Report: Residents Steered to Poor Areas


A new report finds that the Chicago Housing Authority is not making promised improvements to its “Plan for Transformation,” the ongoing, massive effort to redevelop virtually all of the city’s public housing stock.

Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist at Columbia University and a board member of We The People Media, discovered that the agency has largely failed to stop the flow of residents into other low-income, African American neighborhoods. In a new top-to-bottom review of the third year of the Plan for Transformation, Venkatesh found CHA has not kept its promise to care for those individuals and families who were living off the lease, the so-called squatters.

Venkatesh’s findings are especially bad news for the CHA, which suffered a barrage of public criticism one year ago over its handling of the relocation process. This report also has bad news for those around the nation who think that the best way to solve problems in low-income communities is to tear them down.

It will be hard for the CHA to challenge Venkatesh’s accuracy. Venkatesh, who wrote a book, “American Project,” about the decade he spent in Robert Taylor Homes, has involved public housing tenants in an unprecedented way in this study. He worked very closely with his tenant team, which included Residents’ Journal Assistant Editor Beauty Turner, and got access and understanding of residents and their lives. People told him about high electric bills and other personal information they might have withheld from a less sensitive researcher.

The Plan for Transformation calls for new mixed-income communities to be built in place of CHA’s former high-rise public housing developments. The CHA has repeatedly promised that any resident of the former developments will be able to find a new home in these mixed-income communities.

Today, the CHA is almost through with the demolition phase of the Plan for Transformation. Most of the high-rises along South State Street are gone, with just a few buildings left of the once-imposing Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens and Ida B. Wells Homes, among others.

For the residents of those developments to return to the mixed-income communities, CHA officials will have to provide services to those families who have relocated. But where the CHA should be helping to keep these families together, Venkatesh finds that the agency is frequently putting up barriers and even is using policies that may tear families apart.

It is common knowledge that the CHA has been serving as a de facto homeless shelter for many years, providing shelter for many in its vacant apartments and on the sofas of legal residents. Venkatesh adds an important layer here by documenting that these squatters overwhelmingly have deep, lasting, interwoven relationships with legal tenants. Venkatesh documents squatters who have paid CHA managers, gang members and/or resident leaders to get into their apartments. Some squatters help other squatters take over vacant apartments, while others serve as a source of information and other resources for their neighbors.

Venkatesh notes that CHA’s Service Connector program is charged with providing services to the squatters, though Service Connector staffs are not equipped to handle the complexity of the relationships between the squatters and the legal residents. City officials are able to help homeless people get into shelters, but don’t have any permanent apartments to offer, let alone any ways to recognize the deep and lasting ties that exist between residents and squatters.

In addition to adding to the homeless problem, Venkatesh found that CHA has failed to make sure the Plan for Transformation is not stretching the scarce resources in other low-income neighborhoods. Venkatesh writes that there was “not a marked improvement” in the relocation of tenants to ‘opportunity’ neighborhoods using vouchers: 95 percent of the families who relocated to the private market ended up in neighborhoods that were more than 30 percent African American, while 70 percent of tenants who relocated into the private market ended up in areas where more than one-quarter of the population is poor. Under agreements with resident leaders, CHA is supposed to move tenants into ‘opportunity’ neighborhoods, meaning those areas that do not have high African American populations or concentrations of poverty.

Venkatesh interviewed numerous relocation counselors who admitted failing to recommend apartments in opportunity areas. All of the counselors said they were pressured by CHA’s deadlines to get as many residents out of the buildings as possible before the buildings closed in the fall. Some counselors failed to show residents apartments in opportunity neighborhoods because they preferred to work with landlords with whom they had relationships. Other counselors gave up trying to help families that were hard to place.

“By August,” explained one worker in CHA’s Service Connector program, “we really just give up on the ones who have a lot of problems.”

“It’s sad really, because they are the ones who are left.”

In addition to steering residents to other low-income African American neighborhoods, management officials often added burdens and missed opportunities to make relocation easier, Venkatesh notes. In one Robert Taylor Homes building, management officials refused to let tenants who were facing problems with their leases receive mail. In another building, managers’ failures to maintain the building caused the Post Office to stop delivering mail.

CHA failed to fulfill other promises as well. In 2002 and 2003, articles in Residents’ Journal, and follow-up articles in the Chicago Sun-Times, documented residents in Robert Taylor Homes with electric bills ranging into the tens of thousands of dollars, despite the fact that meters had not been installed in some buildings and other irregularities. Unpaid electric bills and other outstanding debts can imperil a tenant’s ability to relocate.

This fall, CHA responded to this issue by announcing that it had set up a program with Commonwealth Edison under the acronym CHANCE. But residents who tried to take advantage of CHANCE were unable to find managers or ComEd officials who knew anything about the program, Venkatesh found.

If Venkatesh’s report will damage the public perception of the CHA plan, it may also lead to a legal showdown with advocates for residents. Venkatesh’s discovery that public housing tenants being steered to other low-income, African American neighborhoods might prompt lawyers and advocates to try and stop the CHA plan in court.

Last year, a number of researchers and advocates worried aloud that if residents were moved into other low-income African American neighborhoods, it might overwhelm already-taxed social services in those areas.

This is a particularly important point for the lawyers who oversee the Gautreaux decree, a 30-year-old landmark federal civil rights case in which CHA was ordered to de-segregate public housing. The Gautreaux lawyers argued that CHA would be in violation of that landmark federal court order if residents were relocated into “non-opportunity” areas, meaning other low-income and/or African American neighborhoods.

The Gautreaux lawyers were incensed to action by two reports that came out last year. Back then, researcher Paul Fischer confirmed the fears of the Gautreaux lawyers when he found that 86.3 percent of the residents relocated into the private market during the previous year moved into areas that were mainly African American and poor.

Another 2003 report from Thomas Sullivan, the former U.S. Attorney who is the independent monitor of the relocation process, found that many residents’ housing situations – and lives – have not improved much as they have moved from one gang-infested neighborhood to another, and exchanged a bad government landlord for a lousy private landlord, trading “vertical ghettos” for “horizontal ghettos.”

The critics were motivated by media reports and other evidence of a worsening situation in the city’s low-income African American neighborhoods. Gang-related incidents have given Chicago the dubious distinction of being the city with the highest number of homicides in the nation. Homeless shelters, meanwhile, reported a surge of people who need their services, and attributed much of the surge to the closure of CHA buildings.

The reports generated a lot of bad ink for the CHA, and the Gautreaux attorneys joined with advocacy lawyers to sue the CHA. In response, the agency promised to change its ways in the next phase of relocation, mainly by putting more resources into counseling so that residents could move to “opportunity areas.”

Venkatesh’s report finds solid evidence that CHA has changed neither tactics nor outcome. That evidence might just inspire those attorneys to return to court. And this time, they might ask the judge for more radical remedies, including putting a halt to demolition and relocation.

Beyond the local legal ramifications, Venkatesh’s study has implications for the national audience who are paying close attention to the Plan for Transformation.

In Congress and elsewhere, Democrats and Republicans blame public housing communities for fostering negative behavior among the residents. These legislators believe that public housing developments need to be destroyed before they are replaced with something better. That spirit is ever-present at the CHA, which recently changed its logo to “Creating Viable Communities.”

Venkatesh’s study suggests, however, that there are hidden strengths in public housing communities. Instead of negative environments that keep their tenants from succeeding, Venkatesh paints a portrait of places where residents – legal and otherwise – pool their scant resources with their neighbors in order to survive.

For CHA to succeed in “creating viable communities,” it will have to recognize that it already has viable communities which can serve as a foundation for even stronger neighborhoods.

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