Better than Blowing up the Projects

NEAL R. PEIRCE

May 06, 1991|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

CHICAGO. FTC — Chicago -- Should public housing be blown up? Is solution by dynamite, as in the notorious example of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, our best option? Some people believe so -- especially when talking of the destitute and crime-ridden inner-city high-rises, built shoddily and, like Chicago's, deliberately segregated to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods.

Vincent Lane, chief of the embattled Chicago Housing Authority, says the detonation alternative makes little sense: ''There are 100,000 people'' in his city's public-housing high-rises. ''If we tear 'em down, where will the people go?''

Indeed, as troubled and sometimes despised as public housing is, 60,000 families are on Chicago's waiting list. Nationally, the waiting list is one million names long.

To cope with Chicago's most deteriorated high-rises, Mr. Lane has instituted ''sweeps'' to drive gangs out, issued ID cards to legal residents and started a recivilization process. Scraping together every dollar he can, he's pushing midnight basketball, tenant patrols and building councils, and projects such as ''Mama Said'' to connect older women with teen-age mothers.

But Mr. Lane's objective is broader: ''I am trying to change the socioeconomic fabric of public-housing communities so they are not communities just unto themselves, but part of the broader community.'' He'd like to see people use public housing as a stepping stone on their way to unsubsidized rents.

How to get there? Try to introduce a mix of income groups into public housing. ''You can't expect to stack poor people on top of poor people and get anything but what we have now,'' says Mr. Lane.

So he's trying what he calls a ''mixed-income new communities strategy.'' His first experiment, which starts leasing this month, is ''Lake Parc Place.'' It consists of two public-housing high-rises with choice lakefront locations on the city's South Side. The housing authority has spent $17 million to remodel them stem-to-stern and is reopening them with a 50-50 mix of regular working-class families and public-housing tenants.

It's an experiment virtually without precedent in American public-housing practice, and it took a special provision in last year's federal housing legislation to give the OK. There are lots of doubters in Chicago, who say there's no way working-class people will consider even getting close to a public-housing project. But the rents -- $371 for a two-bedroom apartment for a family earning up to $34,700, for example -- will be far below market rates.

''I just want to make sure we have crowd control'' as the leasing opens up, Mr. Lane predicts confidently.

In place of the spartan and second-rate furnishings that often go into public housing, these units will offer high-quality new kitchens and bathrooms. They will have secured lobbies, cable TV, laundries, a day-care center and other amenities.

And there'll be some tough screening. To live at Lake Parc, tenants will have to agree to remain drug-free. They must be employed or ready to go into job training. And the housing authority will provide job training, child care, family and financial counseling.

Mr. Lane hopes he can get a private developer to put up 564 new town houses on the Lake Parc site, with a quarter of the units for the very poor, the rest for lower-middle-income families.

And if it all works, he hopes to see mixed-income projects at more sites around the city. But he doesn't expect mixed incomes to work in areas of high-rise concentrations. His strategy there -- at least so far -- seems confined to sweeps, driving out the gangs and pushing down the crime rate.

What about involving tenants in the management of their own projects? Mr. Lane is the most enthusiastic supporter of the idea I've ever encountered among public-housing chiefs, even though recognizes how tough it is to move from tenant advisory councils to actual tenant responsibility for management.

So far, some form of tenant management is reported in seven Chicago projects. The most advanced is at Le Claire Courts, a 616-unit low-rise project on the city's far West Side. Visit there with Irene Johnson, the tenant leader, and you hear a story of immense pride in achieving an actual tenant-management contract with Mr. Lane's agency. But Ms. Johnson explains how it took years of intense grassroots organizing, specialized training, ''co-management'' and tough negotiating to conclude the management contract.

How about tenant ownership of public housing -- the solution the Housing and Urban Development secretary, Jack Kemp, has been pushing hard? Irene Johnson says her group would be interested, but hasn't made even a preliminary financial assessment. Evidence elsewhere shows tenant ownership isn't likely to work without massive, ongoing public subsidies.

What's refreshing about Vincent Lane's experiments in Chicago is that they're intensely ambitious. They aim to restore a civil order to lawless, disorganized public-housing units and to socially reconnect very poor families with the working class by helping them to move out of publicly subsidized housing.

But unlike the Kemp and George Bush rhetoric, there's no promise of magical transformation into homeownership, which remains far beyond the reach of America's poorest people.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column about state and urban affairs.

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