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Why The Chicago Housing Authority Failed To Meet Its Mixed-Income Ambitions

In 2000, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley launched a plan to overhaul the city's public housing system. A major goal of the still-unfinished plan was to create mixed-income communities for the city's 18,846 public housing residents. But where did they end up 17 years later?

published March 23, 2017


The Chicago Housing Authority's “Plan For Transformation” was an ambitious redevelopment project that promised to overhaul public housing for 18,846 residents.

One of the main goal's was to provide housing for "very low and low-income households in mixed-income settings."

But where did they end up more than 17 years later?

The plan had three components:

1. Tear down many of Chicago’s traditional public housing complexes

2. Renovate existing traditional public housing

3. Build mixed-income communities

But more than 17 years and $3 billion later, most residents haven’t returned to the mixed-income developments the plan proposed.

Of the 16,000 households displaced by the plan:

21 percent live on a Housing Choice or Section 8 voucher.

16 percent live in traditional public housing.

12 percent were evicted.

10 percent have died.

24 percent are living without government assistance.

Which means only 8 percent are living in the mixed-income communities envisioned at the start.

What went wrong?

High-rise public housing complexes used to make a significant mark on Chicago’s landscape. On the South Side, Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes formed a red-and-beige wall along the Dan Ryan Expressway. On the Near North Side, the Cabrini-Green Homes looked like island behemoths.

Many of the city’s public housing complexes were built under Mayor Richard J. Daley in the late 1950s and early 1960s to replace black slums. But the complexes became hot spots for crime, and his son, Mayor Richard M. Daley, wanted them torn down.

In January 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority launched its Plan For Transformation, a proposal to demolish and replace 18,000 “obsolete” public housing units and create “mixed-income communities,” according to a CHA annual report. The hope was that mixed-income communities would “reintegrate low-income families and housing into the larger physical, social and economic fabric of the city.”

Now, more than 17 years and $3 billion later, only 7.81 percent of the 16,846 households under the Plan For Transformation live in mixed-income communities, according to data from the CHA obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act through a joint study by WBEZ and Northwestern University’s Medill Social Justice News Nexus.

The rest of the households?

  • 20.81 percent live on a Housing Choice or Section 8 voucher
  • 15.97 percent live in traditional public housing
  • 11.99 percent were evicted
  • 9.59 percent have died

The remaining 33.82 percent are living without a government subsidy.

Unfinished work

The Plan For Transformation is the largest remake of public housing in the nation. It has simultaneously produced new communities and tracts of vacant land, gentrification and segregation throughout the city.

Since 2000, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has approved numerous initiatives “to provide better housing and service to low-income families.” Under the measures, HUD provides federal funding to the CHA, which operates with federal flexibility to execute the Plan For Transformation.

HUD officials declined to be interviewed for this story and instead issued a statement that said: “While CHA is making significant and meaningful progress toward meeting many of its goals, the remaining work is really the hardest to accomplish. CHA is working to overcome the substantial challenges brought on by the recent financial crisis and HUD stands ready to assist them in any way we can.”



CHA CEO Eugene Jones Jr., who took over as head of the agency in 2015, said on Tuesday that the Plan For Transformation is now 1,577 units short of its goal to rehabilitate or redevelop 25,000 units. The CHA plans to deliver those units by the end of 2017, according to the CHA’s most recent annual report.

“I made a promise when I arrived to aggressively pursue redevelopment activities and to provide the city of Chicago with more affordable housing opportunities, and we have kept that promise,” Jones Jr. told the CHA’s Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.

Two of the demolished public housing sites that have yet to be redeveloped include LeClaire Courts near Midway Airport and the Harold L. Ickes Homes, where the South Side and South Loop convene. Construction on the Ickes redevelopment is scheduled to take place this year.


Demolition of the Harold Ickes public housing development was completed in 2011. (Photo courtesy of David Schalliol)

Natalie Saffold is a tenant leader representing the families that used to live in LeClaire Courts. The last families moved out in 2009.

For seven years Saffold has lived in the Bridgeport Apartments public housing development waiting for a CHA proposal for the former residents of LeClaire Courts. The LeClaire site today is nothing but empty land. Its former residents are scattered throughout the city and out of state, Saffold said.

“As long as I’ve got breath in my body, I’m going to represent those public housing residents,” Saffold said. “I may not get back out there with them. But hopefully one day some residents from LeClaire who were put off that land will have the right to return.”

“We as poor people -- we have the right to be here, too.”

Saffold said she wants to see the LeClaire Homes rebuilt as racially mixed, but not mixed-income.

“As long as the residents have a roof over their head and can live comfortably - that’s my vision for the 300 families in need,” she said.

How the plan began

In 1995, the federal government seized control of CHA, citing dangerous conditions, dysfunctional management and an aging housing stock that concentrated the poor in high-rises. The neglect and decline of the people and buildings were well-documented. The stark racial and economic segregation meant 11 of the 15 poorest communities in the U.S. were in CHA public housing areas, according to HUD.

On June 1, 1999, local control of the CHA resumed. In 2000, under Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Plan For Transformation received approval from HUD. Daley pledged a new day for CHA families.

But public housing advocates and residents weren’t convinced of the merits of the plan.

“There was a naïve position it was taking — and maybe making — some promises to the federal government it hoped it could keep,” said Janet Smith, co-director of the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “From the very start, it really wasn’t a plan. It was a description of an end goal or outcome.”

HUD promised funding for each development site and limited guidance for what each would look like beyond the number of units.

Carol Steele, a Cabrini-Green resident who formed the Coalition to Protect Public Housing, said when the Plan for Transformation began, she and others knew not enough units would be built for residents.

If a public housing tenant was lease-compliant on Oct. 1, 1999, CHA offered that resident the “right to return” to a new or rehabilitated CHA property — once the Plan for Transformation was finished.

Labeled gates mark an entrance to the Cabrini-Green public housing development. Demolition began in 1995 and ended 16 years later.  (Photo courtesy of David Schalliol)

“I didn’t want the right of return. I wanted them to build first,” Steele said. “I know if you tear down everything with nothing to replace was going to be a hardship to the city as far as people needing housing.”

Cabrini’s proximity to the Gold Coast quickly brought in private residential and commercial investment.

“To us, it was like a land grab,” Steele said.  “You’ve got access to all transportation, expressways, Lake Shore Drive.”

Steele said some residents resigned themselves to the fact that the new Cabrini-Green wasn’t for them and left without trying to return. But organized residents fought and went to court. Key lawsuits challenged the Plan for Transformation.

In 1996, Cabrini residents alleged that the CHA’s plans to demolish 1,324 units — and replace them with only 325 public housing units — violated the Fair Housing Act, in part because the net-loss of public housing would have a disparate impact on black families.  A consent decree entered in 2000 allowed for phased demolition, gave displaced families the right to return, made the local tenant council a co-developer and ensured resident participation in the new Cabrini-Green.

Mixed income, mixed results

The centerpiece of the Plan for Transformation was the new mixed-income communities: a third public housing, a third affordable housing and a third market-rate housing in a combination of rental and homeownership.

The result has been a mixed blessing for residents who have returned. Social tensions arose over rules and representation, with CHA families feeling stigmatized.         

“The new homeowners were sold a bill of bull,” Steele said. “They were told the Cabrini residents wouldn’t be here.”

But often residents feel the rules unfairly target them with restrictions related to loitering, barbequing and noise.

“Ground rules should be for everybody,” Steele said.


A wrecking ball continues tears away at one of several Cabrini Green housing project buildings on Nov. 8, 1995. (AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser)

Part of the reasoning behind mixed-income housing is that more affluent neighbors will be role models for their lower-income neighbors. Nate Anderson is a market-rate homeowner in Cabrini-Green.

“To be honest, I haven't interacted much with the neighbors,” Anderson said. “You can tell that it used to be a rough neighborhood. It's a little different, it's something me and my wife are getting used to. It's scary walking the dog late at night.”

Many CHA residents said they experience a level of anxiety in the new mixed-income developments because they are unfairly blamed for things like trash and disorder.

For six years, scholars Robert J. Chaskin and Mark L. Joseph studied mixed-income developments at three sites. Their book “Integrating the Inner City: The Promise and Perils of Mixed-Income Public Housing Transformation” is the first comprehensive look at the mixed-income model.

“Although we have documented physical transformation, emergent economic revitalization, and improved safety and stability in the targeted areas, we conclude that the Plan for Transformation has thus far fallen considerably short of its social goals of breaking down the barriers that have isolated public housing residents in disadvantage and of integrating them into the physical, social, and economic fabric of the city. This failure raises significant concerns about the likelihood of achieving more broadly shared benefits from the substantial redevelopment that remains to be completed about the longer-term stability and viability of the existing mixed-income communities,” they write.

Producing the desired result

Research is also mixed on the efficacy of CHA’s plan.

Sue Popkin, of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Urban Institute, has studied CHA for decades and produced a number of papers on the subject. She’s unequivocal about whether residents are better off today than in 1999: “Absolutely. Nothing has been perfect, but absolutely. Gun crime and violent crime in Chicago, in general, was concentrated in public housing developments and there was a lasting reduction in violent crime as a result of tearing down the high rises.”

But Popkin has noted that children have had a harder time than adults with relocation from public housing because of multiple moves and multiple schools.

Popkin said CHA families are in better neighborhoods even if they aren’t “what we consider good. Not necessarily what you would call good opportunity neighborhoods and that has to be addressed. That’s an ongoing challenge.”

That’s where housing choice vouchers, commonly known as Section 8 vouchers, come in. The numbers of vouchers granted by the CHA has increased from 25,431 in 1999 to 42,535 in 2015. The vouchers are meant to subsidize rent in private apartments throughout the city, with tenants paying a third of their income to rent and the vouchers picking up the rest. But voucher-holders have ended up clustered in high poverty, segregated communities -- the antithesis of the Plan for Transformation’s goals.

Eugene Jones is the latest CEO of CHA. The agency has been dogged by criticism of not spending its cash-flush reserves. Jones said the reserves will be drawn down, save $111 million that HUD requires CHA to keep on hand.

So far, some of the most ardent CHA residents have publicly praised Jones at board meetings. Staff morale is said to be up and Jones has geared up to finish redevelopment projects. But some fights remain about CHA’s future.

Backboard Robert Taylor Homes 2000-4.jpeg

A rusting basketball hoop stood outside one of the Robert Taylor Homes high-rises. (Photo donated by Ron Gordon)

The State Street corridor — where Robert Taylor, Stateway Gardens and Ickes once stood — is particularly bare. Jones said he has a vision.

“You have a whole corridor down from Cermak to 51st, you’re looking at retail, the vibrancy of a community hopefully on both sides of State,” Jones said. “And really look at the opportunity we’re going to afford the neighborhood with jobs and so forth.”

Jones pictures opportunities including new jobs, transportation, healthcare and schools.

“You’re going to see how we transform a neighborhood. I see great development and opportunity and innovation.”

Natalie Moore is WBEZ's South Side Bureau reporter. You can follow her at @natalieymoore.

Medill graduate students Siri Bulusu, Marisa Endicott, Madison Hopkins and Harry Huggins contributed to the research of this project as part of the Social Justice News Nexus.