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.

Courtesy of the Chicago Housing Authority

Sometimes, moving is a happy event. Sometimes it's not. Last week, when Annie Ricks and five of her children left the 11th-floor apartment in the dilapidated, 15-story high-rise complex where she has lived for the past 22 years, it was a media event. And Ricks, the last tenant in Chicago's notorious Cabrini-Green public housing project, was not happy.

"I didn't want to leave, but I didn't have a choice," she said in an interview with The Root, while sitting among a sea of boxes in the kitchen of her newly renovated Chicago Housing Authority apartment on the other side of the city. Indeed, the 54-year-old mother of eight from Alabama didn't have a choice about leaving Cabrini. The building where she lived is scheduled to be demolished early next year. She moved there about a year ago, after another Cabrini building, where she had lived for 21 years, was also torn down.

Ricks successfully challenged the housing authority's order to evacuate the building by the end of November. She wanted to move to a rehabbed apartment in a low-rise building, but it was not ready. When Ricks was finally forced to vacate last week after CHA officials decreed that the high-rise building was no longer inhabitable, she was first offered a home in a Cabrini rowhouse apartment. But Ricks was concerned about gun battles between "the reds," residents of the red brick apartments, and "the whites," who live in Cabrini's high-rise towers, an ongoing rivalry fueled by gang and drug violence. "That would have put my kids in jeopardy," she said.

Instead, she was forced to choose between two low-rise CHA properties on the South Side. She also has the option of returning to Cabrini next year when more units are rehabbed. "It was the Dearborn Homes or Wentworth Gardens," she said. "I settled for this one [in Wentworth] because it was not a high-rise." But she said the new apartment is too small.

Though it is completely renovated, with new kitchen appliances and bath fixtures, it has only three bedrooms, compared with the five she had in Cabrini. As a result, Ricks' oldest daughter and her baby son, who lived with Ricks in Cabrini, had to move to their own apartment in a different complex. Ricks also said that the low-rise building hallways are too narrow to get her queen-size bed into the apartment. "I just feel like they didn't try hard enough to accommodate me," she said.

As television cameras and news photographers recorded Annie Ricks' move from the condemned Cabrini-Green apartment building, they also documented the end of an era in Chicago public housing. At the same time, a few blocks away, CHA, City of Chicago, and regional and national HUD officials were holding a celebratory press conference in a renovated public housing building to announce the completion of a massive rehabilitation of 700 apartments for low-income seniors, including upgrades for disabled residents.

Officials also touted the city's compliance with a Voluntary Compliance Agreement between Chicago and HUD three years ahead of schedule. The pact was signed in May 2006. When fully implemented, Chicago will have 9,300 rehabbed units of public housing for seniors, more than any other city in the nation.

"With the completion of these upgrades in our senior portfolio, CHA has set a new standard in accommodating senior and disabled Chicagoans across the city," said Lewis A. Jordan, CEO of the housing authority.

"This is a great day for Chicagoans with disabilities," said Marca Bristo, president and CEO of Access Living, a Chicago organization run by and for people with disabilities. "You have raised the bar for housing authorities across the country."

Bristo said she planned to accompany Jordan to Washington to explain to the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development how Chicago is emerging as a national leader in accessible public housing. It's all part of the city's "Plan for Transformation," which has been touted as the largest redevelopment-rehabilitation of public housing in the history of the United States. For the past decade, the CHA has been relocating low-income families from older, dilapidated public housing buildings into newly constructed or rehabbed properties. But the moves have not always been met with applause.