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When Public Housing Goes Private

Curbed Ι Sept. 28, 2016

Seven years ago, Chicago housing developer Peter Holsten invited a drama troupe to perform at a meeting for market-rate buyers and former public housing residents living in one of his mixed-income developments, which had been built to replace the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing project on the city’s Near North Side. Holsten’s bucolic-sounding Parkside of Old Town development offers subsidized and market-rate townhouses and mid-rise apartment buildings.

It sits in the same neighborhood where Cabrini-Green’s 23 punishingly austere red and white brick high-rises once gathered up 15,000 of Chicago’s poorest residents, who bestowed each high-rise with nicknames that signaled just how much they’d become unmanageable zones for underground economies: “The Bankroll,” “Scamplife,” “The Rock,” “The Castle,” “Goldmine.” Held in a local church, Holsten wanted the meeting to bring residents from different economic classes together and give them a chance to work through their reservations about moving into a place with such a contested history, among people not like themselves.

The first act dramatized white and African-American market-rate buyers sorting through the PR and marketing sheen these mixed-income communities sport, balancing their knowledge of past dysfunction with the prevalence of construction cranes in the neighborhood and the smiling faces on marketing brochures. They asked each other: “Has it really changed?”

The second act was a sketch of African-American former Cabrini-Green residents talking about allegedly onerous new rules at mixed-income buildings, and what their well-to-do neighbors might think of them. They asked each other: “Would we be welcome here?”

Both groups were asking the same question: Is this community really for people like me?

Holsten’s answer is emphatically yes. He specializes in mixed-income and affordable housing, and has developed $500 million worth of it since 1975. But building a mixed-income building is one thing. Forming an actual community across racial and class lines is another. “Our job as developers is much more than financing buildings and property management,” he says. “It’s trying to build community. That’s the hardest part.”

By some accounts, these mixed-income developments are better communities than the public housing high-rises that preceded them, but they haven’t come close to replacing the homes that were lost. Architects, planners, developers, and housing administrators continue to sweat out imperfect solutions to Chicago’s public housing problems.

Meanwhile, even in an election year like this one, housing policy receives little attention. Absent a political mandate or a broad base of grassroots housing activism, design is one of the few tools stakeholders have left in their attempts to improve Chicago’s public housing landscape.

 The dramatization was well-attended by both market-rate buyers and former public housing residents, but efforts have seemed to fizzle since then, leaving Holsten disillusioned. “What the hell are we doing?” he wonders. “I’m a little frustrated. I’m not really sure what to do. I don’t feel the community-building thing is anywhere near where it should be.”

Beginning in the mid 1990s, the Chicago Housing Authority began to tear down the vast majority of its high-rise housing stock, including Cabrini-Green, widely considered to be beyond repair and unmanageable. In 2000, Mayor Richard Daley formalized the agency’s new approach to housing with the Plan for Transformation. (Current Mayor Rahm Emanuel was the vice chairman of the housing authority at the plan’s start.)

The plan called for the demolition of 18,500 subsidized family homes, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the CHA agreed to generate and finance a total of 25,000 new and rehabilitated units, with a high-profile emphasis on mixed-income projects developed by the private sector. It was the most radical reimagining of public housing in the nation’s history. The cost was $1.6 billion, and it was supposed to take only 10 years. Today, the CHA estimates they’ll meet their goals at the end of next year.

Few public housing agencies have sterling records, but the CHA has stood out for its managerial incompetence, political troubles, and lack of foresight. Founded in 1937 by Progressive-era reformers and led by Elizabeth Wood, the agency’s goal was noble: to replace the city’s tenement slums with more durable, sanitary housing. But the process quickly led to chaos.

From the outset, the CHA purchased and cleared slum land to build on instead of buying cheaper greenfield lots at the city’s perimeter. Rebuilding in existing slums scored the CHA political points by containing areas that housed African-Americans in a severely segregated city; the alternative, using public money to buy up potentially attractive greenfield parcels, would have angered private real estate developers.

Building on relatively expensive slum land left less money for bricks and mortar. So after a handful of early efforts at developing low-rise apartment buildings, the CHA settled on severe high-rises, some of them as tall as 19 stories and laid across the city like dominoes, as the cheapest way to get the most units onto the fewest acres.

The CHA charged rent—which funded building maintenance—based on residents’ incomes, in the hope that working class families would cycle in and out before buying their first homes, their rising incomes keeping the buildings afloat. But while the CHA was investing in working class housing in the city after World War II, the federal government was betting big on suburbs. Federal subsidies for home mortgages drew working families to the suburbs, and a new federally funded interstate highway system made it easy to commute downtown.

Unable to attract economically mobile residents, the CHA had less money to maintain buildings. Repair calls to fix elevators rang into the CHA central office almost every day at one housing complex, and by 1958 the agency was replacing 18,000 lightbulbs a month.

In the 1970s alone, elevators were responsible for 15 deaths and 417 injuries, many incidents caused by games of “elevator tag,” in which groups of up to 50 kids would swarm the elevator shafts. The CHA’s preference for accommodating large families (units had as many as five bedrooms) created a singular burden on high-rise infrastructure.

By 1984, the CHA’s residents were 95 percent African-American, and once African-Americans were perceived as the primary beneficiaries of its services, the organization lost massive amounts of political capital. It was cut off from the city’s legendary patronage network, which provided pay-to-play feedback mechanisms between residents and party bosses. The CHA became a bureaucratic backwater.

The arch-segregationist Chicago City Council refused to allow housing projects to be built in more prosperous white neighborhoods, instead concentrating them in poorer neighborhoods like the State Street Corridor on the South Side, which contained almost 8,000 units. When any kind of integrated housing was proposed, white Chicagoans reacted with violence and rarely faced consequences.

By the mid 1990s, the CHA’s properties were wildly dysfunctional. Vincent Lane, the CHA’s director, said that his high-rises were “more under the command of drug lords than rule of law,” and that any renovation would be useless until buildings could be reclaimed from gangs. At the end of the decade, only 15 percent of adults living in the CHA’s buildings were employed, with an average income of $10,000.

In 1994, 40 percent of residents in one building at the Near West Side’s Henry Horner Homes said a bullet had entered their apartment in the past year. In 1995, HUD assumed federal control over the seemingly hopeless CHA.

After a four-year federal takeover, in 2000, the CHA made a quick pivot out of the public housing development business and toward the Plan for Transformation. Instead of planning projects themselves, the CHA would hire for-profit and nonprofit developers. These developers would assemble their own teams and designs, building mixed-income complexes. The CHA would become a housing facilitator, letting the private market chart its way forward.

The emphasis on teardowns and privately developed public housing didn’t originate in Chicago; it was part of a national trend advocated by HUD. Atlanta, for example, was an early pioneer, and started disposing of its public housing in the run-up to the 1996 Olympics. But the scale of the job on the shores of Lake Michigan, and the CHA’s spectacularly public failure, made it the country’s most visible test case.

“The CHA was scared out of their minds,” says D. Bradford Hunt, author of Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing, an encyclopedic primer on the CHA’s failure. “They were about to tear down thousands of apartments. Would this be a revolution in the city, a full-scale public revolt?” Hunt says the CHA’s administrators embarked on the Plan for Transformation with visions of riots on their minds. “People predicted 20,000 homeless people on the streets.”

But poor people losing their houses didn’t ignite any sort of wider populist uprising. Nor has the CHA’s pivot immediately solved the affordable housing crisis. In 2014, 282,000 households applied for the CHA waitlist. As of this year, only 96,000 families and 14,000 seniors have been selected by lottery to be placed on the waitlist.

All that remains of Cabrini-Green now are the Cabrini-Green Rowhouses, many of which are boarded up and abandoned. In the shadow of the dark metal crosshatched John Hancock Tower and in walking distance of Michigan Avenue’s upscale retail district, these empty structures have an air of surreality to them.

It’s hard to believe that anything so maligned could have been so close to what the city considers its best face. This part of Chicago is a changing neighborhood of big-box stores and high-rises, with an Apple Store at its outskirts.

The Plan for Transformation freed up some of the city’s most valuable real estate for developers. The area of the Near North Side adjacent to Cabrini-Green is estimated to be worth as much as $9.8 million per acre. (Land already slated for new mixed-income housing is likely to be worth less.)

One apartment tower under construction there will ask $6,300 a month for penthouse units. Some of this land will continue to host affordable housing: the CHA has a plan to redevelop the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, and is looking through an initial set of proposals that will tackle about 17 acres.

Patricia Saldaña Natke, founding partner of the architecture firm UrbanWorks, drafted the master plan that will guide future phases of development for the Cabrini-Green neighborhood. Driving around with me on a June morning, she eyes construction cranes and discusses the inevitability of relocating so many poor Chicagoans who lived so close to the city’s center of power and gravity.

The Cabrini-Green site is hemmed in on all sides by different species of thriving urbanism. To the west, the burgeoning tech hub of Goose Island. To the east, the patrician Gold Coast neighborhood, filled with baronial mansions and elite cultural institutions. Northward there’s Lincoln Park, one of the city’s first gentrified quarters of the 21st century return to city centers. To the south are the outskirts of the city’s central business district and a thickening knot of high-rise office and condominium buildings in River North.

“We can try to stop it, but . . .” her voice trails off. Land use decisions in the neighborhood have mostly served profit. (One rare exception is the small St. Matthew United Methodist Church, designed by Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill’s Walter Netsch in his signature “field theory” style, still standing after another nearby church, St. Dominic’s, was torn down recently for market-rate housing.)

UrbanWorks’ plan, held up by the CHA for years, covers approximately 65 acres. It proposes a network of low- and mid-rise buildings, with better connected streets and prevalent green space, anchored by several commercial corridors where buildings will have ground-floor retail spaces. Half of the units will be market-rate, 30 percent will be the CHA’s public housing, and 20 percent will be partially subsidized. It’s a sensible plan to reverse the trend of monolithic housing blocks. But that doesn’t mean it’s not complicated to enact.

One sticking point is the issue of density. Chicagoans feel burned by their past experience with high-rises. And the city has a tradition of homeownership that’s different from other very large American cities. Chicago’s famed “bungalow belt” of brickworker cottages built in the early 20th century offered waves of immigrants affordable single-family homes, and preservationists have formed a nonprofit to protect them.

So the CHA’s residents would prefer a house and a porch of their own, but that desire often runs counter to the need to accommodate the thousands who have been displaced. In conversations with some of the CHA’s residents, Natke stresses that “requesting less density means less public housing units. The [lower] density doesn’t allow for the units to return.” The CHA could raise the ratio of public housing units, but in neighborhoods with hot real estate markets, this makes the deal less appealing to developers. And the CHA isn’t interested in acquiring more land.

Beyond the potential contradiction in handing public land aimed at easing inequality over to private developers motivated by profit, there’s the issue of unit size, which the private market tends to inflate, so much so that mixed-income developments sometimes break per-unit costs set by housing agencies.

The explicit goal of the Plan for Transformation is to integrate poor people into more affluent socioeconomic contexts, and the creation of mixed-income housing is one piece of that goal. But there’s little of it so far—fewer than 2,600 units.

Many more of the CHA’s residents receive one of the 46,000 Section 8 vouchers that allow them to rent from a private landlord. As these subsidies are structured, they’re often only enough to rent in some of the city’s poorest, most segregated neighborhoods, in a city that regularly tops the list of the most segregated places in the nation.

“There’s no question it’s easier to do an Audi showroom,” says Natke.

Natke speaks of the plots of the CHA’s land she’s planning for as a scarce and vulnerable public resource, more akin to a national park than a stigmatized development site. She hopes others will come to see them that way, too. “It can’t just be a land grab,” she says. “It can’t just be real estate. It needs to be design. In the end, it’s public land. Regardless of what private developers think it is, it’s public land.”

Considering its immensity, the best place to get a feel for the former Cabrini-Green site is probably from the air. Failing that, try a ninth-floor unit of Landon Bone Baker Architects’ Terrace 459, one of the mixed-income developments that predates Natke’s plan. Looking southward from the $41.3 million project completed this spring, you see a broad plain of parking lots, new townhouses, schools, parks, and blank fields, before the Loop’s modernist fantasia of skyscrapers explodes out of the ground.

Landon Bone Baker Architects (LBBA) founder Peter Landon is revered in Chicagofor his ability to design low-income and mixed-income housing that can compete with market-rate buildings and offer residents places of respite and healing. (His firm’s design for the National Public Housing Museum on the site of the 1938 Jane Addams Homes, to be completed in 2018, is a sort of summation of his career so far as an architect of affordable housing.)

He’s not given to grand proclamations about what his architecture can do for the city, though his firm has designed 3,600 new and renovated affordable housing units. His motto: “We have to do the best we can with what we’ve got.”

Terrace 459 (developed by Peter Holsten’s company) consists of two buildings at nine stories and three stories, with a landscaped courtyard that runs between them. It’s made of modular precast concrete sections that frame windows and recessed patios in a pleasingly staggered pattern. Liberal splashes of orange, yellow, and green chase away dour associations with public housing of the past. Inside, the units have wood laminate floors and expansive windows.

Throughout, there’s a level of care and detail that was impossible under the CHA’s budgets. Buildings like this hammer home the Plan for Transformation’s obvious benefits: These are indeed better functioning, more stable, better integrated homes than what preceded them.

At 459, there’s a roof deck for warm summer evenings, and the graphic floral wallpaper in the lobby sets a tone of millennial-friendly urban living that doesn’t let up across its 106 units (36 are subsidized by the CHA, 43 are market-rate units, and 27 are affordable units). In the courtyard, a quiet retreat from busy Division Street that subtly apes an Italian hill town, dense thickets of birch trees match the pale precast concrete modules. “A lot of what we do is try to build buildings that consciously look like market-rate buildings,” Landon says.

Landon planted birch trees at a much higher density than in a typical apartment courtyard in an attempt to create vegetative screens between units and their patios. Divisions between market-rate and subsidized renters might be largely invisible to visitors, but Landon says that in earlier experiments in this kind of development, people made prejudiced assumptions when, say, a neighbor’s summer barbecue ran a bit too late.

Denser foliage can provide a privacy screen and noise buffer, separation that, Landon says, actually promotes neighborly coexistence. It might sound cynical to put otherwise disparate groups of people together, then devise ways to separate them to keep the peace, but Landon says it’s better than putting up fences or not using the space.

The suggestion for dense screening foliage came out of Landon Bone Baker Architects’ LBBA Lab, which works with local public school kids to assess environmental conditions in neighborhoods LBBA is working in. The Lab is a way for the firm to reach across the socio-economic distance between an architect’s drafting table and a neighborhood resident’s kitchen table, by enlisting members of the community to learn residents’ needs and motivations.

Students who live in these neighborhoods often fill in the architects on more nuanced needs and dynamics, while taking ownership of ways their communities are changing. Past labs have focused on air quality and environmental health, giving kids pre-professional insight into how architecture and design works on their block.

Terrace 459 was LBBA’s first crack at the Cabrini-Green site, but Landon’s been thinking about it for 20 years. In the mid 1990s, he developed a renovation plan over the course of months that would have converted a nearby disused industrial building into a training workshop where residents could learn building maintenance trades: plumbing, carpentry, HVAC.

Maintenance of the housing projects would be turned over to residents, some high-rises would be torn down and some repaired, and new row houses, townhouses, and two- and three-bedroom flats would spring up, built by residents and designed in a familiar Arts and Crafts style.

Beyond the architectural plans, Landon’s idea was primarily about giving residents a new stake in their community and a practical path toward the preservation of it. “You don’t need to develop a community at Cabrini,” Landon says, “because there already is a community.”

For a designer who has harnessed the city’s privatization approach and been celebrated for it, Landon is ambivalent about the Plan for Transformation’s ability to equitably solve the city’s housing needs. “Is it the right thing to do for public housing? I don’t know. Trying to get back those units is tough. Do I think it’s good to do what we do? Yeah. Are there problems? There are huge problems.”

A common refrain from those critical of privately developed public housing is that it allows separate sets of regulations for market-rate buyers and public housing renters. For example, Holsten can’t enforce his company policy of drug testing with homeowners. Meanwhile, condo associations often set stricter rules for the building than Holsten does, with the intent to curtail some of the behavior perceived to be coming from the CHA’s former residents, who are “the first to get blamed,” Holsten says, when anyone in the building behaves badly.

“Some people feel, ‘guilty until proven innocent’.” His sympathy is mostly with the public housing residents—there are too many “people that don’t want to give grace to people that aren’t like them” in his buildings, he laments. In booming real estate markets like the Cabrini-Green area, people are “buying the location,” he says. “They’ll worry about the sociology of it later. And that’s probably not the right approach.”

He fantasizes about hanging a sign outside of his office. It would read: “People without open minds need not apply.”

Then he hedges his idealism. “But I still gotta move those units. The bank’s on my ass. I gotta move those units. I would love to screen ownership for certain types of people, but that might take longer to sell out.”

Holsten doesn’t have grand plans for how private-market-led affordable housing can solve Chicago’s affordable housing crisis. He’s an earnest, harried builder with ideals his business doesn’t have time for: “This is my life’s work,” he says. “I bet the farm on every deal. You’re trying to make a living, you’re not going to make a killing. I believe everyone deserves decent housing over their head. But how to afford it and deliver it is a whole other question.”

The Plan for Transformation has also pulled residents into the discussion, but historically it’s been far from an ideal model of public input. When the plan launched, Annie Stubenfield worked with other residents and consultants (including architects) for 18 months on a proposal for the South Side’s Ida B. Wells public housing site, she says.

Stubenfield’s experiences as a resident at the Wells projects and adjacent Clarence Darrow projects—she moved within them five times between 1995 and 2005, staying ahead of the CHA’s demolition schedule and feeling “like cattle,” she says—had made her a savvy and disillusioned architecture client. The plan she and other residents came up with would tear down several high-rises, encourage more low-density development, and add more green space, as well as an entrepreneurship incubator and a drug addiction treatment center.

This plan was eventually rejected, she says, but a few elements (like less residential density) made their way into Oakwood Shores, the mixed-income development that now sits on the former Wells and Darrow projects site. “Anything over four stories, to me, is a disaster,” she says. People should have “their own yard, their own door.”

Today, Stubenfield’s four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom apartment at Oakwood Shores has a landscaped front stoop and bas-relief flowers between the upstairs and downstairs windows, very much in the pattern of walkable red brick suburbia. Stubenfield is mostly satisfied with her life there, but is ambivalent about mixed-income housing.

“I have nothing against mixed-income housing, but I think birds of a feather flock together,” she says. “I don’t think you should force people to be a part of something where they really don’t fit in.” She complains about Oakwood’s drug testing policy and the CHA’s imperious inspectors knocking at her door. (Several years ago, two of her daughters sued the CHA about the development’s mandatory drug testing policy and lost.)

She misses the sense of community at Ida B. Wells, which functioned like a small town in the city. She doesn’t socialize much with her neighbors. “I don’t know them, and I’ve been here 10 years,” she says. “It’s like I’m out of my comfort zone.”

Most of Chicago’s new mixed-income developments are, like Oakwood Shores, on the South and West Sides, far away from the furiously appreciating real estate surrounding Cabrini-Green. These neighborhoods offer a more historicist and traditional vision of mixed-income housing than the contemporary sensibilities served at Terrace 459, and are more representative of how the Plan for Transformation is reshaping the city.

Brick townhouses and small apartment buildings are the rule; the vibe is more newly planted neo-first-ring suburbia than urban living. There are bays and façade tile finishes that help define each resident’s space. There are playful window patterns and whimsical squiggles on concrete lintels.

Over about 60 years, as Brad Hunt points out, the CHA turned full circle. The agency tore down organic urban villages across the city in favor of gargantuan institutional housing. Then the CHA tore these down and rebuilt the little villages.

“If you can get one of these units, it’s like winning the lottery,” says Peter Levavi, senior vice president of Brinshore, an affordable housing developer. His company built the Legends South mixed-income development on the city’s South Side, which replaced the largest public housing project in the nation, the Robert Taylor Homes. At its peak, it could have housed an entire New England college town: 26,000 people in 4,300 units, stretching on for 100 acres, through about a dozen of the nation’s poorest census tracts.

Legends South contains 618 total units, most of which are lightly subsidized by tax credits, and a handful of which are market-rate. Nearly 300 are the CHA’s units. Legends South has been planned out in phases, and more phases are hoped for, though each is getting smaller and smaller. The developers are taking an incremental approach and don’t pretend to be working toward an ultimate goal for replacing public housing units. “It’s unclear what the final footprint will be,” says Levavi. “There is no end point, really. We’ll go as long as we can.”

The phases of Legends South, several of which were designed by Landon Bone Baker, are named after icons of African-American culture (Savoy Square, Mahalia Place, Hansberry Square). Architecturally, Savoy Square is modeled after another bastion of African-American history and culture, the company town of Pullman on Chicago’s Far South Side, where Pullman train porters charted a path into the middle class for early 20th century African-Americans.

Designed by 26-year-old phenom Solon Beman in 1880, Pullman is cherished for its rhythm of Queen Anne rowhouses and Romanesque public buildings that knit together into a cohesive urbanism separate from the rest of the city. LBBA’s design for Savoy Square offers some of the same red brick articulation and framing, topped with abstracted mansard roofs that hint at the richness of the original.

Ground-floor units have fenced courtyards and upstairs apartments have generous patios, each bit of individual outdoor space a key social outlet. “If you don’t provide someplace outside for people to congregate and entertain, then they will hang out in front of your building,” says Levavi. Pullman is renowned as an example of design that fostered a sense of working class solidarity, and Savoy Square’s greatest measure of success will be if it can replicate this sentiment.

Levavi argues that mixed-income housing like Legends South is essential to the creation of more affordable housing. His goal is to build housing in a way “that has political support.” Considering the way the CHA lost its political mandate when it was focused purely on public affordable housing, mixed-income housing created by private developers is about the only thing we collectively have the stomach for.

Once more market-rate buyers move into these communities and see that they work, the argument goes, they’ll advocate for more, persuading officials who ignored the housing needs expressed by lower-income residents. It’s housing by consent of those deemed more economically valuable.

The Plan for Transformation illustrates the problems of beginning a private-led real estate strategy near the peak of a housing bubble. The Great Recession hobbled the developer community and set the plan back years. Holsten made not a dime on the first phase of Parkside of Old Town. He had to cut the price of condos by 40 percent and nearly went broke. “We were lucky to be alive,” he says.

After the recession, the CHA’s promises about the amount of public housing it would bring back have been broken or delayed again and again. In their 2000 annual report, the CHA pledged to build 1,467 public housing units at the former ABLA site (the name is an acronym of the individual project names, including the Jane Addams Homes).

So far, its mixed-income replacement Roosevelt Square has 245 public housing units and 185 subsidized affordable units. The Robert Taylor Homes were supposed to be replaced with a mixed-income community containing 851 public housing units, per the CHA’s 2002 annual report, but Legends South contains less than half that amount.

In a 2006 report from the CHA, the agency spells out plans for 439 public housing units at Stateway Gardens, but reports that only 137 public units and 112 affordable units have been built today at its replacement, Park Boulevard.

At this rate, planners and academics who’ve studied the plan don’t see much evidence that it provides a way to meet the city’s housing needs. A University of Chicago study found that only 11 percent of the CHA’s residents have been able to move into mixed-income developments. “It’s not sustainable,” says UrbanWorks’ Natke. “It’s too nostalgic to say [units] will come back to 1:1 [replacement].” The housing rafts out of poverty are getting better, but there are fewer of them. “[The Plan for Transformation] is about there being fewer [residents returning], but more success stories,” Natke says.

The CHA’s administrators are quick to point out the massive increase in housing vouchers since the Plan for Transformation began, but this program has its problems, too. Critics say vouchers disperse the strife and dysfunction of the projects into neighborhoods unprepared to deal with it.

An Urban Institute study found that, while redeveloped neighborhoods that formerly hosted public housing saw dramatic drops in crime, places with a high density of voucher holders saw increases, though this may not be a direct causal relationship. It’s quite possible that voucher holders moved to neighborhoods already in decline because that’s all their vouchers could cover. As a consequence, HUD is considering rule changes that would prorate voucher amounts by neighborhood so that voucher recipients could afford to move into more affluent areas.

The CHA has also been assailed for the way the voucher system is administered. (Private companies manage the voucher program for the CHA, but the agency is considering taking it over directly.) An analysis by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability found that, with a recent spate of public housing deregulation, the CHA was able to divert money that had been earmarked for vouchers into its general fund, which it kept on hand as cash reserves instead of using it to provide more housing.

Between 2008 and 2012, the CHA issued about 14,000 fewer vouchers than HUD funded, building up a surplus of $432 million and earning a rebuke from HUD Secretary Julian Castro. (The CHA says its reserves have since been cut and will be spent down by the end of 2017.) A Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association investigation found that four out of 10 voucher units have been cited for building code violations in the last five years.

But for all the CHA’s troubles, the agency didn’t cause the housing crisis, and that crisis would probably be worse without the CHA and other agencies like it. Twenty million families in the U.S. pay 50 percent or more of their income in housing costs, according to the Urban Land Institute. Only one in five families that qualify for affordable housing get it, because it’s simply not a priority.

HUD estimates that it needs $46 billion to build the necessary amount of affordable housing. “We can double the amount of affordable housing units in Chicago and we would probably still have a significant part of the population that is underserved,” says Hunt. Federal support for housing assistance in recent years has been mostly stagnant.

Today, there are more tools to help housing agencies and housing developers get people into units, like the tax credit system, which finances around 90 percent of affordable housing in the nation, according to Peter Levavi. Still, most cities are buried in waiting lists. There’s simply no political will to meet this need. One piece of evidence: an avowed democratic socialist made a very visible run for president this year, but even his platform contained no plank calling for universal housing.

There’s also no roadmap for what will come after the Plan for Transformation. The CHA has divested itself from building and managing public housing. It relies on the private sector to allocate housing a few hundred units at a time, in a wide range of neighborhoods that require radically different development strategies. (For instance, in poorer neighborhoods, the affordable housing subsidizes the market-rate housing. In richer ones, it’s the opposite.)

It’s working with a teeming carousel of planners, developers, architects, and consultants. Make big promises, and a recession comes along and blows everything up. The structure of public-private affordable housing itself seems to defeat long-range visions.

The CHA’s last big planning push was 2013’s Plan Forward, and it’s notable for its complete lack of metrics for how much housing will be built in the last phase of the Plan for Transformation. No unit totals. No planned construction starts.

Instead, there are aspirational vision board banalities like, “Reimagine the final phase of the Plan for Transformation, coordinating public and private investment to develop healthy, vibrant communities.” Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, calls it “the sparsest piece of trash ever produced by a public agency.”

“They keep saying, ‘We’re close to meeting our goal,’ but they haven’t announced another goal,” says Hunt.

The CHA’s director, Eugene Jones, says they don’t plan to. “I’m not putting numbers to it,” he says. At most, he might specify a percentage of units to be added over a given number of years. “We’ve got to come up with a different way to [communicate] what we want to do and how we want to do it. I’m going to say we want to build better communities using what we have.”

“The lack of guiding policy and clearly defined performance goals,” Levinger says, allows the city’s stock of affordable housing to become part of another political horse trade. “It becomes a deal,” she says. “Who is in the mayor’s graces enough to get these resources in their community? Which is not how public investment should be directed.”

On a tour of the CHA’s mixed-income developments with me, Jones sits in the back seat of a black SUV, wearing sunglasses and delivering brusque talking points on using “business acumen” to combat developers who don’t want to put much equity into mixed-income housing deals. He describes his responsibilities as “represent the residents” and “don’t piss away any money.”

He’s been at his post for about a year, and says he’ll only leave the job under a few specific conditions: “One, if I marry Oprah Winfrey. Two, if I win Powerball Mega Millions.” But the CHA directors’ tenures rarely end so well.

Jones is the fifth director of the CHA in five years. Lewis Jordan left the agency after being accused of inappropriate credit card use. He was replaced by an interim chief, but Mayor Emanuel’s permanent hire, Charles Woodyard, left the agency because of looming disappointment in the lack of progress made in the plan, and after a $99,000 settlement with a former employee of the CHA who accused him of sexual harassment.

Jones’s predecessor, Michael Merchant, left scandal-free, and then there’s Jones, who left his last job at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation after a damning ombudsman report detailing ways he flouted administrative procedures and recklessly managed staff.

Jones isn’t institutionally equipped to spell out long-range solutions to Chicago’s housing predicament. Building each mixed-income development is something like real estate trench warfare, with housing advocates and developers grinding out unit totals and density levels, cobbling together money from a dozen different sources, constrained by the limits of the CHA’s land and the refusal to return to building tall buildings. But one Chicago architect has some ideas on how to raise this inch-by-inch battle into the sky once again.

It’s called The High Life. Grant Gibson, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago School of Architecture and founder of the firm CAMESgibson, developed it for the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial with global megafirm SOM, an early collaborator with the CHA.

The High Life aims to banish the scarcity and density concerns that inhibit affordable housing development in Chicago and everywhere else. Gibson and his collaborators envision a system of 3D-printed armatures that reach dozens of stories into the sky, outrigged with floating slabs. “Lots in the sky,” Gibson says.

The plan—which he says is feasible to build today, if not to 3D print—allows for radically increased housing density and the flexibility from floor to floor to build any sort of housing: SROs, two-flats (a common Chicago housing type with two apartments in a two-story building), three-bedroom Levittowners, or a multimillion dollar architect-designed mansion.

Gibson sees this flexibility and diversity as a way to sidestep the design issues that have plagued high-density public housing. The traditional narrative about public housing often blames design for the buildings’ failures—too-tall high-rises with impersonal hallways lined with dozens of units connected by fenced-in corridorsand few quasi-public spaces for which individual residents can feel any responsibility. Austere aesthetics and overweening scale (the Robert Taylor Homes, for example, stretched for two miles) don’t inspire much pride of place.

But the individual lots and relative abundance of air-rights “land” at The High Life mean there would be no need for monotonous fenced corridors. Everyone would have “domain over your own front yard,” Gibson says. Each tower would be posited as its own neighborhood; imagine a bar with stellar views on the roof and a plinth of retail at ground level.

It’s hardly the first plan to posit tower-as-neighborhood, but it’s notable in this genre of urban experiment for the details it leaves out. It’s not so much a design for a new community as it is a template for one. It’s a blank skeleton, and the mix of housing types and programs that grow on it will be what makes it work in any given context.

Chicago was where the skyscraper was born, and where the most dire public housing high-rise crises were born, too. The High Life could be a chance to repeat what the city has done best and to fix what it’s done worst. “Since we tore down our high-rise projects, we’ve become afraid of visions,” Gibson says. “This whole period is one of exhaustion. We’ve run away from the issue rather than trying to go back and do things better.”

Like the affordable housing developers his project implicitly critiques, Gibson sees economic integration as his primary goal, and is just as focused on private-led development as the Plan for Transformation.

The Plan for Transformation is upfront about crafting housing that dissolves stigma about where people live. But it and The High Life will only be really transformative if they can lead towards a way to dismantle the underlying stigmas that have banished critically needed public housing to the fringe of our public policy debate: the stigma against earning a low income itself. “In a capitalist society,” Gibson says, “that’s probably going to be the last of the hurdles.”

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