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.
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.
Annie Ricks' frustration and unhappiness are not unusual as the CHA and others struggle to improve the physical living conditions of hundreds of thousands of poor and low-income families stuck in substandard public housing across the country. At one point, 15,000 people lived in Cabrini-Green before deteriorating conditions, gang and drug violence, and other crime earned the 58-year-old complex a reputation as the most notorious of Chicago's dangerous housing projects and transformed it into a national symbol of inner-city warehousing of America's largely black and brown urban underclass.
The worst of these prison-like, concrete and wire-encased towers, like Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes and the infamous Pruitt-Igoe Homes in St. Louis, have been razed or blown up. But many still wonder what happened to the people who once lived in them. Where did they go, and what became of their lives? Are they better or worse off today than when they lived in "the projects"? At one point, as many as 30,000 people lived in the 28 sixteen-story Taylor Homes buildings. Pruitt-Igoe had 5,800 apartments in 33 eleven-story buildings before the last buildings were razed in 1976 to make way for mixed-income townhouses.
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.
Brenda Lockett lived in Cabrini-Green high-rises for 40 years before being relocated to a rehabbed apartment in nearby row houses six months ago. Like Annie Ricks, she was not happy about it at first and did not want to leave the only home she had ever known. "It was the fear of the unknown," Lockett says. "You can live at a certain place for so long that you can get complacent. You get comfortable with what you have become accustomed to. But I didn't realize when I moved out of the high-rises that things would begin to look different."
Housing authority officials say they are not unsympathetic to the stress caused by the massive dislocations, and strive to minimize it as much as possible. "I am extremely empathetic to the families who have called Cabrini-Green their home for so many years, and to the anxiety that change brings," CHA chief Jordan said in an interview. "Change is not a simple proposition, and having to leave decades of memories behind cannot be an easy thing. But the reality is that 1230 N. Burling [the building where Annie Ricks lived] is in disrepair, and CHA, in good conscience, could not allow good people to stay there any longer than was necessary."
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.
"There is just not enough affordable housing," Sandra Henriquez, assistant secretary for the Office of Public and Indian Housing at HUD, said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. "We are losing 10,000 units a year, and we cannot keep them repaired and inhabitable."
At the same time, Henriquez said, housing authorities need to ensure that people's lives aren't so disrupted by relocation that it overshadows the benefits of moving. "One of the things is to make sure people aren't lost," she said. "Whether they have a voucher to move out of public housing or they transfer from one housing project to another, we would like housing authorities to think about wrapping a basket of services around each family that addresses what they need, how they get to work, where they want to be, and helps them locate the right sort of accommodations for schools, jobs and transportation. Knowing that we will not always be able to get to 'yes' on everyone's checklist, but realizing that relocation of any kind is disruptive to people's lives, we are striving for a velvet-glove approach rather than just telling people, 'You've got to move.' "
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."
Annie Ricks' painful plight mirrors that of many others in public housing across the U.S. "Even though I chose Wentworth, I might be there a month, but I'm still going to come out every day, bugging them for the right to return, because I'm not giving up. I'm going to hold them to it," she said of the CHA promise that she could return to a renovated apartment in the Cabrini neighborhood that she loved, despite the crime and violence that made it nearly uninhabitable. "I was well-known and loved over there, and I didn't want to leave."
Looking wistfully out the kitchen window of her new apartment in Wentworth Gardens, Ricks said that she had seen a few other relocated families from Cabrini now living in the renovated complex. "It will help a little, but it's still not going to be like home," she said. Then she paused and added: "On the other hand, I am not mad at them [CHA], because at least I am not homeless."
Sylvester Monroe is a native of Chicago and frequent contributor to The Root.