By Yilun Cheng
It seemed like just another winter day in 2008 when Keith Rodgers came out of his home on North Halsted Street –– a three-story red brick building housing eight mixed-income families in the Near North Side neighborhood –– and saw nearly a dozen police cars closing in on him.
Born and raised in the former Cabrini-Green Homes public housing development where violence and crime were rampant, the then 20-year-old had had multiple encounters with law enforcement. Still, he had no idea why he was being arrested this time. Confused and scared, he demanded answers as police handcuffed him and took him back to the station.
Rodgers was later informed that he had been charged with criminal damage to property, he said. He was told that his neighbor had reported him for allegedly driving his car into the neighbor’s garage. The neighbor was among those who paid hefty market rates to live in the housing development once it was transformed into mixed-income housing –– including market-rate, affordable, and subsidized units –– as part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s controversial Plan for Transformation.
Rodgers knew he had not driven into the garage and was certain that the neighbor simply had a problem with public housing tenants like himself.
“He made it up and lied to the police,” said Rodgers, 32, who currently lives with his mother, father, and two sisters in a four-bedroom subsidized apartment in the development. “He’s a big racist and he doesn’t like CHA residents at all.”
Rodgers grew up inside one of the high-rises belonging to the former Cabrini-Green Homes on North Hudson Avenue. About 17 years ago, he was uprooted from the only community he had known along with his parents, brother, four sisters, and over 15,000 other residents at Cabrini-Green as the city started tearing down the 10-section housing project.
The demolition took place as a part of a nationwide push to abandon high-rise public housing in the hope that tenants struggling with crime and poverty would find more accommodating homes in mixed-income communities. But residents and experts alike found that in many cases, these new developments do not represent true integration. Rather, they said, there is still an invisible divide, both cultural and socioeconomic, between public housing and market-rate residents.
CHA spokesman Matthew Aguilar said he is confident that Chicago’s Plan for Transformation has successfully assimilated former Cabrini-Green tenants into the redeveloped neighborhood.
“With no distinction between market-rate, affordable and public housing, CHA and its partners are breaking the isolation and stigma of public housing residents,” Aguilar said. “The resulting communities weave public housing residents into the fabric of neighborhoods across Chicago.”
But the word, “isolation,” is already a biased expression, according to Mary Pattillo, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University whose research focuses on gentrification and public housing transformation in Chicago.
“Even before this transformation, folks had families, friends, social networks, churches, and organizations,” Pattillo said. “What this really means is they were isolated from middle- and upper-income people. Now families are dispersed into the farther South and West Sides and into the South and West suburbs. In that regard, one might say they’re more isolated from their original networks of social support.”
Indeed, when Rodgers’ family returned to their old neighborhood in late 2006, they felt more isolated than ever because the place they once called home no longer accepted them.
“I came back and that’s when my life got kind of bad,” said Rodgers, who currently delivers DoorDash food orders for a living. “Every day I come out it’ll be two tickets on my car because my neighbor used to call the police on me every other day…The way I’m living my life right now, it feels like I’m straight illegal.”
Before its redevelopment, the 70-acre Cabrini-Green site was long notorious, a symbol of dysfunction, decay, and violence. But for those who lived there, Cabrini-Green was their home.
Granted, there were “friends killing friends,” said Rodgers, who still remembers the sound of stray bullets whizzing past before hitting his friend in the back. But there was also a sense of community that he misses to this day.
“I loved it growing up,” Rodgers said. “It was a nice neighborhood. Everyone knew each other…We had no swimming pool then. But there’s this big area and there were puddles. We used to be swimming in the puddle. It used to be fun.”
Following the CHA’s 1999 announcement of its ambitious Plan for Transformation, the city started demolishing approximately 18,000 public housing units across Chicago and replacing them with mixed-income developments.
Then-mayor Richard M. Daley claimed that the mixed-income arrangement –– one-third public housing, one-third affordable housing, and one-third market rate –– would lift public housing families out of their poverty and isolation and expose them to the middle-class lifestyle of well-functioning communities. “I want to rebuild their souls,” Daley famously said.
Like most CHA residents displaced by the Plan for Transformation, Rodgers’ family received a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) that subsidizes rent payments in private apartments. With a voucher, families only need to pay one-third of their income while the government pays the rest. The vouchers are meant to help people move into more diverse and better-off communities.
But when Rodgers’ family used the voucher to rent a townhouse from a private landlord in West Garfield Park, the then 15-year-old witnessed the same violence and drug dealing that the city had hoped to eliminate by tearing down public housing projects.
“It was kind of crazy over there. There used to be fighting and shooting all the time,” Rodgers said. “It had got really dangerous over there and my mom was scared.”
Other Cabrini residents had a similar experience.
Gregory Fleming felt an intense sense of social disconnection when he moved out of Cabrini-Green at the age of 17 into a privately-owned residence on the West Side, he said.
“My best memory (of Cabrini-Green) is that everybody got along,” said Fleming, now a special education teacher and high school basketball coach. “We all knew each other…I felt more isolated outside Cabrini.”
Patricia Fron, the co-executive director of housing advocacy group Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance (CAFHA), argued that the Housing Choice Vouchers program does not present real choices. With only some exceptions, there is a maximum rent price (depending on household size) that the vouchers can be used for. While it is illegal for landlords to discriminate against Section 8 voucher-holders in Chicago, many landlords still refuse to accept Section 8 tenants.
“Tenants are relegated to look for housing where the voucher can afford it and also where the landlords accept” the voucher, Fron said. As a result, voucher-holders like Rodgers’ and Fleming’s families typically congregate in neighborhoods just as segregated and homogenous as the ones they left. According to CAFHA surveys, safety was ranked as the number one concern for voucher-holders.
“Even though we don’t have laws on the books that mandate segregation, our policies, practices, and just the culture that we’ve created perpetuate the legacy of segregation,” Fron said.
As of June 30, 2020, 1,065 former Cabrini-Green families have exercised their “right of return” –– a promise that displaced public housing residents would have the opportunity to move into redeveloped CHA properties. That number represents 60% of all families who used to live in the projects, according to the CHA’s latest quarterly report.
The Rodgers are one of them. Dismayed by the crime in West Garfield Park, in 2006 they moved into one of the subsidized units in the former Cabrini-Green neighborhood. The area now features multiple redeveloped sites including Orchard Park, Parksite of Old Town, and River Village Pointe, most of which are mixed-income developments.
“It’s completely changed compared to what it used to be,” Rodgers said, standing in front of his current home at 1525 N. Clybourn Ave. It is his second residence in the redeveloped neighborhood since his return in 2006; his family has been living here for over five years.
The neighborhood looks vastly different from when Rodgers was a kid. Right across from his home is a shopping complex called NEWCITY where more affluent residents browse clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue and order handcrafted eyewear at Luxury Eyesight.
“The area got everything we need in terms of restaurants, transportations, stores,” said a resident named Michael, who declined to give his last name, as he walked his dog in front of the shopping complex. He said he moved into the neighborhood one and a half years ago for its convenient location, paying market rate. He said he has not gotten to know any CHA tenants in the development, though he does not have any concerns about them. “Sometimes you hear of some robbing and some stuff in the general vicinity but that’s just Chicago,” he said.
Pattillo from Northwestern University argued that the rebranding of the neighborhood is meant to attract those like Michael who do not necessarily understand the history of Cabrini-Green and are not interested in participating in the experiment of mixed-income housing.
“The people who are selling units…would never call it Cabrini-Green,” Pattillo said. “The neighborhood is very rarely marketed as a replacement for the Chicago Housing Authority or a mixed-income community to the market-rate renters and buyers. And that language, I think, is very much within the Chicago housing policy.”
Despite the neighborhood’s upscale makeover, Rodgers felt that the transformation has left out CHA tenants. “The CHA people are still down,” he said. “It’s change for the neighborhood, not for the people.”
For one, management is slow to respond to his family’s maintenance requests, Rodgers said. His device to open the development’s electronic gate stopped working a few months ago but his manager has yet to fix it, he said. To this day, Rodgers cannot get to his own house without first moving another car close to the entrance to force open the gate. East Lake Management Group, the company in charge, declined to comment.
“It’s just frustrating,” Rodgers said. “And we can’t even do nothing about it because as public housing residents, we have no rights.”
Constant harassment from market-rate residents makes things worse, he said. Some of Rodgers’ more hostile neighbors even took it upon themselves to compile information on all CHA residents in the area –– which units they live in, who is on their leases, what types of cars they drive –– and hand it to police, as they told Rodgers themselves, Rodgers said.
There have been reports of such dynamics at mixed-income housing developments across Chicago. Fron from CAFHA said she has attended a number of community meetings where the city proposes to build new mixed-income housing developments and has heard racist remarks toward public housing tenants consistently pop up.
Market-rate residents have protested outside theses community meetings –– a common component of the development process before a new project receives aldermanic support –– chanting “No Section 8” and “No CHA” and shouting slurs such as “gangbang” and “freeloader,” according to a report that Fron co-authored.
“It’s the same arguments all the time,” Fron explained. “They veil the racism in these other terms, like fear about crime, traffic, and schools. What it really boils down to is a fear of affordable housing. Underneath that, it’s directly tied to anti-Black racism.”
“This is a low-class criminal versus law-abiding middle-class citizen problem,” said Colleen Jerger in an online comment. Jerger grew up in Jefferson Park on the Northwest Side and signed a petition opposing a 2016 proposal to build a 100-unit mixed-income housing development at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy.
“This improperly regulated flood of imported tenants into a foreign area corrupted the safe neighborhoods and turned them into crime zones with unprecedented spikes in rapes, assaults, break-ins, and home invasions,” Jerger said, though no data regarding mixed-income developments in Chicago have supported such claims. Over 3,000 people signed the petition.
While market-rate residents generally refrain from complaining about their CHA neighbors in-person, some more outspoken online commenters make similar claims about the Cabrini-Green area.
One Reddit user who moved into an apartment on North Clybourn Avenue and West Division Street three years ago said online that the remaining Cabrini rowhouses for public housing tenants are “a blight” and that “this area would be so much nicer without all the public housing.”
“Cops everywhere in this hood,” another Reddit user empathized. “I run into crackheads and dope fiends every other day wandering around just outside of the row homes on my way to the brown line.”
Though not a public housing tenant herself, Fron experienced first-hand the type of blatant discrimination that Rodgers described when she moved to Beverly, an area on the city’s Far Southwest Side with a similar history of intentional integration.
“I keep getting tickets on my car and we couldn’t understand why,” she recalled. It turned out that a neighbor thought the car belonged to one of the Section 8 housing voucher recipients living next door and kept reporting the vehicle to the police, Fron said.
“This person was just targeting them and needlessly calling the police with absolutely any little thing you could just to basically harass them,” Fron said. “You see that in a lot of different places in mixed-income communities.”
Michele Dreczynski, a market-rate resident in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood for 18 years, agreed with Fron’s assessment. Dreczynski is the program manager at Near North Unity Program, an organization spearheaded by Alderman Walter Burnett (27th) that aimed to chip away at the invisible wall separating CHA and market-rate residents.
“There’s tons of discrimination here,” Dreczynski said. “Most of the complaints are cultural.”
“The African American community here is more interconnected,” she continued. “But a lot of other people are transplants and they don’t have strong ties; so they would be less likely to have their aunt, uncle, and three cousins coming over, saying that they’re going to roller-blade out front. That sometimes annoys people.”
Indeed, Rodgers said his landlord put a lease violation on his record after his neighbors reported him for hosting big family gatherings at the house.
“(Our neighbors) would be like, ‘You are not supposed to have this many people in your house and I’m gonna call CHA and have CHA put you out,’” Rodgers said. “But we got a big family. My mom got six kids. And we got kids. (Our neighbors) broke our doorbell because they were constantly ringing the doorbell and being rude.”
Like Rodgers, Saleshea Peterson moved back to the Cabrini-Green area after the city rebuilt the neighborhood. She now organizes events to empower women in her community, and she said a lack of resources and infrastructure makes the transition to living in a mixed-income development even more difficult for former Cabrini-Green tenants.
“The changes are making the community look better and more presentable,” Peterson said. “But I really believe that they should have more resources for mentorship, for tutoring for the children, for afterschool activities.”
On the corner of North Halsted Street and North Clybourn Avenue, for example, there used to be a YMCA where Peterson would go swimming or play baseball every day after school with a Y membership that cost only a dollar. The center has since been replaced by the NEWCITY mall. “We had all those activities, but we don’t have that anymore,” she said.
According to Rodgers, the property crime charge against him was later expunged when police found that the dent on the neighbor’s garage was in fact caused by a snowplow. But he said the arrest added to the list of obstacles that make it difficult for him to move forward in life. The army would not recruit him, he said, because he had an open case on his record.
“Somehow I fell through the loops. I just feel like Chicago, the system, failed me,” said Rodgers, who has a five-year-old son who lives with him. “Mentally and physically I’m beaten to death. Sometimes I feel I’m at the point of giving up, but I got my son, so I just stay strong for him.”
Rodgers does not plan to stay in a CHA unit for the rest of his life. He hopes to start a roadside assistance business so he can eventually purchase his current residence for his mother.
“It just so happened that I grew up in CHA,” Rodgers said. “But I wouldn’t want to live like this forever.”
Yilun Cheng is a social justice and investigative reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChengYilun.