The changing landscape of Chicago’s public housing

By Daniel Brown

On a spring morning, with crisp air and blue skies outside, Theresa Cook, 51, sits down on the beige couch in her living room. She wears shorts, a gray t-shirt and a blue bandana around her head. Her two-year-old son sleeps beside her. Her nephew awakes from a mattress on the ground, tossing off an orange blanket.

Cook calls her sister into the room.

“Sharon…Come in here.”

“What?” Sharon says from the bedroom.

“You know what,” Cook replies.

Wearing a pink t-shirt depicting an ice cream cone, Sharon Kransuch, 68, ambles into the living room and sits down on the couch. She has short gray hair, chopped bangs and distinct upside down smile lines.

“I’m using my bedroom as a closet,” Cook says. “Me and the boy, we sleep right here,” she points down at the couch on which she is sitting, her son still fast asleep. “Those are clothes,” she says, pointing to the boxes next to the couch and along the wall, “and I still got more clothes in the back.” On top of the boxes rests an alarm clock, lice shampoo and other household items.

Cook, her son and Kransuch have lived in this two-bedroom apartment for a few months. Cook’s kidneys are failing, and she suffers from heart disease, which keeps her from working. She tries to sell cigarettes to make a few dollars here and there, but the only way the two sisters scrape by is with Kransuch’s Social Security check.

“There’s plenty of us out here who need help. We don’t need the Targets and stuff like that,” Cook says. “There’s plenty of Targets and K-Marts and stuff around. But there are some of us out here who need help. We need affordable housing.” Buried in her statement lies a bundle of resentment felt by many Chicagoans, something at least partially responsible for the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) long waiting list: sections of public housing land have fallen into private hands.

***

Currently, there are approximately 100,000 Chicagoans on CHA’s waiting list. The last time they opened the waiting list was in 2014. More than “200,000 people registered for the waitlist, and those names were placed in a lottery,” said Ketsia Colinet, CHA Director of Occupancy/Asset Management, over the phone, “and via a random electronic process, names were selected and then placed on the wait list.”

Consequently, thousands of people were denied the right to even wait for public housing, although, according to Colinet, CHA “informed them of other opportunities they may [have wanted] to consider if they [were] still in need of housing.”
Kransuch happened to be one of the lucky names drawn in the lottery. That was nearly two years ago. Still without public assistance, the two sisters live down near 47th street.

***

From the Red Line, cross the bridge over the Dan Ryan Expressway, where the cars steadily flow, creating a loud humming noise, and pick up the CTA 47 bus heading into New City.

Ride past the industrial parks, the long grass growing in the empty plots of land, the run down and boarded-up residential homes, the occasional food joint or business – Big Ray’s Grill, City Sports, M. Ojeda Tire Shop, etc. – and the vacant store fronts too.

Get off the bus at South Racine Avenue, and you will find Cook and Kransuch near 49th Street and South Elizabeth Avenue. Who knows where they would call home if CHA had adopted a different course of action more than a decade ago.

***

In 2000, CHA implemented its “Plan for Transformation”, an ambitious plan that sought to rebuild and renovate 25,000 public housing units and create mixed-income communities. And so during the last 15 years, public housing units have been demolished: Ida B. Wells, Robert Taylor, Cabrini Green, LeClaire Courts and more; but public housing does not always return. Sections of public housing land, in accordance with CHA’s plan to create mixed-income communities, have been sold – some at discounted rates – to private buyers in retail, real estate and more.

“The landscape of public housing in Chicago has been completely transformed,” said CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar in an email. “Dilapidated high rises that once plagued our city have been replaced with mixed-income communities.”

Indeed, the public housing landscape, as Aguilar said, looks very different now. Previously filled with only housing for low-income Chicagoans, public housing land now also contains private condominiums and businesses. Whether this is good or bad, seems to depend on with whom you speak.

***

“Excuse me, do you live around here?” I ask the man donning a blue button-up shirt, jeans and black glasses as he waits for the bus on East Pershing Road and South Martin Luther King Drive.

“Yeah,” he says curiously, as if wondering what I am doing and why I am there.

“Is this field where Ida B. Wells used to be?” I ask, gesturing towards the enormous stretch of grass expanding approximately six square blocks.

“Yeah.”

“How far did it go back?”

“It extended all the way to the lake.”

“So what are those buildings over there?” I prod, pointing to the apartments beyond the field and close to the lake.

Those are private homes, he says.

From afar, the picture is clean: just green grass, blue-sky and tall white buildings to the north. Up close, the grass is shaggy; empty chip bags, wadded sandwich wraps and other garbage together with the daisies and long, matted-down blades scream of wasteland and the passage of time.

The sign in the field is huge. It’s white and olive green. It reads: “coming soon!” “MARIANO’S”, with the trademark green leaf over the ‘N’. Underneath the Mariano’s name is the CHA logo, City of Chicago seal, and more text reading: “With support and assistance from: Mayor Rahm Emanuel, 4th Ward Alderman William Burns, 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell, Michael Merchant CEO of Chicago Housing Authority, Commissioner Andrew Mooney, Chicago Department of Planning and Development.”

This is the changing landscape of public housing. A Target popped up on former Cabrini Green land. A running track rolled out where the Harold Ickes Homes once stood. The Robert Taylor Homes went down, and a fitness center came up. And at the Ida B. Wells, a Mariano’s will soon appear.

The square block of open field north of the soon-to-be Mariano’s is, however, a mystery. Still inspecting the sign, I notice construction crews digging up there in the field. I mosey on over.

It’s loud. Some sort of heavy machinery is dredging a large hole. Construction workers surround the pit, wearing hard hats and the typical thin coat of dirt on their jeans and boots.

“Excuse me, are there going to be more businesses located here?” I ask a guy on the sideline wearing a Chicago Bulls t-shirt. I assumed he was some sort of foreman. He was cleaner then the workers. Foremen are always cleaner.

No idea, he says over all the noise. They are only installing sewer pipes. Aguilar said he did not know either. Perhaps that part of CHA land is still for sale.

***

“I think [CHA] wanted to tear down the buildings, scatter the people out, and then take as long as they possibly can so they can’t find the people to bring back,” Rod Wilson, Executive Director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, said in his radio voice over the phone. “[The city of Chicago] lost 200,000 black folks from 2000 to 2010,” he added.

Whether or not CHA and the city intended to move people out of Chicago, it has happened. CHA promised public housing residents the “right to return” after buildings were demolished, but housing has been slowly rebuilt. “[The Plan for Transformation] was supposed to run from 2000 to 2010…and so we’re in the 15th year of the program,” said Wilson.

Because public housing residents usually have few, if any, economic options, they oftentimes move to public housing in the suburbs or surrounding states out of necessity while waiting for the rebuilding.
In many ways, the sluggish rebuilding is about funding.

“We haven’t had the federal funding or the ability to build the necessary housing,” said Political Science Professor Dick Simpson over the phone at his wonted methodical pace. The private businesses obtaining portions of public land are affecting the long waiting list, “but not as much as the problem of [having] no money to build the housing.”

This lack of funding is a federal, city and private sector problem, according to Simpson. “It’s not as profitable to build the mixed income housing, unless there is a large federal subsidy, as it is to build condominiums or apartments in the loop.”

Wilson disagreed to a certain extent: “CHA has a half a billion dollars in their coffers,” he chuckled over the phone. “They get money for 51,000 Section 8 vouchers,” but in the last five years they have only distributed 38,000. “They just increased it, because we’ve been pushing them, to 41,000…that’s 10,000 vouchers that they get money for that’s not being distributed.”

Wilson continued: “They get money for replacing housing…They get 2.2 million dollars annually to rebuild the [Harold Ickes Homes] and they have not built one unit of public housing at the Ickes.”

“So what you’re saying is that [CHA has] the money but they’re just sitting on it?” I clarified.

“Definitely.”

Simpson agreed with Wilson over the annual Section 8 voucher distribution. “A number of people have gotten housing vouchers – the so-called Section 8 program – but…there is neither enough of the actual apartments or the Section 8 vouchers to cover everybody that needs the housing,” he said.

***

Whatever CHA’s actual goal was with their “Plan for Transformation”, it is nonetheless a microcosm of public housing on the national level.

National policy, according to Professor Janet Smith, Co-Director of the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement, supports mixed-income communities, arguing that it will drive the economic and social interaction between low-income residents and the rest of the community, and further promote the upward mobility of public housing residents.

Wilson disagrees with city and national policy. “I do understand what [CHA is] attempting to do,” he said, “but the land is designated for public housing use. There are other economic development tools you can use or other land they can use for Mariano’s.”

Perhaps Smith summed up the debate best over whether to have mixed-income communities or just invest in existing communities in her book, “Where are Poor People to Live? Transforming Public Housing.” She wrote that transforming public housing land into mixed-income communities could work, but is controversial.

“On one hand, it provides the opportunity and the resources to improve the terrible, often uninhabitable living conditions of many public housing residents,” Smith wrote. “On the other, these efforts stand to significantly reduce the number of permanent public housing units, disrupt the lives of residents at many sites, and cost millions of tax dollars with little guarantee or evidence that the outcome will fully meet the social goals of the program.” The latter is most salient, she posited: evidence does not exist that these desired effects would materialize.

***

As Cook goes into greater detail about her kidney and heart disease, her two-year-old son awakes on the couch. He raises his head up and sees me. His eyes widen, and mouth opens in a frightened manner, as if he wanted to scream but nothing came out.

Embarrassingly, my mind sidetracks from Cook’s poor physical health to the fact that her child appeared terrified by the sight of a stranger in the house.

“You gotta go pee-pee?” Cook asks her son. She takes his hand. “Come on…come on,” and they walk in to the bathroom together, her slippers dragging along the floor like sandpaper on wood.

They return shortly. Cook’s son hops back onto the couch. Scooby-Doo comes on the television and a bottle quickly goes into his mouth.

Cook turns back to the topic of public housing.

“There ain’t nothing really to be done about it, you know…this is Chicago, you know. That’s all I can say about it,” Cook says. “It seems they’d be about helping their own people, but they’re not. They’re only about building up and making money for themselves.”

Discussion pauses; the sound of Scooby-Doo and his friends rise. I break the silence.

I ask what she thinks will happen, if she thinks she will get public housing.

“I hope,” Cook said. “All you can do is hope.”

I spent a few more minutes there, thanking them before I walked back outside and to the train.

Photo at top:The former Ida B. Wells public housing land where Mariano’s will soon open. (Medill/Daniel Brown)