Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a two-part series.
CHICAGO — Annie Lloyd, 60, thinks living in Cabrini-Green ruined her life. She first stepped into Chicago’s Near North Side public housing project on July 7, 1977, with 4-, 3- and 2-year-old children. She thought she would be able to take advantage of the cheap rent and save money to take her kids to their own home. She left about 20 years later in the throes of drug addiction, her youngest son bragging about his gang affiliation.
Lloyd calls Cabrini-Green a trap. Low screening standards in the 1970s meant the mix of high-rise buildings and row houses were options of last resort for Chicago’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Many belonged to local gangs, often fighting one another across Division Street’s dividing line.
The drug trade within the projects was rampant, providing cash to young men and women who didn’t know how to use it and addiction to those unable to fight it. When Lloyd moved in, she didn’t know anyone. Then, she met a man. Then, she met his friends. Eventually, she said, she started to live like they lived.
“I got stuck on the drugs,” Lloyd said. “That was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
Lloyd was happy to see the Cabrini-Green buildings go, demolished over the first decade of the 2000s as part of the redevelopment plan from the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA).
Robin Goins’ opinions could not be more different. Living in Cabrini-Green isn’t what she says ruined her life — it was leaving it.
Goins, 58, is homeless. She is staying with an aunt on Chicago’s West Side. After leaving her building at 500-502 W. Oak St. in 2006, life went downhill for her and her family. Her oldest son went to jail on drug charges in 2007 and her youngest son, then 7, went “buckwild” without the supervision of his brother or the wider Cabrini-Green community to keep him on track. Goins eventually lost the voucher for subsidized housing that she received to relocate from her Near North unit. Without the subsidy, she couldn’t afford to pay rent and ended up without a home of her own.
She is not alone. Fully 46 percent of the nearly 1,800 families in Cabrini-Green at the end of 1999, when the CHA announced its Plan for Transformation, are no longer in CHA housing. Some may have died or stopped needing the aid, but keeping a voucher is harder than staying in traditional public housing was, and many people have lost the subsidy. If residents get behind on their utility bills, for example, they could lose their vouchers. In traditional public housing, utilities are included.
For several former Cabrini-Green residents, the cost of living has skyrocketed since they moved out of the housing complex. Patricia Orr, who also relocated from 500-502 W. Oak St., remembers paying $176 per month when she lived in her public housing unit. When she moved out and had her rent subsidized by the voucher, she said she paid about $310 per month. In the last year, since she lost her voucher, Orr’s rent has gone up to $1,000 per month with utility bills on top of that.
Does she miss Cabrini sometimes?
“I miss it a lot of times,” Orr said. “Especially the times you pay rent.”
Orr’s family lived in Cabrini-Green for decades. Her mother stayed in the same apartment for 30 years. Orr loved her home and felt like she had a nice, spacious place to live, surrounded by a supportive community. One year, she even planted flowers around the building.
Sure, Orr admits the projects were dangerous. She remembers choosing her outings between shootings.
“But I loved the area,” Orr said. “It was closer to downtown. You could walk downtown, walk wherever you wanted to. Now, if you want to go downtown, you have to catch, like, three buses.”
Orr lives on the West Side, near plenty of former Cabrini-Green residents. Many of them left the Near North for the South and West sides where they had family or friends. One of the official policy goals of demolishing Chicago’s high-rise public housing was to cut down on segregation and limit the clustering of poverty.
Vouchers are supposed to give people the chance to live in more expensive areas with access to jobs, good schools and safe neighborhoods. But people make their housing decisions based on what they know, and Cabrini-Green residents knew the West and South sides.
Voucher holders also face discrimination, as they try to move into better areas. A report from the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law found widespread discrimination against voucher holders generally, and even more severely against Black or disabled housing seekers. Discrimination against voucher holders is illegal in Chicago and Cook County.
Betsy Shuman-Moore is the director of the Fair Housing and Hate Crime Projects for the lawyers’ committee, which is known as CLCCR. She has spent virtually her entire career working on fair housing issues in Chicago and finds herself discouraged by the city’s enduring segregation, which she calls shameful.
“It leads to a poor quality of life for all residents,” Shuman-Moore said. “It leads to a limited view of life for all people and limited opportunities to succeed for people in low opportunity areas.”
Very targeted programs have had some success with helping people make “opportunity moves,” as they’re called — moves to diverse, low-poverty neighborhoods that are safe, close to good schools and have access to good jobs and transportation options. Different efforts have defined opportunity moves slightly differently but the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) used this “beefed up” metric in a three-year study it completed in 2014. Earlier programs focused only on race and poverty concentration and have been criticized for overselling the outcomes.
The MPC pilot project connected housing authorities across the greater metropolitan area to give voucher holders more flexibility. Housing Choice Partners provided mobility counseling to all participants, helping place them in 398 apartments in 27 developments across 19 communities. These are the success stories.
Opportunity moves leave people with lower stress in safer neighborhoods and they are often healthier because of it. Some people end up in better financial situations after opportunity moves, but they are by no means the majority. And sometimes it is hard to find oneself in a mixed-income community after a place like Cabrini-Green.
Robert Chaskin, an associate professor at The University of Chicago, has studied community building in some of the city’s new mixed-income developments. His research shows troubling outcomes for the low-income renters. They do benefit from safer neighborhoods and better quality housing but in interviews with families since 2006, Chaskin has heard stories of significant exclusion and isolation.
“Many of them have traded off more safety for less freedom,” Chaskin said.
That’s exactly why former Cabrini-Green resident Orr does not want to move into some of the new mixed-income developments in the Near North. She misses Cabrini-Green and its prime location but is happy to do without the units that have taken its place. From her relatives and acquaintances in those new developments she hears about rules against barbecuing, hosting parties and even letting kids play outside. For those relying on the subsidized housing, stringent rules supply new stresses they didn’t have before. If they don’t follow the rules, they could be evicted.
Chaskin has found that mixed-income developments also have not connected low-income renters with better jobs or integrated them into the broader city, like policymakers hoped. He says there are lessons to be learned from the last 10 years of analysis. Mixed-income building is not enough.
“It’s about addressing the problems created by concentrated urban poverty but it’s purely a spatial and housing solution to what is a much more complex set of social and economic problems,” Chaskin said. “It doesn’t really address poverty at all.”
Housing is not a right guaranteed by either the Illinois or United States constitutions. For years, the CHA relaxed its screening requirements and chose to provide for those who otherwise would have been homeless. That led to rampant drug abuse and crime in fortressed projects no matter how close to the city center they were. The agency has since circled back to tougher screening requirements and increasingly shifted from providing traditional public housing units to vouchers so residents can use subsidies in the private market.
Letting the CHA place the city’s poor, though, only addresses part of the problem. Yes, people need a place to sleep at night, but Chaskin’s research shows the importance of neighborhoods and the need for dedicated investment in poor and working-class communities — including their schools. In some ways, Chaskin says, the focus on shiny new buildings just steals our attention.
“Our housing policy,” Chaskin said, “is not putting us on a path to deal with those broader issues.”
Read the first part of this series to learn more about the history and purpose of Cabrini-Green public housing in Chicago.
Tara García Mathewson, a 2014 Equal Voice Journalism Fellow, is a Boston-based journalist. Previously, she worked in Chicago. This report received support from Marguerite Casey Foundation, which sponsors the fellowship and publishes Equal Voice News. As part of the fellowship, she made the top photograph, which shows new construction, as seen in December 2014, on the old Cabrini-Green property. The development will bring mixed-income residences to the area. The downtown Chicago skyline is in the background.
2015 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper