Cabrini-Green: A History of Broken Promises
The residents of Cabrini-Green had reason to be skeptical.
For years, their calls for help had gone largely unheeded. The conditions in their publicly subsidized high-rise apartments had only grown worse over time, and they had the political misfortune to be Black and living in one of the most segregated cities in the nation.
So when former Mayor Richard M. Daley — under increasing pressure to stop the national headlines portraying their community as the model for the failures of public housing — sent prominent Black politicians and city officials to their community to front his billion-dollar transformation plan, residents turned out by the hundreds.
They gathered on a winter morning in 1997 inside a high school auditorium. Many brought their children. At the time, Cabrini-Green had been neglected for years by their landlord — the Chicago Housing Authority. Once a sparkling beacon of hope for poor families, it had been allowed to deteriorate into a complex riddled with boarded up units, broken elevators and a litany of unmet maintenance needs.
Now, Daley and his lieutenants promised an altogether new direction for the prime real estate on the city’s Near North Side: Tear it down and start over.
The promises reverberated over the public address system into an arena filled with doubters: Everyone who wanted to return to the rejuvenated area could do so; they would get their fair share of the billion-dollar economic pie; hundreds of coveted construction jobs would be theirs.
Fast-forward nearly a quarter century and the dilapidated high-rises are gone, replaced with a well groomed, freshly landscaped new neighborhood that includes an Apple store, a swanky river walk lined with boats and more than 3,500 mixed-income apartments — most of which the original Cabrini-Green tenants could never afford.
The total price tag to taxpayers has now more than doubled to $2 billion on a plan — more than a decade behind schedule — that has transformed a Black neighborhood to a predominantly white one. By the time it’s done, taxpayers will have spent more than a half-million dollars for each of the more than 3,500 Cabrini-Green families the city kicked out.
A yearlong Better Government Association examination of public records and dozens of interviews reveals decades of broken promises, unmet deadlines and a long record of neglect continuing even today.
Of the 2,500 construction jobs Daley promised to Cabrini-Green residents, the BGA found only 40 who actually got one. Of the nearly 4,000 homes already built or underway, only 48 are being built by a construction company owned by a former Cabrini-Green resident — the only Black-owned builder on the project, the BGA found.
And of the thousands of families who were promised they could return, more than 80% never did — some were disqualified, relocated or simply overwhelmed with bureaucracy. Many died waiting. Even today, 85 families who used to live in Cabrini-Green are still on decades-old waiting lists to move back.
City officials and the CHA ignored residents’ demands, repeatedly reneged on promises, and tossed up so many barriers for many that their return became nearly impossible. Black-owned businesses that sprung up in the wake of the city’s promises struggled to survive with only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions that went to mostly white developers — many with the kind of political connections well known to hold sway at City Hall, the BGA found.
The CHA worked to arrange public subsidies for those connected developers. It bailed them out when they couldn’t meet their debt obligations, extended missed deadlines, and defended daunting requirements for public housing residents to return, even after residents argued in court those requirements were humiliating.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who inherited the decades-old rejuvenation, and her public housing chief, Tracey Scott, declined to be interviewed for this report. But through a spokeswoman, Scott said the redevelopment has “created economic growth and opportunities that have benefited all residents, including families living in subsidized housing,” and the BGA’s questions regarding the city’s broken promises related to “decisions that were made many years ago.”
Speaking at a July ribbon cutting for the latest apartment building at the Cabrini-Green site, Lightfoot acknowledged the city has more work to do.
“Since the first wrecking ball slammed into Cabrini-Green homes and towers two decades ago, a lot has changed,” Lightfoot said. “But in some ways, some things have remained the same. Former Cabrini-Green residents are still grappling with the trauma of losing their homes and being forced to relocate elsewhere, in some instances, with very little time to do so.”
“These broken promises have been a real tragedy,” said Elizabeth Rosenthal, an attorney who represented Cabrini-Green residents until leaving Chicago in 2017. “There was a lack of respect, a lack of recognition of the communities that existed.”
The raucous roll out
For the hundreds of activists and residents who turned up at the neighborhood high school that cold morning Feb. 22, 1997, to hear Daley’s pitch, Cabrini-Green was not the community portrayed in the headlines. To them, it was home.
To them, it was a place where help with child care was just a door knock away, where summer cookouts were as common as pickup basketball games and where lifelong friendships were forged.
That’s why they sued, arguing they had been locked out of the Daley administration’s decision-making process and accusing the city of yet another in a long history of discriminating insults.
In a video of the 1997 meeting, Jesse White, then the Cook County recorder of deeds, and Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th, stood alongside city officials helping Daley sell his plan. Soon, dozens of people in the audience grew frustrated and began walking out.
Others raised their voices, and some were even arrested after a skirmish.
“If you all leave this meeting this morning, you’re stupid,” Burnett was quoted telling the crowd in newspaper accounts.
Both Burnett and White, now the Illinois secretary of state, declined to be interviewed for this report.
A longtime neighborhood leader rose toward the end of the meeting to sum up the crowd’s feelings:
“You all put the cart before the horse,” said John Stevens, who fought alongside residents until his death a year later. “You should have come to this community to find out what we want –– not bring something from the mayor’s office on what you all want.”
Carol Steele, a longtime Cabrini resident and advocate — and today one of the last elders trying to hold the CHA and the city accountable for the promises made to residents — was there that Saturday morning and recalled marching in and telling Daley officials, “You didn’t include us in the plan.”
“They had to bring us to the table,” Steele told the BGA.
‘Daley’s Cabrini dream’
Cabrini’s redevelopment was one element of Daley’s plan to privatize Chicago’s public housing portfolio throughout the city by demolishing high-rise buildings, reducing units by one-third to 25,000, and offering vouchers to low-income residents to use for private-market apartments scattered mostly throughout Chicago.
The new public housing units replacing the high-rises were to be built or rehabbed in “mixed income” communities, meant to break up concentrations of poverty by integrating low-income families with middle-class and wealthier ones.
“This Near North development plan seeks to build a community where children have safe places to play and learn and where working families at every income level can pursue the American dream of owning a home,” Daley said at the 1996 news conference in which he announced what a headline by the Chicago Tribune dubbed “Daley’s Cabrini dream.”
Even though Cabrini-Green resident leaders didn’t make Daley’s guest list for the announcement, he said his plan “will be a community with access to good jobs and a clear path up the ladder of success.”
Cabrini-Green residents fought back in court, demanding access to the subsidized apartments built in the area and to the bonanza of contracts fueled by the redevelopment. That 1996 lawsuit remains active today and is the basis of settlement agreements that are still in force between the city and former residents.
Still, the influx of wealth, resources and jobs has done little to benefit those who once lived there, the BGA found. In 1970, Black residents made up more than 33% of the neighborhood’s population. Census figures in 2020 showed the Black population at less than 10%.
Many moved to other segregated neighborhoods in the city’s West and South sides, where residents have been disproportionately ticketed and policed, and where they disproportionately bear the brunt of gun violence and residential fires. They moved to communities in dire need of jobs because that’s where landlords who have made subsidized housing into a business take the rent vouchers the CHA issued in exchange for moving out of Cabrini-Green. The voucher program has done little to promote integration because landlords in Chicago’s predominantly white neighborhoods have been reluctant to accept them.
In October, Chicago’s city council swiftly approved a Lightfoot plan to spend an additional $600 million over the next 12 years to finally fulfill Daley’s redevelopment plan. Added to the $1.4 billion already allocated, the new money would bring the final tab to more than $2 billion. The plan is more than a decade behind schedule, including a shortfall of more than 500 public housing units.
The elusive ‘right to return’
One of the central promises used by the Daley administration to quell community activists and Cabrini residents was that their exile was only temporary.
“Let me be perfectly clear about this,” Daley said at the June 27, 1996, news conference in which he announced his Cabrini plan. “Every family that wants to stay in this community will stay in this community — regardless of their income.”
What Daley didn’t mention that day was the effort already underway to increase evictions and vacancies in the public housing high-rises throughout the city. That created a scenario in which anyone relocated before the wrecking crews arrived would not be eligible to hold the city to his promise.
Months later, Cabrini residents sued the Daley administration to stop the project until they were given a decision-making role and until the numerous promises could be hashed out formally. It took four years for the litigation to be settled by consent decree.
The agreement set up a process by which current and former Cabrini residents dating back to 1993 were awarded a “right to return” to the newly developed community. But the CHA’s process to identify the people eligible for these rights created a new phalanx of problems.
First, the agency was required to develop a list of those eligible, a process under fire from critics from the beginning for failing to keep track of qualified residents and the CHA’s inadequate efforts to find them.
Second, because many of the subsidized mixed-income units were owned privately, developers set rules for who was eligible to live there.
Of the 3,606 Cabrini apartments, the residents of only 2,832 were deemed eligible to return.
Of those, 348 families were evicted. Another 169 died waiting. And by the agency’s tally as of this year, the city has lost track of more than 400 families, even after hiring firms to find them and advertising in local newspapers.
‘She is right here!’
Charles Price, a longtime Cabrini advocate who managed several high-rises before they were torn down, said CHA leadership was so disorganized in trying to track potentially eligible residents they didn’t know when one qualified former resident was practically staring back at them. He recalled a meeting he attended several years ago, where he and CHA officials were discussing trying to track down former residents.
“We’re sitting in the meeting, in the working group, and they had a list and they said, ‘We can’t find these people. These are people from Cabrini that are missing,’’’ Price told the BGA.
As he scanned the list, Price said his eyes went wide when he saw the name of a fellow advocate on the list who was sitting a few feet away at the same meeting. “The second name on that list was Carol Steele. ... The second name on the list!” he said.
He remembered pointing to Steele and telling the city officials in attendance: “Here she is right here!”
Today, Price still shakes his head in disbelief when retelling the story, recalling how much money the CHA paid in its futile attempts to track down former residents.
“And they paid millions of dollars to different organizations to find these people,” he said. “How is it that they couldn’t find her?”
Waiting decades to come home
Even if tracking down former residents had gone well, questions remain about whether they’d have a place to live. Construction of new homes has taken so long that hundreds of residents have settled elsewhere.
CHA data shows roughly 19% of former Cabrini families, whom Daley promised could return, chose a rent subsidy elsewhere in the city. An additional 7% settled in other public housing communities. Another 5% settled in rehabbed Cabrini row houses.
And as of this year, less than 20% of former Cabrini families — 693 — had at some point returned to the neighborhood, but CHA officials said they do not track how many have since moved out.
Records show 85 families are still on the CHA’s lists waiting for an invitation to return.
Even some of the families who have returned decry what they say is a cumbersome bureaucracy that prompted many of their former neighbors to give up. To qualify, residents must pass a drug test, have a job or be enrolled in school, and pass a criminal background check.
“They hope you say, ‘Forget it, I don’t want the unit,’” said Chalonda McIntosh, who returned in 2008 with her six children. “It’s just a scare tactic.”
Like most renters in the city, McIntosh had background and income checks. But she also had to submit herself and her adult children to a drug test, a practice long criticized as humiliating and stigmatizing. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois unsuccessfully argued it is illegal.
After accepting all the CHA’s requirements, McIntosh said she waited months for her application to be approved and more months for a move-in date. Then she said she waited again for CHA movers, even though she had only 12 boxes to move.
‘I waited 28 years’
Angela Russell left Cabrini-Green in 1993 after being told by the CHA it was shutting down her building. Russell remembers being offered an opportunity to live in another public housing community, but she said she declined because she feared it wouldn’t be safe for her and her three children. Instead, she moved into a privately owned apartment in the Logan Square neighborhood where her parents helped with rent.
At Cabrini, Russell said she relied on a vast network of friends and family who could help her with child care or tell her about job opportunities or after-school activities for her children. Her parents lived in Cabrini, as did her grandparents –– a reflection of the city’s long history of forced segregation and the country’s lack of economic mobility.
Outside her community, it became impossible to work, raise a family and pay the rent. She spent years essentially homeless, living with relatives who would take her and her children in.
She eventually learned she was on a list of people who had lived in Cabrini and, thanks to the residents who had fought in court on her behalf, had a right to move back to the mixed-income neighborhood.
In 2009, Russell began calling the CHA, but she was told the agency couldn’t find any records she ever lived at Cabrini. For 10 years, she said, she tried to prove she had lived there and left on good terms by providing her birth date and the names of her children. But it was to no avail.
Finally, earlier this year, someone at the CHA searched her Social Security number, she said, and her married name popped up.
“We’ve been looking for you for 10 years,” she recalled being told.
Russell asked when she could move back. And to her surprise, the woman on the phone said they had an apartment ready for her.
“At first, I thought it was a joke,” Russell said.
It took a few months and all the required paperwork, a drug test and a $1,900 check to cover the first and last months of rent, but Russell and her family moved into a four-bedroom apartment last summer about a block away from the now-demolished building she had left.
“I waited 28 years,” she said.
In total, the city and the CHA have helped support the construction of 3,525 residences in the Near North Side, with another 457 being built or planned. Of those already built, more than half have been sold or rented at rising market rates. About 16% were considered “affordable” because they have income caps. Among those, was a city program to offer “affordable condos,” with annual income restrictions up to $90,500 for a family of four.
In recent years, the city has tightened income restrictions for affordable housing, limiting them to incomes less than $55,920 for a family of four. But Chicago is facing an affordable housing crisis, and the real need is in housing families with annual incomes at half that amount.
The rest of the units –– 1,096, or almost one-third –– are public housing units. Whether all those units count toward the CHA’s promises made to residents decades ago remains a point of contention.
In 2000, the CHA promised to build at least 700 units to replace a portion of the red-brick high-rises it demolished. At the time, the plan still included rehabbing some of the 23 Cabrini-Green towers. But the CHA kept razing buildings, getting rid of them all by 2011.
That year, residents also learned the CHA was reneging on its promise to keep Cabrini-Green’s nearly 600 row houses as public housing units. Instead, under a new plan, only a quarter of the rehabbed units would remain public housing. The rest would be mixed-income housing.
The residents again sued the city, and in 2015, they struck a new deal with the agency. They couldn’t save all the row houses but got the CHA to agree to increase the portion of public housing row houses from 146 to up to 240, court records show.
The agreement also more than doubled the minimum number of public housing units it would build or rehab in the Near North Side from 700 to 1,800. The deal gave the agency some flexibility and expanded the area where it could fulfill its new promise.
Construction and planning for those new units has stalled. In 2018, the agency began subsidizing the rehab of single-room occupancy buildings, called SROs, on the Near North Side, which are now included in the agency’s count toward the 1,800 goal, according to records released under a Freedom of Information Act request.
Advocates for the SRO buildings applaud the CHA for preserving those units but argue the tiny SRO studio apartments are designed for individuals, while Cabrini-Green apartments were large enough for families.
“We are in an affordable housing crisis in the city of Chicago,” said Jennifer Ritter, executive director of ONE Northside, which advocates for the preservation of SRO buildings. “This isn't a time to double count.”
Under the CHA’s official count of 1,096 public housing units available in the area, 391 are SROs. Without those smaller efficiency apartments, that number decreases to 705.
Attorneys for residents also argue the CHA should not be able to count rehabbed row houses toward their promised goals of new public housing units because the row houses were always set aside for public housing.
That would bring the number of public units built down to 559, well short of the promised goals set in 2000.
Follow the money
As residents still wait to return, many politically connected developers were paid millions to build mixed-income communities.
Over the last two decades, the city created special taxing districts to help pay for their projects, bailed them out during the housing crisis of 2008 when they couldn’t sell enough units to repay private loans, defended their tenant selection plans in court, and arranged complicated financing packages in which taxpayers accepted the risk if their projects failed.
Through an examination of public records, the BGA tallied the more than $1.4 billion in public incentives so far awarded to more than a dozen developers in the redevelopment area since the first contract was penned. The city recently approved spending another $600 million over the next 12 years.
Included in all those past and future incentives are nearly $900 million from special property tax districts, more than $510 million from CHA funds, more than $120 million in government-backed bonds, and nearly $515 million from an array of state and local subsidies such as tax credits, forgivable loans and Community Development Block Grants.
The tally does not include the value of below-market government land leases and sales or construction change orders that typically increase the amounts of government contracts.
As they worked with the CHA and city officials to win these incentives, Cabrini developers contributed more than $1.3 million to the campaigns of local politicians, including Daley and his mayoral successors, Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot.
Burnett, who grew up in Cabrini and who’s 27th Ward includes the Near North Side, received more than $48,000. Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, longtime chairman of the city council’s finance committee until his indictment on bribery charges in 2019, received at least $115,000.
One of the pioneer developers was Dan McLean, who built Daley’s former home in the South Loop. He began gobbling up land surrounding Cabrini before Daley announced his plan for the area, eventually becoming one of the largest landowners surrounding Cabrini.
That investment, he told the BGA, hinged on Cabrini’s redevelopment. So when the CHA sought proposals to redevelop only a small portion of Cabrini, McLean laid out an expensive plan to redevelop the entire neighborhood and proposed a special taxing district to help pay for it.
In 1996, when Daley first unveiled his vision to transform the neighborhood, the plan mirrored what McLean had proposed, along with his partner at the time, Allison Davis, among the city’s most influential Black developers.
“It accomplished what we wanted, which was to look at Cabrini-Green as a whole and the neighborhood as a whole,” McLean said.
McLean didn’t develop the Cabrini property but used the land he purchased nearby to build a shopping center and nearly 500 residences — reserving 20% for Cabrini-Green residents, CHA records show. The CHA proposed buying the reserved units from McLean outright but eventually paid him more than $12 million to lease them for 40 years and a 25% stake in case McLean decided to sell.
McLean’s political contributions totaled more than $124,000 since 1994. In an interview with the BGA, McLean said media scrutiny of his relationship to Daley unfairly cost him the chance to redevelop Cabrini-Green.
“The mayor didn’t get any deal or any favors from us,” McLean told the BGA in a recent interview, adding that his contributions had little to do with his construction business and that he didn’t feel pressured to make them.
“We felt that if they were doing a good job, they deserve support,” he said.
As McLean and other developers turned shuttered warehouses, manufacturing plants and empty buildings into a luxury neighborhood with retail stores, hip company headquarters and high-end condos, the city moved more slowly to develop the land where the 23 Cabrini towers once stood.
By 2011, the same year the last Cabrini tower came down, the CHA board swapped some of the newly vacant land with Target Corp., giving the retailer 3.6 acres of city land appraised at nearly $16 million. In exchange, the CHA got similarly valued land farther north to develop a mixed-income community, including 48 units for Cabrini-Green residents. That land is still undeveloped.
In fact, most of the land where the towers once stood remains vacant.
The lone — and yet unfinished — mixed-income community built on the land, Parkside of Old Town, belongs to affordable housing developer Peter Holsten. It was greenlighted by the city nearly 20 years ago and remains years behind schedule. The most recent target date for completing the project: 2023.
To redevelop the land, Holsten got more than $300 million in government subsidies through a complicated package of city, state and federal programs. Under a court order, he was required to share a portion of his developer fee with a resident-led group set up to act as a community liaison. Records show Holsten’s fee was projected at $9 million, and he’s paid more than $1 million through 2019 to the resident-led group.
Holsten defended the government subsidies as the only way for the city to drive the kinds of development it wanted.
“To the extent that the population has a desire to house the less fortunate, there will be a cost for that. It doesn’t come free,” Holsten told the BGA. “As a state, as a city, as a country, we have an obligation to help those that are less fortunate.”
The largest public subsidy Holsten received was the land, which the CHA leased to him for 99 years at a nominal fee. Holsten used the land as collateral for private loans, but the 2008 housing market crash unable to pay the debt on units he had not yet sold.
To save the project and retain control over the land, Holsten said the mayor’s office brokered a deal between the bank, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the CHA — a move that saved the unsold units from being sold at auction. Chase, whose mortgage lending practices contributed to the financial crisis, agreed to settle for $12.2 million, roughly half of what Holsten owed.
As the city and the CHA bailed out Holsten, the agency continued to demolish Cabrini-Green towers and issue rent vouchers to residents, sending them to a private housing market in crisis.
Throughout the development of Holsten’s Parkside of Old Town, he acknowledges the contracts he offered to low-income Chicagoans or public housing residents were only a fraction of the work.
At times, Holsten opted to pay into a CHA fund, rather than hire them. On at least one occasion, the agency granted him a waiver, allowing him to avoid requirements to hire residents or give them contracts. Consider Parkside’s most recent phase, where the city and the CHA lined up more than $75 million in public resources. CHA records show Holsten awarded $1.4 million –– or less than 2% of the total –– to three businesses owned by low-income Chicagoans, including one firm belonging to a former Cabrini resident Holsten hired to do security.
“It just got hard,” Holsten said. “I really want to do a better job on the next phase of Parkside.”
Since 1997, Holsten has contributed more than $445,000 to local and state politicians, making him the largest financial supporter of politicians among Cabrini-Green developers. Holsten said he’s developed a reputation for being a “softy” by candidates looking for his support.
“I’m working on a number of different wards, and I support the incumbents of all those wards,” Holsten said. “My golden rule to me is that I only do what makes business sense to me. And I only do what’s allowed.”
Holsten also said Daley’s plan to integrate public housing tenants with people in better financial condition has been a “mixed bag.”
He said early on when integration was still a novel idea, he had some success getting owners and public housing renters to work with each other. However, he said, in recent years, the old fears and stereotypes have resurfaced, and some residents are once again ostracizing his public housing tenants.
“Depending on where you live, you might be hassled by one of the owners,” he said.
Those experiences have been well documented and not only on the Near North Side.
Two leading researchers published a book in 2015, that found Black public housing and low-income residents in Chicago routinely experienced targeting and marginalization from their more affluent neighbors.
Robert Chaskin, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, and Mark Joseph, founding director of the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities, spent six years researching the book “Integrating the Inner City: The Promise and Perils of Mixed-Income Public Housing Transformation.”
Their interviews with mixed-income residents on the city’s West and South sides revealed how more affluent neighbors often exert power through informal monitoring and by making complaints to property management or police, which results in rules being more strictly enforced on low-income residents.
In their book, the researchers concluded the CHA’s move toward mixed-income communities “deployed precious public resources to provide only limited benefits to the vulnerable households displaced through the initiative.”
The city and the CHA show no signs of slowing the push for mixed-income communities.
This year, two long-delayed projects to build hundreds of new mixed-income units continued to inch forward. Aldermen approved a zoning change for a proposed seven-story building to be built on empty CHA land at Oak and Larrabee streets.
And earlier this year, the CHA razed the Near North Career Metro High School, the very same school where Cabrini-Green residents gathered more than two decades ago to hear empty promises. The multiphase redevelopment plan for the high school land includes a park and a 21-story high-rise, the first to be built in the area since the Cabrini towers were razed.
All this will be paid for with help from the $600 million in new tax dollars approved by the city council in October.
After all these years, and through the ebbs and flows of construction, Steele, the Cabrini resident advocate, remains committed to Cabrini residents and continues to fight for their right to return. She is hopeful that what’s left of her community can be preserved.
But at 70 years old, she said, the fights are getting harder for her.
Steele recently lost a battle with the CHA over the control of a nonprofit funded with a portion of development fees, after the agency accused her and others of mismanagement and misusing more than $180,000 of the more than $1 million in the organization’s bank accounts meant to help residents, according to court records.
Steele said she used some of the funds from the organization to keep her community alive by hosting summer cookouts and back-to-school events. She said her leadership role was unpaid, and the irony of the city’s allegations of mismanagement is not lost on her.
“They should have been watching their own shop,” she said.
WBEZ’s Natalie Moore, BGA reporter Kiannah Sepeda-Miller and BGA interns Siri Chilukuri and Natalie Eilbert contributed to this report. This story was a collaboration with CatchLight and the Institute for Nonprofit News as part of the CatchLight Local Visual Storytelling Initiative. All contemporary photographs by CatchLight Local Fellow Davon Clark.