Midpoint in Chicago's housing overhaul

The ambitious public-housing plan could set the tone for other US cities, but it has many critics.

From the upper floors of Stateway Gardens, the view is inspiring.

To the north, the Sears Tower rises up from a postcard-perfect Chicago skyline. Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox, is barely a baseball's throw away, and Lake Michigan peaks through to the east.

It's a view most Chicagoans could only dream of - but from a place they would be afraid to enter.

Soon, it won't exist. Six of the eight high-rises that once made up Stateway Gardens - a public-housing development firmly associated in many people's minds with gangs, drugs, and poverty - have already been torn down, leaving hardly a trace of their existence. Another will be officially emptied and boarded up this week, readying for demolition. The last may linger for a few years yet, as new town houses, three-flats, and mid-rises are built around its ankles.

Stateway's are just several among the dozens of public-housing sites facing the wrecking ball in Chicago. It's all part of the most ambitious public-housing redevelopment in the nation, a $1.5 billion, 10-year plan that's now at its halfway point - and whose results will affect housing policy in other cities for decades.

The vision is a grand one: new mixed-income neighborhoods replacing old high-rises. Homeowners living in town houses alongside public-housing and affordable-housing tenants. A plethora of shops and diversions in now deserted areas. In the process, every resident will be relocated at least once, to transitional public housing or to the private market.

"This is not just about building new units," emphasizes Kim Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). "It's about improving life for public-housing residents by allowing them to be a part of the city in a way they haven't been for 30 years."

But critics fault the means with which the plan has been carried out so far: the relocation of thousands of families as though they were pawns, the seeming eagerness with which the wrecking ball has been swung before alternatives have been built, and the net loss of thousands of public-housing units. They also question exactly to whom the vision will apply.

Some residents are pretty sure it won't be them. "Now they're saying you've gotta have good credit" to live in the mixed-income community that will be built at Stateway, says Lloyd "Pete" Haywood, in a discouraged voice. "I don't."

Mr. Haywood, like many of the residents here, has lived in Stateway all his life. He now works regularly for various local contractors, currently helping rehab old apartments in the last of the high-rises that will remain standing.

In the past few years, he's moved twice. Today, he'll be moving a third time, out of the condemned 10-story building and into the one next door.

"The places I used to play, the people I met - they're all gone," he says, as he sweeps behind the radiator and squashes a stray roach in one freshly painted apartment.

The changes have been even more traumatic for the fringes of public-housing communities - those who have violated their leases, or don't have one. In a survey of the nearby Ida B. Wells development, Susan Popkin and other researchers at the Urban Institute found 22 percent of households weren't in compliance with their leases. This releases the CHA from obligation to find them replacement housing.

"The issue we keep trying to raise is, What are we going to do with all these people?" says Ms. Popkin. Some of the residents with the greatest needs, she worries, will slip through the cracks.

Take Monalisa Maxwell. A thin, nervous woman, with a broad smile, she has lived at Stateway since she moved there with her mother in 1979. But Ms. Maxwell never succeeded in getting a lease of her own. She moved from building to building, and left the now-condemned building a month ago. She and her husband now go from place to place, staying with friends.

"We got a lot of memories in Stateway," says Maxwell, looking fondly at the graffiti-covered hallway in her old building.

For the CHA, the task of relocating the nearly 25,000 families who were lease-compliant when the plan began has been daunting enough. Early on, in particular, the moves were often chaotic, and tenants were ill informed. The CHA has since committed more money to the social services handling relocation.

Yet the numbers question remains contentious. The CHA is destroying 22,000 units and building only 8,000 new ones - still enough, they point out, to house those 25,000 families. But critics say those numbers don't take into account the thousands of families who were on the waiting list at that time.

"By 'disappearing' people, it gives the appearance of doing wonderful things for the lives of a handful," says Jamie Kalven, a local activist who had his office in a Stateway building before it came down.

Given the notoriety of places like Cabrini-Green, and Stateway, perhaps the most surprising thing heard from many residents is their nostalgia for the sense of community they had there. "Everybody knew who everybody was," explains Francine Washington, head of Stateway's Local Advisory Council and a resident there for 28 years.

Ms. Washington doesn't romanticize where she lives - "you had to sleep on the floor and dodge bullets" - but she does miss that community. She keeps in touch with all Stateway's relocated residents, and says even those happy in their new homes tell her of loneliness.

Washington raised two sons in Stateway Gardens and got them both through college. This Friday, she and her husband will be the last to leave Stateway's condemned high-rise for the building next door. "And when that one comes down, we'll go to the new buildings," she says. "I plan on spending my last remaining days on that ground."

She adds, shaking her two braids emphatically, "Stateway Gardens is going to set the tone for public housing as we know it in the nation."

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