Razing the Second Ghetto

When Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Henry Cisneros resigned on November 21, 1996, he said one of his proudest achievements was launching a program to tear down thousands of public housing high-rises nationwide and to replace them with vouchers that the poor could use to find their own housing in the private market.Good arguments can be made for replacing high-rise housing projects with scattered-site, mixed-income housing. High-rises have tended to concentrate the poorest residents in dense communities with virtually no internal resources. Combined with twisted welfare policies, they have created monuments to despair.But if the problems are clear, the best solutions may not be so self-evident. Cisneros developed his demolition-and-vouchers policy in close association with Chicago's City Hall. When Vince Lane was forced to resign as chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) last year because of apparent conflicts of interest with his real estate business, HUD took over CHA.This, however, was no federal power grab. The regional HUD director is Edwin Eisendrath, a former alderman close to Mayor Richard M. Daley who also serves as president of the CHA advisory committee. Eisendrath and Daley worked closely with Cisneros to get a federal law suspended that required all demolished public housing to be replaced unit-for-unit with new low-income housing. The suspension has opened the door for public housing authorities to tear down high-rises.But if the Chicago case is any indication, the proponents of demolition don't exactly have the interests of public housing residents at heart. In an agreement it signed with tenant leaders at Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project in May 1995, the CHA promised to tear down three high-rises and replace them with new housing in the immediate area. But last spring, without consulting tenants, Daley announced plans to instead tear down eight of Cabrini's 23 high-rises, resulting in a net loss of more than 1,000 of the project's units. In October, tenant leaders filed a federal lawsuit to block the new demolitions.Artensa Randolph, chair of the city-wide Central Advisory Committee of Chicago's public housing residents, calls the proposed demolitions "economic cleansing Chicago-style." Situated adjacent to Chicago's expanding downtown Loop and just west of the affluent Gold Coast, the land on which Cabrini sits is worth a fortune. The area was an historic African-American community in the '50s, when houses and businesses were cleared to erect these giant high-rises.Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), who grew up in the area, charges that Daley "is in the pocket of fat-cat developers." There is some evidence to back up that view. For instance, the largest single budget item in the $50 million grant that HUD gave the CHA for Cabrini's redevelopment was $17 million for the acquisition of adjoining property, which is to be turned over free of charge to developers.The facts of the case appear to favor the tenants, according to Richard Wheelock of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, who is representing them in the suit. But the forces in favor of demolition may be too powerful to stymie in court. Even if the judge enjoins the CHA from carrying out immediate demolition, the agency will continue to pressure the tenants to allow the most possible demolition and the fewest possible replacement units in the shortest amount of time.

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