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.
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."