Off the Brown Line, past a Starbucks and a lighting store, near the Moody Bible Institute, around the corner from a restaurant that used to be cool, down the street from Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School, surrounded by churches on one side, expensive realty on the other, you’ll find the most dangerous place in Chicago. Or what used to be, at least.
In 2000, there were 1,424 arrests in this tiny six by two-block area. Now the gangs and the drug dealers and all the impoverished families that used to scare residents of the Gold Coast are gone. There’s just empty fields, cracked pavement, some dust: the last remaining remnants of the high rise-towers of Cabrini-Green.
Cabrini is the most striking example of a pattern that can be seen across Chicago. Projects that used to inspire fear and disgust are coming down and nothing is replacing them. When the Plan for Transformation began in 1999, there were approximately 38,000 units of public housing in Chicago. Now, there are fewer than 22,000.
On the South Side, the State Street Corridor, once home to 7,938 units, and the Wells Group, an expansive complex that used to contain 3,239 units, are now mostly empty fields or half-finished mixed-income properties. Combined, there are fewer than 1,500 units at both sites. The goal is to rebuild or renovate 25,000 units before the Plan ends. But it’s an open secret that the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) has been boosting its numbers, tallying units that were excluded from the original count and letting over 3,500 units sit vacant.
Meanwhile, the demand for affordable housing remains enormous. During the 2010-2011 school year, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless reported that 93,780 Chicagoans were at some point without homes. And when the CHA’s Family Property Waitlist opened for 26 days in the summer of 2010, 203,000 families applied for 40,000 spots. It was the first time the waitlist had been opened in over ten years.
Why aren’t there more units to meet this overwhelming demand? Part of the reason is that neighborhoods across Chicago are afraid. They don’t want the next Cabrini or Robert Taylor or Stateway Gardens in their community. And who can blame them? The high-rises were dangerous.
But, it’s a mistake to simply equate the residents of public housing with the physical spaces they lived in. Throughout Chicago, extreme poverty and total institutional neglect plagued the projects. In 1995, CHA developments made up 11 of the 15 poorest census tracts in the country. The CHA was so mismanaged during this period that the federal government took away local control and put the Authority into federal receivership. Still, detailing structural problems has done little to assuage the fear of many Chicagoans.
In April, the Urban Institute released a report that established a tenuous, but nonetheless significant link between relocated public housing residents and crime. But, if you really want to know about public housing’s relationship to crime, you should ask someone who’s lived in a development. They’ll tell you a more complex story than this new report and a more nuanced one than I ever could.
Ms. Deborah Taylor, a longtime tenant activist who grew up in the now demolished Ida B. Wells project, explains, “It ain’t easy to make it through the projects… it always seems like it has a negative connotation, but it actually shouldn’t. It’s about survival. It’s tough. We don’t fall down easy, we aren’t soft, we’re very resilient and very educated…I think we’re demonized.”
The Urban Institute’s report is important to examine because of just how limited its conclusions are. The study examined crime rates in Atlanta and Chicago over an eight-year period, attempting to determine whether residents who relocated from demolished public housing projects to subsidized private market units contributed to any increase in crime in their new neighborhoods. In Chicago, the CHA issued more 16,000 vouchers to families moving away from projects slated for destruction.
“Overall,” researchers summarized, “our findings show that a substantial majority of neighborhoods in both cities were able to absorb public housing relocation voucher households without any adverse effect on neighborhood conditions.”
Perhaps the least surprising finding of the study was that neighborhoods that used to be home to high-rise projects experienced the most dramatic drops in crime. The report found that areas where the projects stood saw violent crime decrease by 60 percent and gun crime fall off 70 percent. When empty lots replace poorly managed and poorly constructed towers, it turns out that places get safer.
The neighborhoods where residents moved couldn’t boast similarly high drops in crime. Many of the neighborhoods with a high density of relocated residents (more than 14 per 1,000 residents) did experience higher than expected crime rates. But even these areas experienced an overall decrease in crime from the beginning to the end of the study period. This finding coincided with another that confirmed what many feared at the beginning of the relocation process—residents were moving from poor, black public housing projects to poor, black neighborhoods.
But this shouldn’t come as a shock. Faced with the destruction of their homes and the breaking-up of their communities, residents moved to neighborhoods where their friends and relatives in similar circumstances lived. Taken as a whole, then, the Urban Institute’s findings are relatively innocuous.
When the report was released, the response was so swift, you’d think every Chicagoan was in immanent danger. The Sun-Times published a piece that began: “crime was worse in neighborhoods where former Chicago Housing Authority Residents used vouchers to move into private apartments,” a finding that the Report explicitly rejects. The Atlantic linked the report to a story published in the magazine in 2008 called “American Murder Mystery” that implicated relocated public housing residents for rising crime rates in Memphis. This connection was highlighted in spite of the fact that the Urban Institute’s findings’ contrast with the claim of that article. And, on websites like EveryBlock, residents of ‘destination neighborhoods,’ where former public housing residents have moved en masse, expressed their outrage at the CHA and city government and their fear of their new neighbors, even as others tried to look at the issue in a more expansive way.
Political figures reacted too. 4th Ward Alderman Will Burns issued a statement, downplaying crime problems in his ward and emphasizing the success of mixed-income developments. Charles Woodyard, the Chicago Housing Authority’s CEO, defended the Plan for Transformation and pointed out a number of shortcomings of the study. For example, the Report only detailed crime statistics from 2000-2008, so any conclusions about the present would be mere extrapolations. Woodyard also made another point that went unrecognized in the rush of articles to appear after the release of the Report: the researchers never specify whether CHA relocatees were the victims or perpetrators of crimes.
What were relocated residents saying? Looking at the media accounts, it’s hard to know. For just about everyone who’s looking, residents are harder to find than they used to be. In 2009, the Authority took out ads in local papers to find unaccounted for tenants, but, for the most part, the search came to nothing. In 2010, the CHA reported that they couldn’t find 2,202 former residents of their demolished projects that they were supposed to be tracking. Residents who were supposed to be relocated with the utmost attention to their well being had disappeared.
For public housing residents, stigma and silence are nothing new. Ms. Taylor once told me, “the public does have a certain perception of people…It’s one they’ve promoted and developed themselves. This is how they want you to see the people in subsidized housing because they don’t want to keep paying for it.”
The towers that stayed up in spite of so many problems have come down. Public housing communities that stood strong in the face of mismanagement and violence and drugs are demolished. But, even without the projects, one thing hasn’t changed: public housing residents are still feared.