HUD hopes it has key to public housing 'cages'

July 06, 1991|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Sun Staff Correspondent

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.

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