The CHA Plan Is Dead


Janice Patton gave up on the Plan for Transformation a long time ago. Patton moved out of Robert Taylor Homes in 2000, the same year Mayor Richard M. Daley announced the Plan. The mayor promised that residents who moved out temporarily could return shortly, after the high-rises were demolished and replaced with new, ‘mixed-income’ communities. Patton didn’t go too far from Robert Taylor, settling in the neighborhood just south of where the development stood. Like most of those who moved out, she used a Section 8 certificate – now known as Housing Choice Voucher – to subsidize her rent in a relatively well-managed, new construction development. Unlike many of her former neighbors, Patton never expected to come back.

“I left it and kept on going,” she explained. “I thought, ‘Let me get into a good building so I don’t have to move from place to place.’”

What Patton feared is exactly what happened to many of her former neighbors. They have gone from one dilapidated building to another, as landlords failed to keep up with their maintenance or became victims of the foreclosure crisis. Most of the former public housing residents are in neighborhoods that are as plagued by gangs and drugs as the housing developments were. Many lost their Section 8s and joined the hundreds of thousands of low-income families who struggle to survive without a break in their rent.

Most of those who planned to return to the mixed-income communities have been disappointed. Nearly a decade after the Plan was launched and more than three years after the last building in Robert Taylor was demolished, the land where the development stood is still vacant. The land will stay empty for the foreseeable future. For now and probably forever, the Plan for Transformation is dead, killed by the downturn in the nation’s housing market.

The Chicago Housing Authority, the agency charged with the responsibility for implementing the Plan, doesn’t admit that it’s over. To do so would be a political problem for the Mayor. The Plan’s failure is yet another broken promise to those low-income families who left CHA properties, and if the failure was conceded, taxpayers would ask what happened to the $1.5 billion in federal funds that were dedicated to the Plan. CHA Development Chief Bill Little insisted in an interview that the Plan was continuing. Sure, the land where Robert Taylor, Washington Park and many other developments stood is vacant, with no deals yet for anything to get built. Sure, there are over 100 units still to be sold at Parkside, the North Side development around Cabrini-Green where sales were supposed to be strongest. And yes, slow sales at other sites caused one developer to go bankrupt and led another to hold an auction of town homes. But those are just bumps in the road, Little maintained.

Little said this was a “fluid Plan.”

I have no idea what that means. He said that CHA was working with the federal government, City Hall and banks to buy foreclosed properties. Little added that the agency was scheduled to receive $144 million in economic stimulus funds as well as other federal money. He conceded that all of that money was reserved for creating rental units for low-income families, and yet he asserted that the new communities will be ‘mixed-income.’ “We are going to put ourselves in a position to respond to the market,” Little said.

Despite Little’s optimism, it’s hard to see how the Plan can be implemented in the current climate. The ‘mixed-income’ communities were supposed to be one third for-sale housing, one third market-rate rentals and one-third public housing units.

But developers won’t build the for-sale units because there aren’t any people out there looking to buy housing, even in neighborhoods that already have schools, businesses and other amenities. The market-rate rentals depend on affordable housing tax credits, the price of which is also dependent on the real estate market. So those won’t get built either, which means that two-thirds of the Plan for Transformation will not get done any time soon.

For all the blood, sweat, tears and money that went into the Plan, the net result will be a smaller number of rental units for poor families built in clusters surrounded by empty space. Those units will be in cheaply built town homes that are unlikely to survive four decades, as the concrete high-rises did. That’s the situation right now in Oakwood Shores, the ‘mixed-income’ community that replaced Ida B. Wells Homes, and in Park Boulevard, which replaced Stateway Gardens. Oakwood Shores and Park Boulevard are glimpses into the diminished future of the Plan. The few units which have been built come with many strings attached.

The CHA’s rules for tenants who wish to live in the new units include requirements for work, education, good credit and drug testing. Market-rate tenants in the new developments don’t have to adhere to those rules. Patton gets notices all the time asking her to apply for the mixed-income communities. She throws all of the invitations in the garbage. She has good credit and would easily pass all of the other requirements, but considers the CHA’s requirements an infringement of her constitutional rights, a product of vicious stereotypes of residents instituted by the same government that failed to stop the flow of guns and illegal drugs which made life hellish in the developments. “A lot of people in government brought in their personal feelings of what disenfranchised people should be doing,” Patton said. “All of this was always against the poor, from the federal government on down.” Moving on doesn’t mean giving up, however.

Patton is currently engaged in a new fight to make sure that if the Olympics come to Chicago, the jobs and funds that will flow into the city will benefit low-income families. Like her previous battles, this one is personal. Patton lives just blocks from Washington Park, where a new Olympic stadium and other facilities will be built. And like her other battles, this one will pit the city’s low-income, African American mothers against Mayor Daley. As tough as the World War II general with the same name, Patton’s tenacity goes back generations, to the grandmother who was the family matriarch in her native Meridian, Miss. Patton learned about Chicago politics and civil rights from her mother, Ethel Washington, who was a Local Advisory Council president in Robert Taylor Homes. In the mid-‘90s, Washington won a civil rights lawsuit that stopped CHA from conducting warrantless sweeps of public housing apartments. She subsequently lost the LAC presidency in an election that many people think was rigged by the CHA. This time, Patton thinks she has a good chance to succeed.

For one, she has faith in the administration of President Barack Obama. For another, she thinks the economic downturn has changed many people’s perspectives. Those who are sliding from the middle class into poverty have less interest in social engineering and will demand a share of the opportunities available through the Olympics. Essentially, Patton thinks the “New Depression,” as she calls it, has tipped the scales in her favor. “A lot of people who used to be middle class are in a poor person mode now. They are wondering ‘How can we make it from day to day?’” She said. “Public housing is the last thing on people’s minds now. People are trying to survive.”

So far, Patton and her allies have won a seat at the table and are building relationships with some of the city’s major power-brokers. She knows that success will take shrewd maneuvering, the ability to negotiate reasonably, and the ability to cause trouble if demands are not met. The lessons of the past weigh heavily on her strategy and tactics. “Chicago divides and conquers people,” she said. “If we don’t get what we want, we’ll fight.” The battle over the Plan for Transformation is over.

The war over the soul of the city continues.

Remembering Beauty Turner

On behalf of the staff and board of We The People Media/Residents’ Journal, I would like to express my sincere condolences to the family of Beauty Turner, our former Assistant Editor. Beauty passed away Dec. 18, 2008, after a short illness. As many of you know, Beauty worked for Residents’ Journal for more than eight years, but left our organization a year before her death. Even after her tenure here ended, we remained friends and I join those thousands of people around Chicago who miss her terribly.

Former Residents' Journal Assistant Editor Beauty Turner at her desk proudly holding up the February/March 2005 issue of Residents' Journal which featured an investigation she took part in questioning the contract practice of the CHA.

I have just two consolations, the first being the hundreds of e-mail messages I received from people all over the world who expressed how much Beauty touched them. For my second consolation, I have the moving articles about Beauty written by two of our reporters. The first, “A Health Report About Aneurysm,” appears on page 20 and was written by Quintana Woodridge. Quintana graduated from our Urban Youth International Journalism Program in 1998 and is now an adult reporter at Residents’ Journal.
The second article, “The Voice of the Voiceless,” appears in our Urban Youth International Journalism Program section, pgs 12- 15, and was written by current youth reporter Tatiyana Sanders. Tatiyana interviewed Beauty’s nephew, Marvin Robinson, who is continuing her work from his base in the G.H.E.T.T.O. (Greatest History Ever Told To Our People) Gallery. Both Quintana and Tatiyana grew up in the Ida B. Wells public housing development, which is gone from the city’s landscape but lives on in the hearts and memories of those who lived there.

Beauty spent most her life advocating and writing on behalf of tenants of public housing and other low-income people. She was particularly devoted to young people, so I think that these articles are a fitting tribute.`

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