Two of every three residents surveyed this spring at the Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago’s South Side oppose the Chicago Housing Authority’s proposal to demolish the development and move some tenants into the private housing market with federal Section 8 subsidies, The Chicago Reporter has learned.
The Reporter’s analysis of preliminary results for April and May show that 68 percent of 193 Taylor families did not rank Section 8 among their top three housing options.
The survey was conducted by Taylor residents and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement, a research group that studies public housing redevelopment.
The results sharply contrast with two previous CHA surveys. In the first, 85 percent of families requested Section 8, a program that subsidizes private market rents for low-income families, said Wanda White, assistant executive director for the agency’s Office of Programs. White described the results at a March 26 town hall meeting for public housing residents living along South State Street. A second survey yielded a 95 percent response, White said.
But CHA officials could not explain the methodology of their surveys, nor provide any comprehensive details. Still, they said the results played a role in drafting the strategic redevelopment plans for Robert Taylor “A,” a group of buildings that stretch south along the Dan Ryan Expressway from 39th to 47th streets, and Robert Taylor “B,” which runs from 47th to 55th streets. Under the plans, the CHA would demolish 4,073 Taylor units and build 1,276 units of replacement housing.
The CHA surveys led officials to believe “there was a consensus [among residents] that Taylor is not a good community,” said Rosanna Marquez, Secretary’s Representative Midwest for HUD and Mayor Richard M. Daley’s director of programs from 1993 to 1998. “Some buildings are so clearly [beyond repair] we don’t have the authority to preserve them. But there is a legitimate debate on what to keep and what specific plans will look like.”
For the residents’ survey, members of the Taylor A Local Advisory Council are going door to door and plan to continue surveying until the fall. The councils are made up of tenant representatives elected to four-year terms.
Newly elected Taylor A Council President Cora Dillard said her members told her they did not trust the CHA’s results and wanted “to see what people were really thinking.”
In the council’s survey, only 21 families listed Section 8 as their top housing preference, compared to 67 who elected to stay in a rehabilitated Taylor unit, and 31 who wanted to move into new housing built on site. Another 36 chose scattered-site housing and 31 said they wanted replacement housing in a neighborhood near Taylor.
The council’s survey asked tenants to rank three choices from five options: an existing but rehabilitated Taylor unit, a new housing unit on-site at Taylor, a new housing unit in the community near Taylor, a scattered-site unit, or a Section 8 subsidy.
The contradictory results raise questions about the future of public housing residents just when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is turning over control of the CHA to the city.
There’s a “real thirst among residents for information and dialogue so they can know which end is up,” said MarySue Barrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago policy group.
Shirley Guye Robinson, a Taylor resident since 1967, lives at 4429 S. Federal St. with her husband, Dannie, her 17-year-old daughter and her 4-month-old grandson. She described hearing a rat making “chewing sounds in her walls so loud it sounds like a dog. Sometimes I get so depressed living down here it brings tears to my eyes.”
Robinson, 44, said she worries they can’t afford a private-market apartment. She earns $15,840 a year as a program aide with the Healthy Living, Infant/Toddler Center, 4410 S. State St., which is run by the Chicago Department of Public Health. Her husband is unemployed. “I know people who have Section 8 [subsidies], but their gas and heat bills are like $300 a month,” she said.
Like public housing tenants, Section 8 recipients generally pay 30 percent of their income toward rent and receive an allowance for utilities.
“There’s not enough Section 8 to house these people,” Robinson said. “The CHA may have no choice but to destroy the buildings, but I’d like to see them stay.”
On May 27, Daley declared “the beginning of a new era in public housing in Chicago.”
He appointed former Taylor Homes resident Phillip Jackson as the CHA’s chief executive officer, replacing Joseph Shuldiner. Jackson, 48, has been chief of staff for the Chicago Public Schools since August 1997.
Valerie Piper, a member of the CHA transition team in charge of planning, said the agency will review all the strategic plans and “build on those and move beyond them and look at what the whole neighborhood needs.” But “no decisions are going to be made or specific recommendations” for several months.
Still, the CHA will do a “development- by-development planning [process] extremely inclusive of residents.”
Robert Taylor is the only development in Chicago targeted for total demolition. The replacement plan for Taylor would shrink its available units by more than two thirds. Plans for eight other distressed developments will preserve at least half their units.
Today’s Taylor Homes would be unimaginable to the thousands of hopeful families who flocked to its 16-story buildings when they opened in 1962. Many came from crumbling South Side neighborhoods to a clean community filled with playgrounds and newly planted trees.
For 10-year-old Patricia Reed and her eight siblings, moving to Taylor that year was a dream come true. “I’ll never forget the day my father called all of us together and asked if we wanted to live in the projects and we were so excited we just started saying –˜yes, yes,'” she recalled.
Today, most of the playgrounds are gone, and Reed, now 47 and living at 4331 S. Federal St., returns from her full-time job as a janitor with the Chicago Public Schools to a dilapidated building.
Yet her attachment to Taylor remains.
“It’s deplorable living here, but what can you do if you’re working poor?” asked Reed, who earns $7.25 an hour. In the CHA survey, she said she opted for an on-site replacement unit. “If they would put new housing here, I would stay. I can get to transportation, [including] bus lines, train lines, and my kids’ school is right across the street,” she said.
Reed’s upstairs neighbor, Verlee Gant, 62, has lived there since 1970, raised six children, and is now the grandmother of 13 and great-grandmother of one. “We’re proud of where we are from,” she said.
Gant, a retired home care worker, now lives with her 16-year-old grandson, Carlos, a student at DuSable High School, 4934 S. Wabash Ave. She has “spent a good deal of my own money” to keep the corridors on her floor clean and decorated with murals, she said. Visitors to the eighth floor are greeted with paintings that provide a splash of green and a message to “Praise the Lord.”
In the council’s survey, a rehabilitated unit was Gant’s top choice. On her own, Section 8 would not be a problem, Gant said, but she fears landlords won’t rent to a grandmother with a teenager along.
“Where will we go with our children?” she asked. In an unfamiliar neighborhood, Carlos’ life could be in danger, “but at Robert Taylor, everybody knows him,” she said. Taylor is “not as bad as everyone thinks it is. It can’t be if I want to stay.”
Under a 1996 federal law, 14 sections of nine Chicago developments were labeled “distressed” because they include 300 or more contiguous units and are at least 10 percent vacant.
As an alternative to demolition, HUD required the CHA to present strategic plans to revitalize each development, including funding sources. The agency also was required to reduce building density and increase the number of higher-income families. And each plan had to cost less than providing all the tenants with Section 8 subsidies.
The law put the CHA in a tight bind. As of 1997, Chicago had 18,999 distressed units, more than any other public housing authority, agency documents show. The CHA has received federal Hope VI funds for four of the developments, but nothing for the other five.
The CHA plans called for the demolition of at least 11,176 units. Last August, after meeting with the CHA and housing activist groups, HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo decided to withhold his approval of the strategic plans, Marquez said. Later, he allocated $500,000 toward the 1999 Regional Rental Market Analysis, which will measure the rental housing available in the six-county Chicago metropolitan area. Results will be released this fall.
This analysis will help determine how many displaced residents the private market will be able to absorb, HUD officials said.
Whatever the study finds, Kimberly Williams is ready to go. Conditions were so bad at 5041 S. Federal St., her previous home, including rats and no heat, it was “like living outside,” she said. In 1997, Williams, 31, relocated to another Taylor building at 5266 S. State St., but “it was no better down there.”
She wants a Section 8 subsidy, but has not decided where to go. “I probably wouldn’t come back [to this neighborhood]. I’m tired of the area.”
As part of the strategic planning process, the CHA hired urban planners to help advisory councils arrange meetings to decide which buildings to demolish and how many replacement units to build. But many Taylor A residents said the process did not reflect their views.
During 1997, Campbell Tiu Campbell Inc., an architectural and urban planning firm at 1326 S. Michigan Ave., worked with the Taylor advisory councils and those at other developments along South State Street.
The CHA’s April 1998 summary of the plan for Taylor A, which incorporated the work of Campbell, proposed demolishing all 12 high-rises, with 1,671 units, in three phases over 10 years.
The Taylor A council opposes the plan because it “strayed too far from what was in the interests of the residents,” said Shahshak B. Levi, a resident of 4331 S. Federal St. and member since 1996. Because of the federal requirement to increase the number of higher-income families, only 363 of 726 replacement units will go to low-income public housing residents.
Few residents came to the planning meetings, held throughout 1997. Sign-in sheets collected by Campbell show that 17 residents attended at least one meeting for Taylor A, and a total of four residents attended the five sessions for Taylor B.
Susan Campbell, vice president of Campbell, said “we made it clear [to the CHA] we were not community organizers. We looked on the LAC presidents and any resources the CHA could provide” to produce turnout, she added.
Taylor B Council President Mildred Dennis, who attended four meetings, said every building president was “invited but [most] did not participate. Nobody thought [demolition] would really occur.” Three Taylor B buildings fell in 1998, and demolition began last month on two more.
Barbara Moore, building president of 5266 S. State St., offers a different view. “I was supposed to have been on the planning committee but nobody contacted me or told me anything.” Moore said. CHA officials told residents in March that they wanted the building closed by October, she said. But officials could not tell the Reporter which buildings will close this year.
“By my working, I couldn’t go to the meetings,” said Patricia Cathery, 42, former president of 5001 S. Federal St., now vacant. All of the meetings were held during working hours, CHA minutes show.
The dissent was apparent in the Dec. 22 CHA-wide local advisory council elections. Taylor A tenants elected Cora Dillard, 33, a nine-year resident of 4444 S. State St., over incumbent Mattie McCoy.
Dillard said nine of the 11 building presidents supported her position that the few who attended the meetings “could not decide the fate of the whole development.” McCoy could not be reached for comment.
The new advisory council asked the Voorhees Center to help conduct four Saturday workshops, in March and April, to educate residents about the strategic plans and develop a new survey.
Tyrone Galtney, a Taylor resident from 1990 to 1996 and volunteer organizer for the Taylor A council, said 35 residents attended the workshops. Since April, the council has hosted evening planning meetings for 10 of 12 Taylor A buildings, drawing an average of 20 residents.
Galtney said the residents hope the council’s survey will help make the “government see and begin to understand that the residents have their own minds and their own beliefs. And they have the potential to work and rebuild their community, with professional training.”
Patricia Wright, associate director of the Voorhees Center, concedes the residents’ effort had a point of view and was “not your traditional scientific survey.” But the workshops were designed to ensure that residents were presented housing choices that “were fair and gave the full range of possibilities,” she said.
Former council President Cathery called 5001 S. Federal St. home for 22 years until January, when a Section 8 subsidy took her to an apartment in Greater Grand Crossing on the South Side. But her new neighborhood is no safer. “There are still gangs hanging out,” she said. Although “it’s a blessing, I don’t have to wait for an elevator. I miss home.”
Cathery looked at at least 30 South Side apartments for five months, she said. When landlords heard she had a teenage daughter, many said, “we’ll call you back,” but never did.
Cathery, who now returns to Taylor to work as a janitor, calls it “my roots.” Public housing provided her five children with a four-bedroom apartment, where a room could “handle three beds and still not be crowded,” she said.
Pamela Carter, 41, lives at at 5266 S. State St. with four of her teenage children and one adopted newborn. She works part time as an attendance officer at nearby Mary C. Terrell Elementary School, 5410 S. State St., she said.
Section 8 would force her out of the neighborhood where her children are “doing just great in school,” and expose them to gangs.
She pointed to a vast empty field south of her building, where three high-rises were demolished last summer, and wondered: “Why can’t they start building now, so we can see some hope?”
This report is fifth in a series, “The Transformation of Public Housing,” an investigation of the historic changes underway in Chicago’s public housing. It is supported by the Woods Fund of Chicago.