- Brian Jackson/Sun-Times Media
- By 2011, wrecking crews had gone to work on the last high-rise at Cabrini-Green
Chicago Housing Authority chairman Vince Lane really felt he was getting somewhere the summer before Dantrell Davis was killed in October 1992.
He cochaired a national commission looking at “severely distressed” public housing, and in August it issued a report, backed by U.S. housing secretary Jack Kemp, that recommended significant new funding for rehab work. But not merely to patch up the crumbling old public housing towers around the country—the idea was to thoroughly redevelop public housing communities so they included residents who worked and paid the market rate for their homes. At the same time, the policy would make it easier for housing agencies to help poor tenants move into private-market apartments. In other words, the goal was to break up the extreme racial and economic segregation that had developed in public housing. The program was called HOPE VI.
“That’s when this whole concept of mixed-income housing was signed off on,” Lane says. “The purpose of it was to tear down the high-rise public housing.”
It wasn’t described that bluntly at the time. The proposal was still politically touchy: skeptics wondered whether “mixed-income redevelopment” was simply code for seizing land where poor African-Americans lived so it could be auctioned off for big bucks.
Dantrell’s slaying changed the conversation. As the crusading antisegregation attorney Alexander Polikoff puts it in his book Waiting for Gautreaux: “The fates took charge.”
“That probably turned the tables,” Lane says. “I think that generated a lot of national publicity and gave momentum to the funding of HOPE VI.”
Congress approved the new approach and agreed to finance it before the end of the month. When Bill Clinton was elected president in November 1992, he didn’t bring Lane into his cabinet. But as Polikoff writes, Clinton’s pick for housing secretary, Henry Cisneros, shared a similar commitment to ending “extreme spatial segregation.” In 1993, the federal government agreed to send the first chunk of money to Chicago—$50 million—to start redeveloping Cabrini.
In fact, over the next 15 years, housing authorities across the country began dismantling their so-called vertical ghettos in favor of row houses and smaller multi-unit buildings that might attract working-class and professional families. In most cases, they moved toward getting out of the landlord business altogether.
Lane wasn’t able to see it through in Chicago. Mayor Richard Daley tired of his independence, and Lane was ousted in 1995 amid federal allegations of financial mismanagement at the CHA. He pointed the finger right back at the feds, saying they moved too haltingly to support his reform efforts. Lane then returned to his previous work in real estate. In 2001, though, he was convicted of federal fraud charges for making false statements to secure loans for a south-side shopping development.
In 1999 federal and city officials announced a ten-year, $1.5 billion overhaul of the CHA: the Plan for Transformation. Daley insisted the plan was about more than retooling public housing to ensure a mix of poor, working-class, and market-rate residents—it was about giving hope to the hopeless. “I want to rebuild their souls,” he said.
The first stop for the wrecking ball was the Henry Horner Homes on the west side; more than a decade later, in March 2011, the last high-rise at Cabrini-Green was razed. What was left of public housing had by then become mixed-income.
More or less—and a lot less, by numerous measures. Among other problems, construction never kept up with demolition. Market-rate buyers had a glut of other options to choose from. And then the housing market collapsed. Now, two years after the plan was supposed to be complete, more than half the promised new units still haven’t been built, according to a report by Micah Maidenberg in Crain’s. Thousands of others are empty. Some of the reconstructed developments barely have any racial or economic mix.
It’s not clear where the CHA will take the plan next: it hasn’t been a priority for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and CHA officials aren’t talking. “We will decide what the income mix needs to be community by community, and sometimes building by building,” current CHA chairman Charles Woodyard has said.
He’s the fifth person to hold the job since the Plan for Transformation was launched.
Click here to read part four.