“It was about land with the Indians, and it’s about land now.” Bertha Gilkey’s rhythmic revival-style oratory is always welcome at the weekly meetings of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. And in late April the 50-year-old firebrand from Saint Louis has 200 public-housing residents and organizers in the palm of her hand.

“Back in 1937 public housing was built where nobody wanted to live. In 1998 that land is”–she pauses and her voice drops–“val-u-a-ble. The land you are sitting on is like prime rib. It’s the best part of the beef. How many here have eaten prime rib?” A scattering of hands goes up.

The people who came to First Congregational Baptist Church for this meeting are mostly poor, black, and female, and they believe developers want the land their homes are built on. They also know two things most Chicagoans don’t.

9 They know that the Chicago Housing Authority plans to tear down some 11,000 of its apartments–including all of the Robert Taylor Homes and much of Cabrini-Green, as well as big chunks of less famous developments such as the ABLA Homes and Rockwell Gardens. More than 7,000 of those apartments are currently occupied, according to CHA figures.

The CHA may be the immediate target of their anger, but many residents know the inside story–the CHA gets 80 percent of its budget from the federal government, so on the big issues, Congress and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are calling the tune. Congress and HUD want the CHA to tear down as many as 18,000 of the 28,480 apartments it owns. The 11,000 number is what the CHA proposed to HUD in mid-May, but keeping the demolitions to that will depend on HUD interpreting its rules in the most lenient way possible.

9 The residents at this meeting also know that they haven’t heard a good answer to the obvious question: Where are all the displaced people going to go?

The official line from the CHA and HUD is that they will live in mixed-income communities one way or another–either in their current neighborhoods, where the remaining public housing will be fixed up to blend in with higher-income residences, or anywhere they can find an apartment using a Section 8 rent-supplement voucher. Such vouchers normally pay the difference between 30 percent of a tenant’s income and the rent, provided that the apartment meets certain standards and the rent is low enough.

The process of replacing public housing with Section 8 housing is often referred to as “vouchering out,” an idea that’s in keeping with the CHA’s new mission statement. No longer does it provide low-income people with housing. These days it “ensure[s] the provision of affordable housing opportunities in viable communities.” That’s a real difference. No doubt, a voucher is a “housing opportunity”–and many CHA residents are happy to take one and leave–but when the chips are down and the market is tight, you can’t live in it.

That’s the problem. Section 8 vouchers build no new homes, especially not affordable ones with two or three bedrooms. And it’s not easy to find affordable space in Chicago as it is. Nobody really knows how many public-housing families–average income $6,000 a year–the Chicago-area housing market can absorb. No comprehensive market analysis has been done. That’s why the CHA is trying to persuade HUD to go easy and have it tear down “only” 11,000 apartments over 15 years, rather than 18,000 over five years.

Section 8 is a problem in another way too. Even though the program meets the approval of the free-market-loving Republicans who control Congress, they haven’t OK’d any new vouchers since 1995. Worse, this spring, when Congress had to find money fast to pay for disaster relief and interventions in Bosnia and Iraq, the legislators chose to take $2.3 billion that had been earmarked for 1999 Section 8 vouchers. Supposedly that money will be replaced before it’s needed. If it isn’t, HUD has estimated that 21,566 people in Chicago could lose their rental assistance and therefore their homes.

This fund shuffling may not seem unusual to you and me and Congress. But Bertha Gilkey and her audience see it as more proof that the government has embarked on a policy of “urban cleansing” to get poor and black people out of sight and off desirable real estate, and to do it on the cheap. “It might be Cabrini [being vouchered out] today,” says Carol Steele, president of the Cabrini Rowhouse Tenant Management Council and cofounder of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. “But it’s going to be the rest of the developments tomorrow. If Cabrini don’t make no stand, we’re all going to be neighbors under Wacker Drive.”

As usual in Chicago, there’s a history here, and it doesn’t make pretty reading. In the late 1940s and 1950s Loop businessmen and neighborhood white racists defined the shape of the city for the next 50 years. They didn’t work together, but their interests converged. The ethnics rioted at the slightest hint of integration. The businessmen arranged state legislation under which the government would buy land, tear down the buildings, and sell at a loss to private developers–the original “public-private partnership” and the model for urban renewal. As a result, the existing African-American ghetto was rebuilt in high-rise concrete along South State Street, at Cabrini-Green, and elsewhere. (Public housing, in other words, was a conservative control measure, not a creature of the permissive 60s.) Historian Arnold Hirsch meticulously documents this unsavory process in his 1983 book, just reissued by the University of Chicago Press, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960.

The building of the second ghetto shaped the lives of generations. Even though aspects of the process were hushed up, it wasn’t exactly a secret. Today’s big decision hasn’t exactly been hushed up, but it might as well be a secret. And that’s strange when you think about it. The rush to tear down many of these buildings represents an epoch-making change in the city. Not only will it determine how a lot of Chicagoans live, but vouchering out and tearing down is controversial. Of those who actually live in the second ghetto, some have worked with the CHA to plan the change. But others–including Gilkey’s audience–disdain their plans and think that with good management most of the buildings could stay. “In Robert Taylor 75 to 80 percent of residents surveyed said they wanted Section 8,” says CHA executive director Joseph Shuldiner. “At Cabrini, basically everybody wanted to stay.”

Curiously, the mainstream media have maintained an eerie near silence as this drama has unfolded. Regular readers of StreetWise and the Defender know more about what the CHA is up to than people who buy only the Sun-Times. And readers of all those papers are experts on public housing policy compared to the poor schmucks who stick with the Tribune.

“People don’t seem to recognize that this is going to define the landscape for providing housing for the people most in need for the next 30 years,” complains CHA director of development initiatives Wanda White. For instance, on March 13 Shuldiner told a radio audience that residents of the Robert Taylor Homes had agreed to its total demolition. Once upon a time, a revelation of this kind would have drawn reporters and editors like ants to a picnic. But the story took a month to get into the Sun-Times and the Tribune, and then only in sketchy form. During the first three months of 1998 the Tribune’s main contribution to the policy debate was an editorial saying that CHA residents shouldn’t be allowed to own pets. (One reader responded, “I would not allow CHA residents to own dogs but would allow them to own cats.” Isn’t it fun to have someone to boss around?)

Because of the media quiet, those of us who don’t live in public housing tend to learn only about the worst crimes that happen there. If we’re conservative, we blame the people who live there. If we’re liberal, we blame the cheapjack high-rise architecture and the way it concentrates poverty. (If we play it down the middle, we blame both.) Either way, we come to think that it’s all terrible and that it’s all the same. That’s not how it looks from the inside.

“This is community to these people,” said Wardell Yotaghan when I asked him why some public housing residents want to stay. A slight middle-aged man with a mellow voice and a mild manner, Yotaghan has lived on West Monroe in the Rockwell Gardens complex, west of the United Center, since 1989. He chairs its resident management corporation and the Chicago Association of Resident Management Corporations, and he cofounded the Coalition to Protect Public Housing with Carol Steele.

At Rockwell, says Yotaghan, “they know their neighbors, they know the neighborhood, they know the kids and the schools. When I leave in the morning, I never worry about my house. These people are neighbors. Every ramp [floor] you got a camaraderie.” Is he exaggerating? Maybe. But he does have a point: the gruesome reality of “the Hole” at the Robert Taylor Homes, splashed in color across the pages of the April 12 Chicago Tribune magazine, isn’t the only public housing reality. Here’s some more news you won’t find in that paper:

9 In the March issue of the Residents’ Journal (“a publication for and by the residents of the Chicago Housing Authority”), Earl Battles describes how Sandra Cornwell and her 11-year-old son moved out of Lathrop Homes on the north side–and soon moved back in after finding their new neighborhood had more drugs, more gangs, fewer “good neighbors,” and fewer activities for kids.

9 After the city and CHA publicly presented the Near North Redevelopment Initiative (which included Cabrini-Green) in June 1996–residents had been deliberately excluded from the planning process, and the initiative ended up calling for demolishing more buildings than they wanted–Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council president Cora Moore sent a stinging rebuke to Mayor Richard M. Daley and CHA head Joseph Shuldiner. “Mayor Richard J. Daley would have understood our plight,” she wrote. The current mayor’s father “understood roots and never left his beloved Bridgeport community. We residents of Cabrini love our community and do not want to leave it either.” (The Local Advisory Council sued the city and the CHA that fall; the case is now in settlement negotiations.)

9 On WBEZ on May 5, Jamie Kalven of the Neighborhood Conservation Corps told the story of a woman who moved out of Stateway Gardens but found herself coming back every day because her new neighborhood, while stable and integrated, was “so lonely.”

The Coalition to Protect Public Housing includes public housing residents and advocacy groups who think that public housing complexes, for all their problems, are communities deserving of respect, and that actual public housing units offer poor people more housing security than a voucher can. They oppose the CHA’s demolition plans and don’t trust the agency’s promises to take care of the 7,000-plus families that will be displaced. Among the member organizations are Access Living, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Community Renewal Society, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

Yet not even Yotaghan thinks all the public-housing residents like living there. “If you go in and ask them without giving them any information, maybe 60 percent would choose to stay, 40 percent leave,” he surmises. “With information, I think 80 percent would stay.” One of his concerns is that while residents know the inadequacies of CHA management, they don’t hear about the drawbacks of Section 8. For a number of reasons, including outright discrimination, almost a third of low-income Chicagoans who try to find an apartment using a Section 8 voucher are unable to find one. Says Yotaghan, “Our responsibility is to get information to people so that they can make good sound judgments, and leave it up to God.”

Section 8 success rates are significantly higher when the program includes sweeteners: counseling (for renters new to the private market) and a security deposit (for the landlord). But sweeteners aren’t easy to come by. “We asked HUD for $12.5 million for counseling,” says the CHA’s Shuldiner, “and they wouldn’t give us a dime. So we proposed to convert 250 vouchers into counseling funds. Then they said they might fund our first request after all.” The issue remains in limbo.

Some public housing residents have another reason besides community sentiment not to welcome the CHA’s new broom: they think they’ll be swept under the rug. They may have a point. In April the Tribune described the process this way: “As the Taylor Homes’ 11,000 residents gradually pack up and leave, they will spread out across the city and suburbs, mostly into federally subsidized apartments in privately owned buildings.”

“Spread out across the city and suburbs”? That sound you hear is white middle-class Chicagoland sighing with satisfaction now that those awful crime-breeding buildings are finally coming down. But poor people and their problems don’t vanish just because their homes are no longer visible from the Dan Ryan. (In the 1950s the buzz was that low-rise buildings caused the problems.) “Buildings can be torn down,” Mary Heidkamp, codirector of the Office of Peace and Justice of Chicago’s Catholic archdiocese, told a January rally at Cabrini-Green, “but the problems of real people who dwell there do not go away. We have to see through the buildings. If people don’t have decent, safe, affordable housing, they wind up in our church basements.”

As a matter of fact, Section 8 recipients may become less visible, but they don’t spread out. Most of them settle in high-poverty areas–about 60 percent in census tracts where one quarter or more of the residents are below the federal poverty line, says the private contractor that handles the program for the CHA. According to a May 1997 report, “The Plan to Voucher Out Public Housing,” by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Voorhees Center, most end up in segregated black neighborhoods and suburbs. The study also found that Cabrini-Green residents who took Section 8 vouchers had to leave their neighborhood: “The women were primarily being offered apartment showings on either the South Side or the Far North Side.”

In a June 1997 report to HUD, the CHA acknowledged, “Existing Section 8 units are located overwhelmingly in impacted areas, far from employment growth centers.” At this rate, the city is in danger of eliminating the second ghetto only to create a third.

The visible actors in this drama are local officials such as Shuldiner. But the script was actually written two years ago in Washington, D.C. And the concept behind the script was part of the Clinton administration’s public housing plan before that. On public housing, Republicans and Democrats disagree only on the footnotes.

“When we had a Democratic Congress and a Republican president, Congress used to keep public housing and legal services going,” says attorney William Wilen of the Poverty Law Project. “Now, with a Republican Congress, there is no resistance at the federal level. It’s much worse than it was under Ronald Reagan or George Bush.” How much worse? Consider the following three episodes.

Episode one: Effective September 30, 1995, Congress repealed “one-for-one replacement,” the part of the 1937 public housing law that required every demolished public housing apartment to be replaced by another housing unit. (One reason the lawsuit Wilen brought on behalf of Henry Horner Homes residents has been successful in getting them new housing is that it was filed when “one-for-one” was still in effect.) The repeal made it much easier to tear down apartments that very poor people can afford without incurring the inconvenient obligation of building any new ones.

Episode two: Congress cut the CHA’s comprehensive grant–money for capital improvements and security–from $179 million in 1995 to $116 million in 1997. Thus existing buildings get worse, and the vouchering-out option looks better.

Episode three (for mature audiences only): In a few paragraphs buried in the mountainous Omnibus Consolidated Rescissions and Appropriations Act of 1996 (OCRA), Congress ordered that any big public housing development that’s more than 10 percent vacant has to undergo a “cost test”: Is it cheaper to fix up the buildings or to tear them down and give their residents Section 8 vouchers? Whichever is cheaper has to be done–and has to be done within five years (with a possible five-year extension). Chicago has been hit much harder than any other city; some 19,000 of its 28,000 public housing units must undergo the test.

OCRA’s seemingly reasonable cost-testing approach is heavily biased against fixing up public housing. Locally, the Metropolitan Planning Council pointed out that the test systematically underestimates the cost of vouchering out and overestimates the cost of rehabbing buildings. Then–just in case any buildings happen to slip through–the law doesn’t allow the CHA to fix them up unless it has the money on hand to do so, a virtual impossibility (see episode two).

Currently the CHA is trying to use the one bit of wiggle room OCRA left it. According to the law, developments can avoid the cost test if the CHA can “assure the long-term viability [of] public housing through reasonable revitalization, density reduction, or achievement of a broader range of household income.”

What the lawmakers were trying to say here is that isolated concentrations of poor people should be replaced by mixed-income communities, so that working-class and middle-class neighbors will provide good examples for poor people and their children. “Think about how people get jobs,” says the CHA’s Shuldiner. “It’s not usually through the want ads. It’s because somebody they know passed the word along. But if you live in a neighborhood where hardly anyone works, how are you going to find out?” In the old days, the current conventional wisdom goes, public housing was a temporary measure. It included both employed and unemployed people, and it offered hope and ways out. It wasn’t a depressing dead end. Shuldiner and many others say that’s how it needs to be again.

This theory has been around for a long time. It was a constant refrain during Vincent Lane’s tenure earlier this decade, when his administration was supposed to revive the CHA. But it makes more sense applied to some public housing complexes rather than others. Larry Bennett of DePaul University and Adolph Reed Jr. of UIC have written a paper in which they shred planners’ repeated descriptions of Cabrini-Green as “isolated.” In fact, they write, “Cabrini-Green residents see proximity to commercial, recreational, and other facilities as one of the area’s principal attractions.”

Right, wrong, or someplace in the middle, the theory of mixed-income communities is being embodied in “strategic plans” for each public housing complex, drawn up by groups of residents and professional planners at $50,000 a pop. The idea is to show the way the complexes can be “revitalized” by reducing density and making them mixed income. The plans are visionary; when they do get specific, the specifics aren’t binding. Most contain the stock phrase, “The financing plan will be predicated upon creative leveraging of public funds with private sources of capital.” In other words, nothing is paid for, and nothing will happen until money is found.

Different complexes came up with different visions. At the drastic end, the strategic plan for Robert Taylor Homes calls for all 4,073 apartments to be torn down over a 15-year period, with much of the space they now occupy to be devoted to commercial and industrial uses. (The CHA is asking for 15 years, though OCRA allows 10 at most.) At the conservative end, the strategic plan for Dearborn Homes envisions no demolition at all. Overall, the 17 complexes involved now have (in round numbers) 19,000 apartments and would end up with 10,500–4,000 of which would be new construction, paid for out of some unspecified pot of money, not from public housing funds. (The plan also assumes that public housing residents will be able to afford these units.)

Shuldiner gives the residents credit for thinking long-range in their strategic plans. “They know they have an asset–the land–which CHA may lease but will never sell. What they want are jobs. So in terms of economic development, they want to find ways to trade that land for jobs.” That means planning together with the city, the schools, the social-service agencies, and any other nearby institutions–a big departure for the CHA, which for decades has been isolated from other decision-making centers in the city. It also means working with developers in new ways, says Shuldiner, who’s convinced that will benefit the residents. “All right, the developer will make money. Who cares? That’s the American way.”

Not according to Yotaghan. “Any plan that don’t replace the units, any plan that depends on Section 8, we [the Coalition to Protect Public Housing] will oppose them. Those plans will end up making people homeless.”

Congress, it seems, would like to see most public housing torn down and its residents sent out on their own with Section 8 rent vouchers. The Coalition to Protect Public Housing would like to see most public housing fixed up. (“As far as Section 8, you’re on your own,” says Carol Steele. “But we know everybody can’t be on their own in this world.”) The CHA sees both views as unrealistic and is trying to chart a middle course in its strategic plans. But those plans rest on a foundation of exceedingly optimistic assumptions:

9 They depend on seemingly tiny technicalities, such as HUD agreeing that the cost of rehabbing apartments can be amortized over 30 years rather than 20. (Thirty years is the usual standard for new construction, 20 for rehab.) If HUD holds to 20 years, the monthly payments go up so much that most complexes will fail the cost test and will have to be vouchered out.

9 They depend on the CHA getting five more years than OCRA allows for demolition and reconstruction–and about $310 million more from HUD than it has any reason to expect.

9 They depend on HUD giving the CHA the same amount of “modernization” money every year, even though that money is normally pegged to the number of apartments the CHA has–and of course thousands will come tumbling down during the 5, 10, or 15 years the CHA takes to complete the process.

9 They depend on Congress providing adequate, reliable funding for Section 8. A government shutdown or another overseas military intervention could put tens of thousands of voucher holders on the street. Months of uncertainty followed by a last-minute rescue–the more likely scenario–would discourage public housing residents from taking vouchers in the first place.

9 They depend on the CHA being able to attract city, state, and private money–not to mention new tenants–to help redevelop some of the most demonized addresses in recent Chicago history.

9 They depend on welfare reform working well enough that some people now living in public housing will be able to afford some of the more expensive housing that’s to be built where high-rises once stood. “Under welfare reform we are challenged to raise people’s income levels in the next three years anyway,” says the CHA’s Wanda White. “Those families will need to find jobs, and some will become part of the working mix. The strategic plans are not pure attraction strategies; they also address how you raise levels of income.” Any economic downturn will put welfare reform–and hence the CHA’s strategic plans–on the critical list.

9 Last but not least, they depend on a relaxation of the Gautreaux decree, currently overseen by federal district judge Marvin Aspen. Since 1969 Gautreaux has required the CHA to build most new units in nonblack areas of the city. Rebuilding on or near current public housing sites, as the strategic plans envision, would appear to contradict the plain language of the decree: “A deliberate policy to separate the races,” wrote the late Judge Richard Austin, “cannot be justified by the good intentions with which other laudable goals are pursued.” But as Gautreaux attorney Alexander Polikoff points out, Judge Aspen has made exceptions on the grounds that a given inner-city area was “revitalizing.” (Plans for each public housing complex might have to pass his scrutiny.) Polikoff thinks that more such rulings are possible once the current strategic plans become a good deal more specific and once “everybody–private sector included–is brought to the table around an appropriate vision.” Yet it isn’t clear what private investor would spend the time and energy working out a plan to invest on South State Street, knowing all the time that a federal judge might negate it with the stroke of a pen.

This dilemma is one reason Wardell Yotaghan and the Coalition to Protect Public Housing have no use for the strategic plans other residents have prepared. “We would be insane to deal with plans that don’t take Gautreaux into account,” he says, shaking his head in mock amazement. “Back in the 1960s we were discriminated against when we tried to move elsewhere. Now we’re discriminated against when we try to stay here!” The coalition’s program of fixing up existing public housing complexes wouldn’t run afoul of Gautreaux to the extent that it would rely less on new construction. But Shuldiner says there’s no HUD money for that. Vouchering out, he says, would happen even if Congress hadn’t ordered cost tests, because there’s no federal money to do anything else.

Reverend Don Fairley of Avalon Park United Church of Christ opened the March 18 meeting of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing with a prayer that drew on his recent reading of Chapter 13 of the Book of Numbers: “Lord, let us be like the two honest spies Moses sent into the Promised Land, not like the ten chosen in a popularity contest.”

Early in the coalition’s existence the member groups had been noticed long enough to be pilloried by John McCarron in an October 1996 Tribune column as the “Grand Coalition to Keep Things the Way They Are.” Certainly there’s an element of that. Being poor and vulnerable can make you reckless; it can also make you careful to conserve what you do have. Yotaghan isn’t shy about appealing to the self-interest of anyone who will stop to listen. “I told them [CHA employees facing layoffs], if they tear that building down, where are you going to be the janitor of? They’re facing the same elimination as we [residents] are. I try to give them all the correct information–the church people, the school people, the grocery-store people. When we leave, there is going to be no need for you. So you should support us if you support staying in business.” However, the coalition has received little visible support from the black politicians McCarron thought were anxious to maintain a segregated voter base.

The coalition has held prayer vigils at various developments. (The media showed up in force for those held at Cabrini-Green but skipped the rest.) Members leafleted the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday breakfast that the mayor sponsored in January and held a noisy protest at local HUD offices on March 25 that led to a meeting with HUD officials from Washington. Next up are a June 19 march and a coordinated campaign for congressional hearings.

Politically, the coalition draws on both Jack Kemp and Martin Luther King Jr. As George Bush’s HUD secretary, Kemp promoted the idea of resident management, even resident ownership, of public housing developments (an idea that actually originated at Chicago’s LeClaire Courts). He’s the only currently active politician that Gilkey and Yotaghan spontaneously praise. “He had a good idea,” says Yotaghan. “But HUD and the housing authorities didn’t want resident management to work.” (Shuldiner says he favors resident management because it requires residents to make the harsh decisions about the trade-offs they’re facing.) King’s influence is more pervasive–in the prayers that open and close meetings, in Yotaghan’s low-key but bulldog style, and in his knowledge of that history. The civil rights marchers, he warns coalition members, “lost a lot–sprayed with hoses, beaten with sticks, attacked by dogs. He [King] didn’t just call them together and they said they could vote. They may have lost 20 times to get the big victories.”

In the short term, the coalition has asked for a “time out” on vouchering out public housing complexes, to allow for better planning than its members feel has occurred so far. In the long term, if they want to stop or slow the vouchering-out process, they will have to deal with Congress, not the CHA. “Dr. King came to Chicago 30 years ago to campaign for fair and decent housing,” says Yotaghan. “Thirty years later we’re fighting just to have housing. People say marches and demonstrations don’t work. I know they do, because Mahatma Gandhi changed a whole country.”

Shuldiner and Yotaghan disagree about a lot, but they’re both in the same vise. One side of the vise is the Republican Congress, which seemingly would be happy to set the wrecking ball on automatic, then give every family a Section 8 voucher and a hearty handshake as they drag their belongings away. The other side of the vise is the Gautreaux decree, which could make it difficult to revitalize public housing neighborhoods on almost any terms. Shuldiner is no more ready to quit than Yotaghan. “The first two or three years are important,” Shuldiner says. “People have to believe we’re going to carry the strategic plans out. These plans are so large it’s hard to believe anybody could carry them out, including CHA. Can we?” The words hang in the air for a minute. “We have a history of–incapacity.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.