The Drive to Destroy Public Housing in Chicago

People Removal in Cabrini Green

Revolutionary Worker #1229, February 15, 2004, posted at

This is the second part of a two-part series on the attacks on public housing at Cabrini Green projects in Chicago. The first part--"The Deconstruction of Public Housing: Cruel Plans, Cold Lies," appeared in RW #1223.

Fact: Since 1998, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) has demolished 14,000 apartments and built 900.

Fact: 172 families moved out of CHA housing directly into homeless shelters between January and June 2003.

Fact: The waiting list for CHA housing has 50,000 families on it, up from 30,000 in 1999.

The Attack on Resident Management

It started at 6:00 in the morning on June 9, 2003. Twenty armed police and several CHA officials stormed into the two offices of the Resident Management Corporation (RMC) at Green Homes, part of the Cabrini Green housing projects in Chicago. The cops and housing officials were performing a sneak raid at dawn.

The two RMCs, which oversaw the eight highrise buildings in Green Homes, were declared null and void. There was no warning, no letter, nothing.

Over 50 people employed by the RMCs were out of jobs--though no one bothered to tell them directly. Several RMC employees in one of the offices were given five minutes to gather their belongings and threatened with arrest if they tried to come back to their offices.

With the surprise raid by the police and CHA, out were the residents who had spent the last ten years managing the buildings. In came a "private" management company from out of state that knew nothing about Cabrini Green or the people who live there.

Later that morning, a young man found files and equipment from the RMCs' evacuated offices in dumpsters behind one of the buildings. The files included residents' social security numbers and other personal information, current leases, and over $6,000 in uncashed money orders for rent. All of it dumped in the trash.

In the aftermath of the raid, the pure disregard for people's dignity was on everyone's mind. Sixty people marched in the rain through the neighborhood the next day to confront CHA officials who had dared show their face in the neighborhood. The RMC presidents held a press conference to expose the lies of the CHA--lies like those out of a George W. Bush handbook on "shameless intervention under cover of sugar-coated bullshit."

The CHA officials said, "We're doing this because services need to be improved for the residents and that's what all this is about." Yet they also stated openly that one of the reasons they removed the RMCs was that the RMCs were not carrying out "one-strike" evictions.

"One-strike and you're out" lease provisions for public housing originated in the late 1980s as part of the government's "war on drugs." This cold-hearted law, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, gives local public housing authorities the power to evict tenants if someone on their lease, or even a guest, is caught anywhere in possession of drugs. The tenant may even not know that the other person is using or holding drugs. If that other person is convicted on drug charges, the tenant is subject to eviction under "one-strike."

The "one-strike" law has been used as a threat over the people, as part of the overall criminalization of the poor and oppressed. And "one-strike" has been a major weapon of the CHA and Chicago police in their "people removal" operations and the drive to tear down public housing.

Attacking the People from Many Sides

The CHA's outrageous move to eliminate the RMCs last summer raises some important questions. Why did the CHA so viciously go after the RMCs at Cabrini Green? What's behind the plan to "change the face of public housing as we know it"? And what are the different dynamics in motion against the people?

The authorities talk about breaking up concentrations of poverty, claiming that they are doing this for the benefit of people living in the poor areas. The CHA website says they are "reversing decades of decline and hopelessness, leaving a new legacy of promise and opportunity for the city's low-income residents."

Did the CHA wake up one day and slap themselves on the forehead, saying, "Damn, we've been doing something very wrong for decades--now we've got to reverse our course and fix the problem"? Nothing of the sort has happened.

The fact of the matter is that the drive to remove public housing is the result of the inner workings of this capitalist society. It is an attack on the people from many sides.

The attack on public housing involves various forces, from the top levels of the federal government down to the money-grabbing real-estate financiers. And the gutting of public housing has meant misery and desperation for the people.

The claims of those behind this attack--that they are offering people "hope" and "opportunity"--are no different from the "white man's burden" justifications of the slave owner and colonizer. They describe themselves as "doing people a favor"--while they have their hands wrapped around the necks of the oppressed.

For many decades the federal government has been troubled by large concentrations of poor people in the inner city. During the 1960s Black people around the country refused to put up with the racism and national oppression that the system had been piling on for centuries. Just in the first nine months of 1967, there were 160 rebellions in 128 cities.

Around this time, President Lyndon Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (a.k.a. the Kerner Commission, after its chairman) to find "short term measures to prevent riots, better measures to contain riots once they begin, and long term measures to eliminate riots in the future."

Housing activist Yolanda Ward wrote in 1979, "The Kerner Commission strategists came to the conclusion that America's inner-city poverty was so entrenched that the ghettos could not be transformed into viable neighborhoods to the satisfaction of its residents or the government. The problem of riots, therefore, could be expected to emerge in the future, perhaps with more intensity and as a more serious threat to the Constitutional privileges which most Americans enjoy. They finally concluded that if the problem could not be eliminated because of the nature of the American system of `free enterprise,' then American technology could contain it. This could only be done through a theory of `spatial deconcentration' of racially impacted neighborhoods."

By "spatial deconcentration," the Kerner Commission (and the larger ruling class) meant that large concentrations of poor people presented a threat to the power structure--and therefore these communities needed to be dispersed out of inner-city cores. Following this cold-blooded logic, the federal government called for "spatial deconcentration" of public housing. And in line with this, CHA's "Plan for Transformation" specified the same goal.

This "deconcentration" of poor people has been a goal of the system's rulers for some time--although it has not always proven so easy to carry out. But more recent shifts in the U.S. and world economy have added significant momentum to this goal. At the same time, these shifts have provided new rationale for such measures.

Public assistance programs like welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps are being gutted left and right. In the last 15 years, the powers-that-be have made serious inroads in removing these "safety net" social programs.

These programs had originally come into being in part as the system's response to the movements of the 1960s, as the government aimed to pacify those on the bottom. But today, the rulers consider such programs as obstacles to their larger needs and plans. In their ruthless move to drive down large sections of the population, they are slashing the lifelines that many people depended on and telling these people to "sink or swim."

Some of those cut off from welfare, public housing, and other social programs are being forced to become part of the low-wage, uninsured, "expendable" work force--so that the capitalists can more "rationally" and thoroughly exploit them. Others are being simply abandoned, forced deeper into extreme poverty, hunger, underground economy, and homelessness. This is especially true for many Black youth, who are being increasingly vilified, criminalized and imprisoned-- youth who face the daily repression, harassment, and brutality of the police.

Another driving force behind the destruction of public housing is the billions of dollars to be made off deals in prime real estate and the shifting around of whole communities. Real estate interests have long had their eyes on places like Cabrini Green, which is being increasingly surrounded by gentrification. (See part 1 of this series for more on this development.) As the wrecking balls swing, crashing into poor people's homes, new condos and developments aimed at urban professionals are springing up where public housing used to stand.

According to the Chicago Tribune , in Chicago's Loop (downtown) area alone, housing units have nearly doubled in the past 15 years from 48,000 to 78,000. But you will be hard pressed to find any new housing for the poor. As the same Tribune article reports, deeded parking spaces in the newer developments are going for as much as $25,000.

As the RW summarized in a previous article, "In short, the Chicago ruling class will be liquidating public housing and cutting social services to gather massive amounts of capital to finance a `gold rush' of real estate profit-making. In the process low-income housing will shrink drastically, communities will be destroyed, and thousands of poor people will be thrown out of their homes."

The CHA's waiting list now has 50,000 families on it--up from 30,000 in 1999. CHA officials steadily deny that the agency is in any way responsible for the waiting list. What's more, there are 30,000 families on the waiting list for Section 8 (housing subsidy) vouchers. Some of these low-income families have been waiting for close to 20 years for their Section 8 subsidy. But the CHA has been pushing the Section 8 vouchers on public housing residents, even as they continue to empty buildings and tear them down.

As the publisher of the Residents' Journal (a newspaper produced by CHA residents) wrote, "Without them [CHA officials], I would have never been able to understand how human beings can suspend their compassion and perform deeds that are truly reprehensible."

The CHA and others behind the drive to destroy public housing are indeed cynical and heartless. But this is not just a policy of some cruel officials--the assault on public housing arises from the larger imperatives of the system.

The Effects of the "Regime Change"

In the weeks and months after the takeover of the Cabrini Green RMCs last summer, residents were subjected to all kinds of threats and attacks.

Some results of the takeover were immediate. For weeks the trash compactors were not emptied. Garbage piled up in the trash chutes up to the 15th floor. Residents saw rats in the hallways of buildings-- when before the rats were only seen outside. The police stationed themselves in front of several of the buildings.

Other changes came over time. All types of threats started to be thrown at people by the new management company: "Your rent will be owe thousands of dollars in back'll be evicted..." Of course, since the RMC files were thrown out, people were told to simply swallow the claims that they owed back rent. One flyer posted all over declared that the sheriffs were coming soon to throw out people who allegedly were late on rent.

People who live in Cabrini have told the RW that before school started last September, the hot water was out all weekend--preventing many people from even taking a bath or shower in the heat of late August.

The elevators have been out for days at a time. People in wheelchairs and with disabilities are left with no way to get into their homes. Asthma is a major health issue among Black people. For example, Black children are three times more likely to die from asthma than children overall. What's going to happen when someone on the 14th floor is having a bad asthma attack? Will the paramedics run up the stairs with whatever equipment they can carry? What if someone's having a heart attack on the 9th floor and needs to be taken to the hospital immediately?

The takeover of the RMCs also completely disrupted plans to begin "fix-ups" in the building with the most vacancies, as part of the annual Juneteenth celebration.

The private management company has had to hire back some of the people who had worked for the RMCs--mainly because the buildings were deteriorating so quickly and there was public outrage over the conditions.

The hostile takeover of the RMCs has greatly contributed to more people leaving or being evicted from the Cabrini Green projects. People who have somewhere they can move to are getting out before all the trouble of an eviction or forced relocation comes after them. Some people have been seduced by the promise of Section 8 housing. One of the "services" that the new management company has been increasing is "relocation"--which means they "help" people move out of the neighborhood. All this serves to make it easier for the CHA to carry out their "people removal" plan.

The People vs. the War on Public Housing

The Cabrini RMCs were far from a perfect setup for the people. But clearly, when the RMCs managed the buildings, the residents' lives were better. The people had some say in the running of their buildings, and things worked a lot better that they do now. Basic repairs were done and, most importantly, far fewer people were evicted. In one of the buildings, no one was evicted when the RMC was there.

Actually, the fact that things worked better for the people under the RMCs was one of the reasons that the CHA wanted to get rid of them. The RMCs at Green Homes had become an obstacle to the plans for destruction of the neighborhood.

The history of the management of public housing has been contradictory. At different buildings, the CHA has used private management companies to put pressure on the people as part of emptying them out. Along with "one-strike" evictions, harassment of residents by police, and the neglect of the maintenance of buildings, private management companies served the interests of the CHA.

Ironically, right-wing ruling class forces in the U.S. had a big role in developing RMCs in public housing. They promoted the idea that the people should "administer their own poverty"--which was a cynical ploy to blame the people themselves for the deteriorating conditions of public housing and to justify tearing them up.

There were cases, such as in Chicago's Stateway Gardens project, where the RMC sold out the people and aided the eventual destruction of the housing. But, by and large, the RMCs have not played this role. In many cases, the RMCs played a role in organizing the people to fight for reforms within public housing. This partly had to do with the fact that many RMC leaders had roots in the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Some RMCs were able to end up with surpluses when given control of their budgets--the RMCs in Cabrini, for example, had a $6 million surplus.

While the Cabrini RMCs played a positive role for the residents, they certainly weren't out to directly challenge the system's whole plan to destroy public housing. But the fact that even the reforms and basic building maintenance carried out by the RMCs were intolerable for the CHA and the power structure says something deep about what's behind the drive to destroy public housing. The attacks on the people of Cabrini Green and other public housing projects arise from the overall necessities facing the monopoly capitalist ruling class and from their moves to more deeply exploit and to increase control over the people. Understanding this bigger picture is crucial to waging the most determined struggle against the system's war on public housing.

In Chicago the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade (RCYB), who live right in Cabrini Green, and supporters of the Revolutionary Communist Party have for many years played a leading role in the fight to defend public housing--basing themselves on the understanding that this people-destroying system cannot be reformed but must be overthrown by revolution.

Cabrini Green stands as one of the last big public housing projects in Chicago. Many people in Cabrini have questions about what can be done to stop the destruction of their homes. At the same time, as the RW found in speaking with people in Cabrini, many residents feel it is necessary--and possible-- to fight to save public housing.

There are some important things going for Cabrini: A strong community with a whole history of struggle against injustice. A sense among the people that the uprooting of this community is a straight-up attack on the rights of Black people. Many people outside of Cabrini who stand firmly with the people living in Cabrini. The revolutionary leadership of the RCYB.

On one side is the system's relentless and merciless drive to destroy public housing. On the other is the tremendous potential of the people to take on this battle and to make history in the process.


Soon after the takeover of the RMC in Cabrini Green last summer, the new private management company put up flyers all over the place threatening the people. The following is the text of this notice:



Management Office