Policymakers and tenant leaders aren’t in agreement as CHA considers the future 586 public housing units
Cambridge Avenue in Cabrini-Green, just north of Chicago Avenue, is a study in contrasts.
On the west side of Cambridge, refurbished yellow brick surrounds new metal doors and sleek house numbers while cheerful landscaping brightens the space in front of row houses.
On Cambridge’s east side are dilapidated, mostly empty structures worn by decades of use and neglect.
Barbara Lott, a longtime resident of Cabrini, feels lucky that she secured a rehabbed unit near Cambridge. She keeps it smartly decorated and spotlessly clean.
“I love it here,” she said. “I just love where I live.”
The Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation has already brought big changes to Cabrini, knocking down all but four of the old high rises that used to dominate the landscape in this part of town. But after promising to rehab all of the row houses — 586 units of public housing — CHA has confirmed it is now considering doing away with many, if not all, of them.
At the beginning of the Plan, the Cabrini row houses were to remain as newly rehabbed and 100 percent traditional public housing, set apart from the mixed-income neighborhood the Plan is seeking to create.
And it’s that proximity that now has some policymakers concerned. They’re worried that having a block of concentrated poverty so near to the new neighborhood will be detrimental to public housing residents themselves and the broader community.
Resident leaders, however, are pushing back against any demolition of the row houses, making the case that traditional public housing communities can be vibrant, safe places. Losing additional units of public housing in an area that’s difficult for people with low and moderate incomes to find places live would be a travesty, they say.
Whether the east side of Cambridge will ever look like the west side, or whether some of the units, if not all of them, will see the wrecking ball is an open question at this point.
Unlike other residents who were afraid of the Plan For Transformation — CHA’s effort to remake the city’s public housing system — Lott hoped for the best and has been happy with the results.
The 41-year-old mother has seen both the promise of public housing and the desolation it produced. She’s lived in the Cabrini row houses most of her life, moving to Chicago when she was two years old with her parents from Calhoun, Mississippi. They were seeking a better life, and Lott remembers those early days well.
“People were a lot friendlier back then. My best friend lived just down the street,” she said. “We played all the time. There are activities for kids. It was different.”
She had a daughter when she was just 17 and dropped out of high school to take care of her mother, who became ill due to sickle cell anemia.
Lott has lived on almost every street in the row houses — Hudson, Cleveland, Oak, Mohawk and now Chestnut, near the corner of Cambridge. She’s loved it there, but she’s not blind to the neighborhood’s faults.
One summer night when her daughter was 12, Lott left her with a babysitter for the evening, but got a frantic call an hour later. Gang crossfire had gotten so bad that a bullet pierced her kitchen window, grazing her daughter’s forehead as she ate dinner.
“We were scared. I didn’t like it, but we couldn’t afford to move to someplace better,” Lott said.
She still worries. Her youngest son is 11, and she keeps close tabs on him, tracking who he plays with and warning him about the dangers of getting involved with the wrong people. Gang violence and drug dealing have certainly waned since the high-rises have come down, she said, but there’s still plenty of criminal activity around to make her wary.
That, in part, is what concerns Alex Polikoff, an attorney and the former executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a non-profit advocacy group.
Polikoff has long had an interest in the composition of residents at housing authority properties around Chicago.
Through BPI, he served as lead counsel in the Gautreaux case, which challenged the housing authority’s practice of putting public housing in low-income, minority neighborhoods.
The lawsuit, first filed in 1966, resulted in a consent decree calling for scattered-site public housing development in Chicago, which has long been overseen by a federal judge and the Habitat Company. That monitoring will be phased out over the next three years, CHA announced earlier this year.
Back in September, Polikoff and his colleagues filed a motion with the judge overseeing the Gautreaux case, asking the housing authority to reconsider keeping the row houses traditional public housing.
“History tells us over and over again that a concentrated urban poverty situation is not going to be good for the families, and it’s not going to be good for the adjacent neighborhood,” Polikoff said.
Polikoff cited research shows that areas of concentrated poverty produces negative outcomes — higher rates of out-of-wedlock births, inferior schools, more residents with criminal backgrounds, higher rates of crime and drug trafficking.
This kind of activity within the row houses, he said, will bleed over into the surrounding communities. And that’s exactly the kind of neighborhood he doesn’t want public housing residents to have to deal with.
“Why would we impose this additional burden on them?” Polikoff said.
Tenant leaders at Cabrini-Green don’t believe Polikoff has the residents’ best interest in mind.
Carol Steele, the president of the Cabrini Local Advisory Council, said public housing residents are indeed able live in a peaceful, positive neighborhood if given the right conditions.
”You can’t say you’re doing right by people and you don’t put good management or good security in the buildings,” Steele said. ”In this city, the Plan has been about moving low-income people up and out.”<
She dismissed Polikoff’s concerns that maintaining the row houses as traditional public housing will negatively impact the groups of condos and town homes that surround it.<
“Who died and made Alex Polikoff God?” Steele said. “I don’t care what he thinks. Gautreaux is done. We no longer need Gautreaux.”
Steele’s lawyer, Richard Wheelock, an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, agrees that with proper management, good security and supportive services, the row houses can be vibrant public housing community.
Demolishing them, he said, will mean a loss of almost 600 public housing units, further limiting the number of families that can return to the Cabrini-Green area.
“We’re concerned that CHA is going to break its word to the residents and not pursue rehab of that site, which would be a terrible decision,” Wheelock said. “It’s a huge loss of public housing. Where would you build the remaining units? Where would that be made up? Certainly not in the Cabrini area.”
Wheelock also took issue with the idea that the new residents of the row houses are going to be troublesome.
He pointed to a recently imposed work requirement for public housing residents, along with new admissions policies that encourage moderate income families to move in and strict rules for lease violations.
These changes, he said, will make the row house population more stable and cohesive.
“There are plenty of examples where you have low-rise public housing, if the families are being provided proper social services, proper management, proper repairs to the units and police protection — it can work,” Wheelock said.
Polikoff doesn’t want to take that chance. Can traditional public housing work? Yes, he acknowledged. But will it work? He’s not so sure.
“Everything we know tells us that it’s not inconceivable, theoretically, that we could produce great results in a 100 percent public housing community,” Polikoff said. “But what is the likelihood of that happening? We’re not sure.”
Both Wheelock and Polikoff expect the Chicago Housing Authority to announce a decision soon. The agency has been tight-lipped about when that decision will come or what it will be.
“No official decision has been made,” Matt Aguilar, a CHA spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.
Any decision, he wrote, be it demolition or some sort of reconfiguration of the row houses, would be discussed and determined within Cabrini’s working group, a committee of community members and city officials that plans the site’s redevelopment.
Lott said she isn’t losing sleep about the decision.
If the row houses stay, Lott will stay in the home that she loves. If they go, she has an idea of where she would like to move. Either way, she wants to live in a community where she feels safe.
“I just want everybody to be able to get along, even if you’re from one end of Cabrini or the other,” Lott said. “I love my apartment. I love where I’m at. I just want less violence and more community.”