What Went Wrong With the Chicago Housing Authority?

FrontCoverOn October 5, the public gathered in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium of the Harold Washington Library Center to listen to D. Bradford Hunt, associate professor of Social Sciences at Roosevelt University and author of the book Blueprint for Disaster: The Unravelling of Chicago Public Housing, speak about the Chicago Housing Authority.

Hunt’s book, which took ten years to research and write, poses a deceptively simple question: What went wrong?

“How did a well intentioned program that worked for two decades descend into chaos?” Hunt asked.

Hunt as though there are four main reasons as to why CHA failed; rents and budgeting, site selection, high-rises and youth densities.

The first reason involves a decision to use income-based rents rather than fixed rents. Income limits were set to be comparable to what residents were making and, for example, the percentage rose during World War II when there were more jobs that paid better.

A chart showing the decrease in tenant income from employment and the increase of tenants whose source of income was public assistance.  Courtesy of Brad Hunt.

A chart showing the decrease in tenant income from employment and the increase of tenants whose source of income was public assistance. Courtesy of Brad Hunt.

“The structure was fairly simple. The federal government was able to pay for building and clearing. Then the rents would maintain the buildings,” Hunt remarked.

Unfortunately, this provided people with an incentive to hide their incomes. In addition to this, the CHA lost working-class tenants and ended up having more tenants that relied on welfare.

Site selection was strongly influenced by a racist city council in the ‘40s and ‘50s. While the CHA wanted to build some large developments on vacant land and try to move residents out of the slums in the “black belt,” the city council only allowed what would later become Altgeld Gardens to be built on vacant land. The other large projects were built in slums that were cleared.

The idea of high-rises, however, were entered in to as an experiment. Although, by the mid-‘50s, the feelings towards the experiment were beginning to bitter due to problems with the design. But high-rises were built due to cost conservation.

But when the fourth point was arrived at, Hunt remarked, “There are too many children here,” a play on the title There Are No Children Here.

“It is not that people were having too many kids,” Hunt explained. “It was about the policy decisions that concentrated youth.”

Many units were build to hold large families simply because they were viewed as being those most in need of housing assistance. While the average child-to-adult ratio in Chicago was less than one youth per adult, the youth-to-adult ratio at the Robert Taylor Homes was at one point 2.8 youths per adult. As the result of this, and the design of high-rises, parents often had a hard time supervising children who were at play. Elevators were often treated as playthings by children. According to Hunt’s book, shortly after the opening of the Robert Taylor Homes, elevator repairs had to be made daily. Tenants tried to oversee the elevators to prevent abuse from occurring, but to no avail, as was the case with many situations where the tenants picked up where the CHA left off.

“The tenants actively sought to create order and were frustrated,” Hunt said.

Tenants of the Robert Taylor Homes at 5326 S. Federal paint the stairwell.  Photo courtesy of Brad Hunt.

Tenants of the Robert Taylor Homes at 5326 S. Federal paint the stairwell. Photo courtesy of Brad Hunt.

Tenants would maintain the buildings mainly because there was no money for the CHA to maintain the buildings.

Hunt’s lecture occurs at an interesting time for the city of Chicago. Not only is the city recognizing the hundred year anniversary of the Burnham Plan, but the Chicago Housing Authority Plan for Transformation has reached a ten year mark, which led to some interesting points Tuesday night.

“Not all [projects] have been torn down. Wentworth and Altgeld are safe,” Hunt said. “I think they’ll be fine. There will be problems.”

But a startling statistic was shown at the lecture about the reduction of units after the implementation of the Plan for Transformation. Before the Plan for Transformation, there were 43,600 units of housing. By 2015, it is projected that there will be 25,000 units. At Cabrini-Green on the near north side of Chicago, all but three high-rises have been torn down in an area that is quickly being gentrified.

“A lot of the residents view it as a land grab,” Hunt said. “And all of the sudden, these condos went up. Could we have kept those high-rises? I think not.”

But beyond the four main points brought up in the lecture, there are many other reasons as to why the CHA demised. Jim Fuerst, a former CHA staff member and author of the book When Public Housing Was Paradise, pointed out that during the ’60s and ’70s, people that were subpar for the job were running the CHA. Other points were made that the CHA did not do a good job of checking the individuals they housed, unlike the New York City Housing Authority. In Hunt’s book, the many different aspects are explored in depth to try to answer the question that may still plague the CHA as it moves towards the future.

“We need to continue to understand why it [public housing] worked in some communities,” Hunt said. “Housing is still a viable issue.”

Brad Hunt’s book Blueprint for Disaster: The Unravelling of Chicago Public Housing can be found at local bookstores and most Borders locations in Chicago.

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3 thoughts on “What Went Wrong With the Chicago Housing Authority?

  1. Great blog. I just want to mention that there are 5 Cabrini Green high-rise buildings left. Well, I guess 3 are considered high-rises, but there are two mid-rise red buildings left also.

  2. Cabrini Buildings that are left:

    364 and 365 W. Oak, mid-rise red buildings.
    1230 Larrabee, 1230 Burling, 660 Division (just closed) high rise white buildings.
    660 Division is next on the list for demolition.

    And of course, the rowhouses are still there and are being rehabbed.

  3. I might have needed to have made that clearer in this, but when I was referring to Cabrini-Green I specifically mentioned the high-rises. Thank you for clarifying, though.

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