In 1995, Henry Cisneros, secretary of Housing and Urban Development for the Clinton administration, called Bronzeville’s Robert Taylor Homes “without question, the worst public housing in America today.” Though the homes are gone, their legacy remains a sore spot in the history of Chicago’s public housing.
The twenty-eight Robert Taylor Homes made up the largest housing project in the U.S. at the time of their completion in 1962. At sixteen stories tall each, the complex’s buildings contained over 4,400 apartments. The monolithic structures stretched from Pershing Road down to 54th Street, bordering the Dan Ryan Expressway to the west and State Street to the east,
Named for Robert Taylor, the Chicago Housing Authority’s first African-American chairman, the project was intended to provide adequate housing for low-income African-American families. The location of the homes was no coincidence; in accordance with the laws of the time, the residents of a housing project could not alter the racial makeup of the area.
The plans were misguided and chronically underfunded, and the Robert Taylor Homes were ultimately a failure. The buildings were perpetually overcrowded, peaking at 27,000 residents despite being designed to hold no more than 11,000. They were also in a constant state of disrepair.
Though the project came to exemplify the failures of public housing, it was still a home for thousands of residents. In 1996, HOPE VI, a program started by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to replace failed modernist housing projects with mixed-income communities, allocated federal block grants to redevelop the Homes. The residents were gradually moved out by 2005, and the final building was demolished in 2007.
Redevelopment of the area has been a slow process, however, and replacing such a vast housing project with low-rise apartments and houses has proved to be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. According ABC 7 Chicago, critics say that only 300 of Robert Taylor’s 4,400 apartments have been replaced with affordable housing. Since 2007, Brinshore Development, one of the top producers of affordable housing in Illinois, has constructed 840 of the projected 2,400 mixed-income units of its Legends South Development on the site of the Homes. Part of the project has created government-subsidized affordable housing, with the other portion remaining at market rate. According to Brinshore Principal Richard Sciortino, “This allows us to have a healthy mix of incomes, so we can attract working families.”
Plans have also been announced to add a $9.8 million, 112,000-square-foot tennis facility to the area (see page 17). Despite its troubled legacy, the hope is that new structures on the site might bring some of the benefits that the development failed to provide the first time around. Progress may be slow, but investment in the Washington Park neighborhood’s revitalization efforts was what was missing in the original Robert Taylor Homes project.