Three days before Christmas, the Chicago Housing Authority reached an important milestone in its 10-year plan to transform economically and socially isolated public housing developments into healthy mixed-income communities.
Four and a half years into our plan, the first CHA residents moved into brand new units located on property where old high-rise public housing projects once stood.
As public officials and the news media looked on, Walnetta Long and her two sons, and Trina Boyd and her two sons, accepted the keys to new units in a mixed-income townhouse development called Westhaven, located in the Henry Horner Homes development on Chicago’s West Side.
The old Horner Homes are familiar to readers of Alex Kotlowitz’s 1991 book, There Are No Children Here, which described how public housing developments had become warehouses of poverty and social breakdown where crime was common, families and children lived in distress, and jobs were few.
This is the situation we’re determined to change in Chicago. Our commitment to the Long family, the Boyd family, and to the 25,000 other legal public housing families in Chicago is to ensure that they live as full residents of Chicago in every sense of the word, with the same services as everyone else and the same opportunities to live a meaningful and rewarding life.
That means creating safe, thriving communities of working families and professionals, with good schools, stores where people can work and shop, and strong community anchors such as schools, parks, libraries and public transit systems.
As we approach the mid-point of the Plan for Transformation, we are well on the way to fulfilling this commitment. Though the Longs and Boyds were the first families to move into new housing on the site of old high-rise buildings, thousands of others have preceded them into off-site or renovated homes.
We have rebuilt or fully rehabbed more than 11,000 senior, scattered-site and family units in mixed-income communities. We have successfully relocated more than 3,500 families from dangerous, unsafe high-rise buildings into new homes and new communities. More than 4,000 CHA residents have found jobs through the collective efforts of the CHA, city government agencies and our community partners.
We have closed on 18 agreements to build mixed-income housing since 1999, compared with just a handful in the previous decade. By next summer, we will be breaking ground on many of these projects, bringing new life and new hope to these long-suffering communities.
Meanwhile, the CHA has trimmed its workforce by 80 percent, produced balanced budgets year after year, become the first public housing agency in the country to issue bonds backed exclusively by federal grants, and become a model of efficient, progressive management.
Our Plan for Transformation is the result of a successful partnership of several government agencies: the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Chicago Housing Authority, the city of Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools.
The city is investing tens of millions of dollars in new libraries, police stations, parks and community centers in the vicinity of the replacement housing. Recently, the CHA and the Chicago Public Schools announced a major planning effort to redesign schools in an area of the South Side is undergoing massive change under the Plan for Transformation. More than 7,000 new mixed-income units are coming back to those communities. In addition to schools, we’re also looking at new parks, streets, and other community investments.
When we began this effort in June of 1999, we said it would take time. We knew had to overcome years of broken promises to build trust and cooperation. We could not build new housing until the old housing came down and we asked residents to embrace this challenge and keep the faith.
To their credit, CHA residents have stepped up and done their part. Thousands of families have been through a complex relocation process; they have taken steps to meet residency requirements; they have put themselves on a road to self-sufficiency; and they have gotten directly involved in redesigning their communities. Above all, they have been patient, and now their patience and faith is starting to pay off as we open the first new units on the former site of public housing.
We still have a lot of hard work ahead. There will still be bumps in the road as we work together to make this plan a reality for all of our families. But, year by year, we are moving forward and we look ahead to a future of progress, opportunity and hope.
Richard M. Daley is the mayor of Chicago, Ill.