Chicago Becomes a Test Case for Salvaging Urban Housing
FEDERAL officials gauging the failure of Chicago public housing need only look into Dorothy Jackson's eyes.Skip to next paragraph
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They flit constantly, alert to the signs of gunfire in the glass- and litter-strewn compound where her grandchildren play.
Over the years, Mrs. Jackson has watched neglect and mismanagement transform the brick-walled project on Chicago's West Side into a vertical ghetto beset by poverty, drug dealing, and gang violence. The towering tenements are now emblematic of the worst public housing in America.
Jackson put up with mice, cockroaches, and overflowing toilets. But her resolve was shattered nine months ago when her grandson - an eighth-grade valedictorian who called her 'Mom' - was gunned down as he walked home from school. Now, Jackson says, she wants out.
''I just sit, look, and pray,'' says Jackson, sitting in the complex playground. ''I don't care if you've got gold dripping out of the sky onto these buildings. You couldn't pay me enough to stay here.''
Like Jackson, federal authorities found the situation intolerable. The steep decline of Chicago public housing, home to 86,000 of the city's poorest people, prompted a federal takeover of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) a month ago.
Top US housing official Henry Cisneros called the CHA a ''miasma of physical decay and fiscal mismangement,'' where 58 percent of the 40,000 units are not fit to live in.
The federal bid to turn around the CHA - the largest takeover of its kind - has become a national test case of whether some of the country's most troubled public housing can be turned around.
It comes at a time when the federal approach to urban housing is undergoing perhaps its most radical overhaul in six decades, with more authority flowing to the local and grassroots level and with public assistance of all kinds being reduced.
''Public housing in America is on trial in Chicago,'' said Mr. Cisneros, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
While HUD contends that the failure of the CHA demonstrates a need for federal, not local, authority, Republicans seek to shift power and accountability from Washington to local housing agencies while loosening federal regulations.
Republicans including majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas have threatened to eliminate HUD, dismantle the federal housing program, and devolve control over housing funds to local goverments. While GOP legislation to be introduced this month stops short of such radical steps, it envisions sweeping reforms of both the operation and demographics of the public housing system.
Chicago is one of 150 cities with large housing authorities that oversee almost 60 percent of the nation's federally subsidized low-income housing, where a total of 3.1 million people live. While the CHA is less representative of the country's 3,200 smaller housing authorities, its troubles reflect the problems endemic in much of public housing in America.
The nation's huge, domino-like high-rises seem to have featured built-in blueprints for misery almost since Chicago and other cities began erecting them upon the rubble of slums in the 1950s and 1960s. The austere, steel-frame hulks had spartan, flimsilybuilt interiors. They lacked basic amenities such as doors on kitchen cabinets and closets. Dining rooms were too small to allow families to sit down together for meals.
Worse, the towers were isolated from surrounding communities: physically by barren grounds, walls, and highways; politically by city officials who deliberately situated the projects to confine poor blacks within the boundaries of existing ghettos. ''The siting of developments during the 1950s and 1960s was often the result of deliberate decisions to segregate,'' HUD recently acknowledged.