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In her new book, No Simple Solutions: Transforming Public Housing in Chicago, Urban Institute senior fellow Susan Popkin chronicles the effects of Chicago’s Plan for Transformation, the largest-ever public housing redevelopment effort.
The Plan for Transformation, launched in 2000, intended to demolish all 11 Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) high-rises and replace them with mixed-income communities, while rehabilitating smaller properties and senior buildings. Residents could either move into these new mixed-income developments or use a voucher to rent an apartment on the private market.
While the plan is still not complete, Popkin’s book examines the successes and failures so far and tells the stories of the people on the ground floor of the transformation.
Alexandra Tilsley: The Plan for Transformation called for effectively reinventing Chicago Public Housing. It was broader in scope than anything the country had seen before. Was it the right choice?
Susan Popkin: I came to the conclusion then that there was nothing else they could do. There was no way to make those places habitable. There was no way to deal with the crime. I hear from a lot of activists who say, “How could you have taken away people’s homes? This is terrible.” Yes, it is terrible. Involuntary displacement is terrible. But people were living in absolute squalor. I really felt at that point there was no way to save these buildings, to rehab them, to make them decent.
In the book, you tell the stories of several families who were living in public housing during the Transformation. Did certain families or stories stick with you?
By the end, by the time the relocation moved along, you had a really large population of the people that I called “hard to house.” People like Annette and her family. [The family had] a history of domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health problems. She and her kids moved out with a voucher to get away from the CHA’s new work requirements, but moving was a disaster for her and her family.
That was the most heartbreaking interview I have ever done. I was sitting in her apartment on the only chair. There was a baby in the room and four other kids. And there was just nothing. She was telling me about how she wanted to hurt herself. She wanted to go kill the woman who had shot her. She showed me the bullet that was still in her arm. She had just lost her job. She was worried about her son. Her son was talking to my colleague in the kitchen, telling her how he wanted to kill himself.
The plan’s ultimate goal was to decrease poverty, crime, and a slew of other problems. But hearing stories like Annette’s, I wonder—did that happen?
Nobody’s life turned around completely. Nobody stopped being poor. But many people moved to places that were nicer, or felt safer.
HUD (US Department of Housing and Urban Development) was under all this pressure to show that public and assisted housing, housing vouchers, could be a way to help people toward self-sufficiency. The idea was we’re going to have these new mixed-income developments, and these public housing residents are going to live alongside middle-class people, and they’re going to have great role models and access to better networks for jobs. It was going to change the trajectory of the kids.
We don’t know if that ever happened. I certainly saw no evidence of that happening. What I saw was the kids actually struggling a lot. To me, that is the legacy that remains to be addressed. I think the magnitude of the toll on these kids was vastly underestimated. To go from living in essentially a war zone to a normal neighborhood was not an easy transition. And they brought all that stigma with them.
Does that stigma persist today?
People are still blaming the people who moved out of public housing for what’s going on in Chicago now. Those developments came down 10 years ago. I don’t believe it. We found no evidence in the other study we did that having a lot of voucher holders in a community causes crime. It’s mostly the reverse: the places that they can afford to rent are the places that have a lot of crime already. There’s this stigma associated with coming from public housing, that you’re the worst of the worst. Those kids carry that with them into their new communities.
Did the Transformation make a difference in crime?
Gun crime in the city was concentrated in CHA developments. And at least through 2010, when the developments came down, it caused a reduction in violent crime across the city.
We were asked to study the effect on the communities that CHA residents moved into. As far as we can tell, it had a complicated effect. There was no huge crime wave, but crime stopped going down as fast as it had been. We don’t know whether that was temporary. But it wasn’t the horror story that people like to tell.
In the book, you write that people view the plan as a failure, but you think the reality is “better and more complex.” What do you mean?
One reason people say it’s a failure is most of the original residents didn’t come back to the new developments. A little over a third took vouchers. About a third moved to other rehabilitated public housing around the city. About 20 to 30 percent moved back into the new developments. Some left public housing altogether. A lot of the advocates say it’s a failure that people didn’t come back because they’ve been displaced. I say to that: we talked to the residents who moved, and most of them are content where they are. They miss where they were, they miss their community, but most of them do not want to come back. I think that has to be seen as being okay, if it’s a choice.
What’s next—for you, the CHA, or the families?
I want to know what’s going to happen to the kids. What are we going to do? When are we going to finally put the money in that it’s going to take? I called this book No Simple Solutions because there aren’t any. What are we going to do to address what’s happened to kids of color in too many cities around this country, because of the legacy of segregation in public housing?