CHA's Transformation Reshaped A City

In some neighborhoods, new clusters of subsidized housing. In others, poverty is ‘a lot more invisible now.’

John H. White | Chicago Sun-Times

As a longtime public housing resident, Robert Tate has had a front-row seat to the demolition and rebirth of the neighborhood where the Cabrini-Green public-housing projects once stood.

Tate, 52, has spent most of his life at the Cabrini-Green row houses — the only remnant of what once was a sprawling Chicago Housing Authority complex on the Near North Side with more than 3,500 apartments. 

A Cabrini row house
Cabrini row houses - Photo by Brett Chase | BGA

Outside the 17 row houses that remain in use, it’s hard to see poverty anywhere else in the now-fashionable neighborhood. A service center for Lamborghinis and other imported cars is a block away on Chicago Avenue, across from a new luxury apartment building. Cranes are at work on more high-end properties under construction just to the east and north.

Yet the redevelopment of the neighborhood — part of the CHA’s massive “Plan for Transformation” — hasn’t left everyone better off, Tate says.

“We knew gentrification was coming,” he says. But "they took a community and moved it someplace else."

The Near North Side and other neighborhoods ringing the Loop have boomed in the 16 years since the launch under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley of “the largest, most ambitious redevelopment effort of public housing in the United States,” which razed public housing high-rises and began replacing them with mixed-income developments.

Yet the plan also has resulted in new clusters of subsidized housing in neighborhoods on the city’s South Side and West Side that already were grappling with disinvestment and crime, a Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association analysis has found.

Natasha Holbert
Natasha Holbert has worked in the Cabrini-Green area nearly two decades. - Photo by Brett Chase | BGA

Natasha Holbert, program director for Chicago Lights Urban Farm, a not-for-profit community produce garden adjacent to the Cabrini row houses, has worked near Cabrini for nearly two decades.

“Poverty here is a lot more invisible now,” Holbert says.

The Near North Side still has more than 3,200 families who live in rehabilitated public housing or use Section 8 vouchers issued by the CHA or the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to help pay their rent in privately owned buildings.

But that’s 599 fewer families in subsidized housing than the neighborhood had 16 years ago. During that time, new residents have flocked to the area. The white population in the Near North Side surged by about 10,000 between 2000 and 2014.

“There’s a lot of separation between the longtime residents and the newer people,” says Holbert, who’s worked near Cabrini for nearly two decades. 

Maps created by  The Chicago Sun-Times

West Loop: From Skid Row to Trendy

The story is similar in the West Loop, which has become a real estate and restaurant mecca since the Henry Horner Homes and other nearby public housing developments were demolished in the 2000s. Earlier this month, McDonald’s Corp. announced it would move its world headquarters there from Oak Brook, joining an influx that includes Google’s Chicago offices.

George Lemperis, owner of the Palace Grill at 1408 W. Madison St., a popular stop for fans headed to the United Center to see the Blackhawks or Bulls, has witnessed the decline and rise of the Near West Side over four decades. Lemperis points to the eight luxury townhouses being built next door to his restaurant.

George Lemperis
George Lemperis - Photo by Sun-Times

“They’re starting at $2 million apiece,” he says. “Twenty-five years ago, you probably could’ve bought this whole neighborhood for $2 million.”

He credits Daley for spurring the changes. Along with the construction of the United Center, “A lot had to do with them tearing down the Henry Horner Homes,” Lemperis says.

For all but two of her 77 years, Yvonne Patterson has also lived on the Near West Side. She and her late husband, a former Chicago Sun-Times truck driver, lived on the sixth floor of a 16-story Horner Homes tower for a time.

“I’ve seen the projects come, and I’ve seen the projects go,” the mother of six adult children says.

>> Complete coverage | Beyond the Rubble: Life After the CHA Upheaval

When the CHA decided to tear down her building, she was given a choice: She could move to replacement housing in the neighborhood or get a voucher to go wherever she wanted. She decided to stay, choosing a four-bedroom apartment in a three-flat owned by the CHA just north of the United Center.

“You know, we like it better — we’re not stacked on top of each other,” Patterson says. “To me, this is still Horner. All my friends that ain’t dead, I still see.”

 
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Many others who were displaced when the CHA high-rises were torn down didn’t return to the neighborhood. Between 2000 and 2015, the Near West Side lost 579 subsidized-housing units.

>> Daley's CHA Plan Jolted The Region 

>> Public Housing Families Flee to Suburbs

“If you look at [the plan] from the standpoint of residents living in mixed-income, it’s overwhelmingly a success,” says Robert Whitfield, an attorney and former top CHA executive in the 1990s who has represented public housing residents. “The negative side is it came with a cost: There are fewer public housing units than there were before. Some of the criteria have kept people out.”

Altogether, the number of people living in CHA-owned projects citywide fell by about 13,200 between 2000 and 2015, according to data from the CHA and HUD. At the same time, the number using Section 8 vouchers issued by the CHA or HUD to help pay their rent soared by 47,700.

It all adds up to 187,600 people citywide now living in properties subsidized through the CHA or HUD — an increase of 23 percent in 15 years.

"People Couldn't Adapt"

As the CHA leveled its high-rise projects, many former tenants took a voucher, but few moved far. And other families getting new vouchers ended up in the same West Side and South Side neighborhoods, with their abundance of rental properties and growing poverty. North Lawndale, Austin, Auburn-Gresham, South Shore, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing, East Garfield Park and Roseland all gained more than 900 households with CHA vouchers between 2000 and 2015.

On the North Side, in contrast, the affluent North Center and Lincoln Park community areas have lost a total of more than 600 public-housing families since the CHA began closing down the Lathrop Homes, a group of low-rise apartment buildings along the north branch of the Chicago River near Diversey Parkway. Built in 1937, Lathrop is slated to be replaced by a mixed-income development — a plan critics call a land grab removing poor people.

Dorothy Battie
Dorothy Battie, 61, raised six children in the Robert Taylor Homes. She now lives in South Shore, which has the most subsidized-housing households of any community area in Chicago.- Photo by Brett Chase | BGA

Few of the displaced Lathrop Homes tenants have remained in the area: Between 2000 and 2015, North Center didn’t gain any voucher households. Lincoln Park lost three.

On the South Side, Dorothy Battie, 61, moved to the Robert Taylor Homes on South State Street in 1974. She lived in seven apartments there over the next three decades as she raised six children. The complex, which included 28 high-rises, once held the distinction of including half a dozen of the poorest census tracts in the entire country.

By the time the CHA started demolishing the Robert Taylor high-rises, Battie, like thousands of others in public housing buildings, was no longer officially on a lease — she was living with her daughter Lee Lee Henderson and her two grandchildren.

Battie says she has stayed in touch with a number of old neighbors who had rough transitions from the high-rises. Most were only able to find apartments in other impoverished areas. “A lot of people couldn’t adapt to a new environment,” she says.

While Henderson has moved 11 times in search of a safe, stable home for her kids, her mother found an apartment she likes in South Shore.

“Everybody tells me how bad South Shore is,” Battie says, “but I haven’t experienced it yet.”

The predominantly black lakefront community has long been home to middle-income residents as well as poor families. But South Shore lost more than a fifth of its population from 2000 to 2014, falling to about 49,000 people living there.

Val Free
Val Free - Photo by Brett Chase | BGA

With an increase in voucher-holders — including 250 families who formerly lived in public housing — the neighborhood now has the highest total of subsidized-housing households in the city: 5,096.

Neighborhood activist Val Free says the concentration of poverty has contributed to crime and instability. She says “slumlords” shoulder a big portion of the blame for that, saying they don’t screen tenants or maintain their properties.

Free points to boarded-up windows and standing water under back stairways in the HUD-administered complex where she’s lived for 20 years. So far this year, 29 crimes have been reported on her block alone, police data show.

"There was no plan in place to monitor how this played out," Free says. South Shore should have ended up with more resources to help families in need, she says, "but that didn't happen."

How the analysis was done

The Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s online portal, “A Picture of Subsidized Households.” The analysis included households living in public housing or receiving Section 8 vouchers to help pay their rent. HUD programs aimed at seniors were not included.

This data was analyzed by census tract in the city of Chicago and by municipality in the six-county suburban area for the years 2000 and 2015.

In addition to the HUD numbers, the Sun-Times and BGA acquired and analyzed extensive records from the Chicago Housing Authority, including data showing the number of households at every CHA-owned property in 2000 and 2015.

These stories also include U.S. Census Bureau data on race and poverty analyzed by census tract in Chicago and by municipality in the suburbs.

Data Reporting Lab editor Darnell Little contributed to this report.