A Mixed Legacy: Public Housing and HOPE VI Redevelopment in Chicago

Urbanist Article

In the center of a harsh and spectrumed city
All things natural are strange.
-Audre Lorde (Outside)


Nowhere has the history of high-rise public housing and its subsequent redevelopment as HOPE VI mixed-income housing played out as intensely as in Chicago. At its height, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) managed some 39,000 units of public housing, many of which were concentrated in high-rise residential developments. Although only a relatively small percentage of the nation’s public housing stock was located in high-rise housing developments, these developments became the iconic definitions of the worst failures of the public housing delivery system. It is not unreasonable to assert that those failures were most pronounced in Chicago. This article will briefly provide a history of public housing in Chicago, describe the basic elements of the Federal HOPE VI program, analyze its application in Chicago in the form of the CHA’s Plan For Transformation, and provide some thoughts on the relevance of Chicago’s experience for housing advocates.

A brief history of public housing in Chicago

Social movements (their successes and their failures) are defined both by the actions of those who try to move them forward and those who try to stop them. In the post World War II period, the thinking of progressives in the housing movement was guided by two interlocking sets of beliefs: first, that the private market would never provide safe, decent, affordable housing to those at the bottom third of the income scale, and second, that African-American urban slums were beyond redemption and required whole-sale redevelopment.[1] These beliefs were informed by two major historical events; the large numbers of soldiers returning from World War II which created a severe housing crises in America’s cities and the migration of African-Americans to northern cities (including Chicago), heightening the demand for housing. In Chicago, the number of African Americans swelled from 278,000 in 1940 to 813,000 in 1960[2]. Racist real-estate practices confined African Americans to small sections of Chicago – the areas directly to the South and West of the loop - further exacerbating the housing crisis for African-Americans. As their numbers continued to increase while housing supply and neighborhood boundaries remained static, overcrowding in the areas south and west of the loop intensified.[3]


Progressive reformers observing dire overcrowding conditions in African American neighborhoods came away with two thoughts – the first was that there was an intense need to replace what they perceived to be slums with safe, decent affordable housing and the second was that this needed to be done both quickly and on an extremely large scale.[4] As D. Bradford Hunt writes, “the CHA ‘conservatively’ estimated in 1949 that 105,000 public housing units would be needed to replace slums and address market failure.”


Race politics also played a substantial role in shaping public housing in Chicago and resulted in public housing being concentrated rather than dispersed. In the late 40s and early 50s, as the CHA moved towards integrating its newer projects, white aldermen shut their doors to new public housing, undermining the CHA’s intention to build at least some of its new developments on vacant land in white neighborhoods, as opposed to cleared land in African-American neighborhoods. On the other hand, at least in the early years of Chicago’s public housing history, African-American aldermen welcomed the new developments as improvements over existing conditions.


It was in this context that concentrated high-rise public housing was born. Added to this was the fact that CHA progressives, like many other public housing advocates throughout the country, had become intrigued by Le Corbusieu’s “towers in the park” concept as a way of providing light and air to residents of high-rise housing. The result was the construction of a number of concentrated high-rise housing projects in the early to mid 1950s, including Dearborn Homes (1950), the Ickes Homes (1955).


By the mid-1950’s the CHA was increasingly aware of the problems of housing large numbers of low-income families in high-rise buildings in concentrated sections of the city, but by then a confluence of factors conspired to continue the repetition of past mistakes. HUD’s cost-containment rules were an important contributor to the continued development of high-rise public family housing. Due to the fact that most of Chicago’s public housing was to be built on land made extremely expensive by slum clearance, the CHA looked to increased density as a means to drive down total development cost per unit.


By the 1960’s, as the Henry Horner Homes (1957-1961) the William Green Homes (1962), the Robert Taylor Homes (1962) , Stateway Gardens (1958) and ALBA Homes (1938-1961) were being completed and occupied, the CHA’s capacity to manage its growing stock of housing was becoming more and more strained. Certainly one issue the CHA was unprepared to contend with was the massive number of children living in the new public housing properties. Hunt writes that while in almost all Chicago neighborhoods, the ratio of adults to children was 2 to 1, in the public housing projects, this ratio was reversed. Secondly, the PHA adopted the Brooks Amendment, which limited tenant rents to 25 percent of income, thereby severely curtailing the amount of revenue the CHA could collect to operate its properties. By the late 1970’s, working class families had all but abandoned public housing, leaving the CHA with limited resources to manage its housing stock. As Hammel writes, “Throughout the remainder of the 1970s, through even more budget reductions and the devastating crack epidemic of the 1980’s, public housing became the housing of last resort.”


The rise of HOPE VI

In the late 80s and early 90’s, new thinking about social policy and urban form laid the groundwork for what was to ultimately become the HOPE VI program. Work by sociologist William Julius Wilson, including the Truly Disadvantaged (1987) and When Work Disappears (1996), followed by Paul Jargowsky’s Poverty and Place (1997), describe how concentrations of poverty and joblessness lead to the creation of an urban underclass. As Jargowsky writes, “…there are many reasons to be concerned with high poverty neighborhoods in addition to the poverty of individuals. First among them is the premise that neighborhoods matter, that the economic and social environments of high poverty areas may actually have an on-going influence on the life course of those who reside in them.” [5] For some housing advocates, the work of Wilson and others pointed to policy solutions routed in de-concentrating poverty.


In the early 1990’s the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing (NCSDPH) issued a report in which it declared that 86,000 of the 1.3 million public housing units were “severely distressed” and required demolition, while at the same time recommending additional support services for tenants. As a result of this study, HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) was enacted in 1992. HOPE VI differed from other federal housing programs in a number of ways. As Rachel Peterson writes in “HOPE VI in San Francisco” (SPUR Newsletter, March 2005, pg 8) “HOPE VI aimed not merely at physical reconstruction, but set out a multi-pronged agenda of utilizing New Urbanist design principles, deconcentrating poverty, raising occupancy standards for tenants, and restructuring the management of public housing.” Additionally, HOPE VI represented a break from the recent passed due to the fact that it provided the most significant federal funding for public housing in decades.[6]


Relying on the results of a small pilot program from Chicago called Mix Income New Communities Strategy (MINC), HUD’s HOPE VI program was designed in no small part to de-concentrate poverty in public housing’s most troubled properties. Yet in order to both deconcentrate poverty and rebuild public housing along New Urbanist design principles, greater flexibility in unit replacement would be needed. By far the most controversial aspect of the HOPE VI program is the lack of a one to one replacement rule for demolished public housing units. The absence of a requirement for 1:1 replacement has lead to the net loss of housing units for some of the nation’s neediest families, while also providing safe, decent, well-maintained housing for others. HOPE VI also provided the opportunity for public housing authorities to partner with private developers (both for-profit and non-profit) using PHA funds to both redevelop and operate public housing units. The PHA funds can then be leveraged with other public subsidies and private capital. The success of these partnerships has rested in no small part on the capacity of the various public housing authorities to negotiate effectively on behalf of the interests of their constituencies.  


HOPE VI in Chicago and the “Plan for Transformation”

Ironically, the spectacular failure of the CHA to manage its public housing stock in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and early 90’s made it a prime candidate to receive HOPE VI redevelopment funds in the mid to late 1990s. HUD took over administration of the CHA in 1995, in no small part to correct the set of factors that led the CHA to report in 1996 that 17% of Chicago’s public housing stock was vacant, 61% of the rent roll was delinquent and the average length of unit turnaround was 125 days.[7]


In 1999, the Chicago Housing Authority laid out an extremely aggressive “Plan for Transformation”, which calls for the redevelopment or rehabilitation of some 25,000 units of public housing, representing the number of units occupied by public housing residents in October of 1999. In order to accomplish this enormous task, the CHA received a pledge of $1.65 billion from the Federal Government. The Plan For Transformation calls for the reconstruction of 6,200 units of family public housing in mixed income communities, the rehabilitation of 9,500 units of senior public housing, 2,500 units of scattered site housing and 4,800 units of family housing and the rehabilitation or reconstruction of an additional 2000 units.[8]




Occupied units on 10/1/99


Total Units on 10/1/99


Units to be demolished


Units remaining


Units to be reconstructed


Total Units to be Rebuilt/Rehabilitated


From: http://www.thecha.org/transformplan/files/plan_for_transformation_broch…


Do CHA residents have the right to return to public housing units once those units have been rehabilitated or redeveloped? As Peterson points out, residents who remained compliant with their leases from the advent of the Plan for Transformation through lease-up of the renovated unit do have the right to return to one of the 25,000 redeveloped or rehabilitated units.[9] Yet the number of public housing units within each redevelopment is much smaller than the original number of public housing units, indicating that while residents may return to a transformed public housing unit, it may not be on the same site or in the same neighborhood as the development they once lived in.[10]



Affordability of Chicago Redeveloped Public Housing – FY 2006

Public Housing Development

Original # of PH units

Public Housing

Market Rate

Affordable Housing (30% AMI to 80% AMI)






Cabrini Green[11]





Hilliard Towers Apartments





Henry Horner Homes





Lakefront Replacement Housing










Robert Taylor Homes (Legends South)





Rockwell Gardens





Stateway Gardens





St Edmund's Meadows
















From: Plan for Transformation, Year 7: http://www.thecha.org/transformplan/plans.html


Other issues complicate Plan for Transformation as well. The use of Section 8 vouchers as a mechanism to relocate residents on both a temporary and permanent basis makes residents vulnerable to the underfunding of the Section 8 program at the federal level. Additionally, the CHA has received mixed ratings for its ability to help residents use their vouchers to navigate the private housing market.[12] Finally, although much of Chicago’s severely distressed public housing stock is in deplorable condition, it continues to provide housing for the most vulnerable members of society. A 2003 Urban Institute report details how those who remain in public housing are those who are the most at risk – including families with special needs, lease violators, illegal residents and the truly homeless, some of whom who have taken to squatting in abandoned public housing units as the last refuge before the street.[13]

The history of public housing in Chicago and its current redevelopment as mixed income communities provides a complicated legacy for housing advocates to untangle. Was the failure of high-rise public housing due to urban design, continued structural racism and class animosity, poor management, a lack of social services or some combination of all three? Are mixed-income HOPE VI communities providing a deep level of economic integration or a superficial one? What will become of the neediest members of society once the previous generation of public housing developments has closed its doors? How will public housing survive as the Bush Administration backs away from a commitment to both HOPE VI and the Section 8 program? What will the legacy of this generation of housing advocates be?

[1] D. Bradford Hunt, “Understanding Chicago’s High Rise Public Housing Disaster”, D. Bradford Hunt. From Chicago Architecture: Histories, Revisions, Alternatives, Waldheim, Charles and Katerina Ruedi Ray, editors. University of Chicago Press, 2004. page 302

[2] Ibid, pg 302

[3] Hammel, D.J. – “Public Housing Chicago Style: Transformation or Elimination?” From Chicago’s Geographies: a 21st Century Metropolis. Richard P. Green, Mark J. Bouman and Dennis Grammenos, editors. Association of American Geographers, Washington D.C.. pgs 173-174

[4] Hunt, pgs 302-304

[5] Jargowsky, Paul, Poverty and Place, Russell Sage Foundation, New York 1997. pg 4.

[6] Hammel, pg 178

[7] Salama, Jerry, J. “The Redevelopment of Distressed Public Housing: Early Results from HOPE VI Projects in Atlanta, Chicago and San Antonio,” Housing Policy Debate, Vol 10, Issue 1, Fannie Mae Foundation, 1999. pg 101.

[9] Peterson, Rachel, “HOPE VI in San Francisco,” SPUR Newsletter, March 2005.

[10] The CHA website reports that “We…created a preference system aimed at giving residents their preferred choice in public housing. This implies that the CHA will give preference to a resident who chooses to move back to their original development after it has been rehabilitated or rebuilt. However, we cannot guarantee a specific unit or development.” http://www.thecha.org/relocation/overview.html

a Range represents discrepancy between “existing number of units 10/1/99” cited in the “Plan For Transformation FY 2006 Annual Report” and other reported sources.

[11] This number does not include the rehabilitation of Francis Cabrini Rowhouses or the redevelopment of the Cabrini Extension South and William Green Homes.

[12] Hammel, pg 183

[13] Popkin, Susan J., Cunningham, Mary K and Woodley, William T. “Residents at Risk: A Profile of Ida B. Wells and Madden Park,” The Urban Institute, July 2003. Pgs i-iii.

Sarah Karlinsky is SPUR’s Policy Director. She wishes to gratefully acknowledge the work of Deland Chan, SPUR’s Policy Fellow, who provided research assistance for this article.