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Residents At Risk

A Profile of Ida B. Wells and Madden Park

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Document date: August 07, 2003
Released online: August 07, 2003

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


Many people made significant contributions to the research design, data collection and data analysis required to complete this report. We would like to thank Isabel Farrar of the University of Illinois-Chicago's Survey Research Laboratory for managing the data collection and field staff. Special thanks also to Sandra Young. Her direction and support were invaluable assets throughout the making of this report. Furthermore, we would like to thank her for making Ujima's facility available to us for meetings, trainings and interviews. We would also like to thank the Ujima staff for their assistance and flexibility. Leroy Square and Eunice Crosby provided further insight for the report's research design. Thank you to Sudhir Vankatesh for acting as an advisor throughout the project.

Our interviewers must be thanked for their outstanding fieldwork. Surveying the entire development was at times a complex and daunting task that required a strong commitment on their part. Specifically, we would like to thank, our field manager, Chris Devins, who did an excellent job securing and managing quality data, and managing interviewers. Thank you to Michael Ibrahem for recruiting residents for our in-depth interviews.

Thanks to staff at the Urban Institute who brought it together. We wish to thank Marge Turner for her thoughtful feedback on the draft report and for her guidance throughout the report's creation. Melissa Schick provided related literature reviews and efficiently coordinated interviews. Kadija Ferryman provided further data analysis and important vital graphs for the report. Diane Hendricks did a terrific job preparing and formatting the final document.

Finally, we wish to thank the residents of Ida B. Wells for sharing their stories and placing their confidence in us.


A profound change is sweeping through the Ida B. Wells community. Once one of the Chicago Housing Authority's (CHA) largest properties, with 3,200 units in four adjacent developments, Wells is being demolished to make way for a new, mixed-income community. As the old buildings come down, it remains unclear whether the remaining residents will fit into this new community. A real concern for policymakers and administrators is that the residents who were easy to relocate have already moved, while many of those who remain may be at risk of losing their housing. However, other than anecdotal evidence, little information is available to help CHA administrators assess the true number of residents who may need special housing options or are at risk of losing their housing assistance. The purpose of this study is to help inform the city, the CHA, community groups, and private agencies involved in planning and implementing relocation plans for Wells and CHA's other public housing developments by systematically documenting the characteristics and needs of remaining Wells residents.

Meeting the challenge of housing these residents—families with special needs, lease violators, illegal residents, and the truly homeless—will require a coordinated response on the part of the housing authority, city agencies, private service providers, and the philanthropic community in Chicago. Only such a focused effort can meet the urgent need to both develop creative options for families with special housing needs and dramatically increase the supply of supportive and transitional housing, substance abuse programs, single-room occupancy hotels (SROs), and shelters in the city of Chicago. Currently, the housing market and the emergency shelter system are ill equipped to handle the needs of these at-risk residents. If the problems are ignored, the city risks enormous increases in the homeless population as Wells and other CHA developments are demolished.

Study Methods

This report draws on information collected between October 2002 and May 2003, using three methods: a survey of the full population at Wells (resident census), a count and survey of all squatters living in vacant units at Wells, and in-depth interviews with both legal residents and squatters. These data provide both hard numbers about Wells residents and their characteristics and personal stories of the challenges they face.

Study Findings:

A high percentage of residents have special housing needs. We interviewed 569 households remaining in Wells. Our census shows that in these households there are 1,587 individuals. Many of the residents who remain need enhanced housing solutions. About 40 percent of Wells households report someone in the household with a disability and nearly 45 percent are large families—34 percent need four-bedroom units. Finally, 16 percent are elderly (older than 65), and our census indicates that 42 households are custodial grandparents.

Pearl took custody of her three grandchildren after her daughter's drug abuse problem grew out of control. She is nearly 80 and is having trouble taking care of her grandchildren, but they have no where else to go. Annie is a grandmother with no good choices (p.3).

Loretta has lived in Wells for most of her life. Ten years ago, her daughter died, leaving her to raise her eight-year old grandson. She also shares custody of two-year old Anthony, who was born prematurely and has special medical needs. Loretta has tried to put Anthony on the lease, but the housing authority has refused (p.12).

Recommendation: Construct senior buildings and supportive housing units for families with special needs and large households. Expand resources in the Housing Choice Voucher program to identify landlords with units that are both large and accessible. Options such as providing bonus payments to landlords with large and/or accessible units should also be considered. HOPE VI developers also should be required to include a substantial number of large units among the subsidized units in the new mixed-income developments.

Lease compliance issues are widespread. Common problems included unpaid rent (21 percent), unpaid electric bills (14 percent), household members with criminal records (15 percent), household members not listed on the lease (10 percent), and households not having a lease (9 percent). Altogether, approximately 22 percent (127 households) reported at least one lease violation. Five percent reported two lease violations, and 14 percent reported three or more.

Linda's apartment was never intended to house a family of six, but five years ago, her daughter-in-law and three grandchildren moved in when they had nowhere else to go. Linda is afraid to add them to the lease because she owes back rent payments (p. 14).

Irene is a frail senior citizen. Her son Harold recently moved in to help take care of her. Harold used to be on the lease when he was younger, but now that he has a criminal record he cannot be added to the lease (p.10).

Recommendation: Grant current residents who are otherwise lease compliant amnesty to add all current household members to their lease and amnesty for all back rent and/or utility payments. These types of amnesty programs have been implemented by housing authorities in other cities as part of their relocation plans. The CHA should review adding ex-offenders to the lease on an ad hoc basis.

Squatting—that is, people who are living in vacant units or hallways illegally—is a significant problem in Wells. During a period of two weeks in early spring 2003, our interviewers counted 388 squatters (294 adults and 94 children) living in Wells. Most (90 percent) consider themselves homeless. Our survey indicates that in Wells, there are 37 squatters who are living in vacant units with their children, 52 of whom are under age seven. Unlike many homeless people who tend to move around from night to night, squatters at Wells have lived in the development for a long time. More than a quarter (28 percent) have lived in Wells for more than a year, and more than half (57 percent) of the squatters we interviewed sleep in Wells seven nights a week. Squatters have strong connections to Wells—more than half (67 percent) have lived in a CHA building as legal residents. When we asked what they will do when Wells is demolished, about a third (32 percent) reported they "didn't know," and 28 percent said that they planned to move to another CHA building. Squatters living in Wells are in desperate need of transitional programs and other services. Most (82 percent) said they would accept a referral to a drug or alcohol rehabilitation center. About 4 percent of those we interviewed said they were returning to the community from prison.

Mary recently turned 41, and she has so much to be proud of. She has a college degree and is the mother of three children. Mary even has a home where her children and sister live. Then Mary became addicted to heroin. She has lived in a vacant unit at Wells for the past eight months (p.27).

Vanessa has been to prison twice, both times for drug related offenses. Each time she was released, a vacant unit at Wells was the only place she knew to return to (p.24).

Joseph is a Vietnam vet, a father of two, has been married and divorced three times, and has spent time in prison. He is a drug addict who says that he has been squatting for so long that he's not worried about the buildings coming down; he just lives day by day (p.25).

Dionne is a working-class woman who has never been a drug addict. She has no "street network" to provide support or information. Her family lived in Wells when she was growing up. When she got into trouble, it was the only place she knew to come. When she and her children cannot find a vacant unit, they sleep in the park (p.17).

Recommendation: These squatters need shelter, certainly, but also access to effective drug treatment, transitional housing, programs for ex-offenders, and decent SROs that will provide safe, stable environments that can help them avoid slipping back into addiction. The CHA and the city should set aside some of the millions of dollars slated for mixed-income developments to create a significant number of transitional units so that as the buildings come down, there will be a compassionate and effective plan for the squatters who, over the years, have become CHA residents.

The story this study tells is one of immense human suffering—hundreds of official CHA residents in difficult situations that place them at risk of either being unable to find new housing or losing their right to replacement housing altogether, and an equal number of squatters in dire straits relying on Wells as a shelter of last resort. Currently, the housing market and the emergency shelter system are ill equipped to handle the needs of these at-risk residents. If the problems are ignored, the city risks enormous increases in the homeless population as Wells and CHA's other developments are demolished.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Topics/Tags: | Cities and Neighborhoods | Housing

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