Chicago Becomes a Test Case for Salvaging Urban Housing
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Still, Jackson and other long-time residents say they were pleased with the apartment blocks at first. They describe Chicago's Henry Horner Homes, a stretch of 19 buildings with 1,761 units, as something out of a fairy tale.Skip to next paragraph
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''It was like a palace. It had beautiful lawns and everything was fresh and new,'' recalls Mamie Bone, a resident council leader who moved into Horner with her husband and two children in 1956.
The homes were also relatively safe. ''At night, you could sleep outside on the ramps,'' says Jackson, referring to the open-air walkways that ring each floor of the high-rises.
Horner was a more stable community because the majority of its residents were working class, as was typical of public housing at the time. ''The men would handle the boys,'' says Mrs. Bone. ''They had baseball and a lot of young-men activities in those days.''
Beginning in the late 1960s, however, demographic and economic trends combined with public policies of the day to spur a rapid decline of public housing in Chicago and other cities.
As middle-class Americans fled to the suburbs, blue-collar families moved into the vacant homes and quit public housing. In turn, the projects were left mainly to jobless people on welfare. Federal laws sped the exodus of working families from public housing by imposing scaled rents and income caps that effectively reserved it for the very poor. Lax screening and long eviction procedures meant disruptive tenants got in and stayed.
Financially strapped local housing authorities could no longer raise enough rent to operate the projects. Despite federal operating subsidies that began in 1975, buildings decayed, appliances broke, and routine maintenance went neglected. In Chicago, corruption and mismanagement by CHA bureaucrats siphoned away millions of dollars. ''Everything just started going down, down ...'' says Bone.
Today, Horner is home to one of the 15 poorest communities in America. The hallways of its dilapidated brick buildings are a grimy black scribbled with layers of graffiti. Elevators break down so often that most residents opt to walk up dark stairwells that reek of urine. Jackson, who raises four grandchildren on $700 a month, relies on a cat to exterminate the mice.
The breezy ''ramps'' Jackson once slept on are now dark and dangerous. Gangs and drug dealers control entire buildings. With a CHA backlog of evictions, drug addicts and other criminals often aren't forced out for years.
Accusing the government of carrying out the ''de facto demolition'' of their homes through neglect, Horner residents four years ago filed a class-action lawsuit against CHA and HUD. In March, residents won a court settlement that called for tearing down up to half of Horner's units and replacing them with low-rise, mixed-income housing.
The ruling underscores a broad policy shift in Chicago, Washington, and across the nation toward economic integration as the prime strategy for improving public housing.
Some Horner residents welcome the decision to rebuild and rehab their units and bring in more working families. But others, including Jackson, are skeptical about the promised improvements and still want to leave.
''You dream about having your own house and a backyard where you can let you're kids go and know they'll still be there,'' Jackson says. ''My grandson always said 'Mom, I'm going to get you out of here.'''