Virtually all of Chicago's high-rise public housing developments, dreary symbols of decades of failed public housing policy, would be demolished over the next five years under an ambitious, $1.5 billion plan the Chicago Housing Authority intends to submit to the federal government.
The move comes four months after Mayor Richard M. Daley regained control of the Housing Authority from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which took over the nation's second-largest public housing agency in 1995, citing poor management, questionable financing practices and neglect of its buildings and tenants.
In all, 51 decaying and often half-occupied, gallery-style high-rise buildings containing 16,000 apartment units would be razed and replaced on existing public housing sites with more than 24,000 new or rehabilitated units for mixed-income tenants, city housing authority officials said. The new plan would more than double the number of units that have been scheduled for razing.
Housing Authority officials said most of the replacement developments would be rental town house units in mixed-income communities. The agency also plans to spend $350 million rehabilitating 10,000 units for senior citizens.
Among the high-rises to be torn down are the 32 buildings that make up the crime-plagued and drug-ridden Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens on the city's South Side and the eight buildings of the Cabrini-Green project on the West Side, which also have high vacancy rates and are partially boarded up.
In making its announcements, the Housing Authority said it will diminish its role as principal landlord to the city's poor by privatizing the management of all of its properties by next June. The move would cut the agency's payroll by more than 70 percent, from 2,454 to 700 positions, with 641 employees let go by the end of this year. About 300 workers received their pink slips today.
Housing Authority CEO Phillip Jackson said the authority will spend less of its $614 million operating budget for next year on "unresponsive . . . bureaucracy" and more on property management by "professional firms" that will treat tenants as customers.
Jackson, who grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes, also announced his intention to end the city's scattered-site housing program, which was designed to shift poor, mostly black tenants from segregated housing developments in concentrated areas to more economically diverse neighborhoods. The city cannot afford to buy more real estate, officials said, and must build on land it owns.
"The old paradigm for public housing has failed," Jackson said. "This plan represents a genuine rethinking and rebirth of public housing for the benefit of those who live there and the taxpayers who have been supporting a failing system."
Jackson, recently appointed by Daley to head the housing authority, predicted the plan would "transform public housing in Chicago" if the city is able to take advantage of a new law that would allow it to borrow against federal funds to pay for demolition, renovation and construction projects.
Housing Authority Chairman Sharon Gist-Gillian said the authority normally receives $130 million to $150 million a year in capital funding from HUD, but that this year it will ask HUD to commit to 10 years of level funding that would allow it to sell $1.5 billion in grant anticipation bonds that it would use on the project over the next five or six years. She said that would be enough to pay for the 24,000 new or rehabilitated units and meet the federal requirement of assuring that each "lease compliant" tenant will be housed.
"Our plan is clearly a shift in philosophy for Chicago, but it is being driven as much by a shift in thinking at the federal level," Gist-Gillian said in an interview.
"We've learned since the 1950s that these islands where people are stacked and isolated from the surrounding community just don't work," she added.
However, some tenants and public housing advocates today criticized the plan, saying that it would give private developers too much control and lead to less available public housing.
"They're not responding to the need that's out there for affordable housing," said Rich Wheelock, a Legal Assistance Foundation attorney for Cabrini-Green tenants who have filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the city to increase the amount of land designated for affordable public housing. "The number of displaced families will skyrocket even faster on this plan."
He noted that for years, the Cabrini-Green apartments, which are situated on some of the city's prime real estate on the western edge of the downtown residential and commercial district, have been coveted by real estate developers seeking to build potentially profitable condominiums for higher-income residents.
"They [CHA officials] want to treat the residents as private tenants," Wheelock said. "That loses sight of the fact that these residents have special housing needs, which must be addressed."
Special correspondent Kari Lydersen contributed to this article.