Changes worry US public housing residents

Low-income residents in Chicago decry public housing shortage and voucher system designed to reduce segregation.

About 56,000 Chicagoans have been displaced by the Chicago Housing Authority's 'Plan for Transformation' [AP]

Chicago, United States – Cracks scar the walls of Kathy Dunbar’s crumbling house in south Chicago, the site of the United States’ biggest public housing overhaul. Gouges and protruding nails mar her stairwell. Down the street, a sign outside a market pleads with local gangs: “Save lives! Stop the violence.”

Dunbar was forced to move here after the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) tore down her old apartment building at the Ida B Wells housing project. The CHA billed its “Plan for Transformation” as a way to upgrade housing quality and improve residents’ lives by dispersing them to better neighbourhoods.

But like many of the 56,000 Chicagoans displaced by the plan since its launch 15 years ago, Dunbar is unhappy with the results. She used a housing voucher to move to her current neighbourhood, which the CHA labels an “opportunity area” because its poverty rate is below 20 percent. Still, she said she was “better off” in the projects.

“If this is their ‘opportunity neighbourhood’, I mean really, it’s scary. In the summertime, every night, all you heard was shooting,” Dunbar, 57, told Al Jazeera. “I don’t have a fence or anything to stop the gang-bangers, so they go back and forth through the yard.”

Dunbar was “really reluctant” to move from her old place because it had “everything” she needed nearby: bus lines, a library, grocery stores. Now, she says she feels isolated in her new home on the city’s southern outskirts. “That area was really opportunity and very convenient for me, but like they said, they were doing a transformation process, so everybody had to leave whether they wanted to or not,” she said.

Chicago is a case study of the shift in US public housing policy from direct provision of affordable units to market-based fixes like vouchers, which provide government subsidies for tenants renting privately owned units. Stories like Dunbar’s have critics wondering whether the new approach is working for the poor.

‘National disgrace’

The US launched its public housing programme after the Great Depression in the 1930s, to put Americans back to work and provide decent homes for the poor. Loose regulations and white resistance meant many projects were ultimately built in disproportionately impoverished, African-American neighbourhoods.

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In many cities, projects sank into violence and privation by the 1980s, following decades of neglect, mismanagement, and a rising urban crisis marked by economic decline and cuts to social programmes. Congress called for demolition of distressed projects after declaring the situation “a national disgrace” in 1992.

A 1998 law overturned the requirement that demolished public units be replaced one-for-one. As a result, demolitions contributed to the loss of nearly one-fifth of the country’s public housing supply. The squeeze is strongly felt in Chicago, the third-largest city in the US, which suffers from an affordable housing shortage of 118,334 units.

Many Chicago high-rises were replaced with privately owned mixed-income developments. These combine affordable, market-rate, and public housing units in one location. The idea is to de-concentrate poverty and give low-income residents access to greater opportunities by mixing them in with residents of higher economic means.

Yet stiff rental criteria – including work requirements, drug tests, and background checks – exclude up to 80 percent of former public housing residents from qualifying. This adds to their suspicion that the city’s policy aims to expel the poor from the best neighbourhoods.

“Stop putting stipulations and rules on us that’s putting us out of housing,” said Natalie Saffold, whose apartment building was destroyed in 2009. “Mrs Saffold’s going to get high every day, but she’s paying them their bills and she’s keeping their unit clean,” she told Al Jazeera.  

Saffold is living in a publicly owned row house until she can return to a new home where her old neighbourhood, LeClaire Courts, once stood. Four years later, the site sits empty.

“I feel like they’re trying to make Chicago a tourist attraction to bring the revenue in,” Saffold said. “They feel like, ‘Ms Saffold, you ain’t got enough to be part of this. So when the tourists come to see the attractions we’re going to build here, we don’t need you here, because you’re going to be an ugly distraction to what we’re trying to do.'”

‘Bad news’

Mixed-income settlements are a centrepiece of Chicago’s housing transformation, but only about 11 percent of former project residents have settled in them. A plurality of those forced to move have, like Dunbar, taken housing vouchers for use on the open market.

Vouchers are supposed to reduce segregation by allowing low-income tenants to move into better neighbourhoods. Their value is determined by the user’s income and maximum subsidy levels set by local housing authorities. In Chicago, the CHA makes exceptions to these limits for units in “opportunity areas”. Vouchers make up the US’ largest affordable housing programme, but their results have been modest.   

One study headed by University of Chicago professor Robert Chaskin found that the city’s voucher holders were “more racially segregated than those in traditional public housing developments”. In Chicago, “the overall pattern appears to be one of relocation within high-poverty and predominantly African-American neighbourhoods”, consistent with the national picture. Another study reported that vouchers did not increase users’ earnings or hours employed. 

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Asked by Al Jazeera to comment, a CHA spokesperson said the voucher programme “allows families to select units where they desire to live. The CHA’s role is to ensure that the housing that participants select is decent, safe and sanitary by inspecting the units prior to move in and on an annual basis.”

But Dunbar and other critics say regulations undermine the flexibility vouchers are supposed to provide. Time restrictions for renting a unit before the voucher is rescinded – 60 days under national guidelines and 90 days in Chicago, though these can be extended – often compel renters to settle for homes in areas that are less than ideal.

Chicago landlords are required to accept vouchers, though the same is not true nationally. Given the choice, they often prefer traditional tenants in order to avoid the inspections regime.

Confined to a wheelchair by a series of strokes, Dunbar has struggled to find a decent place. “If you say you have a voucher, nobody wants to be bothered. It’s like bad news,” Dunbar said. “In the nicer neighbourhoods, it’s just like you can’t use the voucher anywhere.”


Few experts believe the US’ housing policy is working for the poor. Harvard University research calls cost burdens “historic”, with half of all renters paying more than they can afford. Despite this, the government spends far more on tax breaks for wealthier homeowners than it does on affordable housing programmes.  

“I do think that as a matter of policy we need to commit to investing more in the provision of affordable housing, and that the kinds of market-oriented solutions that now dominate are not up to the task,” Chaskin told Al Jazeera.

Brian Malone, head of Chicago’s Kenwood-Oakland Community Organisation, challenged the assumption that public housing automatically fosters social deterioration. “We don’t dispute that things got bad [in the old projects]. What we challenge the housing authority on is, it was your lack of concern, your lack of oversight, that created those conditions,” Malone told Al Jazeera.

A 1995 congressional investigation described the CHA as “historically mismanaged” and blamed “deferred maintenance” for rendering 58 percent of its units uninhabitable. “You can rebuild 50-storey buildings if you want. The issue is, you need to do your job,” Malone said.

A decade after her public housing building was destroyed, Dunbar’s search for a quality home continues. Hers is the home of a perpetual mover, full of cardboard boxes and empty cabinets.

“I feel like they got everybody out here tricked with this plan for transformation,” she said. “I don’t know what the plan was for, but it’s not working for me.”

Follow Jake Hess on Twitter: @jakerhess

Source: Al Jazeera