Peterson: A Great Chicago Land Grab

A Great Chicago Land Grab

By David Peterson

April, 1997

Z Magazine:

Since the Department of Housing and Urban development engineered a federal takeover of the Chicago Housing Authority in late May 1995, CHA tenants have expressed a great many fears about what HUD’s role in “reinventing” public housing in Chicago will turn out to be.

“The national system of public housing is on trial in Chicago,” then-HUD secretary Henry Cisneros announced at the time. He wasn’t joking. Long a national disgrace both for the shoddy maintenance of its properties and for its utter disregard for its tenants’ most basic rights, the jury had delivered its verdict long ago: the CHA’s rank among this nation’s slumlords is without peer.

Cisneros’s first press conference after the takeover did nothing to allay tenants’ fears. Nor has a single action undertaken by HUD’s Chicago chapter since. Cisneros and Joseph Shuldiner, Cisneros’s hand-picked lieutenant for executing HUD’s intervention in Chicago, began to emphasize HUD’s “plans to redevelop” three CHA housing projects, and three only: the Lakefront Properties in the Oakland neighborhood, a little more than one mile north of the University of Chicago; the Henry Horner complex, just north of the new United Center on the city’s West Side; and Cabrini-Green, which stands smack in the middle of the heavily gentrified Near North Side.

“Gentrification! Displacement! Land grab!” the editorial voice of the Chicago Tribune<D> would later mock the protests of the “resident activists” standing in the way of the CHA’s plans to bulldoze four of the vacant Lakefront Properties. Such a dismissive attitude toward the concerns of CHA tenants has been quite typical of the Chicago media.

Why Cabrini-Green, tenants rightly wondered? Why not that four-mile stretch of CHA high-rises that runs due south of the city’s Central Area, along State Street, through the heart of Chicago’s historic Black Belt on the South Side? (More recently rebaptized “Bronzeville” in the local media, it’s worth noting, now that developers have begun to scratch and sniff its long-term potential, after decades of disinvestment and strategic neglect.)

First the tenants’ short answer: Get real. HUD isn’t “reinventing” public housing. Not in Chicago. Not any place else, either. That’s only what its publicists like to claim. And the media keep repeating it-including the New York Times<D>, which last summer heralded the “pleasing symmetry in the fact that… Mayor Richard M. Daley is involved in a movement that could eventually eradicate” Chicago’s “high-rise cages for the poor,” cages which the “city’s legendary boss, Mayor Richard J. Daley, built.”

No, tenants counter. HUD couldn’t reinvent the wheel. Let alone public housing. Instead, HUD came to Chicago with a much different mission: to bury public housing.

More to the point, HUD came to Chicago to bury an idea. One enshrined in a series of United Nations declarations and international covenants reaching back to the 1940s. One instituted by the practices of about seven decades of U.S. housing policy, beginning with the Depression-era’s U.S. Housing Act of 1937, which declared it to be the “policy of the United States [Government] to remedy the unsafe and unsanitary housing conditions and the acute shortage of decent, safe and sanitary dwellings for families of lower income,” and to produce a “decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.”

In late June of last year, the HUD-dominated CHA joined the Daley administration in unveiling a billion-dollar Near North Redevelopment Plan for Cabrini-Green-the “direction public housing must go,” Joseph Shuldiner called it at the time.

Clearly, location is the major factor in the Redevelopment Plan’s equation. For the past decade, the Chicago media have been filled with stories about the “Cabrini Land Rush,” a “monopoly-style land rush with powerful political and demographic implications.” Indeed. “The area is ripe for redevelopment,” was how a spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Planning and Development characterized it as far back as 1992. The reason for its ripeness is an open secret. Everybody knows that Cabrini-Green sits atop 70 acres of greatly depressed, though potentially valuable, real estate. The real estate is depressed because of who lives on it. Beyond that, it is potentially valuable, thanks to the deep pockets of who wants to drive them out of there, and to acquire and redevelop the land once their gone. Surrounded on its north by the Ranch Triangle, Lincoln Park, and Old Town Triangle neighborhoods, on its east by Old Town and the famous Gold Coast, on its south by the Near North Side neighborhood, and on its west by Goose Island, Cabrini-Green’s 21 high-rises (down from 23, thanks to Shuldiner’s wrecking ball) make for a picture postcard of capitalist encirclement.

There’s only one catch: around 6,000 poor black people live on the land. (That’s down from a high of 17,990 in 1963. In fact, Cabrini-Green’s resident population remained stable until the early 1970s, then began to decrease, as the federal government began to disinvest in public housing, and the CHA allowed more and more of its units to deteriorate until they became unlivable-“de facto demolition,” as the judge in his 1993 ruling to Henry Horner Homes v. Chicago Housing Authority <D>described it.)

Well, as long as those 6,000 poor black people remain at Cabrini-Green, the rich white people who possess the socially correct attributes to complete the gentrification of the area won’t lay their dollars down just for the privilege of sharing a caffe latte with CHA tenants. Unquestionably, something had to be done. That something is the Near North Redevelopment Plan for Cabrini-Green, now repackaged as the Near North Redevelopment Initiative.

“You can’t miraculously invite market-rate people to buy on a nine-acre island in the shadow of Cabrini,” developer Dan McLean noted last year. “There’s just no point because it wouldn’t fly.” Mary McGinty, the president of the Near North Property Owners Association, was equally frank. “Middle-class and upper-class people won’t move into Cabrini if it’s surrounded by buildings that are a problem,” she observed. “The majority of Cabrini-Green needs to be pulled down.”

McLean’s MCL Development Corp. is the largest home builder in Chicago. What’s more, his MCL/ASD partnership with the lawyer Allison Davis has accumulated more than 20 acres of land on the border of Cabrini-Green-the “most compelling asset Mr. McLean brings to the table,” as Crain’s Chicago Business<D> noted. So when McLean says something “won’t fly,” chances are that it won’t fly. But he and Davis have ancient ties with both the Daley Administration and the Habitat Co., the private firm that manages the CHA’s scattered-site housing program, and that has enormous clout when it comes to deciding the fate of the CHA.

The McLean-Davis partnership also happens to be the most aggressive of the private developers lobbying to build new housing on the Near North Side, post-Cabrini-Green. In late 1995, they unveiled their own billion-dollar proposal. Despite the nine other competing proposals then on the table, none of which was more than one-sixth as large or one-twelfth as expensive, the MCL/ASD proposal became the only game in town. The Chicago Tribune<D> practically deified McLean and Davis for their “sweeping plans.” The only “danger,” the Trib<D> cautioned, “is that too little attention will be paid to the need for private investment and too much to the demands of the tenants,” whose “warped” view of the “outside world…cannot be allowed to veto the project.” The McLean-Davis plan would demolish virtually every last one of Cabrini-Green’s remaining high-rises, build upwards of 3,800 new housing units on land controlled by the CHA and their partnership, but reserve only around 20 percent of the new units for public housing. In fact, McLean subsequently told the New York Times<D> that the final phase of his and Davis’s plan might be able to “accommodate” no more than 15 percent public housing tenants.

Both in its billion-dollar price tag and in the scale of its “sweeping plans,” the Near North Redevelopment Initiative parallels the MCL/ASD plan. They are determined to transform Cabrini-Green into a “mixed-income” community, HUD and its advocates now insist. More accurately, they have no choice but to take land away from Cabrini-Green’s current tenants, and redistribute it to private developers at steep discounts to its current market value. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be possible for the profit-driven private sector to build the upscale housing on the post-Cabrini-Green landscape that is needed to attract a sufficient number of rich people to the area-the only people’s whose interests are driving the Redevelopment Initiative, it should be perfectly clear-to make construction of the new housing financially worthwhile for developers in the first place. This, too, is one of the open secrets behind “reinventing” Cabrini-Green: open in that everyone openly acknowledges it; but secret in that almost no one (beyond the residents themselves, of course) seems capable of understanding its true implications, particularly in moral terms. Thus one can read on the pages of the Chicago Tribune<D> that, “Without these buildings torn down, the developers reason they couldn’t attract market-rate home buyers to sit on an island in the middle of a bunch of high-rises that most people consider scary.” And one can find Habitat Co. executive vice-president and former commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development Valerie Jarrett explaining that “There are two goals here. The first is to come up with 493 replacement units [called for by former CHA chair Vince Lane’s 1993 plan]. The other is to maximize the market potential of the area in creating a mixed-income community.”

Unveiled in February, the Near North Redevelopment Initiative calls for 1,324 of Cabrini-Green’s 3,600 units to be demolished. An estimated 2,000 to 2,300 new units will be constructed, some on land owned by the CHA and other municipal bodies, some on land owned by the MCL/ASD partnership. With almost twice as many units scheduled for construction than demolition, it might seem as if Cabrini-Green’s residents will come out ahead in the bargain. But think again. That’s because in a nod to social engineering and to the use of thinly veiled racial quotas that is absolutely liberal in its means if downright reactionary in its ends, the Redevelopment Initiative calls for developers to reserve specific percentages of all future housing for each of four different income-categories:

    • Fifty percent of all new housing is to be reserved for the rich. (The “market-rate” people, in the planner’s more socially palatable¬† phrase. That is, people who make more than 120 percent of the city’s median annual income for a family of four, currently worth $45,000 per year.)
    • Another 20 percent for the semi-rich. (Here known as “affordable”¬† housing to soothe the liberal’s guilty conscience. “Affordable” housing¬† families earn anywhere between 80 and 120 percent of median annual income, or from $36,000 to $54,000 per year.)
    • Fifteen percent for low-income people. (Families that earn between 50 and 80 percent of Chicago’s median income level, or from $22,500 to $36,000 per year. Hardly rich people, to be sure. But certainly not destitute, either.)
    • Only 15 percent for very-low-income people. (For families that earn below 50 percent of the median income level, or from zero dollars up to $22,500 per year. That is, the very same class of people who now reside at Cabrini-Green: people who are almost exclusively black, 63 percent of whom are female, and 56 percent of whom are children 18-years-old or younger. But a disproportionate percentage of whom won’t be residing in the area for very longer, if HUD’s “re-inventors” of public housing have their way.)
      • Now for the punch line. Of the approximately 6,000 residents of Cabrini-Green, virtually 100 percent of them would rank among what the Redevelopment Initiative calls very-low-income people. Yet it allots them only between 300 and 325 out of the total of 2,000-2,300 new units scheduled for construction. In other words, the Redevelopment Initiative will cause the net loss of some 1,000 (or one-third) of Cabrini-Green’s current portfolio of 3,600 public housing units. In a display of arrogance that is truly remarkable, the HUD-dominated CHA calls this planned-for diminution of the area’s black residents a vision that “embraces everyone,” creating an “inclusive, accessible community” wherein “families of all economic backgrounds can live together in a vital, thriving neighborhood.” Again, everyone stares at these numbers. But no one blinks.
      • Yet even this modest 15 percent concession to Cabrini-Green’s black residents isn’t etched in stone. By the fall of last year, HUD and the mayor had begun to preach the need to take a “broader approach” to the redevelopment of the housing project. They began touting a “whole Near North community plan, not just a Cabrini plan any longer,” Joseph Shuldiner explained. “[R]esidents are only one of many community groups that have a stake in what goes on here,” he continued.

        The moment HUD conceded a single percentage point to the (quote-unquote) “market-rate” and “affordable” housing crowd, it abandoned the idea of public housing altogether, and chained its responsibility for the fate of Cabrini-Green’s residents to the interests of the private developers who will finance construction of the new units, once HUD completes the dirty work, and drives enough of the residents off of the land until they comprise a demographic minority-a quota of poor black people small enough in percentage that all but the most hard-core racists will find the area tolerably attractive, and relocate there.

        On October 23, the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council (LAC) filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for Northern Illinois, seeking injunctive relief from the earlier Near North Redevelopment Plan. Three months later, Judge David H. Coar, though withholding his decision on injunctive relief, ruled that 18 of the LAC’s 22-count complaint had enough merit for the lawsuit to proceed to the discovery stage.

        Of course, not one word about Judge Coar’s decision was reported by either of Chicago’s two mass-circulation dailies, neither of which have proven so reticent when it came to reporting the “reinvention” of Cabrini-Green.

      Peterson is a freelance writer living in Chicago, and a regular contributor to Z.