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Chicago slow to fix public housing

The Baltimore Sun

CHICAGO -- On a freezing night, a bare-chested baby crawled alone along an open ninth-floor gallery at the Cabrini Green public housing complex. The infant's wails pierced through a nearby apartment's living room walls.

"Whose child is this?" Mattie Gibson shouted, darting from the apartment and peering into vacant units. "Hello? There's a baby here!"

From a corner apartment, two little boys from a family of squatters emerged to take the child from Gibson's arms.

"This is the kind of chaos all around here," said Gibson, a payroll clerk who has lived here for 15 years. "No one seems to be listening. It's like they all moved on."

For the most part, they have.

More than a decade ago, when the Chicago Housing Authority began dismantling much of its notoriously dysfunctional stock, the worst of Cabrini Green was the first to meet the wrecking ball because it was considered to be among the most frightful addresses in the country.

For some families, it still is. Under the supervision of a federal judge, the demolitions have slowed while the residents of several deteriorating buildings and the Housing Authority negotiate redevelopment plans and decide where the displaced population will go.

In one 19-acre section officially known as the William Green Homes, there were once more than 1,000 apartments in eight 15-story towers. Today, 176 families and an unknown number of squatters live in the three remaining buildings.

At its peak, the Cabrini complex was home to about 15,000 people in hundreds of rowhouses and towers. Many of those structures are long gone, or are awaiting rehabilitation or demolition.

The complex was popularized by the 1970s sitcom Good Times as a neighborhood of strivers and funnymen, but reality was more cruel: Cabrini Green was the kind of place where a young boy could be killed by sniper fire while holding his mother's hand on the way to school, as happened in the fall of 1992.

Now the neighborhood, near downtown, is rapidly gentrifying, with new condominiums and shopping strips.

Though life in the complex remains hellish - a woman recently fatally overdosed in the stairwell near Gibson's door, and drug dealers sometimes take control of the building entrances - there is a feeling that the worst of the bad old days are over for the neighborhood at large.

Because of the changes, many public housing residents have refused to leave the area, where roots run generations deep. In 2004, the Local Advisory Council, which represents hundreds of residents, sued the Housing Authority over relocation plans from the city's Plan for Transformation, a $1.4 billion blueprint for public housing renewal adopted in 2000.

Richard Wheelock, a lawyer for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, which represents the tenants, said the Housing Authority's demolition program had far outpaced its construction, leaving families with few options beyond "equally dangerous and segregated communities" on the city's west and south sides. "The only leverage the residents have is to say we're going to stay here until you build the stuff," he said.

Wheelock also said that tens of thousands of displaced residents who meet certain standards have received federal housing vouchers, which allow them to move wherever they find a willing landlord.

About two-thirds of the displaced families with vouchers have indicated that they would prefer to return to traditional public housing, officials said. But the Plan for Transformation, a national model in its scope and original ambition, is off schedule and in need of more money. The goals were to demolish obsolete buildings and to break up pockets of poverty by incorporating public housing into mixed-income communities.

Under the transformation plan, the Housing Authority also set out to rehabilitate 5,000 units of public housing for families by 2010. So far, 1,733 units have been delivered, the annual plan said. The time frame for everything has been extended to 2015.

The authority has produced housing much more quickly for its older citizens, rehabilitating almost all of the 9,438 units it promised. It has also rehabilitated more than 2,500 units for families in so-called scattered sites around the city.

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