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Dismantling the Towers

What began as a mothers’ crusade to protect their children from gangs, rats and roaches evolved into something else.

The Henry Horner Homes. (Photo: David Wilson)

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On a humid Friday in August 1995, Henry Cisneros stood on a makeshift dais on a crumbling basketball court in the Henry Horner Homes on Chicago’s Near West Side. Mayor Richard M. Daley, Horner Local Advisory Council President Mamie Bone and other VIPs flanked Cisneros, who at the time was the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

They had come to witness the beginning of the end of the towering housing development, one of the first in the city to come down.

“Chicago stands as a symbol [of] what we’re going to be able to do in public housing,” Cisneros said at the time. “As goes public housing in Chicago, so will go public housing for America.”

Soon after, a 4-ton wrecking ball, attached to a crane nicknamed “Big Mama,” smashed into a 14-story brick high-rise at 2145 W. Lake St. Within weeks, two high-rises and three mid-rises were reduced to enough rubble to fill 3,800 dumpsters.

Annette Hunt believes she was there that day, but she says she has blocked the events from her memory. She still seethes with anger when she talks about the men on the dais who had ignored the residents of Horner for years and then took credit for dismantling the housing development. She and the other residents had banded together. They formed the Horner Mothers Guild, which forced the Chicago Housing Authority’s hand in bringing down the towers. And even as the wrecking ball chipped away at the first building and some of the residents collected falling bricks as mementos, Hunt doubted that the politicians would honor their promise to improve the lives of residents, not just build better housing.

“We had been told stuff for so many years. … You feel like, ‘OK, this is another one of them saying something to make themselves look good,’” Hunt says. “And then they go home to their place where it’s lit up, and we have to come back to our house where we have to basically have a flashlight to just get up the stairwell.”

Twenty years after Cisneros declared Horner a bellwether for the nation’s public housing, Hunt lives in a building with working elevators and clean, well-lit stairs. Violent crime in the neighborhood around Horner has been cut in half. The average income of Horner residents has increased.

And the revamped development, which once was the exclusive domain of very low-income families, now includes middle-class residents and homeowners. But that wasn’t what Hunt and other longtime residents envisioned the day the first tower came down. What began as a mothers’ crusade to protect their children from gangs, rats and roaches evolved into something else. The mothers’ goals, and those of other residents, took a back seat to new hypotheses, favored by housing officials, about how to help poor people move up and then out of public housing. Creating mixed-income communities where public housing once stood was the product of the hypotheses.

Today, local and national housing officials have embraced the idea of middle-class and poor people living together as an incentive for the latter to aspire to reach a higher-income rung. The idea is embodied in Chicago’s sweeping Plan for Transformation, which turned 15 this year.

It’s unclear whether tearing down the Henry Horner towers and the following social experiment to house middle-class and public housing residents in the same space have worked — and, more importantly, for whom.

The unemployment rate for black adults in and around the former Horner Homes is 29 percent, roughly the same as it was a decade ago. One-quarter of the 1,000 black households in the neighborhood earn less than $10,000 per year, while more than one-quarter of the almost 200 white households earn more than $125,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Academics, lawyers, developers and even public housing activists argue that the mixed-income redevelopment of Horner was the most successful such endeavor in the city, because residents like Hunt had a seat at the table. But Hunt and other residents counter that turning public housing into mixed-income communities has always been for the benefit of the politicians and middle-class homeowners — not for them.

“We still don’t trust them,” Hunt says. “I don’t trust them in doing the right thing for the residents.”

From Horner to Westhaven

A row of three-story red and yellow brick duplex apartments lines the north side of Washington Boulevard, across a two-block sea of parking lots from the United Center. At night, the LED Jumbotrons reflect in the apartments’ second-story bay windows, providing an endless loop of promotions: the Chicago Bulls matchup, Disney’s “Frozen” on Ice, the Chicago Blackhawks’ Twitter and Facebook accounts.

These modern apartments are a glaring promotion of their own; they advertise just how different the development, now called Westhaven Park, is from what the Henry Horner Homes were. Alex Kotlowitz’s 1991 book “There Are No Children Here,” the heart-wrenching tale of two brothers living in one of the crumbling mid-rise buildings, etched the Horner of that era into the public consciousness.

The process of turning Horner into Westhaven began the same year that the book was published.

In June 1991, the vacancy rate at Horner reached a peak of nearly 50 percent. The Horner Mothers Guild sued the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Chicago Housing Authority. The women claimed that the agencies were effectively demolishing public housing, in violation of federal law, by failing to repair and lease out the units.

Hunt, who now works as a customer service monitor at the Horner management company, was on the board of the Mothers Guild. By 1991, she had been living at Horner for 21 years. She had four small children: a 10-year-old and a 4-year-old daughter and twin 7-year-old boys. She scrunches her face in disgust as she recalls how she and her kids had to sleep with cotton balls in their ears to keep roaches from crawling into them and laying eggs.

“I didn’t want my kids to grow up in an environment that wasn’t safe for them,” Hunt says. “So my take on the lawsuit was to try to make it better for them, to let them know that you can live a better life, that you don’t have to live this way if you speak out about some of the things that you feel are not right.”

In 1995, the Mothers Guild settled the details of a consent decree, a court-enforceable agreement with the CHA that required the CHA and developer to reach an agreement on each stage of development with a new body called the Horner Resident Committee. For example, in the first stage of redevelopment, residents at the Horner Annex, which sits on the southeast corner of the United Center, took a binding vote on whether they wanted to demolish and rebuild or renovate the buildings. They voted 57-14 in favor of renovation.

But their power only went so far. In 1998, Congress repealed the “one-for-one” statute, a law that required that every public housing unit that is torn down be replaced. The original plan for Horner’s redevelopment called for rehabilitating, rather than demolishing, seven of the Horner mid-rise buildings. When polled in the fall of 1999, about one-third of Horner’s residents wanted to remain in a rehabbed mid-rise. But by the time a new developer submitted a plan to HUD for the subsequent stages of redevelopment in late 2002, those buildings were slated for demolition and to be replaced by mixed-income townhouses.

Despite the consent decree and the legal representation, Horner residents still often felt powerless.

“Most of the time when we sat in these negotiations, it’s like we’re always giving and they’re always taking,” Hunt says. “We’re thinking that we’re giving for the greater good. We’re thinking that if we give this, we can get that. But most of the time it was just them taking, and we get nothing.”

Peter Levavi, senior vice president of Brinshore Development LLC, part of the team that has developed Westhaven Park, says they’ve tried to put residents’ concerns front and center. The CHA and residents clashed over whether to rehab or redevelop some units.

“It was a very contentious process before Brinshore-Michaels was selected as the developer,” he says. “We were able to successfully bridge the gap between the interests of the tenants and the interests of the CHA and the city and other stakeholders.”

The city’s goal was to turn public housing developments like Horner into mixed-income communities. The theory was that the main problem with public housing was the concentration of poverty. Proponents believed that placing public housing residents in lower-density buildings next to higher-income neighbors would strengthen the social fabric, the work ethic and political power of neighborhoods, which would lead to less crime and better living conditions.

Hunt shakes her head as she sums up the theory.

“If I bring a working person in here and you see that person going out every day to work, then that low-income person, that will motivate them to get up and go to work, too,” says Hunt. “Which was crazy.”

Public housing residents didn’t want mixed-income development, says Mary Pattillo, a professor of sociology and African-American Studies at Northwestern University.

“We see when public housing residents actually organize and get some teeth to what they want, they want more public housing than what is provided,” she says, pointing to the Mothers Guild’s efforts. “Their interests don’t seem to be strongly at all about creating mixed-income communities. They are about ‘How can we get more housing for poor people?’ ”

Most criticism of mixed-income redevelopment is based on its failure to satisfy that question. In 1995, Horner had 1,775 units, exclusively for public housing residents, though many of them were vacant. By the time redevelopment is complete, there will be 1,215 total housing units at Westhaven, only 622 of which are for public housing residents. Westhaven’s developer and the Mothers Guild’s lawyer say that this represents the highest percentage of public housing in all of the CHA’s mixed-income redevelopments.

Use the slider below to view satellite images of the Henry Horner Homes in 1999, when the majority of the high-rises were still standing, and today.

From Building Housing to Building Community

Jason Storbeck and his wife, Leisa, put down money on a three-bedroom, two-bathroom condo at Westhaven before the developer had even broken ground on the building. He says that he knew that the plan was to build a mixed-income community that maintained some housing for former Horner residents and that he saw potential in that plan. It was more affordable than the West Loop, he says, but just as close to his job downtown as a vice president of a company that valuates other companies. He bought his Westhaven condo for $351,500 in January 2007.

“I don’t think we 100 percent knew what was going on,” Storbeck says. “I knew back in the day that the United Center was kind of an area that was similar to Cabrini-Green. But to see Horner gone and to see the empty land and to see that it was all new, we kind of bought into it.”

But the neighborhood didn’t change as quickly as he expected. Though violent crime was down 53 percent in 2014 compared with 2001, there were more thefts in 2013 than in any year since 2004.

Storbeck was under the impression that the Superblock, which is the name for the first 200 townhouses that were built at Westhaven in the late 1990s, would be redeveloped as mixed-income soon after he moved in. But it remains 100 percent public housing. He was frustrated by the noise late at night, by people hanging out on the corner, by theft and destruction of property that he feels diminishes the value of his condo. And he believes that the public housing residents were the problem.

“They have no respect for the community, they trash everything that exists,” he says. “There have been good people in the community, but overall it’s been dominated by the bad people.”

The public housing residents, on the other hand, feel targeted by the newcomers. Most of the crime is perpetrated by people who don’t live at Westhaven, says Charnae Harmon, who lives in the Superblock and is president of the Local Advisory Council, the organization that represents former Horner residents within the CHA. Public housing residents have been victims of break-ins and robberies, too.

“If you have someone living next to you that’s paying little or no rent, that’s not bothering you at all, why cause trouble?” she says.

Mark Joseph, a professor of social work at Case Western Reserve University and director of the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities, has found that tensions between public housing residents and homeowners at Westhaven are stoked by their limited interaction. The only neighborhood forums that draw both groups are bimonthly community policing meetings, where crime is the focus and public housing residents often become the targets.

There isn’t much interaction between higher-income and lower-income residents, says Joseph, adding that it’s easier to build housing than to build a community. “The kinds of interactions that there are — residents call them ‘hi, bye’ interactions — don’t necessarily lead to exchanges of resources and job opportunities.”

Early on, the Westhaven Park Condo Association created a phone tree, where owners could inform each other about issues — noise, loitering, property damage — so they could lodge multiple complaints with the Police Department, which Storbeck says was the only way to get the police to pay attention. The perception among homeowners was that most of the problems came from the public housing residents in the Superblock.

Many homeowners got fed up and moved out. The housing market crashed shortly after Storbeck and most of his neighbors moved in, so selling wasn’t an option. But Storbeck, who is treasurer of the condo association, estimates that 40 percent of the owners are now renting their condos, many of them to college students. The neighborhood is a short commute from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Rush University Medical Center.

The exodus of homeowners didn’t escape the notice of the former Horner residents.

“I was just saddened, because of the way that we were singled out as public housing residents [as] the reason that they didn’t want to live next door to us,” Harmon says.

Unlike some of his neighbors, Storbeck actually doubled down on his investment in Westhaven. In 2011 he purchased the condo directly below his in a short sale. It’s identical to his first condo, but he paid less than a third of the price.

But a year later, he and his wife followed the crowd. They bought a new house in the Northwest suburbs and moved there with their 1-year-old son. Storbeck sees the development as a “complete failure” and a “disaster.”

In explaining why, he returns to a familiar trope: There are too many low-income residents. His solution would be to scatter former Horner residents around the city.

“I have hope” for the neighborhood, he says, pointing to the new Bulls practice facility and a planned United Center office building. “There’s a lot of room over there to grow and expand. But it needs the right things. It doesn’t need any more public housing or affordable housing. It needs more middle-income people.”

Beautiful Surroundings, But Dire Circumstances

Cindy Blumenthal is a fast-talking woman who works out of a cramped office in the Major Adams Community Committee Neighborhood Club. Once the assistant director of resident services for CHA, she is now the program director for the Near West Side Community Development Corp., which runs job-training, after-school programs, counseling and case management services for former Horner residents. This year she has a CHA-funded budget of $1.2 million.

The grand promise of mixed-income redevelopment — that it would “rebuild lives,” as Daley once put it — is Blumenthal’s daily challenge.

According to new CHA data provided to The Chicago Reporter through an open-records request, public housing residents living in mixed-income housing at Westhaven earned $16,428, on average, in 2014, which is 25 percent more than public housing residents earned in 1999, adjusted for inflation. But it still puts Westhaven’s public housing residents well below the very-low-income cutoff, which is 50 percent of area median income, or $36,200 for a family of four.

And that’s just for residents who are working. About 60 percent of work-eligible heads of household, which means those who are between the ages of 18 and 54 and are not receiving disability, Social Security or pension benefits, are employed. That doesn’t include people who are in school or a job-training program, and it is almost twice as high as it was for public housing residents in 1999. But census data show that about 2 in 5 African-Americans in the Westhaven neighborhood are out of the workforce entirely and the unemployment rate for African-Americans is higher than it is citywide.

At mixed-income “developments that have been in place around the country, you see public housing residents living in very beautiful surroundings, but still living in pretty dire circumstances,” Joseph says. “There are still very high proportions of residents living very much month to month, day to day, despite being able to live in a mixed-income development for years.”

Blumenthal says the hardest part of her job is making residents aware of the opportunities that are available to them. For example, CHA will pay for any resident to attend a City College of Chicago.

“Even though we offer monthly trips to orientations for programs at City Colleges, it’s really hard to get families to come out,” Blumenthal says. “Our job is to get families here to realize that those doors are wide open now, and if they take advantage of them, in two years they can get up and out of public housing altogether.”

Redeveloping public housing as mixed-income communities was supposed to help inspire residents to do just that. Despite some signs of improving economic outcomes, it’s hard to say that Westhaven has been an unfettered success.

“The hardest thing for us is that there was never any clearly articulated goals, vision, outcome, that was expected,” says Levavi, the developer. “So it’s very difficult to evaluate the success or failure as a result.”

What Levavi and others agree on, though, is that mixed-income housing was never going to be a panacea.

“The mixed-income developments are not a silver bullet to solving poverty,” Joseph adds. “Those issues need to be looked at on a much more macro level. Education, access to health care, access to good jobs, criminal justice — all of these factors will need to be addressed for mixed-income development to serve as one element, as a platform to propel people to more opportunity.”

The Plan for Transformation is just now reaching its adolescence, as are the children who grew up in it. Many observers expect that this generation stands to benefit most from the plan. It’s still too early to tell whether these children will be better off than their parents.

“I think what we’ve learned is that it’s hard to change adults, but we have great hopes that the children can improve their life chances,” Levavi says. “By growing up in an environment where they’re not worried about getting shot by gang activity, then maybe they can focus on their homework and on doing well in school.”

The Future of Westhaven

On the corner of Madison Street and Western Avenue, a glistening new shopping center, anchored by a Pete’s Fresh Market grocery store, opened last year on what was once an empty lot. On a recent weekday evening, the parking lot was near capacity; the Magic Nails Spa was bustling with activity and several people waited in line at a Chase Bank ATM.

Vacant lots still pock West Madison, which was once the commercial heart of the neighborhood before it was largely destroyed in the 1968 riots. But a few blocks east of the new grocery store, a 3,700-square-foot lot just sold for $750,000. It sits across from a PNC Bank branch and next to a half-block-long row of modern condos, whose floor-to-ceiling windows look out at another condo complex across the street. Both are independent of the Westhaven development.

“No, we’re not the West Loop,” Levavi says. “But that’s an unfair comparison. We are light-years from Alex Kotlowitz’s ‘There Are No Children Here.’ And that’s the standard against which I’m willing to be judged.”

Everyone refers to this neighborhood as “up-and-coming,” a phrase that never would have been used to describe it 20 years ago. There’s no question that tearing down the high-rises and building mixed-income housing has played a large role in fueling the real estate speculation now playing out around Westhaven.

The question that remains is whether this new development will benefit the former residents of Horner or will lead to gentrification and their eventual displacement.

“That is probably the biggest risk and challenge of any development effort, whether it’s public housing or otherwise — to improve neighborhood quality of life without causing displacement of the people who live there,” says Carol Galante, director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Program on Housing and Urban Policy and a former assistant secretary at HUD.

Annette Hunt, who has spent nearly half of her life fighting for the rights of low-income residents at Horner like herself — “the little people,” she calls them — is concerned about their future there.

“In 10 years, I can slowly see low-income housing fading out completely over here,” she says.

She sees that happening right now in the re-redevelopment of the Superblock, where the 200 townhouses built in the footprint of the first demolished high-rises are now set to be redeveloped again. This time, fewer than half of the units will be set aside for former Horner families. The process mirrors the cycle that resulted in Horner’s redevelopment in the first place: units began to deteriorate, CHA stopped leasing out units when they became vacant and crime was an excuse for turning public housing into mixed-income housing.

The problem with mixed-income redevelopment is that it puts a premium on the contributions of middle-class residents to the community and discounts the contributions of low-income residents like Hunt, says Jamie Kalven, a journalist and activist who is a consultant to the Horner Residents Committee.

“It’s fundamentally disrespectful,” he says. “This is a community like any other community, with the full spectrum of everything human beings are capable of. [But] that’s so far removed from our cartoonish public discourse about [public housing] communities.”

Despite the dismal conditions, the roaches and the dark hallways, residents look back on the high-rises nostalgically. (Voice of Randal Brown, former Henry Horner resident.) Everyone knew their neighbor’s kids; you could walk down the hall and borrow some flour, or walk upstairs and join a game of dice. Each summer, former Horner residents reunite in nearby Union Park. Last year, someone made T-shirts with a picture of one of the high-rises and the words, “Lake Street’s Finest.”

One of the most significant consequences of mixed-income redevelopment at Horner and across the city has been the destruction of longstanding communities and the failure, thus far, to form cohesive mixed-income communities in their place.

Twenty years after the towers on Lake Street were turned to rubble, residents are still fighting to be seen as an asset to the community, rather than a deficiency.

“I’m hoping that the changes that come are not going to be singling out certain peoples, or looking at me as low-income so my concerns and issues don’t matter,” Hunt says. “It has to matter because I’m a part of the community.”

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