percent of the way through the time frame for the plan. Part of the reason the plan is moving so slowly, of course, is that the CHA has built almost no replacement housing. Land where Robert Taylor Homes’ replacement housing is supposed to be built has been vacant for two years now. In North Kenwood-Oakland, the land where the CHA promised to build replacement units for the Lakefront Properties buildings has been vacant for close to two decades now.

Myth #2: There Is Not Enough Money To Complete The CHA Plan

It is true that the $1.5 billion that CHA has budgeted is not enough to complete the plan. That figure would be too low even if the agency was using all of it to develop the mixed-income communities they have promised to construct. And instead of spending all that money on building housing, CHA is sending out tens of millions of dollars to other agencies. Chicago is one of the only cities in the nation where the housing authority subsidizes services for other city residents.

Meanwhile, other city agencies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on projects that range from installing planters and trees on roadways, rehabbing Lower Wacker Drive, and creating the new Millennium Park. None of these projects are as important as housing the city’s poor. The Lower Wacker Drive project, moreover, is ironic because that space under Chicago’s financial center was an unofficial homeless shelter before the reconstruction and became an unofficial homeless shelter again the day it was completed.

If the city had chosen to build housing instead of rehabbing Lower Wacker Drive, maybe the homeless wouldn’t need to live there. Indeed, if the City chose to build housing instead of planters, it might have plenty of money to house all the CHA families as well as the tens of thousands of low-income families who have waited on the CHA waiting list for many years.

Myth #3: The Plan For Transformation Has The Mayor’s Support

As I mentioned above, CHA is paying other city agencies tens of millions of dollars, ostensibly to provide CHA residents with services. Most of this money, however, goes to the city police department and it’s obvious to anyone who has ever been in the developments. CHA is giving $13 million to the police department this year, twice as much as it spends on providing social services.

Why? Perhaps it’s the old model of how politics work in Chicago. If you are an up-and-coming politician in Chicago, or want to be an up-and-coming politician, then you have to get other city agencies to back you for any future candidacy. CHA CEO Terry Peterson, an ambitious young Chicago politician, may be paying off the police department and other city agencies to get their support for any future run for office.

I don’t know that for sure. Regardless of whether that theory is correct, however, it is clear that Peterson’s priority is to give his limited funds to other city agencies instead of expending his political capital to get those city agencies to do for CHA residents what they do for the rest of the city. The fact that CHA is giving money to other city agencies also means that Mayor Richard M. Daley has not ordered those city agencies to contribute to the CHA pot, instead of the other way around

Does the school system pay to have police officers patrol high schools? Does the Park District pay the Department of Streets and Sanitation to pick up its garbage?

Myth #4: CHA Developments Are ‘Isolated Pockets of Poverty’

Researchers, government officials and media pundits are fond of describing CHA developments as “isolated pockets of poverty.”

This is a myth that I like to describe as a symptom of Cabrini-Green syndrome. Cabrini-Green attracts a lot of attention because it looks like an “isolated pocket of poverty.” Cabrini-Green is surrounded on three sides by more affluent neighborhoods and on the west by the Chicago River. For many people, Cabrini-Green is proof that if you just tear down the buildings, the residents will be liberated to become middle-class folks.

But Cabrini-Green is not isolated. On any given day, a veritable United Nations of people come to Cabrini-Green and many other developments to buy drugs or engage in other nefarious activities. Police ignore the lines of people outside certain buildings in CHA developments and often reach ‘accommodations’ – meaning that they get bribes – with the gang members who control the building lobbies.

Like most of the other developments, Cabrini-Green serves as a “red light district” for the area in which it is situated. People only describe Cabrini-Green as “pockets of poverty” when they are interested in claiming the land. Real estate developers are the main cheerleaders for plans that break the ‘isolation’ of public housing communities. And, not surprisingly, real estate developers are the chief beneficiaries of efforts to ‘re-integrate’ public housing communities.

Most importantly, residents are not isolated from each other. While most residents are low-income, they depend on networks of friends and family members to stretch their meager incomes. Indeed, CHA developments are some of the few places that are left in this country where neighbors know each other

Relocation and redevelopment don’t cure people of poverty. Relocation and redevelopment usually just break apart these networks and leave residents more isolated then they were before they left the developments

Myth# 5: Nobody Cares About The Residents

I can understand why many people, including many residents, feel this way. Looking at the neglect in the developments, the failure of major media organizations to cover public housing issues, and the shrugs that most people give when they hear about public housing issues, it’s easy to be convinced that nobody cares.

But there are those do care about what happens in public housing. First and foremost, there are the thousands of residents who show that they care every day, either by looking out for a neighbor’s child, helping their neighbors, participating in their development’s organizations, or just keeping up-to-date about what is happening around them.

And there are outsiders who care also. Some care because they see the conditions in which residents are living and it makes them angry or sad or it just motivates them to take action. You can find the names of some of those people on page 3 of our publication, where we list the names of all of those who have become sponsors of the Residents’ Journal. Each of these people care about what happens in public housing.

Beyond the individuals, some legal advocacy groups like Business Persons in the Public Interest and the National Center on Poverty Law have represented residents in court for many years. Moreover, many groups, such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, have demonstrated a commitment to public housing by devoting their money or their staffs to the cause of public housing residents.

There are others who ‘care’ about what happens in public housing, even if the reasons they care are more connected to their bank accounts than the welfare of the residents. Developers, construction companies, demolition companies, the firms that have social service contracts and city agencies all ‘care’ about what happens in public housing, even if they are really looking out for their own financial interests.

Indeed, residents can and should find fault with just about everyone who is involved in public housing. Just look at the results; a system that was supposed to provide “safe, decent and sanitary housing” for the poor has failed on all counts. CHA’s housing is not safe not decent nor sanitary and the agency doesn’t even come close to housing all the city’s poor.

There is plenty of blame to go around. But that doesn’t mean that no one cares. Quite the contrary. One just has to be clear about why they care.

There are many other myths that I could have added to this list. Myths restrict our thinking when it comes to devising solutions to the real problems in public housing.
The myths I’ve listed above, after all, are just the myths about public housing redevelopment in Chicago. Many of those myths are derived from other myths, darker, more pernicious ideas like racism, sexism and classism. If we do not believe those myths, we should not act like poverty, drug abuse, violence, and a lack of health care are the specific problems of public housing tenants.

Those problems exist in every corner of our society. CHA developments are just the places where these problems are most concentrated. The problems of CHA residents, therefore, are no more scary than the problems anywhere else. The best antidote to the monsters under your bed is to turn on the lights and get a good night’s sleep.

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