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Closing Cabrini-Green

When the last tenant moved out of Chicago's notorious housing project, it signaled the end of an era and raised questions about the future of displaced tenants -- and public housing itself.

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Jordan said he was confident, though, that the relocation choices offered to displaced, low-income public housing tenants will eventually not only improve their living conditions but also afford them brighter futures. The choices include moving to so-called scattered-site housing all over the city using Section 8 vouchers or relocating to new or renovated public housing apartments. "It's a misnomer that families who relocated from public housing units have left public housing," said Jordan.

Part of the goal, the CHA chief explained, is to end the extreme isolation and disconnectedness of poor people who live in racially and economically segregated public housing that breeds crime and violence and other anti-social behavior. "You put a bad neighborhood into another bad neighborhood, and the violence just escalates," said Deonte Ricks, a 25-year-old home-security salesman and one of Annie Ricks' eight children. "If you put bad-behaving people in a good neighborhood, they have no choice but to adapt to the environment."

In fact, that is the basic idea behind Chicago's Plan for Transformation project, launched 10 years ago to demolish the worst of the city's public housing and replace it with new mixed-income developments scattered across the city. "What people are seeking around the country really is how we can better connect families from low-income public housing to the larger communities," said Jordan.

"It's an ongoing struggle," said John Trasviña, assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at HUD, who was in Chicago last week for the CHA press conference on rehabbed senior housing. "The worst thing is to have people living in difficult situations and say you have to leave to get something physically better, but it's still segregated. You want to redress segregation as well. It's not just better housing, but fairer housing."

But sometimes, even when "fairer" housing is available to low-income families who have known nothing but segregated public complexes all their lives, they choose not to accept it. "In most cases, moving from what they had initially, it can't do anything but get better," said Chicago Alderman Walter Burnett Jr., who represents the 27th Ward, which includes Cabrini-Green, where he lived until he was 17 years old. "But some go to areas of the city that are still crime-ridden, and they are comfortable with that. They may end up moving to worse communities than they left, but the key thing is that they get the choice."

Despite Chicago's success in relocating public housing tenants to improved accommodations, the city and other urban centers like it across the country face severe shortages in housing for low-income families. Part of the reason is that as older properties are demolished or renovated, not enough new housing is available to keep up with the need.

As the old pre- and post-World War II stock of ill-fated, multidwelling, high-rise and low-rise public housing is being replaced, many lives, like Annie Ricks', are still being painfully displaced. Former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, who saw many thousands of poor people relocated from places with names like Techwood Homes, Brady Homes and Bankhead Homes to make way for Atlanta's downtown redevelopment, said there needs to be serious sociological study to determine the impact that this transformation is having on families.

"It's an interesting question, and one that should be examined by social scientists in terms of tracking exactly where the people are dispersed to and finding out if their quality of life is vastly improved," said Campbell, who was mayor of Atlanta from 1994 to 2002. "No matter how bad some of those areas were, there was a sense of community and family. Is the trade-off of a better place to live worth losing the sense of family and community? I don't know the answer. But what I did know as mayor was that the horrible conditions that existed for so long could not continue."

Campbell said he was moved to make rehabilitating public housing in Atlanta a priority early in his administration, when he went to the Bankhead housing project in west Atlanta to express his condolences to the family of a 2-year-old child who had choked to death on a cockroach. "I felt the tragedy most profoundly," he said in an interview in Atlanta, "when I knocked on the door and a young girl about 13 or 14 years old answered. She was the mother. After seeing the despair, hopelessness and crime there, I felt there was an obligation to change that, and we did make remarkable changes."

Campbell said the most important achievement of his administration was the transformation of public housing in Atlanta. "For all the greatness of Atlanta, including the civil rights movement, Atlanta was a very poor city, with an enormous amount of public housing and poverty, and it had to be changed," he said. "And we did that. But as with most things, it came with a price: the dissolution of community, the tearing apart of neighbors and family members and friends, and the dispersing of many of these people who had lived in these areas for many years."