Rehab of Chicago High Rises Aims to Lure Working Class
Public housing experiment to replace crime-ridden towers with low-rise homes
FROM the living-room couch of his small, spotless apartment, Foster Harris looks forward to the day a wrecking ball will demolish the dilapidated Chicago tenement where he and his wife reared a dozen children over 30 years.Skip to next paragraph
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The demolition, expected to begin soon at the Henry Horner Housing Project, represents the first step in a major new federal strategy to replace America's vertical tenements with low-rise, mixed-income communities.
Mr. Harris has few regrets about the obliteration of his home. The retired janitor lost two sons at the project, one shot by drug dealers in a stairwell in 1989. Gang violence today keeps Harris inside with the curtains drawn. Still, he hopes that officials will succeed in building safe apartments on the rubble of the huge tenement. ''I'll never have a home, but this might give me a home atmosphere,'' he says.
Federal officials are banking on the trust of residents like Harris as they attempt a bold, cutting-edge experiment aimed at making Horner a model for turning around America's worst public housing.
Since they took over the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) five weeks ago, the officials have put top priority on the $58 million, five-year Horner renovation, which involves tearing down, rehabbing, and rebuilding hundreds of units.
The government's latest strategy for transforming low-income housing stresses economic rather than racial integration. It aims to break up the isolated concentrations of poverty that officials say have dragged down Horner, on Chicago's West Side, and other projects nationwide.
Most of the 1.3 million households in public housing today have incomes far below the poverty level. The average is $6,100, or 17 percent of the local median. In Chicago, the typical income of resident households is $4,000.
By bringing in more working families, replacing high-rises with low-rises, and linking the projects to more vital surrounding communities, officials expect to improve management and safety while also collecting more rent at projects like Horner.
GOP's new blueprint
This month, House GOP lawmakers will introduce sweeping legislation to free local housing authorities to attract more working families. The proposal would eliminate the federal income caps and scaled rents that since the 1960s have effectively reserved public housing for the very poor.
It would create incentives for unemployed residents to get jobs and move up and out, says Rep. Rick Lazio (R) of New York, one of the measure's architects.
The Republican legislation is also designed to save money as Congress slashes the latest federal housing budget of $31 billion by 20 percent. By loosening regulations and allowing local housing authorities to raise rents, the federal government aims to reduce its $3 billion in yearly operating subsidies for public housing. By law, federal funding for local housing authorities would come in block grants that could be revoked for poor performance.
Plight of neediest
Yet while the strategy is likely to save money and improve housing for some like Harris, it also poses uncertainties for the neediest Americans.
On the one hand, by housing more working families, the policy would increase competition among the poorest Americans for affordable dwellings. Already, there are long waiting lists for subsidized housing. For every household now in public housing, three more, or an additional 5.3 million families, have ''worst-case'' housing needs.