This year, nearly a quarter-century after the federal government first took over the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), the agency charged with housing the poorest Chicagoans will finally complete the goal it set in the early days after that takeover. The goal, outlined in CHA’s Plan for Transformation, was to build or renovate 25,000 new units of affordable housing.
Building those 25,000 homes was supposed to take the CHA ten years at most, according to an agreement between the agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Instead it has taken nearly twice as long. And on its way to fulfilling that obligation, the CHA has changed not only how it defines a “new unit of affordable housing” but also its overall approach to providing housing, so that the 25,000 number has become almost meaningless. Some of these changes are part of a nationwide move away from building new housing and toward privatization, while others are unique to Chicago.
In the 2017 Housing Issue, the Weekly reported on the CHA’s failure to rebuild housing on the State Street Corridor in Bronzeville, a linked network of high-rise projects that at one time housed more than 100,000 people. Since that story was published, the transformation in the CHA’s housing strategy has become even clearer, as have its consequences: a significant decrease in affordable housing at a time when many parts of Chicago are becoming less affordable than ever.
This year’s version of the agency’s annual plan, which it’s required to submit to HUD, highlights the scope of the change. The agency’s banner item for 2019 is a mixed-income housing project in Little Italy, paired with a new Chicago Public Library branch. The project is one of three combination housing and library projects the CHA has planned as part of an effort to, in the words of a city press release, “rethink old assumptions and come up with new design solutions” and “break the mold of what world-class libraries and housing can look like.” Two more library-housing projects, both on the Far North Side, have opened this year—one in Irving Park and another in West Ridge.
From one standpoint, the authority’s new emphasis on pairing housing with other services such as libraries or grocery stores can be seen as an attempt to learn from its past mistakes—the early State Street Corridor redevelopments were clusters of mid-rise housing that remained surrounded for years by brownfields and vacant properties, far from complete neighborhoods. From another standpoint, the focus on such projects seems to indicate that the agency places less weight than it did in the early 2000s on making up the deficit in public housing units created by the Plan for Transformation.
Forthcoming construction along the State Street Corridor seems poised to follow the same pattern: a 900-unit mixed-income development on the site of the former Harold Ickes homes in the South Loop, expected to break ground later this year after a decade of delay, will include multiple retail stores and a dog spa. The forthcoming fourth phase of the Stateway Gardens redevelopment, meanwhile, is anchored around a Pete’s Fresh Market with more than 200 parking spaces and will likely include about 150 public housing units. (Stateway Gardens originally contained more than 1,600 low-income apartments.) And in the Ida B. Wells development farther east, a sizable parcel of CHA land was used not to build any housing but rather to build a large-scale Mariano’s grocery store which also had more than one hundred parking spaces.
“CHA’s investment in housing is at the heart of its mission, but it takes more than housing to build strong, vibrant communities,” said CHA spokesperson Molly Sullivan in a statement to the Weekly. “For that reason, CHA has invested in community assets [including] new libraries and grocery stores and parks and recreation facilities that serve CHA residents and the entire community.” Sullivan pointed to a new 135,000-square-foot sports and community center in the Pullman neighborhood as an example of this investment, and argued that building only housing was one of the decisions that doomed the authority’s earlier high-rises to failure. “No responsible agency would ever build housing alone,” she said.
Beyond the abovementioned projects, the CHA’s creation of new public housing has been slow over the past few years; at the same time, other city programs designed to create more affordable housing on the private market, such as the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, have underperformed expectations. The authority renovated the former Sears headquarters on the West Side, which resulted in sixty-six new public-housing apartments, and has completed smaller projects in Washington Park, Pilsen, and on the site of the former Maplewood Courts housing project on the Near West Side. These projects, nearly all of which were completed well behind schedule, have resulted in the delivery of a few hundred units of public housing for Chicagoans who make under thirty percent of the Chicago area median income (about $25,000 for a family of four). The developments also include a few hundred more apartments for those who make between forty and eighty percent of the area median income.
To some extent, the authority can blame this shift on factors beyond its control: since the recession, construction costs have risen by more than ten percent, and Congress has slowly winnowed away the federal funding pool for new public housing construction over the past few decades. But some activist groups, including the Chicago Housing Initiative, have argued that the authority’s shift away from new construction represents a deviation from the proposals outlined in the Plan for Transformation and only began once outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011. Thus, despite the fact that it owns hundreds of acres of vacant land across the city, the authority for the most part does not build new housing anymore; indeed, in its latest annual plans the agency has proposed selling off or leasing some of the extra land it still owns. (In a statement to the Weekly, Sullivan explained that some of the land the CHA plans to sell is in neighborhoods where the Gautreaux desegregation court order prohibits it from building new housing.)
At the same time, the CHA has focused on the expansion of its project-based voucher (PBV) programs. A PBV development is an existing or under-construction private building whose developer or owner enters into an agreement with the CHA: the developer rents her property to low-income residents and the CHA subsidizes the rent. The CHA has counted new project-based vouchers (PBVs) toward its 25,000-unit goal since 2010, and such contracts have accounted for almost exactly half of the 5,500 housing units the authority has delivered in that period; these PBV developments range from small apartment buildings in residential neighborhoods to large-scale projects like the Caroline Hedger senior housing development, where residents were divided about the CHA’s decision to build a Target along with 65 new units of affordable housing.
Given that the CHA has long since slashed staffing for public housing construction and maintenance, outsourcing most of its new units to private landlords might seem like the only practical decision. But the agency’s reliance on PBVs has led to some of the same issues as its reliance on the Section 8 voucher program more generally: so long as it focuses on PBVs and vouchers, which rely on partnerships with private property owners, the CHA has only limited control over where in the city it delivers new units. And since white and wealthy neighborhoods have a well-documented history of illegally refusing to accept low-income tenants, PBVs as well as housing vouchers run the risk of reproducing the dynamics of segregation. A 2017 study from Roosevelt University’s Policy Research Collaborative found that South Shore had more voucher-based tenants as thirty of the low-poverty neighborhoods CHA aimed to push those renters toward.
More recently the CHA has experimented with another initiative, the Real Estate Acquisition Program (REAP), which has failed to pan out as expected. REAP allows the CHA to buy newly completed buildings and operate them as public housing in perpetuity. Rather than paying landlords to rent their buildings as mixed-income developments for five to thirty years, as with PBVs, REAP in theory would enable the CHA to build permanent footholds of public housing in wealthier, whiter areas that have none. But according to the agency’s own numbers, the program has yielded practically nonexistent results: since 2013 the CHA has projected that it would acquire 1,355 units through the program. It has acquired seventy-five. (In a statement, the CHA said that “As funding for other developments became more readily available after the housing market recovered, CHA’s reliance on REAP became less important,” but said it intends to continue pursuing new housing through the program.)
In recent years the CHA has also embraced the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, an Obama-administration initiative that taps private funding to pay for repairs to public housing projects. Chicago is far from the only city that has begun transitioning about half its public housing portfolio to RAD—Baltimore, San Francisco, and New York, to name just a few, have also transitioned thousands of their units to RAD contracts that last between fifteen and thirty years. Some residents and activists have criticized the program as an under-the-radar attempt to privatize public housing, but given that federal funding for public housing renovation has all but dried up—the nationwide repair backlog is over $30 billion—RAD likely represents the lesser of two evils. Some cities, including New York, have instituted safeguards to protect landlords from hiking rents for RAD apartments after the contracts expire, and a coalition of organizers called Keeping the Promise is urging Chicago to do the same.
For the CHA, around 200 of these RAD units also count as new public housing units delivered under the Plan for Transformation. In this arrangement, existing affordable housing is “converted” into a long-term CHA contract, and the CHA leverages private capital to pay for their renovation and maintenance. As with PBVs, executing a RAD conversion does not necessarily add any new affordable housing in the city, but merely protects existing apartments. Most RAD renovations have been at housing developments for seniors, whereas all the high-rises knocked down at the turn of the century were family housing. The RAD and PBV programs provide necessary repairs to rapidly aging developments, but the CHA’s reliance on these initiatives to fulfill the Plan for Transformation is perplexing. The Plan was conceived as a way to recoup the destruction of at least 100,000 peoples’ homes, perhaps the largest net loss of affordable housing in the history of the United States.
It’s still unclear how the CHA’s housing strategy may change under a new mayor and without the Plan for Transformation to constrain them. A group of aldermen lead by 10th Ward Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza and 29th Ward Alderman Chris Taliaferro introduced bills last summer to strengthen the city’s affordable housing regulations, but neither passed. As federal funding has decreased and the cost of construction has ballooned, cities across the country have all but stopped building new public housing and have instead subsidized private developers to offer apartments at lower rents. It was unlikely that the CHA would ever stand as an exception to this rule.
“CHA’s work will not end when it meets the goals set forth in the Plan for Transformation,” Sullivan said in a statement to the Weekly. She went on to say that the agency will continue with the mixed-income redevelopment of public housing sites, including the Leclaire Courts development on the Near North Side, which the CHA expects to advance in the coming years. Though the agency has placed an indefinite moratorium on the project-based voucher program, Sullivan says there is still a “pipeline” of new PBVs that will be delivered over the coming years.
“We have been committed to this plan since the beginning, and even though our approach has changed over the years, no other city has ever kept up at this the way we have—we’ve never abandoned this or said, ‘We can’t finish this.'” Both the delay in redevelopment projects and the shift away from new construction, Sullivan said, are the joint result of the recession and the lack of federal funding for public housing.
But regardless of how much control the CHA had over its shifting approach, the end result is the same: if the Plan for Transformation has to some extent represented an evolution in Chicago’s public housing landscape, it has also to some extent meant the erasure of that landscape. The communities that the CHA demolished in the early 2000s will now only reappear in fits and starts, if they reappear at all. And as rents across the city continue to rise, it remains an open question how the post-Plan for Transformation CHA will serve the thousands of Chicagoans in need of an affordable place to live.
This article has been updated to include responses and new information from the Chicago Housing Authority, and also to clarify the mechanics of the project-based voucher program.
Jake Bittle is a former editor-in-chief of the Weekly.