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Chicago Has Struggled to Build Mixed-Income Housing for 50 Years

It’s been the CHA’s goal since long before the Plan for Transformation, but resistance and mismanagement have dogged it since the 1960s.

24-year-old Antwan Jones, homeless since the age of 16, enters an apartment he obtained through La Casa Norte’s scattered-site program in 2014.   Photo: Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune

Two stories have been making the rounds in my areas of interest this week, and they’re related. The first is a new joint study from the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Urban Institute on segregation in Chicago and its costs. The other is a piece by WBEZ’s Natalie Moore on the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation and its failure to create mixed-income housing: of the nearly 17,000 households affected by the plan, only about eight percent ended up in mixed-income communities. Had it worked, it almost by definition would have increased desegregation in the city by moving people out of highly segregated public housing. But it didn’t make much of a dent, putting a mere 1,316 households in mixed-income communities.

The Plan for Transformation started in 2000, but it isn’t the city’s first failure to integrate public housing into the city at large. The first of the famous Gautreaux lawsuits, class-action cases that challenged the deliberate segregation of midcentury public-housing construction in Chicago, was filed in 1966, and a decision against the CHA was handed down in 1969 by a U.S. district court. As Harold Henderson explains in a 1994 overview of the case, Judge Richard Austin imposed limits on the agency: a maximum of 120 people per project; no more than 15 percent of family public housing in any census tract; and only 50 percent CHA residents per project.

The response from the city?

Richard J. Daley’s CHA read the judge’s order as you might expect, even after the court did away with the aldermanic veto in 1974. Gautreaux did stop the construction of segregated high rises, but only by stopping everything else too. Between 1969 and 1979 the CHA built a total of 117 new apartments, about 1 percent of its production in the previous 15 years.

In desperation, [civil rights lawyer Alexander] Polikoff agreed to a deal with CHA head Charles Swibel and mayor Jane Byrne in 1982. “In exchange for their promise to push scattered-site housing, we gave up on the first 700 units, and we switched to 50-50 [units in black versus white neighborhoods, instead of 25-75 as ordered before]. But they still didn’t do the job.”

Resistance fueled the delay. In 1972, a group called the Nucleus of Chicago Homeowners Association (NO-CHA) filed suit against the CHA, claiming that public housing residents have “a higher propensity toward criminal behavior and acts of physical violence, a disregard for the physical and esthetic maintenance of real and personal property, and a lower commitment to hard work.” (Their lawsuit failed, and finding themselves $28,000 in the hole to their lawyers, they held a two-week “street carnival” at a shopping center in Marquette Park—where Martin Luther King had been the target of violent riots several years before.)

In 1980, a federal judge threatened to put the CHA in receivership if it didn’t start its scattered-site program. In 1983, a goal was set to buy 390 apartments, 219 in predominantly white neighborhoods, by January 13, 1984; on January 5, the Tribune reported that the CHA had only secured 54. The CHA met its deadline, but later that year a court-appointed committee questioned why “a high proportion of the units the authority purchased are in communities such as Garfield Park, Austin, South Shore, Edgewater, Uptown, and Logan Square,” concluding that the scattered sites had “not been scattered.”

The Tribune’s Patrick Reardon reexamined the effort in 1986, concluding that the scattered-site program was “brouhaha without benefit.” One-third of the units were crammed into Uptown, Edgewater, Englewood, South Shore, and Logan Square. Three-quarters were concentrated in 16 neighborhoods, while “thirty-one city neighborhoods—most in the solidly white middle-class enclaves on the fringes of the city—have no scattered-site units.”

By 1987, the scattered-site units were in receivership; 1,100 had been purchased, but only half were occupied. The rest, the Tribune reported, “are still being renovated or are vacant"—the result, in part, of the buying binge the CHA had to go on to meet court-ordered deadlines, which left the department with far more work to do than it had money or manpower for.

In 1994, Reardon concluded that, despite some success turning development over to the Habitat Co., a private firm, “Chicago’s scattered-site public housing program never had a fair chance of reaching its lofty goal of helping desegregate a city.” At that point, Habitat was on the way to 1,398 units, but 905 of those were in Uptown, South Shore, Logan Square, West Town, and Humboldt Park; 404 of those were concentrated in Humboldt Park. “The alternative isn’t here [in Humboldt Park] or Sauganash,” Polikoff, the lawyer behind the Gauxtreau case, told Reardon. “The alternative may be here or nowhere.”

Polikoff noted that housing prices made the limited budget for scattered-site housing difficult to use in predominantly white neighborhoods on the city’s borders. But when Habitat found a three-flat in Dunning on the Far Northwest Side, there was a revolt:

Hundreds of angry residents poured into the Hiawatha Park gym last spring when word spread that a three-flat in the neighborhood was slated to be turned over to scattered-site public housing.

Living four blocks away from the apartment building, Karen Karaman shared their fears.

“Everyone was afraid that gangsters would move in,” said Karaman, a mother of four children. “I was thinking the same thing.”

A couple of months later, Karaman separated from her husband and found herself in need of housing assistance. In December, she and her children moved in on the second floor of the Far Northwest Side building that had sparked so much opposition.

“I was against it, never knowing I would find myself applying for something like this,” Karaman said, sitting at the kitchen table as her children quietly watched television. “This was like a gift from heaven.”

The project went through. But as the director of public housing for Lutheran Social Services—which managed the building—noted, black families who were eligible passed up the opportunity because “they did not feel comfortable” after the backlash.

Much remains the same. A proposed private mixed-income building in Jefferson Park has brought opposition reminiscent of the Hiawatha Park situation. The CHA is behind on its promises, especially those of moving residents to mixed-income communities—but its best outcomes from the Plan for Transformation have been those hard-to-build scattered-site units.

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