Public Housing Families Flee to Suburbs

The number of subsidized households in Chicago's suburbs jumped almost 30 percent since 2000.

Chris Fusco | Sun-Times

Decades ago, Yolanda Crawford had a chance to leave the Chicago Housing Authority’s Dearborn Homes in Bronzeville and move to Naperville.

She turned it down. That’s a decision she regrets.

Now, from the front porch of a small three-bedroom home in Burnham that she leases using a Section 8 “housing choice” voucher, the retired postal worker has some advice for other mothers raising children in Chicago’s crime-ridden neighborhoods.

“I advise any mother: Move to your suburban areas,” she says. “Not taking anything from the city, [but] there’s too much going on. Take your Section 8 voucher. Take it and go to Atlanta. Take it and go to Los Angeles.”

Crawford (top photo), a 58-year-old grandmother, took her voucher and headed to Burnham, just a few blocks south of the city limits. She leases her home from a retired teacher who moved to Wisconsin. The voucher covers all of her rent: $1,200 a month.

Burnham is among several south suburbs — also including Park Forest, Calumet City, Dolton, Lansing, University Park, Country Club Hills and South Holland — that have seen some of the six-county region’s biggest gains in subsidized housing since the CHA began demolishing the city’s high-rise housing projects 16 years ago under its “Plan for Transformation.”

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The number of subsidized households in the suburbs — from suburban Cook County to the surrounding counties of DuPage, Lake, Kane, McHenry and Will — has risen 28 percent, from 32,292 in 2000 to 41,493 last year, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data and U.S. Census Bureau figures analyzed by the Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association.

Altogether, the suburbs had more than 84,000 residents using housing choice vouchers or some other form of taxpayer-funded housing assistance in 2015, the HUD data show.

The migration has come as the suburbs, in general, have grown more diverse and less affluent. Between 1999 and 2014, the number of suburban families living in poverty rose from about 53,000 to 104,000, rising from 4 percent of the population to 7 percent, according to census data.

Maps created by 

The Chicago Sun-Times
 The Chicago Sun-Times

Spreading out

Nearly half the suburbs’ subsidized-housing units — about 19,600 — are in suburban Cook County. Of the 17 Cook County suburbs with more than 400 such households, 11 are in southern Cook County, which has experienced dramatic economic and racial upheavals as white residents — as well as middle-income black families — moved elsewhere, according to records and interviews.

It’s a migration pattern that has evolved, starting with whites who fled the South Side for the south suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s. Blacks followed years later and now are spreading further out.

Whites, meanwhile, are moving farther south, to Will County. Since 2000, Will County has added 57,763 white residents — more than any other collar county.

“None of these people really want people with vouchers coming in to them,” says William Sampson, a DePaul University sociology professor who focuses on race and poverty. “This is as much about socioeconomic status as it is about race. I hadn’t thought that middle-income blacks would be as opposed to have low-income blacks move in as whites . . . [But] middle-income black folks said, ‘No, we won’t tolerate it.’ ”

Only a fraction of the suburbs’ subsidized-housing population is living in traditional public housing — like the high-rise buildings the CHA tore down under the Plan for Transformation.

Depaul University Professor William Sampson

DePaul University professor William Sampson (Photo from DePaul University)

Instead, the vast majority use housing choice vouchers, issued by 13 suburban housing authorities, that pay all or part of the rent for them to live in privately owned apartments, townhouses or single-family homes. Others live in apartment complexes that have HUD project-based vouchers assigned to them.

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Burnham, population 4,225, has seen a 55 percent increase in subsidized households since the CHA transformation plan began in 2000. Over roughly the same time, its white population plunged 50 percent, while the number of black residents rose 17 percent and the number of Hispanic residents shot up 44 percent. Last year, the suburb had 231 residents living in 87 households using housing vouchers.

There’s been an even greater influx of subsidized-housing residents over the past 15 years in bigger suburbs in southern Cook County.

Calumet City had 3,150 subsidized-housing residents in 2015 — the highest number outside Chicago in Cook County and a 20 percent increase since the CHA high-rises started coming down. They make up about 8 percent of the suburb’s population. Once predominantly white, Calumet City now has the state’s fourth-highest black population.

Lansing, which has about 28,500 residents, saw its subsidized-housing population double, to 1,032, between 2000 and 2015.

Calumet City sign

Calumet City had 3,150 subsidized-housing residents in 2015 — the highest number outside Chicago in Cook County and a 20 percent increase since the CHA high-rises started coming down. BGA file photo.

The same has happened in Dolton, where one in 10 residents last year lived in homes or apartments rented with vouchers.

Park Forest gained 515 subsidized households between 2000 and 2015 — the second-biggest increase in subsidized units of any suburb in the six-county area.

Not all south suburbs have seen increases. Some that have been home to African Americans for decades — including Harvey, Ford Heights, Phoenix and Robbins — saw decreases in subsidized-housing households.

Harvey saw a decline of 574 subsidized households between 2000 and 2015 — the biggest drop in the six-county area — though it still had 1,896 residents on taxpayer-funded housing assistance last year. The financially depressed suburb’s population also has fallen, to 25,225 — down 16 percent since 2000.

Chicago Heights, population 30,410, saw a decline of 418 subsidized-housing households between 2000 and 2015. But it still had 2,495 people living in: three public-housing developments operated by the Housing Authority of Cook County; homes rented with housing choice vouchers; and privately owned apartment complexes with HUD project-based vouchers.

The dramatic growth in the number of poor people in the south suburbs is “an enormous problem and something we’ve been dealing with for 30 years,” says Edward Paesel, executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association. “The demolition of the CHA high-rises exacerbated the problems.

“We were telling anybody that would listen that this was a disaster waiting to happen,” Paesel says. “The initial proposal was there would be replacement housing [in Chicago]. But that didn’t happen. Those residents had to move, and they chose the south suburbs.

“The increase of subsidized residents happened with the decline of jobs. We’re having families move in to areas where there are few jobs . . . and a lack of social service agencies that can provide for the needs of the families.”

He says township governments have stepped up to provide those services.

Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli, for example, operates a food pantry in Harvey, while another township program provides financial assistance to people who don’t qualify for state or federal welfare programs but still need shelter, utilities or medical assistance.

Dramatic rise in DuPage County

The growth of subsidized housing in other communities, while not as dramatic as in southern Cook County, is also evident in other parts of the region. Of 245 suburbs in the six-county metro area, 193 — nearly four of five — have seen a rise in the number of subsidized-housing households.

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Several communities that reported having no subsidized households 15 years ago now have dozens of them, among them Darien, Inverness and South Elgin.

The most dramatic increase has come in DuPage County, where the number of subsidized households has doubled, to about 5,700, even as the county’s population has held relatively steady.

Naperville and Carol Stream each gained more than 500 households receiving housing aid. They’re among six DuPage County communities — Downers Grove, Glendale Heights, Wheaton and Westmont are the others — with more than 300 subsidized-housing units.

Those communities all have large numbers of apartments that voucher-holders can rent, says Kenneth E. Coles, executive director of the DuPage Housing Authority, which oversees nearly two-thirds of the county’s subsidized households.

The county also has seen increases in Section 8 project-based voucher apartments that HUD — not the housing authority — oversees. The housing authority itself has gained about 250 housing choice voucher households by more fully allotting the money it gets from HUD. 

“For so many years, DuPage was really under-utilizing the number of vouchers they had available,” Coles says. “We’ve had growth over the last couple of years, building up to what our limit should be. It’s going to even off.”

Lake County had the second-highest number of subsidized units in the region — more than 7,300, many of them concentrated in Waukegan, Zion and other communities in the county’s northeast corner.

They include Park City, a community of 7,551 near Waukegan and Gurnee. Fifteen years ago, it had only about 50 subsidized-housing residents. It now has seven times that: 350 people.

Veronica Johnson is one of them. She grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes, Henry Horner Homes and Altgeld Gardens and, until four years ago, lived in market-rate housing in Englewood.

Johnson, 47, got a voucher from the CHA and was offered a chance to “port” it to Park City under a regional housing program. When she first moved there, she says she “was crying for a whole month and wanted to go back.

“But, now, nuh-uh,” says the mother of eight, who has a four-bedroom, two-bath apartment in the Colonial Park Apartments, a sprawling complex sandwiched between the Park City police station and a senior housing development. “There ain’t no shooting out here. Nobody’s getting raped or robbed. I sleep with my windows open at night.

“In Chicago, I couldn’t do that.” 

Colonial Park

The Colonial Park Apartments in Park City, near Waukegan, have become a destination for low-income people who once lived in Chicago. More than 84,000 people are now living in the suburbs using vouchers or other forms of public-housing assistance. | Photo by Chris Fusco / Sun-Times

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.

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