In the long run, no matter how well scattered public housing becomes, or how cleverly it blends with its neighborhood, it will fail if the tenants aren’t screened, if the paint peels and the plumbing backs up. “Scattered sites” are still bad words in many areas because CHA’s management of those properties it did build was as unenthusiastic as the building of them. But since 1991 the city has been divided into six zones, the scattered sites in each zone contracted out by CHA to a local private manager.
Sue Brady of Hull House’s Housing Resource Center was the first, starting a pilot program in the northeast section of the city in August 1983. Seventy percent of her tenants have household incomes under $10,000 a year. “Managing low-income housing you can’t just collect rents,” says Brady, a longtime fair-housing activist and staffer for Abner Mikva when he was in Congress. “We are trying to integrate residents into the fabric of the neighborhood. We don’t want them to say, ‘We’re CHA residents living in Uptown,’ but ‘Uptown residents living in subsidized housing.’ We want them to link up with local churches and block clubs and not to the great CHA in the sky.”
Just physically keeping up with 425 apartments in 82 buildings is expensive; Brady estimates that her staffers spend up to a third of their time in transit. “When we took over, and for years afterward, I looked around the country for a model–someone somewhere who’d done this before, that I could turn to. The model isn’t there. We’re it.”
But with or without a model, Brady and the other private managers say they’re not getting the money from the CHA to do their jobs right. “To do minimally good management you need $3,500 per unit per year,” she says. “In 1994 we got by on $2,265.”
Dilia Camacho-Saeedi, vice president for property management at the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, put it more colorfully at a Chicago Architecture Foundation symposium in June. Up front were black-and-white photographs of “then”: barrackslike brick apartment buildings built by the CHA in 1969. Now boarded up and ready for demolition, they looked like East Berlin on a bad day. In contrast, along the side wall were color photographs of “now”: brand-new blend-with-the-neighborhood townhomes, the work of nine different local architects and the Habitat Company on CHA’s behalf–ready for occupancy, morning in America.
Saeedi glanced from the pictures to her audience. “Seeing these pictures of public housing scheduled to be demolished makes me very nervous, very emotional,” she said. “It’s like a gourmet cook seeing a fine meal trashed. Are we going to have to demolish some of these fine new buildings in 10 or 20 years? Even private management will fail if we do not have the tools.”
She is anxious because she believes success is possible. “If the managing agent and the community cooperate, our buildings will look good and property values will go up. People may find it far-fetched that public housing could make property values rise, but that’s the property manager’s job. A well-managed building speaks for itself.”
Sue Brady raises about $60,000 a year wherever she can find it–United Way, community development block grants, Woods Charitable Fund, Chicago Community Trust–to keep some social-service programs going in her area. But she has drawn criticism from activist tenant Willie Burrell, interim president of the Northeast Scattered Sites Resident Management Corporation, which is promoting resident management and which recently received a $100,000 grant from HUD for organizing and job training. Burrell claims Brady hasn’t done enough to employ and empower residents. The charge leaves Brady outraged but not speechless: “You name it, we’ve got it–painting, management aide, tiling hallways, replacing stair treads, making replacement screens. We always offer our contractual jobs to tenants first. I don’t think anyone could equal my record on resident employment in the city.”
The tension is accentuated by the fact that Burrell has publicly joined with the Sheridan Park Neighbors Association and Magnolia-Malden Neighbors to protest the alleged clustering of new scattered-site units in Sheridan Park. Together the groups drew media attention in July when they picketed a site where Habitat was building.
“It was a huge eye-opener to us as home and property owners to meet Willie and other residents, and see they have the same concerns we do,” says Terry Elliott of Magnolia-Malden Neighbors. “Now we realize our issue of overconcentration is one small part of the residents’ issues.”
This is not what Brady has in mind when she talks about public-housing residents becoming Uptowners first and CHA tenants second. In her view, a scattered-site resident like Burrell shouldn’t speak out against building more apartments, as long as Habitat isn’t actually violating Gautreaux or HUD regulations. “It’s inappropriate. The case is so weak. It’s OK for them to object if the official rules were being violated, but not to change the rules.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.