How the poor fare among richer neighbors
Ann Griffin sits contentedly in the sunny living room of her immaculate new condominium. She's proud, and she makes no attempt to hide it.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
For years, she had lived in Cabrini Green, one of the most notorious housing projects in the US, surrounded by fields of concrete, halls of dim fluorescent light, and the too-familiar sound of gunfire.
Now, Cabrini Green is under the shadow of the wrecking ball, and Ms. Griffin finds herself in a fully air-conditioned, red-brick home, situated among wrought-iron fences and manicured lawns.
Some of her neighbors are paying off $200,000 mortgages. She pays $54 a month from her widow's pension, part of one of America's most dramatic public-housing experiments.
For most of the past decade, housing officials have razed monolithic housing projects and replaced them with single-family homes designed for poor and working-class families. But Chicago is moving a step further, trying to integrate homeowners from the projects into middle- and - in Griffin's case - even upper-middle-class neighborhoods.
There's a catch: Inspectors periodically drop by to make sure the house is tidy, the grass is mowed, and radio volume dials have been kept below 10. While some residents have complained, others see it as an invaluable opportunity to improve their lives.
"It's nice," Ms. Griffin says. "It's beautiful. The neighbors are beautiful."
Since 1993, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has given $4 billion to 90 cities to rehab or demolish housing projects and build anew. Other cities such as Seattle have similarly ambitious programs. But Chicago's $1.5 billion plan to renovate or tear down and replace some 25,000 public housing units in over 50 high-rises is by far the largest undertaking in the country.
Over the next five to 10 years, some residents will move into mixed-income communities designed to blend in with the community, while others will settle into complexes of new low-rise homes that are solely public housing units. Still others will use federal housing vouchers to search for living quarters in the private rental market.
"What we want to avoid is the isolation that Chicago Housing Authority residents have felt for years," says CHA spokesman Francisco Arcaute. "We want a community where you cannot tell the difference between a public-housing resident and a non-public-housing resident."
Breaking up projects and creating mixed-income communities, though, is a delicate task. No matter how bad the conditions in public housing may seem to outsiders, many residents are reluctant to leave and are ill-prepared for the drastic change of moving out.
"It's really hard when you are a second or third generation from public housing for you to understand that (1) you need to get a job, (2) it has to have a livable wage, and (3) you have to be able to put some of that money away," says Martina Pilar Shera, executive director of Cabrini Green Youth and Family Services, a social-services agency.