Before it was demolished as part of a sweeping redevelopment plan, there were 1,426 households in the public housing project consisting of the Ida B. Wells Homes, Madden Park Homes and Clarence Darrow Homes. People displaced by the demolition, which began in 2002, were told they could return; at one point, more than 1,000 replacement units were planned for the site.

Many of the notes and qualifications typically applied to Chicago’s large-scale public housing units can be applied to this site as well. The units provided affordable housing and communities to poor, working-class and mostly black residents of Chicago—Ida B. Wells was the first Chicago public housing project meant for black residents—and developed into symbols of crime and poverty. Their construction reflected the ambitions of local and national leadership to build housing on an unprecedented scale; their decay became a dramatic example of institutional neglect. Ida B. Wells was one-and-a-half times as large as the next largest Chicago public housing project when it was built. By the time plans had been drawn up to tear it down, almost as many units were unoccupied as existed when the project was first created.

Fourteen years after the publication of the Plan for Transformation, which laid out plans for the destruction and rebuilding of public housing at the Ida B. Wells site and other former sites of high-rise public housing in the city of Chicago, a little more than 300 public housing units have been built there. In May of this year, the Chicago Housing Authority requested authorization from the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to transfer parts of the site to a private developer; a Mariano’s grocery store and other retail will be constructed. Advocates for public housing, skeptical that the promised housing could be built on the land that remained, objected strongly to the decision. In the case of the Mariano’s site, CHA spokesperson Wendy Parks was quoted by DNAinfo in February as saying that the remaining land will be sufficient. The CHA did not respond to a list of questions sent in connection with this article.

This pattern—land once dedicated to public housing being used for non-housing purposes—has been repeated on vacant CHA land across Chicago. Large-scale and permanent land transfers by the CHA, once rare, have become much more common.

Along the old State Street Corridor, a new track-and-field facility is to be built for CPS at the sites of Harold Ickes Homes, and a gigantic tennis facility will take up some of the land that hosted Robert Taylor Homes, once the largest public housing project in the county. At the site of LeClaire Courts, Chicago’s first attempt at integrated low-rise housing, a new charter school will be built. Each of these projects was made possible by the sale, swap, or long-term lease of CHA land. No public housing has been rebuilt at the LeClaire Courts or Harold Ickes sites, and construction at the other sites is well over a thousand units short of the number the CHA at one point planned to build on the sites.

There are still people displaced by the demolition of these projects living with an unfulfilled promise of a “right to return” to new housing constructed in their old neighborhoods or elsewhere in the city. The CHA’s most recent quarterly report lists more than 200 households from the four sites mentioned above with an active right to return (more than 2,000 households from these sites have had their right of return satisfied). A CHA survey as of June of this year showed 147 households choosing one of these sites as their first choice for relocation. More than a thousand other former residents are not counted on this list because they failed to respond to outreach from the CHA; their right to return can be reinstated if they contact the agency.

“Promises were made to real human beings, many of whom are still alive even though it’s been so many years, waiting to return to communities that they still have attachments to,” said Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, which consolidates the efforts of nine public housing advocacy organizations. “They were given promises when demolition occurred that they would return—it was on the condition of those promises that demolition moved forward.”

Public housing activists are worried that the transfer of land from these sites will pose a barrier to reconstruction of public housing. And in Levinger’s mind, this practical concern about the ability of residents to return is paired with a broader concern over what the transfer indicates about the city’s attitude toward public goods, an indication of a larger-scale trend toward privatization of resources, like schools and city services, that were previously public.

“Even if we’re not one of those families with a right to return, or one of their extended family members, there are bigger questions about what’s happening with public assets, public land, and the public sphere overall,” said Levinger.

The increase in land dispositions reflects an apparent shift in strategy by the CHA. Once, the CHA focused almost exclusively on constructing housing. But since the CHA released Plan Forward in 2013, there’s been a focus on building up the area around the CHA’s public housing sites.

Plan Forward, a successor document to the Plan for Transformation, laid out three institutional goals for the CHA, the first of which codifies the shift toward disposition. Under Corporate Goal 1, the CHA will “reimagine the final phase of the Plan for Transformation, coordinating public and private investments to develop vibrant, complete communities.” When the CHA applies to transfer land, it usually—and in all of the cases above—cites Goal 1 as its justification. And when responding to criticism of the transfer of public housing land, the CHA makes arguments along these same lines—a school, store, or athletic facility will help improve life for residents of Chicago and its public housing.

“This type of public-private investment with Mariano’s and the City of Chicago helps to strengthen the entire community—creating more than 400 jobs and access to fresh foods and produce,” said Parks in the DNAinfo article.

Roderick Wilson, an organizer of past protests and executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, also hopes that the CHA will help to build “vibrant communities.” But in his mind, the role the CHA ought to play is to provide housing.

“No one has an issue with bringing in commercial development. But it should not be in lieu of or in place of housing. The purpose of the CHA is to provide housing for the people who need it the most. They are not in the grocery story business. They are in the housing business,” Wilson said.

And according to Charles Barlow, an academic who has spent time researching the CHA, it is not always clear what is meant by “vibrancy” or the rest of Goal 1. A commitment by the CHA in April 2013 to define the goal more rigorously has not yet been met.

“That corporate goal is filled with jargon—nobody really knows what it means. A vibrant community means something different for different people,” Barlow said. “Even asking CHA staff, well, ‘what does it mean to you?’ you get totally different responses.”

The increase in land dispositions has coincided with an emphasis on the construction of mixed-income housing developments by the CHA, under the theory that this will avoid the concentration of poverty that sometimes characterized the old high-rises. To be actually mixed-income, these projects must attract market-rate and less heavily subsidized residents. In Barlow’s account, encouraging the construction of amenities through the transfer of public land was one way to do this, especially after the economic crisis of 2007 and 2008 shrunk demand for real estate.

“A lot of it is down to the economic conditions of what society became,” Barlow said. “The housing bubble burst, and people weren’t able to purchase homes in the same way they were able to before the crisis. I think they had to think about how to make these communities attractive for further development.” According to Barlow, providing amenities was one way they could do so.

Wilson and Levinger are also concerned about what these transfers signal for the city’s future. If parts of these relatively central spots are abandoned as sites for public housing, they worry, residents displaced during the destruction of the old high-rises—or any households unable to afford city housing prices—could be forced out of the city or into its outskirts for good, leading to a dramatic remaking of the city.

“I think [Mayor Rahm] Emanuel is pretty candid that he has a particular vision for Chicago becoming what he calls a world-class city—which I think is code for rich and white,” Levinger said. “Providing a tennis court of former public housing land or a Mariano’s on former public housing land fits in with his vision of how the city should develop, and who he wants to make it attractive to.”

In the minds of some advocates, the land transfers are a symptom of larger problems within the CHA. They point to the slow pace of construction of new public housing units over the last five years while the CHA accumulated a financial reserve that reached 440 million dollars last year (in response to criticism about the size of the reserve, including by HUD Secretary Julian Castro, the CHA announced plans to reduce the size of its reserve).

The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a nonprofit public policy research organization, discovered the surplus after being asked to look into why work being done by the CHA did not seem to track with the amount of spending being recorded. In a report issued last summer, the CTBA revealed that federal money originally meant to pay for housing vouchers was being applied in the budget to other budget line items. Because money is not usually spent on these line items, the money reappeared as a surplus at the end of each year. According to Kass, a little less than 250 million dollars was spent by the CHA paying down long-term debt, including pension liabilities.

The CHA was able to perform this budget maneuver because they are participating in a program called Moving to Work, which provides what HUD determines to be high-performing housing authorities freedom from federal rules in the hope that they will use that autonomy in innovative ways. Amanda Kass, a researcher on the report that detailed the budget maneuver, accepted that it might strengthen the CHA but questioned the opacity of the decision.

“To me, one of the big questions is transparency, having a dialogue with the public and the residents of public housing, households utilizing vouchers, households on the waiting list, about housing decisions and how to allocate scarce resources,” said Kass.

Concerned about the housing that could have been built with the money that went into the reserve, Levinger said the decision to build it up was “the right logic for a real estate investment firm who cares more about your bond rating than what you are doing for people, but the wrong logic for a housing authority…[the CHA’s decisions] should be driven by what provides the maximum amount of benefit to families in the city of Chicago that need housing.”

In response to news articles about the reserve, CHA spokespeople presented it as part of a broader financial plan that would allow them to invest more extensively in the future. They also disputed the CTBA’s accounting of how large the reserve had grown.

Wilson is also concerned about the reserve, but sees the CHA’s newly shored up financial position as an opportunity: “They’re in the perfect position to do some real development, and make an impact in Chicago when it comes to housing. They have a half-a-billion dollars on hand, and with the bond rating what it is, they can issue another half-a-billion dollars in bonds easily. So you’re talking about a billion dollar investment in providing housing for the people who need it most in Chicago.”

Meanwhile, the Chicago Housing Initiative is pushing an ordinance in the Chicago City Council that they hope will help address their concerns about the CHA. The ordinance would apply the City Council’s zoning power to CHA land transfers, which usually require zoning changes to accommodate the new uses for the site. To change the zoning, the CHA would have to produce a plan for providing the site with the number of units the CHA planned to build there when the projects were demolished, a more stringent requirement than before.

Other parts of the ordinance would try to address broader issues of transparency at the CHA and require the CHA to spend much more of the federal money allocated for vouchers to provide vouchers to people on the CHA’s long waiting list. More than twenty aldermen are sponsoring the ordinance, which was introduced last September. Advocates had hoped it would get a hearing in September, but it has not yet appeared before the City Council’s housing committee.

Meanwhile, the CHA told the Chicago Gazette that it planned to spend more on the production of public housing this year. Levinger was cautiously optimistic about increased near-term building by the CHA, especially rehabilitation of the Altgeld Gardens project on the Far South Side and a continuing drip of public housing units as part of mixed-income developments.

“It is nowhere near at the capacity that the CHA could do with the financial position they’re in,” said Levinger. “But it’s a start, and hopefully it is the beginning of a trend that gets more housing produced. I think it’s probably more a concession than a signal [of] a shift in strategy, but I hope to be wrong about that.”

Correction: This article initially said that the CHA’s reserve had been reduced by about half from 440 million dollars. The 440 million dollar figure cited by the CTBA is a measure of the CHA’s working capital, which has not been reduced by half. As of the latest available figure, for fiscal year 2014, the CHA’s working capital was 430 million dollars. A 221 million dollar figure sometimes cited by the CHA as the measure of their reserve includes its capital reserve but not a 119 million operating reserve. A CHA spokesperson has announced plans by the CHA to spend down the reserve, but the CHA’s total working capital for fiscal year 2015 will not be available until the CHA releases the 2015 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

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