Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley wants his city to be a model for what is now a national movement: to radically overhaul the country's public-housing program. The goal - to turn mismanaged, isolated "projects" into mixed-income, workable neighborhoods - is laudable. The danger lies with overzealous politicians trying to hastily solve this long-standing problem and getting caught up in the symbolism of demolishing low-income, high-rise buildings.
Mayor Daley is focusing on Cabrini Green and two other troubled Chicago public-housing developments. At Cabrini, the plan is to knock down eight of 23 high-rise buildings and replace them with town houses, condominiums, and new schools. The 15 remaining towers would be rehabbed, though the cost of such an undertaking is uncertain. The plan also includes building new parks, a library, a grocery store, and a police station.
One question mark is financing. The project's cost is estimated at about $1 billion; the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has promised $50 million. Much of the remaining money likely will come from the sale of land on the edges of the Cabrini property to private developers. Critics of the project allege that the plan involves a land grab for valuable real estate.
In light of these concerns, HUD must prove it will keep its promise to replace 330 low-income apartments before demolishing any more buildings. The department, which took control a year ago, also should listen carefully to Cabrini residents - planning with them, not just for them.
The plan is supposed to include jobs for these residents to qualify them for the new units; so far three private companies have made commitments for 150 new positions. More are needed. Helping residents find jobs should be a priority.
With about 6 percent of the country's 1.3 million public-housing units classified as "severely distressed" - plagued by crime, crumbling infrastructure, and high vacancy rates - there is clearly a need to do something. Attracting a mix of families to low-rise alternatives is a good solution, adding to the mix enough higher-rent payers to create a surplus for maintenance. And connecting public-housing projects to communities - including easy access to stores and banks - is a major goal.
But Mayor Daley and the Clinton administration should not tear down the high-rises in haste, in an attempt to win political points. The features that make low-rise buildings more attractive and safe can work for the towers that remain standing: better security, better management, and a better process for screening out problem tenants. When this is done, Daley and Clinton can say they have made radical changes to the public-housing program in Chicago, and in the country as a whole.