CHICAGO -- Like fossilized dinosaurs they rise out of the landscape: huge, faceless red-brick tenement blocks where the poorest of Chicago's poor can gaze out each day from behind steel mesh balcony containments at the gleaming, soaring heart of the tallest city on earth.
"Like rats and mice in a cage," says Daisy Freeman of Henry Horner Homes, the public housing complex on the city's West Side where she has lived since her parents moved here in the 1960s.
"In winter, everybody stays cooped up in the cage," she says, her eyes clouding with the vision. "And when summer comes, they all run wild. They just go wild."
Jobless, unskilled, with three children to support and, at 35, already a grandmother, Ms. Freeman spends her days lately struggling to divert a teen-age son from the influence of a neighborhood gang. But hers is not a unique predicament: Most of the more than 2,000 families in Horner depend on single mothers.
Squalid and crime-ridden, the cluster of 21 Horner high-rises is like most of the other 18 public housing projects around the city. They testify to the failure of traditional public housing policies and practices, not only in Chicago but also across the nation, say federal and local housing officials.
The Bush administration has stepped forward with what it believes is a way to break the cycle of dependency and despair: an ambitious and controversial plan it calls HOPE (Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere), which amounts to an intensive program of federal grants and subsidies to fight crime, foster self-sufficiency and, ultimately, to nudge the poor into homeownership.
HOPE's architect, Jack F. Kemp, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, wants to make the plan the centerpiece of federal housing policy.
On this cool summer day, he is at Horner Homes to inaugurate a new police patrol unit for the project and to tell residents that he intends to be "the money man" who would help them onto the road to homeownership and better living conditions.
Standing with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and community leaders on a platform erected amid the dingy high-rises, Mr. Kemp promises the scattering of residents that the HUD plan would "change the killing fields into fields of dreams."
Invoking the names of civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the HUD secretary pledges to increase spending on maintenance and drug prevention.
"But money alone will not be enough; we need to empower the people," he says.
"It sounds good," a man shouts, his tone indicating enthusiasm tempered by skepticism.
"Yeah, let's see the money," calls out a woman next to him.
High-rise ghettos such as Horner and similar projects in other cities around the country pose a major challenge to the HOPE program. Many housing officials think they are too unwieldy, unpleasant and crime-ridden to be upgraded into the kinds of places that low-income people would want to buy, even if they could afford it.
Vincent Lane, director of the Chicago Housing Authority, says gang shootings and firebombings were so common when he took office three years ago that some residents took to sleeping in bathtubs and closets for protection.
Intimidated janitors and maintenance workers have long since stopped working on the apartments. When elevators break, they stay broken. Light bulbs remain dead in their sockets. Stairways have turned dark and dangerous, becoming lairs for muggers, murderers and drug dealers, and makeshift latrines for the desperate.
In some instances, Mr. Lane says, gang members have occupied empty apartments, knocked their way through walls into furnished units, then driven out the legitimate tenants. Many residents have left out of fear.
In some Horner buildings, for instance, up to 70 percent of the apartments are boarded up, even though
the Housing Authority says it has 45,000 families on a waiting list.
These are the most extreme cases. Not all of the 4 million Americans officially listed as living in federally subsidized, low-income housing face such conditions. Many low-income families manage to rent private or government-owned houses, double-story condominiums, row houses or apartments in more salubrious, less dangerous neighborhoods. For them, homeownership would be more attainable.
HOPE springs from the apparent successes of tenant-led programs promoting resident management and self-help programs that sprouted in the 1970s and 1980s in cities such as Boston, St. Louis, Chicago and Washington. HOPE, which became law in November when President Bush signed the National Affordable Housing Act, envisions four phases:
* Lessening crime and drugs in the neighborhood.
* Over a period of two to three years, helping organize resident management programs, undertaking rehabilitation of the property and running property-management training and educational programs.
* Once residents have developed managerial abilities, encouraging them to move as a group into corporate and entrepreneurial activities and job training, and linking up with Head Start programs. The administration's "enterprise zone" initiatives would be used to attract private-sector investment to public housing communities.
* After about three years of organized resident management, and on condition that the management corporation is economically viable and has begun "aggressive job-creation and self-management ventures," a HUD fact sheet says, "homeownership becomes a viable avenue of opportunity."
Residents will not be compelled to buy, HUD officials say, but they will be offered extensive grants and subsidies to enable them to buy their apartments or houses either by individual title or through residents' cooperatives. For five years after a purchase, officials say, the new owner will be entitled to federal maintenance subsidies.
"We're trying to give a human face to a democratic, capitalistic manifesto for the inner city," Mr. Kemp said. "It's human nature: That which people control, maintain, own and feel pride in requires less of a continuing federal obligation than that which is just held in common."
He has asked for $855 million to finance the HOPE projects. Congressional aides say he will be lucky to get half that, but they acknowledge that the former hostility toward HOPE in the House and Senate has mellowed and that Mr. Kemp will be given something to help him prove that the program can work.
Federal housing assistance has begun to rise significantly this year after a steady decline during the Reagan years. Housing assistance dropped from almost $25 billion in 1981 to less than $9 billion in 1990. The Bush administration, however, appears willing to reverse the trend, having requested $16.12 billion for 1992.
Critics of HOPE argue that many low-income families and homeless people could never afford to buy and maintain their homes, that the education and training period is too short and that the program would draw federal funds away from sorely needed housing maintenance and construction. Besides, they say, HOPE is but a small speck on the map of public housing despair.
"It does nothing for the vast, unmeasured population of hidden homeless out there," said a housing official in an East Coast city who did not want to be identified because, he said, his agency depends heavily on HUD money.
"It looks wonderful -- on paper," he said. "Yes, we must invest in human dignity. But you can't simply guarantee people jobs and educational qualifications. We're in a recession, for God's sake. Where's the money coming from?"
The private Council on Large Public Housing Authorities, which also has criticized HOPE, points out that by HUD's own estimates, there is a $22 billion backlog for modernization and rehabilitation of public housing, accumulated primarily during the 1980s. HOPE barely scratches the surface of that problem, the council says.
HUD officials acknowledge that they are purposefully steering away from constructing public housing. "Nobody wants it in their neighborhoods," one said.
The department is concentrating instead on rehabilitating derelict and unoccupied housing -- more than 100,000 units are said to be boarded up -- and providing low-income families with subsidy vouchers under the Section 8 provision of the housing act.
Since Vincent Lane took over as director of the Chicago Housing Authority, the agency has been running an intensive anti-drug and crime-prevention program, using teams of specially trained police to conduct surprise searches for weapons, drugs and unauthorized residents.
More than 50 of Chicago's public buildings have been "swept" in the last three years, and Mr. Lane said he expects to have "cleaned" more than half of the 125 "troubled" high-rises by the end of the year -- in the process, painting and refitting the hallways, relighting stairs and posting 24-hour security guards at the entrance of each building.
Mr. Kemp is impressed enough to have adopted Chicago's sweep program as a model for the first stage of HOPE.
Also impressed is Wilhelmina Wright, 34, a single woman who has lived in Horner Homes for nine years She said she can foresee buying her apartment if it is renovated and the neighborhood is freed of crime and drugs.
"I would buy because I'm used to where I am," she said. "I know I can do it. I know it would improve my situation."