No Simple Solutions: Transforming Public Housing, Changing Residents’ Lives
The following is an excerpt from Sue Popkin’s new book, No Simple Solutions: Transforming Public Housing in Chicago. No Simple Solutions tells the story of how an ambitious—and risky—social experiment affected the lives of the people it was ultimately intended to benefit: the residents who had suffered through the worst days of crime, decay, and rampant mismanagement of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), and now had to face losing the only home many of them had known.
For more than 40 years, Chicago’s enormous public housing high- rises dominated the city’s poorest African-American neighborhoods, bringing crime and drug trafficking and blighting the lives of the families that lived in them. But 15 years ago, the City of Chicago began a remarkable odyssey that would help the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) evolve from the most dysfunctional public landlord in America to the ordinary city bureaucracy it is today. The CHA’s Plan for Transformation called for demolishing all 11 of the agency’s notorious high- rise family developments and replacing them with new, state- of- the- art mixed- income communities, as well as rehabilitating thousands of units in senior buildings and smaller family properties.1 The Plan is still not complete, and the CHA and the City are still debating final decisions about the fate of the remaining public housing, so it is still too early to make a final assessment how successful it has been in achieving its ambitious goals. But there is no question that its transformation has changed the face of the city— and that it has profoundly changed the lives of the thousands of families that lived in these developments.
TRANSFORMING THE CHA
The effort to transform the CHA was big, messy, and, being a Chicago story, highly politicized. Then- Mayor Richard M. Daley played a central role, putting his considerable political muscle behind the Plan and ensuring that there was enough money to proceed.2 The CHA’s Central Advisory Council (CAC), its agency- wide resident organization, also played a key role, negotiating a formal Relocation Rights Contract— and then litigating to enforce it. Other core players included the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Chicago- based MacArthur Foundation, lawyers, social service agencies, and a host of advocates, journalists, and researchers— including me.
Others have written about the CHA’s transformation and have offered critiques of the effort, including its effects on affordable housing in Chicago and the limitations of the shift to mixed- income housing.3 But to me, the core of the CHA’s transformation is the story of what happened to the residents. Before the Plan for Transformation began, the CHA’s portfolio of aging, highcrime developments was the worst of public housing in the nation, and its residents lived in fear and squalor. During the 1980s and 1990s, reformers and local government officials tried repeatedly— and unsuccessfully— to fix the housing authority’s management problems, improve maintenance, and eliminate the drug trafficking and gang violence. Some of these attempts were essentially public relations efforts, like then- Mayor Jane Byrne’s temporary move into a Cabrini- Green high- rise, while others involved concerted— and costly— initiatives intended to “sweep out” crime and improve security.4 Still, conditions for CHA families steadily deteriorated until 1995, when the HUD finally took over the agency, setting the stage for the large- scale transformation.
The CHA’s Plan incorporated some of the lofty goals of federal HOPE VI program, which funded the transformation of public housing nationwide: it aimed to provide residents with an improved living environment and help them move from poverty toward self- sufficiency.5 Given Chicago’s history of combative politics, it is no surprise that different actors have strong opinions about whether the residents were treated fairly, if the Plan was merely another iteration of urban renewal, and how well the CHA actually met its obligations for relocation and resident services. The purpose of this book is to bring together evidence to this debate, drawn from primarily two rigorous Urban Institute studies that I have led over the past 15 years.
For nearly 30 years, I have been doing research that focuses on the lives of CHA’s residents and how they have experienced the many policy interventions and changes that have aimed to improve their lot. I began talking to CHA families when I was a 25- year- old graduate student and have been following the path of the CHA and its families ever since. In this book, I tell the story of what happened to families as a result of the Plan for Transformation through the lens of a long- time observer of the CHA and its travails. The research I draw on for this book followed the experiences of hundreds of CHA families as they lived through massive public housing transformation, from the earliest stages in 2001 through to 2013. These families came from two of CHA’s lesser- known communities— the Madden/ Wells complex and the Dearborn Homes— and some had originally lived in other, more notorious developments, including the Robert Taylor Homes. Many of these families have fared surprisingly well, but others are still struggling, and there are worrying signs that the transformation and relocation was particularly difficult for adolescents. And given that these are deeply poor families who endured years of trauma and stress in CHA’s urban war zones, even those who have fared the best are still dealing with enormous, complex challenges.
I start by introducing three families whose experiences illustrate the different paths CHA households followed as they experienced the massive upheaval that resulted from the Plan for Transformation. All were lifelong CHA residents, and all struggled in different ways with the challenges of relocating from their long- term homes and navigating new housing situations and communities. Michelle and her daughter followed the most positive path— although they stayed in Wells long after conditions there became almost intolerable, they ultimately ended up in an apartment Oakwood Shores, the mixed- income community that replaced it, both employed and both relatively content. Matthew and his grandchildren also stayed in Wells until the end, but their path was much bumpier. They tried to move to Oakwood Shores but could not meet the work requirement and ultimately ended up moving to a smaller CHA development, where they, too, were comfortable. Finally, Annette and her children moved out of CHA housing altogether, choosing to relocate with a Housing Choice Voucher that paid their rent for a privatemarket apartment.6 Annette already had serious problems before she left Wells— a history of drug addiction, violence, and rocky relationships— and she and her children struggled even more once they left public housing.
The CHA’s Plan for Transformation not just supposed to replace its dilapidated housing but also help the very poor families that lived in its developments move towards self- sufficiency and, ultimately, a better life. But by design, the Plan brought more problems— involuntary relocation— to families already struggling to cope with unstable situations— financial stress, shortterm jobs, health problems, family members in and out of the criminal justice system, and domestic violence.7 Together these three stories highlight the potential and limitations of a using a housing- only solution to the many challenges facing vulnerable low- income families and the need for wrap- around supports to protect children and help parents improve their circumstances— themes I will return to throughout this book.
MICHELLE AND TONYA— MAKING A LIFE IN MIXED- INCOME HOUSING
Michelle is one of the residents who have fared relatively well. It is arguable whether her life has been truly “transformed,” but she is living in a new mixed- income development and is steadily employed. A long- time resident of the Ida B. Wells Homes, she started from a better position than many of her peers. Although she was a single mother of four children and grew up in CHA housing, she graduated from high school and attended college. She and her children were generally healthy and strong. And unlike many of her neighbors, she never fully disconnected from the labor market, but rather cycled in and out of low- wage jobs. With her relative advantages, she was able to successfully navigate the years of disruption, steadily deteriorating conditions, and repeated relocation, and land in an apartment in Oakwood Shores, the new, attractive development that replaced Wells. She and her family moved into their new home in 2006 and have been living there ever since. Her children are now adults; her youngest daughter has a child of her own and continues to push to finish college and launch a career.
Photo 1.1 One of the last buildings in Cabrini-Green, construction of new mixed-income development in foreground. Source: Photo by Kyle Higgins.
Michelle’s family moved into Wells when she was five years old, and she never left— a common scenario for the residents living in CHA’s housing when the Plan for Transformation began in 1999. Wells was part of a large complex comprising approximately 3,000 units in three separate developments. Wells itself had three distinct sections: the row houses were one of the CHA’s oldest communities, opened in the 1940s; the Wells homes were a series of three- story apartment buildings; and the Wells extensions were eight- story high- rises constructed in the 1970s. On the same “superblock,” cut off from the regular street grid, was the vacant land where the Darrow Homes, four 15- story high- rises, stood until 1996. The CHA demolished Darrow after one of the most horrifying crimes to ever occur in its properties: in 1994, two boys who were only 10 and 11 themselves, threw fiveyear- old Eric Morse out of a vacant unit on a top floor allegedly because he refused to steal candy for them. Finally, the Madden Homes, a smaller complex built in the 1970s, sat across Cottage Grove Avenue. Although many families had members living in both Wells and Madden Park, the two developments were locked in a longstanding gang rivalry, which meant frequent, violent conflicts.
As of this writing, all three of the original developments are gone and are gradually being replaced with attractive apartment buildings and townhomes. The new community, Oakwood Shores, houses a mix of public housing, low- income, and market- rate tenants and is managed by a private developer. A new health clinic opened across the street in 2013, and there is a lot of other new developments in the community, including two other CHA mixed- income sites. There are still problems with crime and drug trafficking in nearby parks, and the community still lacks a grocery store, but overall, Oakwood Shores is a much more peaceful and comfortable place than the huge public housing complex it replaced.
We first interviewed Michelle in 2001 at the very beginning of the Wells redevelopment. She told us: “ I really don’t like it here but I don’t have no choice.” Michelle told us she had lived in the projects since she was five and had attended two of the local schools. She went to college on a track scholarship, and when we met her, she was focusing on getting training so she could return to the workforce.
I grew up over here that’s why I know a lot of peoples, a lot of people respect me and respect my kids too ’cause my kids respect them.
Michelle’s feelings about Wells were typical of many of the long- term CHA residents I had gotten to know over the years— she did not like the violence or the drug dealing, she was often afraid for herself and her children, but despite all the problems, it was her home and she was equally fearful about losing it. In 2001, she had been living in the same dilapidated apartment for 14 years; it needed paint and major repairs, conditions that had only deteriorated over time. She was raising four children: three sons, ranging in age from 14 to 18 and a 10- year- old daughter, Tonya. The family had relatives and friends in the development, and Michelle told us that the resident council president was good about getting programs and resources for the community, as well as helping residents get jobs. Still, the chronic violence resulting from the unpredictable and vicious gang war between Wells and Madden meant that Michelle was living in a state of constant anxiety. She spoke of other children who had been shot and of her fears that her own children could be caught in the cross- fire.
I had a girlfriend lost her daughter in a drive- by shooting and she wasn’t 12 or 13 years old.
Q: When was this?
A: About three or four years ago. Like my neighbor friend around here, her son got shot. It hurts these kids to know somebody that is killed by gang- related. That’s why late at night, I have her (my daughter) with me.
Her daughter, Tonya also talked about the impact of the constant shooting and fighting.
Q: Are there times that you don’t feel safe in the neighborhood?
A: Yeah … When they start shootin’ and then when all of them start yelling, turn around, I’m going to get my family and stuff.
Wells and Madden had numerous open- air drug markets, and the police were a constant presence; but Michelle said residents still did not feel safe. The police often did not come when residents called; Michelle said she had had trouble reaching them when she had a “domestic violence issue.” The family felt safe in Wells only as long as they stayed in their home.
If [the children] go outside, they have to be inside before it gets too dark ’cause who know when they may start shooting.
Michelle said her kids tried to stay out of the fighting, mostly staying inside and playing on the computer. But she said she worried about her boys every day. Although she knew the other families in her building, she said they tended to keep to themselves.
We don’t share too much ’cause they wear their welcome out.
When we met her in 2001, Michelle and her fellow residents fully expected that the CHA would be relocating them within the next year, and she hoped to eventually move into Oakwood Shores. However, there were problems with the CHA’s original development team, and putting together a new one created lengthy delays.8 CHA’s own struggles in implementing relocation and supportive services compounded the delays, leaving residents uncertain about their relocation options.9 As the redevelopment slowly moved forward in 2002, the CHA began closing buildings, provided vouchers to help some families to relocate to new apartments, and moved the remaining tenants into buildings where the plumbing and heating still worked.
Michelle and her family were among those who stayed behind as Wells gradually emptied out. When we met with them in 2003 and again in 2005, Michelle and Tonya described a community where things were a little quieter— fewer tenants meant fewer conflicts— but still overrun with drug dealers and gangs and still very dangerous. Tonya was managing to do well in school, but her older brothers were struggling and running into problems with police. In 2005, Michelle increasingly feared for her children’s safety:
Because you got— you got the gangs, then you got them fighting over turf, and you got them, you know, out in the hallways, shooting and doing drugs, don’t respect the kids or nothing, and when you be trying to tell them, you know, just because it’s my kid, it’s your kid, too, you’ve got a kid, too, here somewhere.
She told us that her youngest son was really struggling. He had gotten caught up in the gang activity and was arrested for selling drugs. And while Tonya was managing to stay focused on school, Michelle worried constantly. When she heard gunshots, Michelle kept Tonya home and would not let her out of her sight. But while she was increasingly unhappy living in Wells, Michelle was also still very apprehensive about relocation. In 2005, she was still unsure about whether she wanted to move to Oakwood Shores and live near many of her former neighbors, or take the risk of moving out of the neighborhood with a voucher.
I’m glad that we’re getting the opportunity to be relocated. And after they rehab this, if we want to come back, we can come back, that’s what my— that’s what my section 8 is and my paperwork is on, when they rehab over here, I can come back.
Even though she thought Oakwood Shores was nice, she thought it might be better to move somewhere where her daughter would be around “some new faces.”
I just want a better environment for [my daughter], for her to get to know more people and more out of life than just thinking all about hanging in the ’hood.
In 2006, Michelle and Tonya moved to a new apartment in Oakwood Shores; by then, her sons were adults and did not come with them— or at least were not officially on the lease. When we interviewed them again in 2009, Michelle had been working steadily, and both said the best thing about their new home was no longer being afraid. As Michelle put it:
I don’t have the fear, you know, everybody shoots on the streets everywhere, but over there on King Drive [in Madden/ Wells], it was like just sitting on the porch fearing, going to the park fearing, just couldn’t walk to the store but they done had a shootout early that morning, so now you can’t go nowhere because you scared to go outside. They might start shooting around the time you go out putting garbage cans in the streets and all that. Over with. It’s love, love right here. I love this crib. Been here three years. It’s all good.
Tonya was less enthusiastic than her mother, citing problems with drug dealers and gangs who hung out in a nearby park. But she said that she generally felt much safer than in Wells and that her mother gave her much more freedom:
I feel safer now … because of the simple fact you have to think about it. In Wells, you didn’t have the [utility] bills, you didn’t have the locked doors, you had none of that. And no security walking around— it’s just you out there. … But over here, you’ve got so much. You’ve got the police, then you have your neighbors. Your neighbors look like, ‘Oh, I think she need help’, and then they’re calling the police. So it’s a lot.
The new apartment had some disadvantages, most notably a leaking ceiling that had had to be repaired several times and problems with the building security system. But it was still a vast improvement over the dark and dingy unit in the building they left behind.
Living in Oakwood Shores meant that both Michelle and Tonya, now 18, had to be employed or involved in educational or training activities for at least 30 hours a week and pass an annual drug test. Michelle was working steadily for the school system, struggling with new expenses like utility bills, but managing to get by and meet the requirements of living in Oakwood Shores. Tonya, 18, had graduated from high school and had a job and had been admitted to a four- year college near St. Louis, but had had to put off attending because the financial aid fell through. She planned on attending the following year and seemed to be very much on track for success.
We saw Michelle and Tonya for the last time in 2011, 10 years after we first interviewed them in Wells. While they were continuing to get by— and in fact were more successful than most of their peers— their situation did not appear as rosy as it had in 2009. Tonya had had a baby in 2010 and had had to put her ambitions for college and career on hold. As Michelle put it:
But she was going, you know, she graduated from high school, she was going to college, and then she ended up having a baby. So things happen, you know, you just can’t let it keep you down. So, you know, she’s still trying to do [herself].
Tonya had a part- time job at the park district and still hoped to become a fashion designer. She prided herself on staying out of the gangs and drugs that had ensnared her brothers:
No, it’s like I try not to involve myself with that, so I’m not going to hang with someone that does that. And if I did have a friend that did that, I would try my best to like help them out to the fullest, and just, I’d tell them like that’s not the way to go, so.
But, like her brothers, her son’s father had gotten into trouble with drugs and violence. She said he had straightened out and was still involved in his son’s life.
Photo 1.2 Oakwood Shores, the mixed-income development on the Wells site where Michelle and Tonya moved. Source: Photo by Megan Gallagher.
Overall, Michelle still thought she was far better off in Oakwood Shores. The safer environment and new building meant she was less anxious and more comfortable. But more than that, she believed that moving into a new apartment and having to take more responsibility for her expenses had changed her in important ways:
It’s much better than what it was, because when I was on King Drive, it was like if I wanted to work, I could. If I didn’t, I didn’t have to. Because I wasn’t paying rent. It was just like living free, and it was just like all I did all day long was hung out. Hung out in the streets and stuff, you know, doing nothing, you know, come home, hang out and playing cards all night, probably drinking some beers and stuff. Come home, go to sleep, wake up, you know, same thing over and over. I was doing same thing over and over. I wasn’t achieving nothing.
MATTHEW AND HIS GRANDCHILDREN— GETTING BY IN TRUMBULL PARK
Like Michelle, Matthew and his granddaughter Amara were long- term Wells residents with deep roots in the community. Matthew’s goal was to move into Oakwood Shores, so he could stay in the neighborhood where he had been born and raised and where he felt truly at home. But their family life was even more complicated than Michelle’s— Matthew was in his late 50s and worked only intermittently at low- wage janitorial and construction jobs. Amara and two of his other grandchildren lived with him because their mother was a drug addict living on the streets. Although they are satisfied with Trumbull Park, the public housing development where they ultimately landed, Amara is struggling much more than Michelle’s daughter. Like Tonya, she had a baby right after she graduated from high school, but she has not been motivated to try to return to school or find a job, and her future path seems less clear.
Matthew’s family was among the last to leave Wells. When we first interviewed him in 2005, he was living in the same apartment he had lived in for nearly 40 years, caring for 16- year- old Amara, her older sister, and their infant brother. The building was nearly vacant, and Matthew described feeling responsible for keeping the drug dealers out of his building to protect his grandchildren and other residents.
I keep them out of the building here. I don’t have them around the building— at least, I talk to them and tell them, don’t be doing drugs in this building. I got kids going to school, people going in and out. I got a senior citizen in this building, so I usually take care at this point. You have to stand up to them … then you stand up to the ones that’s controlling them, not the ones that’s out there working for them. You know, you let them know how you feel about it, because if you don’t, they’ll run over you.
Photo 1.3 Wells Homes. Residents were still living in these buildings. Source: Photo by Megan Gallagher
Matthew hoped to get a job as a janitor or as part of a construction crew for the new development. He wanted to make sure that his grandchildren were settled and comfortable after they left his long- time home. As an older African-American man, he worried that he was not going to be around much longer.
I feel like I’m 58 years old, so you know, the average black man don’t live until he get to be— he stay here until he’s about 70, something like that. I don’t drink or smoke, so that might be in my favor, don’t get high, so I might live a little longer than that, you know, I’m just making sure they be comfortable, because I feel like their momma is not going to do it, even though she’s around, she’s not— she’s not doing too right for herself and I’m the only one can do right for them.
Amara felt very close to her grandfather and was grateful for his support and care. When we met her in 2005, she said she was doing well in school and was very open about the many challenges in her life. Her mother was a drug addict, still hanging around the Wells community. Her mother had six children besides Amara, the two who were living with Matthew, two more who were living with an aunt and two who had ended up in foster care. Amara’s father’s situation was even more complicated; he had 18 children by a number of different women. Amara said she saw him often, but their relationship was not good.
Unlike Tonya, Amara had not escaped the gangs and violence around her. She described being a member of a crew, being suspended from school, being involved in fights, and being arrested. Worst of all, Amara had witnessed her father being shot 12 times during a fight in Wells; he survived, but ended up in a wheelchair:
When he got shot, I was close to him, that’s why I think … that’s what made him not want to come around me for a long time, because he thought like he almost had me killed, I guess, because I was just leaving him. … I was walking home from him. …The person came up out of nowhere, got to shooting him. Him being who he is, he running toward the person. … I ran behind the tree. I didn’t know it was him. My momma grabbed me. Wouldn’t nobody tell me what it was, but I’m crying because I’m scared, though.
Amara described herself as a typical teenager who liked school, but preferred shopping for clothes, hanging out with her friends and going to basketball games, pep rallies and all the school events. But her attitude about life reflected the chronic violence all around her; in addition to seeing her father get shot, she had recently lost one of her friends:
You never know when life going to end, so you might as well have fun while you can.
Her attitude about life in Wells was equally fatalistic:
Sometimes I wish drugs weren’t on the street, because my momma do drugs, but I look at my momma sometimes and be like, you do what you do for a reason, you do what you do because you want to, people sell drugs because they want to make their money. Honestly, people not selling drugs to harm people.
Matthew did manage to qualify for a new apartment in Oakwood Shores when the development opened, but after a year he lost his job and was unable to handle the rent and utility payments. Instead of simply evicting the family, the CHA relocated them to Trumbull Park, one of their smaller traditional public housing developments rehabilitated as part of the Plan for Transformation. When we interviewed them again in 2009, Matthew had custody of three more of his grandchildren and Amara had a baby of her own. But the family was doing relatively well, and both Matthew and Amara felt life in Trumbull Park was better than it had been in Wells. Matthew said:
It’s just that I know I’m safe. There’s nothing happened to make me safe. It’s just the, the way the area is and what it look like and, and you got, you don’t have kids and people roaming the street all night long. You don’t have kids standing out smoking reefer or up under your window and stuff like that. It’s quiet.
I go to the store and don’t worry about anything. Or walk around this neighborhood and don’t worry about nothing.
Amara agreed that the new development was much safer:
Even in the little violence that has happened over here, it hasn’t been much, and I can honestly say if they have been shooting over here, I’ve been in my house and I ain’t heard it.
But although she liked Trumbull Park, Amara’s life had only gotten more complicated and her prospects much less clear than when she was 16. She attended community college for a year, but dropped out when she got pregnant. Her relationship with her parents remained difficult— her mother was still a drug addict living on the streets, and she no longer had any relationship with her father. Her child’s father was around, but lived with his own mother.
We visited Matthew and Amara for the last time in 2011. They were still living in their new development, still thought the community was quiet and safe and a good place for raising children.
But the family was dealing with new challenges— Matthew had developed health problems, Amara was neither in school nor working, and her younger brother— just six— was already getting into serious fights with other kids in the development.
Matthew complained about having to manage his diabetes and arthritis while still having to care for his grandchildren. He told us that he worried a lot about his grandchildren and whether they would be able to take care of themselves. He was concerned that Amara seemed content to depend on him and her boyfriend for money instead of finding a job. Matthew loved his adult granddaughters, but hoped they would move out on their own. The two young children— his young grandson and Amara’s daughter— fought a lot, which Matthew found stressful. He was frustrated about being the financial support for his family, those who lived with him and those who did not:
I’m the money. That’s another thing. I’m the money because I don’t spend money. I saves money. That was my whole thing in life, was save money because I wasn’t born with no silver spoon. And I try not to spend as much money as I receive or whatever. I try to save it. And that’s another thing. They knows that I got a few dollars and they, Granddaddy, let me have this. I need, can I borrow this? A lot of times I be mad, but I wind up giving it to them. But you don’t get back what you give them. You know, they piece it back to you. They can’t give it back to you when you, like you gave it to them.
Still, Matthew, now 64 years old, was proud of how he had raised his grandchildren and to help them “do right in life,” referring to it as his “calling.” And Amara said she planned to go back to school when her son was old enough for Head Start. So, while the family was not exactly thriving, they were comfortably settled in their new community, satisfied with their situation, and getting by.
ANNETTE AND HER CHILDREN— UNSTABLE AND UNMOORED IN THE PRIVATE MARKET
Like Michelle and Matthew, Annette grew up in Wells, first living with her grandmother and then moving into her own apartment when she turned 18. Annette was a troubled child, frequently getting into fights and being arrested. She spoke of the many traumas she faced, including a mother who was an alcoholic and emotionally and physically abusive and her best friend’s death. Annette dropped out of school at 16, had her first baby at 18 and has been either unable or unmotivated to get her GED or finish any training programs. As she put it:
I mean, I ain’t regret none of the things that I ever did but, I ain’t regret having my kids (well) kind of, in a way, ’cause I wish I could’ve just stayed in school but when I had my first baby, I just dropped out.
Annette’s adult life has been equally difficult. A conflict with another woman in Wells resulted in her being shot four times, and her son’s good friend was murdered shortly before we met her in 2009. In 2009, she was 30 and was struggling to care for her three children, as well as two other girls she had taken in. She told us that she felt overwhelmed and that she was often depressed and even suicidal, though she refused to get help. She said she drank and smoked marijuana frequently, she described screaming at her children when she got angry, and she frequently thought about taking revenge on the woman who shot her. Her boyfriend, the father of her three children, was a drug dealer and abusive; she said she was trying to separate from him.
Annette’s son, Robert, was 12 when we met him, and equally troubled. He told us that he had behavior problems in school and feared being hurt or killed in his neighborhood. Although Robert said he was happy to leave Wells, he felt isolated and vulnerable in the new neighborhood, far removed from familiar social networks and friends:
I can’t really go outside, have fun ’cause sometimes, I got to stay in the house and every, over there [in Wells], I used to go outside. And over here, I can’t even go out the door. I don’t even know some people over here. And I don’t know if they can try to kill me or anything. I could turn my back and anything can happen. So I just try to stay in the house and be away from everything.
Annette had trouble making the transition from CHA housing to using a voucher to rent apartments in the private market and had already moved twice when we met her. In 2009, she and her five kids were living in a small house in the Englewood community. She had just lost her job because of a conflict with her supervisor and was behind on her utility payments. Because she did not have official custody of the two girls she had taken in, they were not on her lease and so she did not qualify for a larger apartment. She said her current apartment had serious maintenance problems, such as mildew and a basement that flooded regularly. And even though the CHA’s service providers had made sure she had enough beds and other essentials when she moved, when we met her, she had almost nothing left— just a card table, a few folding chairs and a bare mattress.
When we met them again in 2011, the family’s situation was even worse. They were still living in Englewood, but had moved out of their row house into an apartment in a three- flat. Annette said she liked her current place but said she did not really associate with her neighbors:
They treat me with respect. Every time I walk down the street, they always speaking to me like, girl, smile, because I’ll never be smiling. I always have my head down, and I’ll just be walking because I don’t want people, nobody say nothing to me. I’ll be always be keeping it moving. They like, girl, put your head up and smile. I be like, oh, shut up. Keep moving, and they treat me with respect.
Annette said she had not been able to find a steady job; she said she did not even have enough money to take the bus to go apply for jobs. The family got food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) but often went hungry when the funds ran out before the end of the month. They got some help to pay utility bills, but that also was not enough to let them make ends meet. Annette said she was so desperate that she sometimes resorted to transitional sex to get money to support her family:
Stuff that I regret sometime. I mean, we have to make it manage because my kids, we need stuff to go back to school, and I don’t be having it, so I will have sex somewhere just to get my kids what they need sometime.
Annette said she did not feel like she could talk to anyone because they would gossip about her or use the information against her. She often felt depressed and stressed and continued to drink and smoke weed in order to cope.
Her son Robert, now 15, had joined a gang and was rarely home. Annette heard that a boy had been shot on the block at 2 a.m.; she worried all night that it was Robert, who had taken to disappearing for days and lying about where he had been.
But when the boys fight, you know, they run and get guns or whatever. So I’m more concerned and worried about him than I am her [her daughter] because I feel she okay. She don’t go too many places. But him, he be all over everywhere. And then the little stuff I be hearing about him being in a gang, then it’s just too much. And it be driving me crazy sometime. Like now, he done … and I don’t even know where he at.
We were not able to interview Robert in 2011, but did interview one of Annette’s “adopted” daughters, one of the girls she had taken in three years earlier. Denise was now 15 and thought Englewood was better than Wells:
You couldn’t even walk up to your house without seeing somebody doing drugs or stuff like that, influencing kids to do stuff like that. And around here, you could, you don’t see many people out here doing drugs and shooting dice and selling weed and stuff like that, you know. You don’t see people like that. And you could able to walk into your house and be safe and stuff without you seeing people doing dope and stuff like that.
But the reality was that the new neighborhood was still very dangerous; when the family first moved in, Denise got into a fight at school and was cut across her face. She said that she had to fight kids in the neighborhood and at school to “prove herself” and that the family was treated with “respect” only because both she and Robert were part of the gang that dominated the neighborhood.
Denise already appeared to be on the same kind of downward trajectory as Annette. Abandoned by her mother before Annette took her in, she said she had attended 15 different schools. She left some because she moved and others because she was kicked out. Both she and Robert had been arrested and had spent time in jail; her younger sister had run away. Denise stole clothes and shoes because Annette could not afford to buy them for her. She used to get help from a school counselor, but said she had not seen her in a long time:
I used to always talk to her about everything. She used to buy me stuff like make me lose like stress and stuff like that made me think positive things and stuff. And I won’t talk to people when I get angry.
In 2011, Denise had graduated from eighth grade and said she wanted to do better in school so she could get a good job and go to college. But she also told us that she had serious mental health problems that threatened to undermine her: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; suicidal thoughts; self- harm behavior; and anger management issues.
Annette sometimes wished she could move back to public housing, where she did not have so many bills. But for now, she had decided that she would rather keep her voucher:
But me going back to the projects, my kids getting older. I’m trying to show them things you can experience in life, the better things for us. We got to do this, you got to do that, you ain’t got to do that. You could go to school and get your mission accomplished. You’ll be more better that way than you got to hang out and sell drugs and carry guns and all that. It’s too much.
She summed up her life this way:
It’s like, I’m struggling too hard. It’s like, some, I try to make this right, something go wrong. It just don’t never go right. But then when I think I’m doing good, something else going bad.
The stories of these three CHA families highlight themes that I will return to in the book as I tell the larger story how the agency’s Plan for Transformation affected residents’ lives. Michelle and Matthew illustrate two of the more positive pathways CHA families took as their lives were disrupted to make way for the CHA’s transformation. Both of them are living in better- quality housing in safer neighborhoods where they feel less fearful and anxious. Both believe that their new communities are better places to raise their grandchildren. But both have had many ups and downs, and both families are still extremely poor.
In many ways, Michelle and her daughter represent the best- case scenario: they moved directly into a new unit in Oakwood Shores. They are generally happy and feel much safer, and Michelle has had steady, if lowwage, work and believes that moving has made her take on a greater sense of responsibility. Although her daughter Tonya got pregnant before she could finish college, she has continued to work— also in low- wage jobs— and move forward with her education. And, perhaps most importantly, Tonya’s son will be raised in a safe community and, if Oakwood Shores succeeds, will never know what it is like to live in a community mired in chronic violence and disadvantage. But even in this most hopeful scenario, it is clear that new housing and new neighbors are not enough to move this family out of poverty— they still need help getting the kind of training and support that will help them get better jobs, build assets, and choose schools and programs that will help Tonya’s son achieve academic success.
Matthew’s family’s path was not as smooth, but their new CHA community is quiet, their row house is in good condition, and they feel comfortable and safe. They remain extremely poor with little to no prospect of improving their situation— and many challenges that have the potential to undermine their stability. The family’s well- being hinges on the ability of their increasingly frail grandfather to manage the household, and the granddaughter has experienced so much trauma that without effective help, she is at risk for serious mental and physical health problems of her own. Her grandfather has managed to buffer much of the stress for her and her siblings, but it is clear the family needs support in order to address the clear challenges ahead.
Finally, Annette’s story illustrates the extremely tough trajectory of CHA’s most vulnerable families, families that I call the “hard to house.”10 These families are deeply troubled, with heads of households who have serious mental and physical health problems, are disconnected from the labor market and have histories of trauma and abuse. They were unable to meet the criteria for the new mixed- income developments where they would be expected to work and follow a host of new rules. Like Matthew, many ended up in CHA’s rehabilitated public housing, but a substantial proportion of these families moved out of public housing, sometimes in order to get away from the rules and requirements that the CHA was beginning to put in place even in its traditional developments. But moving away from CHA properties also meant moving away from the supportive services the agency had begun to offer its public housing residents and, further, meant dealing with private-market landlords and apartments that varied widely in quality. Families like Annette’s that had suffered the most damage from the years of living in CHA’s urban war zones struggled and their problems require much more creative and intensive solutions.
This book tells the story of what happened to families like Michelle’s, Matthew’s, and Annette’s as they experienced the upheaval of relocation and redevelopment. I begin by using my vantage point as a long- term observer of the CHA to tell the story of what lead to the decision that its housing needed to be transformed, how the process unfolded, and how it set the stage for transforming the housing authority itself. As I describe in this book, the Plan for Transformation not only changed housing and neighborhoods but also fundamentally changed the CHA. And, as I describe in Chapter 3, most importantly, CHA families have fared surprisingly well overall, with most living in better housing in safer neighborhoods. Still, as I describe in Chapter 4, many continue to struggle with poor physical and mental health, weak labor market ties, and their own complex lives. Further, as I discuss in Chapter 5, there are worrying signs that the transformation and relocation were particularly difficult for adolescents and that too many like Amara, Robert and Denise are floundering.
The stories I tell in this book offer important lessons not only for Chicago, but for the many other American cities still grappling with the legacy of racial segregation and failed federal housing policies. Chicago may have had the worst public housing, but the problems of deeply poor families trapped in chronically disadvantaged, high- crime urban neighborhoods continue to challenge local governments, federal policymakers, advocates, and scholars. While there is wide debate about the causes and consequences of growing inequality, even our best thinkers have not been able to offer any truly effective solutions. The CHA’s experience highlights both the potential and limitations of using a housing- only solution to address these complex problems and the need for a meaningful investment in the kinds of wrap- around supports that can help stabilize families and communities and help children to achieve their full potential. As I wrote nearly 20 years ago, there are no simple solutions and none that are inexpensive, but without a large and sustained investment effort on the part of the federal government in concert with local partners, we risk trapping yet another generation of children in deep poverty.