Chicago Housing Authority watches its best efforts fail

June 18, 1995|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHICAGO -- Proud of his national reputation for innovation and creativity, Vince Lane spent seven years running the Chicago Housing Authority, spinning bold new strategies meant to improve life for the city's 86,000 public housing tenants.

Conditions, federal officials say, only got worse.

Now Mr. Lane and his board are gone, startling Chicago by quitting en masse last month. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development hustled an emergency management team from Washington to take over.

Mr. Lane wishes them well.

"There is nothing worse than the Chicago Housing Authority," Mr. Lane said. "Nothing."

Big-city public housing systems around the country have been in trouble for decades. Many high-rises attract drugs, gangs and crime. The developments are dangerous places, packed with people in despair. Corruption infests some agencies. Reformers make changes that only end in frustration.

But amid all those urban failures, Chicago stands out. New York's public housing scores far higher on a Department of Housing and Urban Development assessment test. Baltimore's system, with all its problems, is far smaller.

Ninety-three percent of the residents of Chicago public housing are on welfare, Mr. Lane said. Eleven of the 15 poorest neighborhoods in the country are in Chicago public housing developments, HUD officials say. In some high-rises, median annual household incomes are $2,500, according to one federal housing official.

Mr. Lane, an affluent entrepreneur who grew up in a poor Chicago neighborhood, walked into this bleak territory in 1988. He was determined to improve public housing by applying bold new ideas.

But Mr. Lane said true reform was stymied by a housing authority mired in patronage and petty politics. And HUD's red tape, Mr. Lane added, slowed even the simplest changes.

Hailed by President Clinton last year as "a genuine hero," praised by HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros even as he quit, Mr. Lane couldn't make the housing authority work.

HUD officials, whose regulations were alleged to be part of the problem, insist they will.

"This is everybody's last, best chance," said Joseph Shuldiner, HUD assistant secretary for public housing and head of the new management effort.

"The national system of public housing is on trial in Chicago," Mr. Cisneros said at a news conference the day after HUD took charge.

No. 2 in country

Chicago public housing, the second-largest system in the country, may be under federal control for years, HUD officials say.

In taking charge, the federal government has become landlord to 19 public housing developments around the city.

"Giant concentrations of poverty and misery" is how Ed Marciniak, who heads the Institute of Urban Life at Chicago's Loyola University, describes them.

The projects had been built to replace slums. Today, they make up the city's most forbidding neighborhoods.

The towers of Robert Taylor Homes run for miles along Chicago's South Side. Cabrini-Green, on the near north side, is a grim collection of high-rises and rowhouses sitting on gritty lots within blocks of luxury townhouse developments.

At Henry Horner Homes, to the west of downtown, the hallways reek of urine, and the unlighted stairwells are as dark as caves. Frightened residents, distrustful of mere locks, pull folding metal gates across the doorways to barricade themselves in their apartments at night.

Horner sits just a basketball's throw from the United Center, site of next summer's Democratic National Convention.

"It's very, very taxing on you physically, spiritually, emotionally, on a day-to-day basis," said Alice Dickerson, a working mother of four, who has lived in Horner Homes for nine years.

"I have to bring my children through this filth every day. It affects me. I know it affects them."

Fearful of gangs and gunfire, she does not let her children outside unattended. She has become used to having her requests for repairs go ignored, for freshly painted walls to be covered quickly in graffiti, for summer to bring maggots, which swarm in the hallways.

"If HUD can come in and restructure, make sure the dollars available are being used correctly, then it just might work out," Ms. Dickerson said.

But many people in Chicago wonder why HUD thinks it can do any better than the local agency did.

"They mouth the typical platitudes about how the tenants will come first and they'll tear down the high-rises and they'll make things better," said Bill Wilen of the Legal Assistance Foundation, which represents many public housing tenants. "But no one really knows how it will play out."

Everyone is waiting to see if a new landlord can improve life in public housing.

But there's more at stake, people here say. Mr. Cisneros is gambling with his reputation.

And, as the Republican-led Congress threatens to kill off entire federal agencies, the future of HUD may be on the line as well.

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