Chicago Claims Its 22-Year “Transformation” Plan Revitalized 25,000 Homes. The Math Doesn’t Add Up.
by Mick Dumke
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It was called the Plan for Transformation, the most ambitious public housing makeover in U.S. history.
Under the plan, launched in 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority would demolish most of the city’s public housing developments, displacing thousands of families. Then, over the next 10 years, the agency would replace or repair 25,000 units of housing while bringing new investment to low-income communities.
More than two decades later, the CHA used just a few sentences in an obscure report to declare that the “revitalization” of 25,000 housing units — the plan’s central promise — was complete.
“CHA has achieved the goal of this activity,” the agency informed the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in March.
But the agency’s claim hides a fundamental failure to meet its original commitments.
The agency padded its unit count by including types of housing and assistance that weren’t in the original plan, an analysis by ProPublica found. The questionable units add up to more than a fifth of the 25,000 total.
At the same time, the CHA has fallen short of providing the family housing it promised, leaving it with less than half the family units it once had.
In claiming to meet its overall unit goal, the CHA also sidesteps the fact that it is nowhere close to fulfilling its obligations to build homes and redevelop communities where its high-rises once stood. Agency officials told ProPublica they remain committed to those goals but can’t provide a timetable on when they’ll achieve them.
Community leaders, local politicians and families seeking homes have been frustrated by the CHA’s delays and unfulfilled promises. The criticism grew in recent months after ProPublica reported on the agency’s plans to turn over prime vacant land to a soccer team owned by a billionaire supporter of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. ProPublica also revealed how HUD has allowed CHA to sell, lease and give away parcels of land it says it no longer needs, even though its redevelopment work is far from done.
David Moore, a former agency official who is now alderman of the 17th Ward on the South Side, said HUD needs to pressure the CHA to finish redeveloping its former public housing communities. He said the growing number of homeless encampments around the city is tied to the agency’s slow pace of housing construction.
“We should be building more public housing units so people have options,” Moore said.
In a written statement, a CHA spokesperson said the agency remains committed to its mission of providing housing and “building strong communities.” The statement did not mention the Plan for Transformation.
“CHA’s investments today go beyond replacing the failed public housing model of the past,” the statement said. By partnering with developers, nonprofits and other government entities, “CHA will continue to leverage all available tools to accelerate the pace of new mixed-use, mixed-income development projects to ensure that more subsidized and affordable homes are available to people in need.”
The CHA’s claim to have revitalized 25,000 units is misleading in several ways, ProPublica’s analysis found.
For starters, the math doesn’t add up, the analysis found. The agency boosted the numbers by including apartments that aren’t finished yet or had no direct connection to the public housing communities the CHA promised to redevelop.
For example, the CHA has counted more than 5,000 privately owned units that it subsidizes through what are called project-based vouchers. But unlike public housing, these vouchers aren’t necessarily permanent: They keep the units affordable for a set amount of time, usually five to 30 years. The Plan for Transformation made no mention of replacing permanent public housing with project-based vouchers.
And more than a third of these same voucher units were designated as affordable housing years before the plan was launched or before the CHA subsidized them.
That’s true of the Major Jenkins Apartments, a privately owned, 156-unit building in the Uptown neighborhood on the North Side. Built in the 1920s, the building was fixed up to provide apartments for homeless and other low-income people in 1995, five years before the Plan for Transformation. That’s also when the CHA began subsidizing half the units with project-based vouchers.
Yet in 2010, the agency began counting those apartments toward its 25,000-unit goal. That happened after the CHA argued to HUD that it should be allowed to count project-based vouchers toward its Plan for Transformation total. The vouchers offered “more opportunity to provide affordable units” and options in neighborhoods long resistant to affordable housing, the CHA told HUD. Agreeing that the vouchers would be “beneficial,” a HUD official signed off.
None of the project-based vouchers should be included in the Plan for Transformation tally, Moore said.
“It’s a skirt around,” he said. “If they’re claiming those, they need to build more units. And HUD should be holding them accountable.”
The CHA’s claim also ignores the sites where the city’s major public housing complexes once stood. Most of the locations still have stretches of empty land.
Two decades ago, while displacing thousands of residents and razing most of its large developments, the agency promised to rebuild the sites with new homes for people with a range of incomes. At least a third of these would be sold at market value. But the agency also agreed in court to reserve thousands of units as public housing, and former residents were guaranteed a right to return.
Since then, the CHA has been slow to build the new homes. It’s now sitting on blocks of vacant, undeveloped land on every side of the city.
The CHA’s largest development, the Robert Taylor Homes, once stretched along 2 miles of South State Street. Under the Plan for Transformation, all 28 Taylor high-rises were razed — a loss of more than 4,400 apartments altogether.
Eventually the CHA proposed replacing them with a new development, Legends South, that included about 2,400 total units, a quarter of them reserved for CHA residents. So far the agency has finished 335 of the public housing units, while more than 25 acres at the Taylor site remain vacant and “not prioritized” for redevelopment, according to a city planning document.
The CHA is also required to build hundreds of additional public housing units at the Lathrop Homes, on the North Side; the Ickes Homes, now renamed Southbridge, on the South Side; and the ABLA Homes, now known as Roosevelt Square, on the West Side. The CHA has offered to lease 23 acres at the ABLA site to the Chicago Fire soccer team, which is owned by billionaire Joe Mansueto, an ally of the mayor’s.
“You have not done your work at bringing back all of the units under the Plan for Transformation,” said Etta Davis, a housing activist and vice president of the residents’ group at the Dearborn Homes on the South Side.
She noted that more than 44,000 people are on the CHA’s public housing waiting list: “So you’re way behind in the market in what’s needed.”
CHA officials said they remain committed to redeveloping Lathrop, Ickes, ABLA and other sites. More than 500 new homes are under construction, including 83 public housing units and 238 supported by project-based vouchers, and others are on the way, they said.
There’s another way the CHA’s 25,000-unit count fails to deliver what the Plan for Transformation promised: It includes far less housing designated for families.
At the time the plan was launched, the CHA had about 29,000 units for families. The plan pledged to replace or rehab 15,000 of them.
But even if project-based voucher units are included, the CHA now has about 13,000 units for families — 2,000 fewer than the plan envisioned. That means the CHA lost 16,000 homes for families over the last 22 years.
Adella Bass, a mother of three who’s been on the agency’s waiting list for 13 years, sees the CHA falling short.
“Everybody deserves a place to live — a clean place to live, a suitable place to live,” Bass said. But apartments have grown so expensive that many families are concluding “there’s just no hope for housing in Chicago.”
Bass serves as a home-aide caretaker for her mother while working on her college degree. Several years ago, after struggling to pay bills, she moved into a North Side homeless shelter with her kids and her boyfriend, now her husband.
Eventually they were able to find a subsidized apartment on the South Side, which she’s grateful for. But she said it’s infested with mice and mold, and she would like something better. Bass is still hoping the CHA will call, and her long-term goal is to get into a program that leads to homeownership.
Bass noted that the CHA is sitting on empty land and unoccupied apartments — more than 1,200 as of earlier this year, records show. “All of their steps, protocols, procedures, just their way of doing things needs a complete and total transformation,” she said.
The Plan for Transformation was not intended to replace all of the city’s public housing.
At its peak, the CHA had more than 42,000 units. But in 1995, citing mismanagement, HUD took direct control over the CHA. The agency then began emptying and tearing down thousands of its apartments, leaving it with just under 39,000 citywide. About a third of those units were vacant or occupied by people without a lease, which would have a significant impact on the Plan for Transformation.
In the mid-1990s, for instance, the Robert Taylor Homes included more than 4,400 units stretching over 2 miles on the South Side. By 1999, the development was down to 3,800 units, only 1,600 of them occupied by leaseholders.
Theresa Boler lived at the Taylor Homes in the late 1990s and recalled the CHA picking up the pace of evictions. “They were putting people out for any little reason,” she said.
When the word spread that the CHA planned to tear the high-rises down, many residents were scared and angry. “They’d never lived outside the projects,” she said. “They really had no place to go.”
In 1999, HUD agreed to return control of the CHA to a board and leaders selected by Chicago’s mayor, Richard M. Daley. As part of the deal, federal and local officials worked together on a new set of goals for the agency. Decades of inadequate funding and poor maintenance had left many of the CHA’s buildings so rundown that they would cost billions of dollars to fix up. The Plan for Transformation mapped out how the CHA would dismantle most of its aging developments and replace them with mixed-income communities.
The plan’s goal of 25,000 units was based on the number that were leased to tenants at the end of 1999, after the agency had already emptied thousands of apartments.
The plan acknowledged that thousands of family units would be lost in the transition. “There is no alternative,” the plan stated.
The CHA can claim some successes over the last two decades. The agency has used project-based vouchers and other partnerships to help provide almost 1,800 apartments to disabled people, veterans and others struggling with homelessness or mental illness. Many of these residents live in the units with their families, the agency says. The CHA has also expanded its options for seniors.
The CHA said it serves more total households than it did 20 years ago, largely through the expanded use of vouchers to subsidize rent in privately owned apartments. But rents continue to climb, and the city is struggling with a shortage of affordable housing. In addition to the list for public housing units, 35,000 people are waiting for a voucher. The number would be even higher if the CHA hadn’t closed the list.
Boler now lives in the Lincoln Perry Annex, a CHA senior building. She’s also a member of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, a neighborhood group that has pressed the CHA to build more replacement housing. She said the need is greater than ever.
“We’re not stopping,” she said. “You can’t just take things from us.”