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Chicago Housing Authority watches its best efforts fail

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- Proud of his national reputation for innovation and creativity, Vince Lane spent seven years running the Chicago Housing Authority, spinning bold new strategies meant to improve life for the city's 86,000 public housing tenants.

Conditions, federal officials say, only got worse.

Now Mr. Lane and his board are gone, startling Chicago by quitting en masse last month. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development hustled an emergency management team from Washington to take over.

Mr. Lane wishes them well.

"There is nothing worse than the Chicago Housing Authority," Mr. Lane said. "Nothing."

Big-city public housing systems around the country have been in trouble for decades. Many high-rises attract drugs, gangs and crime. The developments are dangerous places, packed with people in despair. Corruption infests some agencies. Reformers make changes that only end in frustration.

But amid all those urban failures, Chicago stands out. New York's public housing scores far higher on a Department of Housing and Urban Development assessment test. Baltimore's system, with all its problems, is far smaller.

Ninety-three percent of the residents of Chicago public housing are on welfare, Mr. Lane said. Eleven of the 15 poorest neighborhoods in the country are in Chicago public housing developments, HUD officials say. In some high-rises, median annual household incomes are $2,500, according to one federal housing official.

Mr. Lane, an affluent entrepreneur who grew up in a poor Chicago neighborhood, walked into this bleak territory in 1988. He was determined to improve public housing by applying bold new ideas.

But Mr. Lane said true reform was stymied by a housing authority mired in patronage and petty politics. And HUD's red tape, Mr. Lane added, slowed even the simplest changes.

Hailed by President Clinton last year as "a genuine hero," praised by HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros even as he quit, Mr. Lane couldn't make the housing authority work.

HUD officials, whose regulations were alleged to be part of the problem, insist they will.

"This is everybody's last, best chance," said Joseph Shuldiner, HUD assistant secretary for public housing and head of the new management effort.

"The national system of public housing is on trial in Chicago," Mr. Cisneros said at a news conference the day after HUD took charge.

No. 2 in country

Chicago public housing, the second-largest system in the country, may be under federal control for years, HUD officials say.

In taking charge, the federal government has become landlord to 19 public housing developments around the city.

"Giant concentrations of poverty and misery" is how Ed Marciniak, who heads the Institute of Urban Life at Chicago's Loyola University, describes them.

The projects had been built to replace slums. Today, they make up the city's most forbidding neighborhoods.

The towers of Robert Taylor Homes run for miles along Chicago's South Side. Cabrini-Green, on the near north side, is a grim collection of high-rises and rowhouses sitting on gritty lots within blocks of luxury townhouse developments.

At Henry Horner Homes, to the west of downtown, the hallways reek of urine, and the unlighted stairwells are as dark as caves. Frightened residents, distrustful of mere locks, pull folding metal gates across the doorways to barricade themselves in their apartments at night.

Horner sits just a basketball's throw from the United Center, site of next summer's Democratic National Convention.

"It's very, very taxing on you physically, spiritually, emotionally, on a day-to-day basis," said Alice Dickerson, a working mother of four, who has lived in Horner Homes for nine years.

"I have to bring my children through this filth every day. It affects me. I know it affects them."

Fearful of gangs and gunfire, she does not let her children outside unattended. She has become used to having her requests for repairs go ignored, for freshly painted walls to be covered quickly in graffiti, for summer to bring maggots, which swarm in the hallways.

"If HUD can come in and restructure, make sure the dollars available are being used correctly, then it just might work out," Ms. Dickerson said.

But many people in Chicago wonder why HUD thinks it can do any better than the local agency did.

"They mouth the typical platitudes about how the tenants will come first and they'll tear down the high-rises and they'll make things better," said Bill Wilen of the Legal Assistance Foundation, which represents many public housing tenants. "But no one really knows how it will play out."

Everyone is waiting to see if a new landlord can improve life in public housing.

But there's more at stake, people here say. Mr. Cisneros is gambling with his reputation.

And, as the Republican-led Congress threatens to kill off entire federal agencies, the future of HUD may be on the line as well.

"They took a big risk coming in here," Mr. Wilen said. "Cisneros can show HUD has a place, HUD can make a difference. He could use this to show HUD shouldn't be dismantled. But it could blow up in his face."

Mr. Lane said HUD arrives with powers he lacked. The department doesn't have to worry about following its own regulations. "Things that took me a year and a half to get approved, they can approve in a week," Mr. Lane said.

HUD has powers

"We're the federal government," Mr. Shuldiner said. "We change the environment when we come in. We can just ram it through."

He said that unions, vendors and contractors will be put on notice: "No more cozy deals, no more rip-offs."

He knows that public housing tenants are skeptical. "They should be," he said. "By and large, the government hasn't served them."

Mr. Lane, a friend of Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson, said he made "substantial improvements" in the seven years that he lead the Chicago Housing Authority. He arrived with plans to take buildings back from gangs, to fix up badly maintained buildings, to dilute the concentrations of poverty by moving public housing tenants into mixed-income neighborhoods and to tear down the high-rises that incubate so many urban problems.

He had some successes.

Mr. Lane launched police raids to rid buildings of drugs and guns. He opened a mixed-income development that reputedly is crime-free and stable. He started midnight basketball programs for teen-agers. He moved tenants out of buildings that had high vacancy rates and made plans to raze those high-rises.

But corruption troubled the agency. And conditions in most buildings remained wretched.

"Everything's broken down. Nothing's fixed," said N. Jeremiah Obie, a security guard at a low-rise building at Henry Horner Homes -- which by court order is scheduled for rehabilitation. "The money's here. This country's got the money. The federal government can do it."

Some observers believe that Mr. Lane decided to go -- thus precipitating the HUD takeover -- because agency scandals had begun to surface after six clean years.

Missing millions

Last summer, as much as $15 million in housing authority pension funds, overseen by an employee who did not directly report to Mr. Lane, were found to be missing. That scandal was followed by charges of bid-rigging, collusion in the Section 8 subsidized housing program, overbilling by security companies -- $26 million lost in three years, according to a housing authority audit released last week.

Last year, Mr. Lane's integrity was questioned when a security firm with links to the Nation of Islam won a contract -- at the same time Mr. Lane was talking with another company tied to the Nation of Islam about leasing space in a shopping center he had developed.

Mr. Lane denied wrongdoing.

Months ago, he said, he told Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and HUD officials that he wanted out to spend more time on his businesses. Besides consulting, Mr. Lane heads a firm that builds and manages subsidized housing. He has been negotiating to buy Eutaw Gardens, near North Avenue in Baltimore.

Mr. Shuldiner said HUD was "always concerned about what would happen to CHA [the Chicago Housing Authority] when Vince left. We knew that if Vince left, if the board left, this place would go into total meltdown."

But admiring as federal officials are of Mr. Lane's strategies, they also had been dogging him to make more progress.

Last year, at Mr. Lane's request, HUD sent a team to Chicago to assess the troubles.

"They came back and told us, 'Hey, look, they're not getting there from here,' " Mr. Shuldiner said. "The problems are so intractable."

HUD officials say they do not have a detailed plan. Some housing management may be turned over to private firms or tenants' groups. Some programs may send more tenants to the suburbs.

"Everything's on the table," Mr. Shuldiner said.

But mundane maintenance programs cannot be ignored as long-range reforms are planned, he said.

Plea for quick help

At Cabrini-Green, within view of downtown's glittering towers, residents said they need immediate help. Vince Lane's reputation, some said, means little if they can't live safely.

"He made a lot of promises," said Mark Pratt, as he umpired a baseball game for fourth-graders at Cabrini-Green's Byrd Elementary School. "Do you know of any he delivered on?"

But isn't Mr. Lane a national figure? "To middle-class America, yes," Mr. Pratt said. "But we live here in the squalor."

Mr. Pratt grew up in Cabrini-Green and lives there still with his wife and four children. At 28, he works as a teaching assistant while he goes to college and hopes to earn his degree this year.

"It took six months to get a sink fixed," he said. "Six months.

"What people are looking for is not so much a savior but someone they can go to and say, 'My sink is broken' and have someone say, 'OK. It will be fixed next week.' "

Mr. Pratt welcomes the Cisneros takeover.

"I'm not saying he has all the answers," Mr. Pratt said, "but hey, let's give him a shot."

Gertrude Dunn, 42, a 30-year Cabrini-Green resident, said she hopes HUD does "a whole lot of cleaning up." She was sitting near broken playground equipment on a gravelly lot that once apparently was grass.

"It was so nice and beautiful once upon a time," Ms. Dunn said. "So I guess they could do it once again."

HUD officials promise they will make profound changes in the agency. However, Chicagoans familiar with housing problems watch skeptically. They heard Vince Lane praised as a hero when he arrived in 1988 and now see him leaving amid controversy.

"Lane was good because he was a developer and he had some good ideas and he was given high marks for innovation and vision," said Mr. Wilen, the lawyer for public housing residents.

"But for the vast majority of tenants, day-to-day life got worse."

"Certainly he will go down in the history of the Chicago Housing Authority as someone who at least tried to shake things up," said Larry Bennett, a political science professor at DePaul University in Chicago.

"I don't think anyone thinks they'll be able to do it," Mr. Wilen said.

"People want to see a difference, hope they can do it. But I don't think anyone believes they can succeed. They're outsiders. They don't understand the day-to-day operations. They don't appreciate the history of the agency and its problems with contractors and unions.

"Everyone hopes it's better," Mr. Wilen said. "It can't get worse."

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