Chicago tenants see some benefits


July 11, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- About three years ago, Mattie Howell's building at the huge ABLA public housing development on this city's West Side was controlled by gang members who brazenly sold drugs, extorted protection money from tenants and shot it out with their rivals.

"It was terrible here," said Ms. Howell, the mother of six grown children who has lived at ABLA 18 years. "You couldn't go in and out when you wanted to. They had the door tied with wire so they could sell drugs in the lobby. When they were ready, the gang guys would open the doors to let you in."

Living conditions seemed to be sliding hopelessly out of control until the Chicago Housing Authority's Operation Clean Sweep arrived at Ms. Howell's building.

In a frantic effort to re-establish some measure of control, hundreds of police officers, social and maintenance workers converged on Ms. Howell's building. They arrested criminals, seized drugs and weapons, evicted squatters and went door-to-door to do apartment inspections and make long-neglected repairs. They also offered rent counseling, drug treatment and community organizing help.

Ms. Howell now says the building is a much better place to live. The drug dealers no longer work the lobby. An armed security guard checks every visitor to the building. Vacancies now turn over quickly, and these days there is even a waiting list of people who want to live in the building.

The effort has attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which now hails the sweep strategy as a national model for housing authorities across the country. Baltimore did similar cleanups at two of the three high-rises at East Baltimore's Flag House Courts housing project last month. City housing officials say others are planned for other troubled high-rises.

While it is too early to gauge the long-term impact of the sweeps here, Chicago housing officials say their program has been successful in many respects.

But Harvey Grossman, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said the sweeps are oppressive and largely ineffective. In 1989, the ACLU won a consent decree that prevents searches of tenants' homes during the sweeps.

"Sweeps are high-profile; they are paramilitary," said Mr. Grossman. "The sweeps are a dramatic way to show the public that you are fighting a problem. But why not deal with a problem in a calm, managerial way?"

Mr. Grossman said the nature of the sweeps -- with their overwhelming police presence, the brusque apartment inspections, the metal detectors and constant monitoring of visitors -- contributes to the harshness of life in public housing.

"These things are disruptive and intrusive," he said. "I think it's a lot of show. Why go through all of this, rather than just having repairs done and putting a security guard at the front desk? That's pretty much standard procedure at any other residential high-rise in Chicago."

Baltimore interest

Meanwhile, officials from Baltimore and 10 other cities have gone to Chicago to learn how that city conducts the sweeps.

"The real appeal of this is that it offers a comprehensive approach," said David A. Tyus, a program analyst with HUD in Washington. "The first thing you have to do with a place that has a drug problem that has gotten out of control is to gain control. Then you try to restore the level of service that should be taking place there."

CHA Chairman Vince Lane said that the militaristic style of the sweeps is dictated by crisis conditions in public housing.

"When I came into the job [in 1988], janitors couldn't always get in buildings. Gangs set timetables when tenants and maintenance people could come and go," said Mr. Lane, who originated the sweep strategy. "They charged mothers 50 cents to ride the elevators -- when they were working. Kids couldn't use play lots because of constant, 24-hour gunfire between buildings. It was literally Beirut. We had to do something."

170 sweeps

Since pioneering the sweep strategy in 1988, the CHA has done nearly 170 of them at an average cost of roughly $57,000 per building. Hiring private security guards cost another $20,000 annually for each building. But supporters say the cost is well worth it -- even if some of the gains are uneven or eventually erode.

"The strategy is simply one of taking a hill in a war and holding it," Mr. Lane said.

At the 2,500-unit ABLA complex, the sweeps have been a mixed blessing. Ms. Howell is happy with results for her building. Improved security and living conditions have rekindled a sense of community. Eighteen tenants joined a patrol in exchange for $75 rent rebates each month. And the community room that had become a trash dump is being renovated for an after-school program.

"We want to have it open by the fall," Ms. Howell said.

But she is quick to add that crime and drugs have not been swept from ABLA. "The drug dealers now are down there by the rowhouses" in another section of the development, she said.

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