Chicago has seen dramatic changes to its public housing system. What does that mean for the mayoral race?
Last week, the Chicago Housing Authority closed two high-rise towers at Cabrini-Green, the public housing development that once sprawled across the city's Near North Side and gained international notoriety following regular ocurrences of high-profile violence. In addition to families living in the low-rise row homes that form Cabrini-Green's southern boundary, a single tower at the complex now remains, hosting just 39 families where 134 once lived. That structure will stay in operation until next January, before it will be demolished.
The dramatic closure and demolition of Chicago's public housing stock has been under way for more than 10 years now, realized under the aegis of the the housing authority's Plan for Transformation. Developments like the Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, the Ida B. Wells Homes, the Harold Ickes Homes on the South Side, Rockwell Gardens and the Henry Horner Homes on the city's Near West Side, and, of course, much of Cabrini-Green, are now gone. In their place, CHA has hired and subsidized private developers to build out new residential neighborhoods that offer, in roughly equal measure, public housing, affordable rental and for-sale units, and market-rate homes.
But the pace of redevelopment at former public housing sites designated as mixed-income areas has been slow (and is seen as an issue for the next executive branch administration, in fact). As of late July 2009, just 36 percent -- 2,656 out of 7,303 -- of the public housing units the Chicago Housing Authority plans to build at 12 former CHA sites around the city were complete, according to a report (PDF) published by the Business and Professional People for the Public Interest.
At Legends South, the development meant to replace the Robert Taylor Homes, 245 out of 851 public housing units were finished as of July 2009. A little more than 10 years earlier, 1,559 out of 3,784 public housing units at Legends South were officially occupied, according to CHA's annual reports (PDF). Park Boulevard, replacing Stateway Gardens, had seen 74 out of 439 public housing units become available by the time BPI issued its report; 10 years earlier, 689 units at Stateway were filled. At the ABLA Homes, the numbers of occupied units in 1999 and completed redeveloped units 10 years later was 1,079 and 574, respectively.
All of those sites, of course, also include new affordable units and completed market-rate homes, meaning they are now more income diverse. But as the first seriously contested mayoral race in decades kicks off, the would-be mayors will find a smaller public housing system. The candidates won't have to confront the visibility and reality of stories from voters -- most of whom were poor and working-poor African-Americans -- living in high-rise public housing developments like Robert Taylor or Rockwell Gardens.
Some of these residents may turn up as voters elsewhere in the city. Though thousands of former public housing lease holders have disappeared from the CHA's purview, those who were considered lease compliant had (and have) the option of moving into an existing, traditional public housing development, one of the new mixed-income communities, or into the private housing market with a voucher that subsidizes their rent when their building closes and is demolished. Research on the early portion of the relocation process (PDF) found that families leaving public housing moved to predominately poor, African-American neighborhoods on the city's South and West Sides.
It's likely that some of those residents participated in the 2008 presidential campaign, which inspired an upswell of so-called "Obama voters" across Cook County who cast a ballot for the hometown president. But the last-available research conducted about the voter registration patterns of CHA residents going through the Plan for Transformation demonstrated that the effort had "all but erased" the public housing voter base.
In an article published ahead of the last mayoral campaign four year ago, the Chicago Reporter found that public housing voters were disappearing from the rolls -- down from around 22,000 registered in November 2000 to approximately 7,800 by November 2007.
"The most significant losses of voters occurred in developments that have been completely demolished," the magazine's investigation found. "For example, just 26 percent of the folks registered at the Robert Taylor Homes in November 2000 and 28 percent who were registered at Stateway Gardens were found on the voting rolls in September 2007, according to the Reporter’s analysis."
Whether or not these voters make it back to the ballot box next year could play an important role in determining whether or not Chicago's huge population of poor residents can flex its electoral muscle and demand answers about the issues they face from the next mayor.
One connection between Chicago politics and the city's public housing system that's on the mind of a few pundits, meanwhile, is Jane Byrne's move into Cabrini-Green in 1981. Here's a clip from Media Burn's archives about the move that features Byrne and Jesse White, who was then representing the area in the General Assembly:
Derided as a publicity stunt, the move didn't help her win the black vote during the 1983 mayoral primary (Byrne's stay even ended with Cabrini-Green residents, upset with her for using the development as a media backdrop, protesting the visit and her policies).
But for Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, the next mayor could demostrate his or her commitment to the city's struggling black communities by imitating Byrne's move. The next mayor, she wrote, must "convince the African-American community that he cares as much about improving the quality of life in Englewood and Lawndale as he does about the maintaining the quality of life in Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast."