PERSPECTIVE: On the CHA’s "Plan for Transformation"
By David Ranney and Pat Wright

What is at stake in the CHA redevelopment is nothing less than the chance to correct the wrong-headed and discriminatory policies that government agencies continue to make concerning housing. What are the "mistaken" policies (See Tribune editorial, January 14, 2000) that the CHA board, city and federal housing policy-makers continue to make? Here are the top three.

1. Top down planning without tenant participation

The CHA’s Plan For Transformation did not take into consideration the overwhelming desire of most CHA tenants to participate in the rebuilding of their developments, not their destruction. This sentiment was clearly stated in the numerous public hearings that the CHA and HUD held throughout the city. The desire of public housing residents to save their homes is a surprise to many people and public housing critics. Despite Chicago’s public housing stock being some of the worst in the country, many public housing residents want to fight for their chance to rebuild their communities. The neglect and deterioration of public housing due to federal funding cutbacks over the past two decades has made it a difficult program to defend. "Who would want to save these raggedy old buildings?" was a question often posed by Wardell Yotaghan, the leader of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. He would quickly answer his own question by saying, "We don’t want to save these buildings in their present condition. We want these buildings rehabbed or new units built to meet the needs of poor people." Also, behind this desire to rebuild their communities is that many public housing residents do not want to be thrown into a private market that does not want them and does not have enough units to accommodate them.

2. Relying on the private sector to solve the affordable housing crisis

There have been numerous studies completed in the last few years demonstrating that there is a severe shortage of affordable housing in the Chicago region. The proposed changes laid out in the CHA Plan will make the affordable housing crisis worse for public housing tenants and for all renters in the Chicago area. Despite this well documented housing crisis, the Congress and the federal government have gone along with a housing policy agenda which is reducing the number of public housing units instead of increasing them. In addition, what is left of federal housing programs relies more and more on the private sector to provide affordable housing units for low income households. Once again, it is well documented that the private housing sector is not up to the task. The recently released regional rental market study clearly shows that the private rental market is very tight, a 4.2% vacancy rate. The federal housing agency, HUD, considers a 6% vacancy rate as the threshold for a tight market. In addition, private landlords are not interested in renting to low income households when there are so many higher income households also looking for rental housing. Moreover, racial and family discrimination in the private market persists with little commitment on the part of government to change this situation. The public housing program was first initiated in the thirties because the private market was unable and unwilling to accommodate low income families and nothing in our economy or housing market has changed since then to justify this reliance on the private market.

3. Continuing a policy of racial exclusion

Race and class have historically been a major factor in housing policy and urban development. The urban renewal and destruction of African-American communities in the fifties and sixties left à the poor very few options and public housing was one of them. The period of the greatest public housing development coincides with massive urban redevelopment and gentrification. In 1969, a lawsuit, Gautreaux versus CHA, resulted in a ruling designed to halt such racial exclusion. Public housing would have to be built throughout the city and not in areas that were predominantly African-American.

Once again, the city of Chicago is experiencing massive reinvestment and redevelopment which is bringing upper and middle class housing right up to the doorstep of several major public housing developments. The residents of public housing find themselves caught up in the whirlwind of these changes. The fact that they are predominantly African-American has meant that the old system of racial exclusion has given way to a new one. In the old system, African-Americans were kept out of some areas and concentrated in others. Public housing was the vehicle. The new system is more insidious. Very poor African Americans are removed from their homes in gentrifying areas and given a housing voucher to find housing that for the most part does not exist. In our present ideological climate where it is believed that success or failure can only be achieved through individual effort the unsuccessful are easily demonized, dismissed or evicted. Therefore, it is ironic that in the case of Cabrin i-Green, the Gautreaux decision is being cynically used to block a redevelopment plan in which the development’s tenants had a real voice. Instead, Gautreaux is being used to promote a new form of racial exclusion posing as a benign "mixed income" development policy.

The present ideology of privatization, deregulation and the notion that success comes solely through individual competitiveness has generated the peculiar "panacea" of the mixed income development. The notion that concentrations of poor people are not sustainable and destructive to community development has been used to generate the new federal public housing law and consequently the CHA Plan. In fact, the notion of "tipping point", the product of older forms of racial exclusion, is being used with a slightly different twist. The redevelopment plans for public housing developments like Cabrini Green or ABLA, for example, are based on a notion of mixed income determined by the perceived comfort level of the future white or higher income buyers and tenants. For public housing residents who are trying to secure their housing rights, mixed income is good if it means they can stay. But to developers, the mix of income is only okay as long as the number of poor households does not exceed some perceived "tipping point", a notion reminiscent of the rationale for racial exclusion at the height of overt racial discriminatory practices in the forties and fifties. Of course, the redevelopment of prime areas like Cabrini and ABLA, will be very profitable to the developers and will work to the advantage of the politicians who serve their interests. The point is that the notion of mixed income provides a convenient political screen for other agendas. The real issue is where are poor people going to live?

The future of the city and housing policy should be in all of our hands. Unless we want to continue to see the homeless population grow, public housing residents left out of the decision-making process, and housing costs take more and more of our incomes, we need to recommit to a federal housing policy that makes having a decent, safe and affordable home in a place of our choice, a reality for all of us, rich and poor.

David Ranney is a Professor in the Urban Planning and Public Policy Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Pat Wright is the Associate Director of the Voorhees Neighborhood Center at UIC.