A Great Chicago Land Grab

David Peterson


Since the Department of Housing and Urban
development engineered a federal takeover of the
Chicago Housing Authority in late May 1995, CHA
tenants have expressed a great many fears about
what HUD’s role in "reinventing"
public housing in Chicago will turn out to be.

"The national system of public housing is
on trial in Chicago," then-HUD secretary
Henry Cisneros announced at the time. He
wasn’t joking. Long a national disgrace both
for the shoddy maintenance of its properties and
for its utter disregard for its tenants’
most basic rights, the jury had delivered its
verdict long ago: the CHA’s rank among this
nation’s slumlords is without peer.

Cisneros’s first press conference after
the takeover did nothing to allay tenants’
fears. Nor has a single action undertaken by
HUD’s Chicago chapter since. Cisneros and
Joseph Shuldiner, Cisneros’s hand-picked
lieutenant for executing HUD’s intervention
in Chicago, began to emphasize HUD’s
"plans to redevelop" three CHA housing
projects, and three only: the Lakefront
Properties in the Oakland neighborhood, a little
more than one mile north of the University of
Chicago; the Henry Horner complex, just north of
the new United Center on the city’s West
Side; and Cabrini-Green, which stands smack in
the middle of the heavily gentrified Near North

"Gentrification! Displacement! Land
grab!" the editorial voice of the Chicago
would later mock the
protests of the "resident activists"
standing in the way of the CHA’s plans to
bulldoze four of the vacant Lakefront Properties.
Such a dismissive attitude toward the concerns of
CHA tenants has been quite typical of the Chicago

Why Cabrini-Green, tenants rightly wondered?
Why not that four-mile stretch of CHA high-rises
that runs due south of the city’s Central
Area, along State Street, through the heart of
Chicago’s historic Black Belt on the South
Side? (More recently rebaptized
"Bronzeville" in the local media,
it’s worth noting, now that developers have
begun to scratch and sniff its long-term
potential, after decades of disinvestment and
strategic neglect.)

First the tenants’ short answer: Get
real. HUD isn’t "reinventing"
public housing. Not in Chicago. Not any place
else, either. That’s only what its
publicists like to claim. And the media keep
repeating it—including the New York
, which last summer heralded
the "pleasing symmetry in the fact that…
Mayor Richard M. Daley is involved in a movement
that could eventually eradicate"
Chicago’s "high-rise cages for the
poor," cages which the "city’s
legendary boss, Mayor Richard J. Daley,

No, tenants counter. HUD couldn’t
reinvent the wheel. Let alone public housing.
Instead, HUD came to Chicago with a much
different mission: to bury public housing.

More to the point, HUD came to Chicago to bury
an idea. One enshrined in a series of United
Nations declarations and international covenants
reaching back to the 1940s. One instituted by the
practices of about seven decades of U.S. housing
policy, beginning with the Depression-era’s
U.S. Housing Act of 1937, which declared it to be
the "policy of the United States
[Government] to remedy the unsafe and unsanitary
housing conditions and the acute shortage of
decent, safe and sanitary dwellings for families
of lower income," and to produce a
"decent home and suitable living environment
for every American family."

In late June of last year, the HUD-dominated
CHA joined the Daley administration in unveiling
a billion-dollar Near North Redevelopment Plan
for Cabrini-Green—the "direction public
housing must go," Joseph Shuldiner called it
at the time.

Clearly, location is the major factor in the
Redevelopment Plan’s equation. For the past
decade, the Chicago media have been filled with
stories about the "Cabrini Land Rush,"
a "monopoly-style land rush with powerful
political and demographic implications."
Indeed. "The area is ripe for
redevelopment," was how a spokesperson for
the Chicago Department of Planning and
Development characterized it as far back as 1992.
The reason for its ripeness is an open secret.
Everybody knows that Cabrini-Green sits atop 70
acres of greatly depressed, though potentially
valuable, real estate. The real estate is
depressed because of who lives on it. Beyond
that, it is potentially valuable, thanks to the
deep pockets of who wants to drive them out of
there, and to acquire and redevelop the land once
their gone. Surrounded on its north by the Ranch
Triangle, Lincoln Park, and Old Town Triangle
neighborhoods, on its east by Old Town and the
famous Gold Coast, on its south by the Near North
Side neighborhood, and on its west by Goose
Island, Cabrini-Green’s 21 high-rises (down
from 23, thanks to Shuldiner’s wrecking
ball) make for a picture postcard of capitalist

There’s only one catch: around 6,000 poor
black people live on the land. (That’s down
from a high of 17,990 in 1963. In fact,
Cabrini-Green’s resident population remained
stable until the early 1970s, then began to
decrease, as the federal government began to
disinvest in public housing, and the CHA allowed
more and more of its units to deteriorate until
they became unlivable—"de facto
demolition," as the judge in his 1993 ruling
to Henry Horner Homes v. Chicago Housing
Authority <D>
described it.)

Well, as long as those 6,000 poor black people
remain at Cabrini-Green, the rich white people
who possess the socially correct attributes to
complete the gentrification of the area
won’t lay their dollars down just for the
privilege of sharing a caffe latte with CHA
tenants. Unquestionably, something had to be
done. That something is the Near North
Redevelopment Plan for Cabrini-Green, now
repackaged as the Near North Redevelopment

"You can’t miraculously invite
market-rate people to buy on a nine-acre island
in the shadow of Cabrini," developer Dan
McLean noted last year. "There’s just
no point because it wouldn’t fly." Mary
McGinty, the president of the Near North Property
Owners Association, was equally frank.
"Middle-class and upper-class people
won’t move into Cabrini if it’s
surrounded by buildings that are a problem,"
she observed. "The majority of Cabrini-Green
needs to be pulled down."

McLean’s MCL Development Corp. is the
largest home builder in Chicago. What’s
more, his MCL/ASD partnership with the lawyer
Allison Davis has accumulated more than 20 acres
of land on the border of Cabrini-Green—the
"most compelling asset Mr. McLean brings to
the table," as Crain’s Chicago
noted. So when McLean says
something "won’t fly," chances are
that it won’t fly. But he and Davis have
ancient ties with both the Daley Administration
and the Habitat Co., the private firm that
manages the CHA’s scattered-site housing
program, and that has enormous clout when it
comes to deciding the fate of the CHA.

The McLean-Davis partnership also happens to
be the most aggressive of the private developers
lobbying to build new housing on the Near North
Side, post-Cabrini-Green. In late 1995, they
unveiled their own billion-dollar proposal.
Despite the nine other competing proposals then
on the table, none of which was more than
one-sixth as large or one-twelfth as expensive,
the MCL/ASD proposal became the only game in
town. The Chicago Tribune<D>
practically deified McLean and Davis for their
"sweeping plans." The only
"danger," the Trib<D>
cautioned, "is that too little attention
will be paid to the need for private investment
and too much to the demands of the tenants,"
whose "warped" view of the
"outside world…cannot be allowed to veto
the project." The McLean-Davis plan would
demolish virtually every last one of
Cabrini-Green’s remaining high-rises, build
upwards of 3,800 new housing units on land
controlled by the CHA and their partnership, but
reserve only around 20 percent of the new units
for public housing. In fact, McLean subsequently
told the New York Times<D> that the
final phase of his and Davis’s plan might be
able to "accommodate" no more than 15
percent public housing tenants.

Both in its billion-dollar price tag and in
the scale of its "sweeping plans," the
Near North Redevelopment Initiative parallels the
MCL/ASD plan. They are determined to transform
Cabrini-Green into a "mixed-income"
community, HUD and its advocates now insist. More
accurately, they have no choice but to take land
away from Cabrini-Green’s current tenants,
and redistribute it to private developers at
steep discounts to its current market value.
Otherwise, it wouldn’t be possible for the
profit-driven private sector to build the upscale
housing on the post-Cabrini-Green landscape that
is needed to attract a sufficient number of rich
people to the area—the only people’s
whose interests are driving the Redevelopment
Initiative, it should be perfectly clear—to
make construction of the new housing financially
worthwhile for developers in the first place.
This, too, is one of the open secrets behind
"reinventing" Cabrini-Green: open in
that everyone openly acknowledges it; but secret
in that almost no one (beyond the residents
themselves, of course) seems capable of
understanding its true implications, particularly
in moral terms. Thus one can read on the pages of
the Chicago Tribune<D> that,
"Without these buildings torn down, the
developers reason they couldn’t attract
market-rate home buyers to sit on an island in
the middle of a bunch of high-rises that most
people consider scary." And one can find
Habitat Co. executive vice-president and former
commissioner of the city’s Department of
Planning and Development Valerie Jarrett
explaining that "There are two goals here.
The first is to come up with 493 replacement
units [called for by former CHA chair Vince
Lane’s 1993 plan]. The other is to maximize
the market potential of the area in creating a
mixed-income community."

Unveiled in February, the Near North
Redevelopment Initiative calls for 1,324 of
Cabrini-Green’s 3,600 units to be
demolished. An estimated 2,000 to 2,300 new units
will be constructed, some on land owned by the
CHA and other municipal bodies, some on land
owned by the MCL/ASD partnership. With almost
twice as many units scheduled for construction
than demolition, it might seem as if
Cabrini-Green’s residents will come out
ahead in the bargain. But think again.
That’s because in a nod to social
engineering and to the use of thinly veiled
racial quotas that is absolutely liberal in its
means if downright reactionary in its ends, the
Redevelopment Initiative calls for developers to
reserve specific percentages of all future
housing for each of four different

    • Fifty percent of all new housing is to be
      reserved for the rich. (The
      "market-rate" people, in the
      planner’s more socially palatable
       phrase. That is, people who make more than
      120 percent of the city’s median annual
      income for a family of four, currently worth
      $45,000 per year.)
    • Another 20 percent for the semi-rich. (Here known
      as "affordable"  housing to soothe
      the liberal’s guilty conscience.
      "Affordable" housing  families
      earn anywhere between 80 and 120 percent of
      median annual income, or from $36,000 to $54,000
      per year.)
    • Fifteen percent for low-income people. (Families
      that earn between 50 and 80 percent of
      Chicago’s median income level, or from
      $22,500 to $36,000 per year. Hardly rich people,
      to be sure. But certainly not destitute, either.)
    • Only 15 percent for very-low-income people. (For
      families that earn below 50 percent of the median
      income level, or from zero dollars up to $22,500
      per year. That is, the very same class of people
      who now reside at Cabrini-Green: people who are
      almost exclusively black, 63 percent of whom are
      female, and 56 percent of whom are children
      18-years-old or younger. But a disproportionate
      percentage of whom won’t be residing in the
      area for very longer, if HUD’s
      "re-inventors" of public housing have
      their way.)
    • Now for the punch line. Of the approximately
      6,000 residents of Cabrini-Green, virtually 100
      percent of them would rank among what the
      Redevelopment Initiative calls very-low-income
      people. Yet it allots them only between 300 and
      325 out of the total of 2,000-2,300 new units
      scheduled for construction. In other words, the
      Redevelopment Initiative will cause the net loss
      of some 1,000 (or one-third) of
      Cabrini-Green’s current portfolio of 3,600
      public housing units. In a display of arrogance
      that is truly remarkable, the HUD-dominated CHA
      calls this planned-for diminution of the
      area’s black residents a vision that
      "embraces everyone," creating an
      "inclusive, accessible community"
      wherein "families of all economic
      backgrounds can live together in a vital,
      thriving neighborhood." Again, everyone
      stares at these numbers. But no one blinks.

      even this modest 15 percent concession to
      Cabrini-Green’s black residents isn’t
      etched in stone. By the fall of last year, HUD
      and the mayor had begun to preach the need to
      take a "broader approach" to the
      redevelopment of the housing project. They began
      touting a "whole Near North community plan,
      not just a Cabrini plan any longer," Joseph
      Shuldiner explained. "[R]esidents are only
      one of many community groups that have a stake in
      what goes on here," he continued.

      The moment HUD conceded a single percentage
      point to the (quote-unquote)
      "market-rate" and
      "affordable" housing crowd, it
      abandoned the idea of public housing altogether,
      and chained its responsibility for the fate of
      Cabrini-Green’s residents to the interests
      of the private developers who will finance
      construction of the new units, once HUD completes
      the dirty work, and drives enough of the
      residents off of the land until they comprise a
      demographic minority—a quota of poor black
      people small enough in percentage that all but
      the most hard-core racists will find the area
      tolerably attractive, and relocate there.

      On October 23, the Cabrini-Green Local
      Advisory Council (LAC) filed a lawsuit in U.S.
      District Court for Northern Illinois, seeking
      injunctive relief from the earlier Near North
      Redevelopment Plan. Three months later, Judge
      David H. Coar, though withholding his decision on
      injunctive relief, ruled that 18 of the
      LAC’s 22-count complaint had enough merit
      for the lawsuit to proceed to the discovery

      Of course, not one word about Judge
      Coar’s decision was reported by either of
      Chicago’s two mass-circulation dailies,
      neither of which have proven so reticent when it
      came to reporting the "reinvention" of

      Peterson is a freelance writer living in
      Chicago, and a regular contributor to Z.