Chicago: The Deconstruction of Public Housing

Part 1: Cruel Plans, Cold Lies

Revolutionary Worker #1223, December 21, 2003, posted at

Public housing projects, Chicago-- The police pound on the people's doors in the middle of the night. If you open it a crack they push their way in. There is no search warrant. They pull the people out of their houses and interrogate them. When the people speak up for themselves or ask what is happening, the police tell them to shut up. The cops threaten jail or even worse.

Youth are routinely picked up off the street by the police and charged with petty offenses. Records are kept, many youth are thrown into the system, with little recourse. One-strike evictions hang over the people's heads. One wrong move, be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and your family is out on the streets.

Whole neighborhoods are torn down in the name of progress. But before the wrecking ball comes-- the buildings are allowed to fall into despair. The people are left with desperate choices.

It's 2003 and yet again the system is "relocating" a whole section of the oppressed-- tearing up Black communities that have existed for 50 years.


What is happening to public housing in Chicago sounds a lot like stories from Palestine or the current occupation of Iraq.

In Palestine, the Israeli army comes through with bulldozers and tears down people's houses. Whole communities are uprooted and destroyed to make way for Israeli settlements. Palestinian youth are beaten, harassed and murdered by the Israeli army.

In Iraq, the U.S. military kicks down the doors of sleeping Iraqis, looking for "suspects," humiliating the people as they trample their belongings, threaten them and murder them.

How different is this from the treatment of people who live in Cabrini Green? Where the people have countless stories to tell of harassment, disrespect, brutality and even murder at the hands of the police. Where you will find a strong community of Black proletarian people, a community that is slated for the government's chopping block.

Breaking Down "The Plan for Transformation"

On January 6, 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) issued its "Plan for Transformation." This outlines in detail their Plan for tearing up public housing, in particular thousands of units located in open gallery highrise buildings.

This plan is now in full effect as many buildings have already been torn down, with many families and whole communities displaced. This process hasn't happened without protest and resistance from the people. In fact, there continues to be sharp and heroic struggle to save public housing--but as the wrecking ball continues to swing, clearly this is a struggle that is far from won and far from over.

The "Plan for Transformation" is a thick document, updated yearly. It outlines which buildings are to be destroyed and when. But most striking is that behind a veil of sounding plausible, rational and just is a very cold attack on the people.

For example it says that under Section 202 of a federal mandate by the Housing and Urban Development (HUD)--"demolition is required when the monthly per-unit cost to renovate and maintain any contiguous [continuous-- RW ] property with more than 300 units and with a vacancy rate in excess of 10 percent exceeds the monthly cost of a housing voucher."

This is a trap. It states that when buildings get too run down or too vacant, the government can just tear them down.

In other words: They are coming for the people's homes.

But everybody who lives in these highrise buildings knows that the buildings are only run-down because CHA neglects them and has neglected them for years and years.

There's a Catch-22 at play here. On one hand, the federal mandate says if the building is in poor condition, tear it up. But at the same time, CHA has allowed buildings to deteriorate for just that reason, so they can tear them up.

Residents told the RW how the living conditions are just allowed to break down. The authorities refuse to spend money on things like cleaning of hallways and stairwells--and then blame the people when the place smells terrible. Light fixtures stay broken, so stairwells are pitch black at night. Hot water will be cut off for an entire weekend. Metal trash chutes in the hallways are left broken so they always hang open, creating dangers for children who play there. Elevators are often left broken, so people have to take the stairs in buildings that are as high as 16 stories.

These examples are really just the tip of the iceberg. Residents who file "fix-up orders" when things break in their apartments are put on a long waiting list where it can take months to get things fixed. The CHA allows such conditions to happen, and then describes such a "distressed development" as reasons for destruction.

"The Plan" lays out economic reasoning and timelines for demolishing Chicago's massive public housing. It states very clearly, "All properties subject to Section 202 are scheduled for demolition by the end of 2005."

It goes on to describe a twisted economic "1996 HUD Appropriations Bill" from the U.S. Congress which mandates which buildings will be torn down--targeting "certain `distressed' developments that cannot be revitalized for less than the cost of vouchers, affecting more than 40 percent of the Agency's stock."

They are basically claiming that it is cheaper (on paper! for them!) to disperse the people out into the existing private "housing market" of Chicago, than to fix up these apartment buildings--and so, they say, let's end guaranteed public housing, evict the people, destroy their communities and tear down their homes.

How These Projects Are Targeted

There are many arguments put forward for destroying these projects. It is said (with barely disguised racist overtones) that it is no good to have such large concentrations of poor people in one place.

Then there are pseudo-architectural arguments--saying that there were supposedly "initial design flaws" in creating such highrise open gallery buildings. These bogus arguments have been made by CHA and HUD and echoed in the media. It is even said that having buildings dependent on elevators is no good so it is better to tear the buildings up. Even though miles of rich condos nearby are also highrises and seem to have no inherent "design flaws" because of their need for elevators.

The problem is that highrise elevators need to be serviced. The media often blames the youth for broken elevators, as if youth want everyone to take the stairs. But studies show that the real elevator problem is that these buildings have simply been allowed to deteriorate for years. Because according their thinking poor people are not worth the investment after all.

Residents in Cabrini Green told the RW that they strongly believe that all the problems of building maintenance could be overcome if people were just hired to do the work. The residents were able to tackle a lot of these problems when they ran the buildings through Resident Management Committees. But even then, the system moved to shut them down because there just isn't any profit for it in meeting the people's needs.

While the CHA tried to dress up "The Plan" in fancy formulas and justifications the truth isn't hard to see: For example everyone knows that Cabrini Green (one famous example of Chicago public housing) sits on prime real estate. An area once very poor and industrialized is ripe for capitalist transformation through gentrification. Where buildings have been torn down, freshly built million-dollar condos now sit across from the existing projects.

We talked to one reader of the RW who's been living in the projects for 40 years: "That's basically what they trying to do, destroy the community. They don't want it to stand strong and unite as a community and stand strong because they know we are so many leaders. And so far we can DO things here in this community, we can change this community and they not, they don't wanna wait for that, y'know what I'm saying? They wanna go ahead remove all and bring in the wrecking ball and tear down the community, instead of letting the community build itself back up to the point where it was at already. You know and resume, you know, unite and be strong like it was at first. Cuz they're not even trying to hear that cuz they just ready to tear it down. Because it's a billion-dollar landmark. And they been wanting it, you know, they figure we done had it too long anyway."

A glaring contradiction within "The Plan" is that there simply is no serious planning for taking care of the thousands of families being displaced as the buildings are torn down.

"The Plan" talks about moving residents to other public housing, including in mixed income locations. But there is just not enough to go around.

There are now more than 60,000 families who need apartments in public housing. The Plan intends to cut the number of public units from about 39,000 to 25,000 --in other words, a destruction of 14,000 units.

But these numbers don't even tell the whole story.

One little popularized fact is that many of the highrise units have up to four bedrooms. Newer public housing units are smaller. Often residents will be forced to move from a four-bedroom apartment to a two- bedroom. Families will end up broken up. Some people will end up homeless.

Further, those who do get into new public housing are finding strict new rules they have to live by. For example, single women are not allowed to have male friends spend the night. People are not allowed to sit on the porch or have friends hang out. There are random inspections of people's apartments.

These invasive outrages punish the poor for being poor.

Housing for Profit

The CHA plan seeks to privatize sections of public housing--and this too means that the people get threatened.

Private investors are brought in to finance different developments, and generally only allow the people one-year leases on their new apartments--and there is much concern that this means the profit- crazed developers may just switch these buildings, one day, from "affordable housing" to gentrified "market-rate housing" for the wealthier classes.

At its base, the CHA "Plan for Transformation" is rooted in cold, capitalist calculations that put profit before the people. Developers and major banks are openly drooling about the possibility of buying the land the projects sit on--and making literally billions of dollars in the process.

And then on a more strategic level, the city and federal government has long been eager to disperse the large concentrations of poor, mainly Black people that are living so close to Chicago's power centers. Their fear goes back to the 1960s during the high tide of the Black liberation struggle in the U.S., when rebellion in Chicago's ghettos brought thousands of youth right into the heart of the downtown.

This "Plan" is part of a larger gutting of the "social contract" of America. Displacing tens of thousands of poor people from their homes goes right along with the present plans for cutting public assistance and welfare-as-we-know-it. It goes along with leaving public schools to rot while promoting private school vouchers, privatizing medical care while tens of millions suffer without health insurance. Across the board, new federal and state policies have torn up assistance programs for the urban and rural poor.

Police Driving the People Out

The police play their own important role in these plans for destroying public housing.

They are targeting buildings with a high "vacancy rate"--and shameless police persecutions are one way of driving that vacancy rate up. The most straight-up way this happens is the enforcement of the "one-strike" law. This federal law calls for the eviction of whole families where even one person in the household is caught with possession of drugs. The police use this to move whole families out of their apartments.

One resident told the RW how this goes down: "It's cuz once you get in trouble outside--you know what I'm saying-- you get into an argument out there with the police or whatever--then they can go on the person who you live with and plant drugs. And you can get evicted because you got a charge on you. That's how it goes, you keep charging this guy, you know he's living with his Mama or whatever so that's one family that's gonna get kicked out cuz he already got his charge. Either she gets kicked out or she kicks him off the lease, so these parents over here is forced to kick their teenagers off the lease because they hang outside and the police harass them."

The effect of police brutality and harassment--barging in to people apartments without warrants and straight-up telling them they got no rights--is stress on the people. It just makes them want to leave.

Residents tell about conditions that can only be described as apartheid-like. One resident told the RW about her 7-year-old son's nightmares about the police busting down the door. Why would a 7-year- old have such dreams? While we were writing this article we saw why: the cops came running through Cabrini with their guns drawn.

Choosing to Take a Stand

In short, the plan is to run people out now, and then use the "vacancies" as an excuse to run the rest of the people out later.

Some people are leaving CHA highrise housing when they get a chance to move into other newer public housing developments. They hope for better conditions and think they may find it in "mixed income communities" and the suburbs.

But two things result from this: On the one hand, the vacancies become a justification for tearing down the highrises and breaking up those old communities. And on the other hand, the hopes of the people for this new housing are likely to be betrayed again.

The leases on these new public housing units are only for a year and the housing is no longer guaranteed long-term. And people who once had the networks of their old communities to help them with childcare, emergencies, and transportation suddenly find themselves alone and isolated in the new places, feeling the desperation of poverty even more sharply.

The issue here for the people is how really they will fight their way to something different and better. Will people get free by seeking individual solutions, by grabbing at various plans and false hopes offered by the system. Or will they stand together, find the ways to unite against their oppressors.

For years, the people here have been demonized, criminalized and attacked as if they don't deserve even the most basic rights. And now, in the middle of this "war on terrorism," a wave of Ashcroftian madness is challenging such rights on an even larger scale--persecuting dissent, passing new repressive laws, demanding that people accept police-state powers and spying.

The people of Chicago's housing projects have long been watched by people throughout this city, and even around the country, for lessons and inspiration.

And now, in the middle of this "war on terrorism" the dangerous changes across the country make the struggles of Chicago's proletarian people even more important.