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Infamous, notorious, drug-plagued.
That's long been the description of many of the public housing high-rises in Chicago, places with names like Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor Homes. But not anymore. Those and other high-rises have been torn down as the Chicago Housing Authority conducts a sweeping experiment in public housing. Officials promised that would mean better living conditions for thousands of residents. But for many the relocation has brought more trauma than satisfaction.
Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.
CHERYL CORLEY: The Chicago Housing Authority calls its radical teardown/build-up project the plan for transformation, a $1.6-billion renovation which replaces more than 50 high-rises the federal government ruled long ago were in such a bad shape they were worthy of being condemned.
Mr. DERRICK HILL (Spokesperson, Chicago Housing Authority): No more will you drive past a property and say, that's public housing. Those days are gone.
CORLEY: Chicago Housing Authority's Derrick Hill is driving through CHA development, a police scanner on underneath the car radio. He points out the changes at one of the new mixed-income communities the agency is building. Formally called ABLA, this area, just west of Chicago's downtown, used to be home to four separate public housing developments, mostly row houses, but several high-rises too. Now there's open space and resodded soil where they once stood.
Mr. HILL: Now, we have twice as many buildings before rehab happened. We took half of the buildings out so we can have open courtyards so police could pass by and see inside. Now, if you look at your left and look at the reconfiguration of these properties and look at your right, this is what they used to look like.
CORLEY: On the left, there are wrought iron fences, those open courtyards and freshly painted buildings. On the right, remnants of the old ABLA, a ghost town of squat, rundown, seemingly deserted brick buildings. There are still people living there but they'll all be gone by next year, and so will the name of this place. No more ABLA. What's being built here is the new Roosevelt Square, and all 2,400 units, a good portion of them for sale, and the rest public housing.
Ms. SHERELL LANE(ph) (Resident, Chicago): This is my living room and this is the laundry room.
CORLEY: Sherell Lane is one of the lucky public housing residents. She lived in the ABLA row houses but moved with her three children directly from there to this new three-bedroom, two-bath Roosevelt Square apartment. The street is tree-lined, the lawns neat, and flowers blossom near the bottom of the three-storey brick buildings that look like any number of new Chicago condominiums.
Ms. LANE: And I used to walk down villages to see as it was coming up, and then when they put the light in and stuff, it was just like something they took out a magazine and just set down. So I just, I love it, I loved it, it's lit up, it's beautiful. I love it. I would not change it.
CORLEY: As the CHA continues its massive demolition and rehab project, thousands of other CHA residents have had to move out. Some have been relocated to still-standing public housing units while others choose to take temporary housing vouchers, so-called Section 8 subsidies to use with private landlords.
Just about everyone acknowledges that uprooting people from their homes has been unsettling. There's disagreement, though, about where people have landed. Many have either moved or been relocated to still minority and low-income neighborhoods. That's a source of controversy, even though the CHA says people chose where they wanted to live, and at least one study shows those residents are better off. Not everybody believes that's so.
Ms. BEAUTY TURNER (Assistant Editor, Residence Journal): First of all, I'd like to welcome each and every last one of you all to the We The People Media Bus Tour.
CORLEY: Beauty Turner, an activist and journalist with the magazine Residence Journal, stands as the head of a yellow school bus today, leading academics, journalists and the simply curious to neighborhoods where public housing used to be prolific.
Turner says people need to be aware of what's happening, to know that public housing was not always about gangs and drugs and shootings, but also about a sense of community, and good stories often ignored. First stop on the tour: 53rd and State. Turner used to live in the public housing developments that were here. Now her voice floats over an empty field.
Ms. TURNER: I want you to look around. This is once where 28 public housing high-rises stood, 16 stories high.
CORLEY: Back on the bus, Turner says despite its new beautiful buildings, the CHA isn't telling the whole story. She says CHA's strict return criteria, including volunteer work requirements and drug testing, will make it difficult for some to move back. She says she's talked to plenty of former CHA tenants, including those with Section 8 vouchers now living in shelters, vacant buildings or sleeping in cars.
Ms. TURNER: I want to tell you a little bit about Mary Systra(ph). She lived in (unintelligible). She received the house insurance voucher in 1998. With six children, this young woman had to move 14 times and on the verge of moving 15 times, with no end in sight. So things like that is what's happening.
CORLEY: At another stop, Turner takes the group into a development yet to be rehabbed. Carol Wallace(ph) has lived in the Dearborn Homes for a decade. An iron gate has pushed back from the front door of her third-floor apartment. Walker says she holds no illusions about the CHA's transformation plan. She says instead of moving thousands of people as they demolish buildings, the CHA should have built homes first on vacant land.
Ms. CAROL WALLACE (Resident, Dearborn Homes): Overall, I think it's just a way of getting us out of here, because they are not letting everybody back in. We all know that.
Ms. SHARON GIST GILLIAM (Chicago Housing Authority): At the end of the day, they have a right to a hard unit, not necessarily in the development that they left, but a hard unit somewhere in the system.
CORLEY: That's Sharon Gist Gilliam, the CEO of the CHA. She says the agency has tracked all of its legitimate residents - stress legitimate - those who comply with the terms of their lease. Gilliam says the CHA is rehabbing and building enough units for all legal residents to return.
She claims that none of those residents is homeless or living in shelters. Gilliam says many CHA residents were living there illegally, either squatting in vacant apartments or doubling up with relatives. And she defends the agency's teardown process, saying it needed to build on land it already had structures on.
Ms. GILLIAM: I am still waiting for the person who can explain to me how I build on the footprint of the land that I am going to use while the existing buildings are standing there.
CORLEY: Gilliam concedes, though, that the relocation process has been complicated, and understands that people using the temporary vouchers have moved into neighborhoods not much different from where they used to live.
Ms. GILLIAM: It is not reasonable to expect that people are going to move way away from all of their support systems, away from public transit when they don't have cars, and a way from everything that they have known.
CORLEY: But what will be different is the type of home CHA residents come back to if they actually do return. It will also take a few more years than planned. Gilliam says fewer federal dollars, tricky financing, and the complexities of relocating more than 100,000 people, means the CHA's efforts to change the face of public housing won't be complete for another eight years.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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