Last week, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) began demolishing the last high-rise in its notorious Cabrini-Green development – the final step in its massive “Plan for Transformation.” Begun in 1999, the plan will eventually replace all Chicago’s old high-rise developments with new, mixed-income communities that are intended to offer decent housing in safe, vibrant communities. For more than two decades, I’ve been studying the CHA’s progress in addressing the myriad challenges with its housing, management, and residents, and offer my thoughts on what the end of the high-rises means for Chicago, and especially, for the families who lived there.
Chicago’s public housing residents – all extremely low-income – endured miserable conditions. Many had lived in CHA housing for decades; a surprising proportion had never lived anywhere else. But tearing the projects down inflicted new costs. CHA residents understandably resented having to move and, while acknowledging the problems, genuinely feared leaving their long-time homes.
From the outset, advocates worried that residents wouldn’t be allowed to return to the new housing being built – that they’d end up homeless or living in housing even worse than what they left behind. Because Cabrini sits in an affluent neighborhood, some advocates saw its revitalization as a thinly-disguised effort to rid the community of poor African Americans. Litigation held up demolition for more than a decade.
But my research on other Chicago projects demolished over the past decade suggests that most Cabrini residents will end up in substantially better housing and dramatically safer neighborhoods. Adults will enjoy reduced anxiety and fear, children will be able to play safely outside, and everybody will sleep more soundly.
My research confirms that few Cabrini residents will ever return to live in the new, mixed-income community. Some claim that this low rate of return represents a profound failure, evidence that the Plan for Transformation is just another round of urban renewal, clearing desirable land for more affluent people. But I disagree. Former residents of other Chicago projects give good reasons for not coming back: they were happy to get away from the drugs, crime, and “negative influences;” they are settled and don’t want to move again; they like the freedom of a housing voucher; and they don’t want to deal with the rules and regulations of the new, mixed-income projects.
I’m not suggesting that Chicago’s Plan for Transformation has been a complete success. Although most are better off than they were in public housing, former residents still live in high-poverty, predominantly black communities that lack the good schools and other resources they need. And decent affordable housing is in short supply throughout the city. When the CHA opened its waiting list recently, more than 200,000 households applied.
But decades of failure confirm that keeping the Cabrini community as it was inflicted terrible harm on the families living there. The right metric for success is how those families do in the future, not whether they return to their old address.