Uncertain Prospects

Gloria Dickson, a public housing resident, works as a cartaker at a North Side animal shelter, but is not sure if the part-time hours will qualify her to live in a new mixed-income community. (Photo by Raymond Thompson)

Gloria Dickson, a public housing resident, works as a cartaker at a North Side animal shelter, but is not sure if the part-time hours will qualify her to live in a new mixed-income community. (Photo by Raymond Thompson)

‘They want to get us out of here,” said Lisa Mayo. The 40-year-old mother of five was looking north from 47th Street toward one of the last high-rises at the Chicago Housing Authority’s Robert Taylor Homes—the building she has lived in her entire life.

It is slated to be torn down this year, and, although replacement homes for the vanished buildings are going up right around the corner, Mayo, like many, doesn’t believe the new apartments are for her or her neighbors. “I would love to come back,” added Mayo.

She feels she will be kept out since the new communities will have strict requirements, including one that requires most returning residents to work 30 hours a week.

Mayo and others displaced have the right to return, according to a contract between the CHA and its residents. Once there, however, they have one year to meet the new benchmarks, like the work requirement, set by the sites’ private developers.

In order to help make that happen, the developers are required to create Community Supportive Services programs that help public housing residents with job training, job referrals, credit ratings and childcare.

But, at some developments, including those where families have already started to return, the CHA and the developers have been slow to get the services going. And at one they haven’t begun a program at all.

“When the transformation plan was signed on Feb. 5, 2000, Mayor [Richard M.] Daley said it would ‘rebuild lives.’ Without these social services, it will not,” said Alexander Polikoff, an attorney for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, or BPI, a nonprofit that has represented public housing tenants for nearly 40 years in a bid to lessen segregation at CHA developments.

Many experts believe the supportive services should start at least a year before the residents come back. Without this help, they say, displaced residents won’t qualify for the new housing.

Over the course of several weeks, CHA officials failed to respond to numerous requests to be interviewed about the service programs. Kim Johnson, a CHA spokeswoman, said she had put in the requests. “Nobody has said, ‘No, we’re not going to talk,'” she said.

Johnson said the agency needs to streamline how it processes media requests.

The city has always claimed that this makeover was about more than knocking down buildings—it was also about transforming the lives of public housing residents. Under the plan, public housing residents would return to the new developments to live side by side with a mix of higher-income families, including homeowners—something many would see as a sign of progress, given public housing’s history of segregation.

In October 1999, about 6,000 families remained in the 10 developments slated for reconstruction. Most have since been dispersed, many to low-income neighborhoods like Englewood where they use vouchers for private housing, and others to CHA developments like the Harold Ickes and Dearborn Homes on the Near South Side.

After a lottery, all the families were put on the authority’s replacement housing list, with those at the top getting first dibs on the roughly 6,000 units to be built by 2009.

Critics say the CHA can’t seem to carry out the human side of the redevelopment plan. “There are plenty of people who argued that [the CHA] should have started these social services [at the beginning of] the Plan for Transformation,” said Adam Gross, an attorney with BPI. “It’s a very strong possibility that there will be a lot of otherwise eligible people who won’t meet the [work requirement].”

Although every development has a unique set of criteria, most require that families also have adequate childcare and a solid or improving credit rating. And they typically subject residents to drug screening and criminal background checks.

But the 30-hour-a-week work requirement, which can be met with a combination of work, school and job training, is what worries most. “That’s a tall order; a lot of employers are not hiring people full time,” said Francine Washington, the president of the elected Local Advisory Council at the Stateway Gardens complex on the South Side. “McDonald’s and Burger King are only giving 20 to 25 hours.”

Although Washington is a member of the working group that approved the 30-hour rule for her development, she said that, if it ended up barring large numbers of her residents, “I’m going to have to fight it.”

Unemployment and poverty remain widespread. Of the roughly 9,000 families left in CHA’s developments, about 7,000 have incomes of less than $8,000 a year, agency documents show. And, among the more than 30,000 families using housing vouchers in the private market, only 29 percent get more than half of their income from wages.

Mayo can rattle off jobs she’s held, including stints as a security officer for Wells-Fargo and a cargo handler at O’Hare Airport. But she has now been job hunting for months, looking for work in hospitals and with security firms, and so far has come up empty. “I think if you don’t know anybody, you’re not going to get anything,” she said.

Several years ago, the CHA put in place a social services program called the Service Connector that Mayo said she tried. “They give you little referral cards [for jobs],” she said.

But the cards didn’t help much, Mayo said, because they had been given out to so many people. “I am trying to find something on my own.”

The CHA’s slow start with the new supportive services program seems like déjí  vu to many.

Experts complained in 2002 that the agencies hired to run the Service Connector program were underfunded and understaffed, and that the whole operation was put together on an ad hoc basis, with very little planning.

In 2003, the CHA reconfigured the program, eventually boosting its budget from $7 million to $20 million.

“Residents and advocates have been saying for years that social services are an essential part of the mix. This shouldn’t be an issue at the 11th hour,” said Gross.

At the end of 2004, BPI lawyers said half the public housing replacement units completed by the CHA that year remained vacant, some for many months.

On Dec. 16, 2004, BPI filed a motion in federal court asking U.S. District Judge Marvin E. Aspen to order the CHA to take all steps necessary to get tenants into vacant units. Gross said those steps should include the CHA getting developers lists of prospective tenants and pressing them to get social services up and running.

On Feb. 15, Aspen honored the CHA’s request to prepare a written response. The agency will present it to the court in April.

Developers who got a late start include Elzie Higginbottom’s East Lake Management and Development Corp., a prominent Chicago real estate firm hired to redo the old Rockwell Gardens site on the West Side. CHA’s Johnson said East Lake recently hired a firm to handle supportive services at Rockwell.

No one at East Lake returned calls seeking comment.

Shahshak B. Levi, the newly-elected head of one of the tenant-run councils at the Robert Taylor Homes, has had trouble getting information from the CHA. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

Despite the troubles, in some places, supportive services are up and running.

“It’s not rocket science,” said Bill Goldsmith, executive director of The Community Builders Inc., which bills itself as the nation’s largest nonprofit urban housing developer. “My folks are out there every week knocking on doors.”

The company was chosen to lead the redevelopment of the South Side’s Ida B. Wells and Madden Park developments. In 1999, Wells and Madden were an eclectic collection of mid-rises, high-rises and townhomes clustered near the lake at 37th Street. Since then, most of the land has been cleared in preparation for the new community.

In March 2002, The Community Builders Inc. signed its contract with the CHA to remake the developments. The company began its own supportive services program a year later. It is responsible not just for the few families remaining in the development but those displaced to other CHA developments or to surrounding neighborhoods.

But, unlike some Service Connector caseworkers, who were saddled with large caseloads, supportive services programs typically work with fewer residents.

And, since Goldsmith knows well in advance when the company will finish a batch of units—163 will be done this year, with 63 reserved for public housing families—it can begin evaluating people, looking for where they might fall short of requirements, he said.

So far, the company’s supportive services work has been successful, Goldsmith said. Last year, the developer finished 35 units, including nine for public housing families.

And the families they worked with over the course of the year had already come close to meeting the developer’s criteria. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Goldsmith said.

Next year will be a bigger challenge. He expects the CHA to give his company the names of approximately 350 families from the replacement housing list in the hopes of getting 63 who qualify. Goldsmith is confident his company will reach that goal this year, but he said he’s glad to have some time. “You really need a good year to help families make the criteria,” he said.

Gross said the chief problem is that all the developers are supposed to coordinate social services for their own developments, but many have little or no experience in that field. He points to Goldsmith’s group as one with a track record in social services.

Goldsmith, for his part, said the simple explanation might be that his company is a nonprofit. “I’m not saying a for-profit can’t be mission driven,” he said. But the “corporate culture” of The Community Builders isn’t primarily about money-making, he added. “That’s how we have to define ourselves and we hire people who have the same mission,” he said.

Bill Goldsmith, executive director of The Community Buildres Inc., has been tapped to lead the redevelopment of the old Ida B. Wells and Madden Park publich housing developments. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

Other developments have not seen the same progress. At Taylor, Mayo’s home, the CHA has demolished most of the development’s high-rises, leaving a giant expanse of empty land stretching nearly two miles along the Dan Ryan Expressway. By 2009, the CHA plans to replace it with a mixed-income community of low-rises and townhomes called Legends South.

Brinshore-Michaels Development, a north suburban-based developer, is putting the finishing touches on some of the new units. The developer has entrusted its supportive services program to the new property manager, Interstate Realty Management Co.

But neither the CHA, Brinshore nor Interstate can explain what supportive services, if any, have been provided.

“We’ve been getting very vague reports from CHA and Brinshore,” said Greg Washington, president of the Grand Boulevard Federation, a community organization in the Bronzeville area.

He is a member of the Robert Taylor Homes Working Group, which is responsible for planning all aspects of Taylor’s redevelopment. It also includes Taylor resident leaders and representatives from the CHA, BPI and the developers.

“We don’t really know how many families are on the [replacement] list, how many they have contacted, whether the employment criteria is a problem and for how many,” Greg Washington added. “They can’t even tell us if they are able to find the other residents.”

Veronica Roundtree, district property manager for Interstate, would not return calls seeking comment.

The CHA has garnered $60 million in federal HOPE VI grants for the Robert Taylor Homes—a portion of which can be devoted to social services. The federal government created the HOPE VI program in 1992 and earmarked its funding to demolish and rebuild public housing all over the country.

At their January meeting, several members of the Taylor Working Group asked Anthony Alvarez, a CHA official in the group, to prepare more detailed information on what has been done and how the CHA and the developer will make sure families can qualify for the new units.

To date, that hasn’t been done, leaving Greg Washington puzzled. “It’s such a complicated process,” he said. “You’d think they’d welcome our participation.”

At Stateway Gardens, a development consortium, including the Chicago-based Davis Development Group, has chosen Northwestern University to operate its supportive services program.

“It could have been up and running a year ago,” said Francine Washington.

In 1999, Stateway’s eight buildings stood across the expressway from the old Comiskey Park and were home to roughly 700 families, mostly women and children. Only one building is left.

And Francine Washington’s not sure the $1.7 million set aside for supportive services there will last long enough to help all 700 families meet the new development’s requirements. “Hopefully, we’ll do some fundraising and put in for some grants,” she said.

Stateway resident Gloria Dickson is being considered for one of the new homes, but she doesn’t yet qualify. She moved into Stateway in 1975 with one small child and another on the way after a fire left them homeless. The 51-year-old now works as a caretaker at a North Side animal shelter, but for only 20 hours a week. “I don’t know if I can get any more hours or not,” Dickson said. “They are not available right now.”

Most developers are flexible, allowing residents to supplement part-time work with school or job training.

Dickson would like to go back to school but is still paying off a student loan. She earned an associate’s degree from Harold Washington College in 1990 and took classes at DePaul University in 1997, but dropped out after suffering from depression.

She said employers always seemed to be looking for someone with more work experience. When she wasn’t working, she kept busy volunteering with Head Start and a school lunch program. “I did the best I could with what I had,” she said.

Now grown, her children have their own homes, and she shares her apartment with a small white cat she named Vanity Fair.

Dickson thinks she will be able to pull something together, but she remains unsure. “Will I be able to do what they expect of me?” she wonders.

What worries many residents, advocates and researchers is that public housing replacement units will come down the pike at an increasing pace during the last five years of the transformation plan. During the past three years, 561 new public housing units were finished. The CHA proposes to build another 4,500 units by 2009.

And, since the developer only recently signed a contract to provide supportive services, the work to help qualify displaced families has not even begun at Rockwell Gardens.

In 1999, the Near West Side development housed 439 families. But it has been reduced to just four remaining high-rises, and the CHA says it will demolish them in 2005. East Lake has started reconstruction, with 14 new public housing units completed before October 2004.

Yet neither the CHA nor Eileen Rhodes, director of development for East Lake Management, would comment on the service program delay.

There’s also no program at Cabrini-Green, but the developer, Holsten Real Estate Development Corp., promised to have a separate supportive services plan ready within the next few months—more than a year before the company finishes its next batch of new units.

Holsten has concentrated on building affordable housing during its 30-year existence. Peter Holsten, the company’s president, said he and his employees are comfortable with the human aspect of reconstruction and plan to provide the supportive services themselves, with the elected tenant council as a partner.

Although Holsten has already built and leased North Town Village, a small mixed-income community on the edge of the Cabrini site that includes about 85 public housing families, he said the real test will come when his company breaks ground for the 718 units the city has billed as the heart of a new neighborhood. Roughly 200 will be for public housing families. “There were a number of buildings taken down in the 1990s,” Holsten said. “And maybe 500 families were relocated, and [North Town Village] took only 79 of them.”

With the help of a $50 million HOPE VI grant, the city is building new sewer and water lines for the bigger project. Holsten said his company is in the middle of getting the financing together and hopes to begin building in early 2006.

But some questions remain, such as how Holsten will pay for the supportive services.

Holsten said the CHA originally planned to reserve $10 million of the HOPE VI grant for social services, but the agency either spent most of that money over the years or reserved it for something else. His company has “yet to be told how much of the $10 million we can use,” he said.

The long-term picture isn’t any clearer. The CHA has been telling everyone for years that it is getting out of the housing business. Private developers like Holsten and East Lake will control the operation of the mixed-income communities, and they will be responsible for raising money to operate the social services after the replacement units are completed and leased.

That worries Maurice Edwards, a long-time Cabrini resident, who was recently re-elected vice president of the development’s advisory council. Edwards said many of the neighbors he has known for decades “could still fall through the cracks if the social ills are not addressed.”

“Clearly, there have to be resident services for the life of the project,” Holsten said.

Holsten said he would like to put in place a permanent organization that helps low-income residents get over barriers to employment, like providing money for work clothes, and also sponsors social events that get higher-income residents involved in the lives of their neighbors.

The CHA’s struggles with the human side of redevelopment are not new. In 2002, former U.S. Attorney Thomas P. Sullivan, who was brought in to watch over the relocation process after residents threatened to sue the CHA, wrote a series of reports exposing the Service Connector program’s shortcomings.

Still, the CHA fought the release of Sullivan’s reports. The agency eventually relented by making Sullivan’s final report public, and reconfigured the program.

But the continuing inability of groups, like the Robert Taylor Homes Working Group, to get basic information about what’s happening brings back those bad memories for some advocates.

There are signs that, behind the scenes, the city realizes the seriousness of the situation.

Holsten said he met with Mayor Daley in early February to get an OK for his Cabrini plans, and the mayor emphasized the importance of jump-starting the social service program.

But many still fear that most of the families will be permanently displaced to poor neighborhoods like Englewood.

Sudhir Venkatesh, a Columbia University researcher, just finished a survey of roughly 400 families waiting for replacement units. “Many of them have been declared ineligible because they just have no chance of qualifying,” said Venkatesh, who has tracked and interviewed hundreds of displaced public housing families.

He hopes the city will come clean and bring outside observers, advocates and residents into a wider, public discussion about why many families are not eligible.

But he said some attention should also be paid to improving the safety and environment of places where most public housing residents will ultimately end up—the remaining public housing developments and communities like Englewood, Grand Boulevard and West Garfield Park. “People are interested in making mixed-income housing work—which is good,” Venkatesh said. “But we’re forgetting that thousands and thousands of families are not going to end up in those places.”

Miriam Cintrón and Cassandra Gaddo helped research this article.

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