Thousands are being deported without a chance to appear before an immigration judge.
Lost Voters, Lost Voices
Sociologist Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, author of "American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto," wrote that black leaders could not ignore the Robert Taylor Homes' nearly 25,000 residents during the 1970s.
Former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington placed Joseph Gardner, his top political operative, in charge of CHA "tenant services," according to a 1988 story by John McCarron, a longtime urban affairs reporter and now a contributing columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Under one Gardner program, tenants hired as part-time janitors did double-duty as precinct poll-watchers.
And in his 1994 story, "Political Fates Tied to CHA Projects," The Chicago Reporter's Scott Burnham noted that CHA residents accounted for between 18 and 35 percent of all registered voters in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 27th wards.
But nearly eight years after the Chicago Housing Authority embarked upon its $1.6 billion "Plan for Transformation," public housing's political base has been all but erased, according to a Reporter analysis of voter registration at nearly two dozen CHA family developments.
In November 2000, there were more than 22,000 people registered to vote in the developments analyzed by the Reporter. By September 2007, less than 37 percent---about 7,800---were still registered to vote in Cook County, compared with 57 percent of voters citywide, according to the Reporter's analysis.
The most significant losses of voters occurred in developments that have been completely demolished. 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.
Massive losses were also witnessed at developments where a significant number of residents were temporarily moved to accommodate renovations to their apartments. Just 30 percent of registered voters at the Lowden Homes in November 2000, 35 percent at Altgeld Gardens and 35 percent at Wentworth Gardens were found on the voting rolls in September 2007, the Reporter found.
In addition, about 94 percent of voters at the developments analyzed by the Reporter were clustered in eight wards in November 2000. Public housing voters accounted for nearly 23 percent of all voters in the 3rd Ward, nearly 17 percent in the 2nd Ward and about 9 percent in both the 4th and 9th wards.
But by September 2007, those who still remained on the voting rolls were spread out among all 50 wards in the city and accounted for no more than 5.4 percent of the voters in any ward.
The loss of these massive concentrations of public housing voters represents a diminished political voice for a population many already considered disenfranchised. And it could mean that the Chicago political scene may never again have the opportunity to consider the voices of its poorest constituents.
"These poor folks' political voice is going silent," said McCarron.
"For all of the negative aspects of the [high rises], they did have a lot of voters living there," said Paul Fischer, emeritus professor of politics at Lake Forest College in north suburban Lake Forest, who has studied the relocation of public housing residents. "The concentration of those voters gave them a political significance."
"Just by dispersing the population, which by definition occurred when they were relocated, you are also eliminating that political voice," Fischer added. "There's certainly less need to cater to that population for the [politicians]."
Jacky Grimshaw, deputy campaign manager for Harold Washington's 1987 mayoral campaign, concurred. "It seems like we might be back to where we were pre-1982, when a lot of the lower-income and people in poverty were not registered," said Grimshaw, who said that workers in Washington's campaign went to places like unemployment offices to try to register voters. "They have gone back to their –¦ [conclusion] that government can't do anything for them.
"They are definitely disenfranchised. They don't have a voice, and –¦ those in office have no need to pay attention to them if they are not registered," Grimshaw said.
CHA officials did not immediately have any concrete explanations for the loss of registered voters.
CHA spokesman Bryan Zises said the change may be more of a reflection of national, rather than local, realities. "This may [have] more to do with presidential politics than with the CHA," he said, noting that 2000 was a presidential election year while 2007 was not.
However, the drop in registered voters among CHA residents was far greater than it was for city residents, as a whole.
Recently resigned CHA Chief Executive Officer Sharon Gist Gilliam said she "can't do anything about it," when asked about the steep drop in registered voters among CHA residents who had lived in now-demolished high-rises.
For many public housing residents who've moved from CHA teardowns, the relocation process has been a long and arduous one that didn't end with their initial move from the high rises, said Mary Pattillo, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University, who has written extensively on public housing. "The first move is [often] not the last move. –¦ Registering to vote is lower on the totem pole [of priorities]."
Just 32 percent of those registered in November 2000 at the 10 CHA developments slated for demolition of some kind were still registered to vote in Cook County by September 2007, the Reporter found.
Tom Wetzel, director of the Service Connector program at Housing Opportunities for Women in Rogers Park, said the two case managers and an outreach worker in his program don't do much voter registration work with relocated public housing residents because they are busy helping the residents deal with other needs like employment.
Gregary Brown, director of social policy for Metropolitan Family Services, a nonprofit that assists public housing families through a wide range of services, said he has heard of significant numbers of former CHA residents moving to cities like Madison and Milwaukee in Wisconsin, and even moving to cities as far away as Iowa City, Iowa and Minneapolis, Minn. "There are people who are falling out of the county and out of the state," Brown said. " [They decide], –˜I can't make it in Chicago. It's too tough and too expensive. The community I knew is no longer existing.'"
But Pattillo of Northwestern expressed skepticism that public housing residents who have disappeared from the voting rolls had left the area. "My sense is that it's not that [thousands of] people have moved out of Cook County," she said.
Citing privacy concerns, Zises wouldn't provide specific information about the location of people who used to live in the 10 developments analyzed by the Reporter. He said just 84 out of more than 4,300, or 2 percent, of CHA families with Housing Choice Vouchers were in the suburbs or had moved out of state as of January 1, 2007.
Some observers say the loss does not mean much for a population that has been, at best, on the fringes of Chicago's power structure.
"I don't think they had any political voice to speak of [before the Plan]," said Susan Popkin, housing expert at the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Still, some observers noted that the loss of these massive concentrations of poor voters--coupled with an influx of middle-class residents--- helped change the political landscape in two South Side wards where public housing voters, once, enjoyed their greatest political clout.
"The elimination of the high rises –¦ is [in neighborhoods] experiencing a certain amount of gentrification," said Fischer of Lake Forest College. "There is not only a reduction of poor folks, but their replacement by middle-class folks. This changes the politics."
And while voter turnout figures for public housing voters historically have been low, CHA residents who've voted have tried to send very clear messages to their representatives.
For example, in the 3rd Ward, for years the political home to public housing's largest concentration of voters, CHA residents were calling for change years ago.
In February 1999, with 56 percent of the ward's total votes, longtime 3rd Ward Alderman Dorothy Tillman defeated eight challengers including Francine Washington and Dorothy Olivier-Harris, both of Stateway Gardens. But Tillman received less than 34 percent of the votes in public housing precincts---those where public housing residents made up a majority of the electorate.
In April 2007, after the demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens, Tillman was unseated by Pat Dowell in a run-off election.
In February 2003, 9th Ward Alderman Anthony A. Beale cruised to victory with 66 percent of the ward's total votes. But Beale collected less than 28 percent of the votes in the four precincts that include most of the Altgeld Gardens-Murray Homes complex. In those precincts, voters preferred challenger Harold "Noonie" Ward, who grew up in the development. Ward collected nearly 62 percent of the votes---outpolling Beale by better than a 2-to-1 margin-in those precincts.
The drop in registration occurred during the period after the Help America Vote Act of 2002 was passed. Among other provisions, the law called for states to use federal money to educate voters about voting rights and technology as well as to improve the accessibility and quantity of polling places.
National voter registration levels averaged about 77 percent, according to statistics for 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2006 from the United States Election Assistance Commission, an agency established by the Act to implement the law's provisions.
The Service Connector program attempts to help CHA residents adjust to their new neighborhoods by providing them with ongoing support after their move. For some Service Connector agencies, that help will include getting folks registered to vote in time for the upcoming elections.
Glendora Thomas, director of the Service Connector program at Universal Family Connections in the Auburn Gresham community area, said her staff will help residents fill out voter registration forms and mail them in January.
And Rafiah Maxie, program manager for the Service Connector program at Heartland Alliance, a human rights organization that provides housing and health care to poor Chicagoans, said her staff members are engaged in conversation with their clients about voting and other civic issues.
"I want to make it clear that our residents want to keep their voice alive and loud," Maxie said. "There are lively discussions about what is to come of other neighborhoods. –¦ [Residents] see things that are on the horizon and want to see what is on the horizon for not only them, but other members of the community.
"No one is sleeping," Maxie said. "Everybody is awake."
Still, Fischer of Lake Forest College said former CHA residents may face difficulties in getting their concerns heard and acted upon. He said that the concerns of poor people are not as much in the minds of politicians as they had been in previous decades, and the low voter registration numbers are not likely to increase that level of concern.
"The influence of poor people has already diminished significantly compared with the –˜60s and –¦ the interests of the middle class are much more catered to," Fischer said. "The Plan for Transformation, with the elimination of these concentrated voters, probably made the situation even more that way."
If you haven't registered to vote for the Feb. 5 presidential primary election, it's not too late.
The Board of Election Commissioners for the City of Chicago and the Cook County Election Department's Web site has information about registration qualifications, locations and deadlines for Chicago and suburban Cook County voters, respectively. Voters must register for the February primary by Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2008.
For more information about registering to vote, go to here and here.
For more information about voting in suburban Cook County, go to here