Article — From the May 2012 issue

The Last Tower

The decline and fall of public housing

( 3 of 5 )

I visited Peter Holsten, the developer who built and managed most of the mixed-income housing around Cabrini-Green, at his offices just west of 1230 N. Burling. Photos of Mayor Daley, Barack Obama, and Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry hung over his desk. In addition to the new developments, Holsten operated rehabbed public housing around the city. “I’m a believer that with strong management you can have any kind of housing,” he told me. The architect Holsten hired to design some of the mixed-income housing at Cabrini, Peter Landon, had presented a proposal to the CHA years ago that would have preserved sections of high-rise Cabrini-Green. His low-cost rehab, in 1999, of Archer Courts, a then-blighted project of seven-story buildings in Chicago’s Chinatown, replaced the chain-link fencing that surrounded the open-air walkways on each floor with frosted glass, creating spaces where residents now look out at the Chicago skyline and at their children in the playground below. The redesign transformed how tenants and neighbors conceived of the building, without displacing a single resident or expensively overhauling the layout of the individual units. It was a public-housing success story. For a Cabrini rehab, Landon looked at the “reds,” the towers south of Division, and suggested a more varied, less densely populated “infill” design in which a couple of the buildings would be replaced by gardens and two- or three-story structures. But the mandate from Washington at the time was for wholesale demolition, for putting an end to failed housing projects. “The political will was not there to do it,” Holsten said.

Holsten described the building of affordable housing as his life’s work. “I want all the kids in my developments to go to college,” he said, “and the heads of the households to be employed, and for the cycle of poverty to be broken.” One of Holsten’s employees is a woman named Niki Clay, who had grown up in a Cabrini high-rise and, in 2002, relocated to a Holsten mixed-income apartment. While I was speaking with Holsten, Clay brought him a stack of papers to sign, and he introduced her as a public-housing resident with a surprising work ethic and a promising future. He asked her to tell me what it was like to live beside market-rate families. She definitely felt safe in mixed-income housing, she said, but it was a strangely quiet place. She had to learn to be more reserved. “I’m used to a community where you ring someone’s doorbell and say, ‘Hi, I’m Niki, I’m your neighbor, I have two children.’ That isn’t this environment.” I asked whether she ever celebrated her kids’ birthday parties at home. No, she went to Chuck E. Cheese’s. What about a get-together with friends? Nope, neighbors might complain. A family gathering? A cookout? “I don’t want any trouble,” she explained. “I just stay low-key.”

Clay was part of the grand experiment of mixed-income housing. Pressed into the same building, and even the same floor, were conflicting American ideologies of self-sufficiency and social obligation, home ownership and public assistance. (Never mind that the entire HUD budget last year was just over a third of what the federal government loses annually on mortgage-interest tax deductions, the vast majority of which are claimed by the nation’s top 20 percent of earners.) To qualify for the few available spots, families needed to be drug free and have good credit, no police record, and no lapsed payment on rent or utilities. The acceptance rate has been incredibly low.

The families that made it in are required by the CHA to work thirty hours a week or enroll in job training or school for a comparable amount of time (the housing authority arranged for city colleges to be free to tenants). Public-housing residents found other rules applying to them but not to the condo owners next door especially onerous: regular home inspections and drug tests; restrictions on owning dogs, barbecuing, gathering in public areas, and hosting guests. Last year the CHA discussed requiring all parents in public housing to submit their children’s report cards to the agency. Condo boards tended to set policies that affected every resident, including those who didn’t own their units and who had no voice in the condo association. At Westhaven Park, a mixed-income community that replaced the Henry Horner Homes on the city’s Near West Side, market-rate families felt threatened when their new neighbors hung out in groups in the lobby, so the condo board simply removed all the furniture from the area. Linda Jones, a former Cabrini resident who was awarded a unit in a mixed-income development, said that the double standards sometimes made her think she was living in a prison. “They can get buck wild, but as soon as we get buck wild, they want to send an email blast to the CHA to complain,” Jones said. “You can’t have two different sets of rules.”

Holsten acknowledged that some of the condo owners in his buildings weren’t cut out for the eclectic mix of inner-city Chicago. He said it would have been better if some had stayed in the more “homogenous” areas they came from, but now they were underwater on their mortgages and stuck. “To be real honest with you,” he added after collecting his thoughts, “I’ve met some of the owners over there and they’re assholes, fucking assholes. I’ve got owners, and they’re great. But there are some assholes. They’re prejudiced.” Nine years into the social experiment, Linda Jones felt better about the dynamic in her community. “They used to think we were nasty, but we proved them wrong,” she said of her white neighbors. Now these neighbors often asked her to regale them with stories about Cabrini-Green in the bad old days.

is a contributing editor of<em> Harper's Magazine. </em>His article "Southern Culture on the Skids" appeared in the October 2010 issue.

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