Voice of the Voiceless

Anyone who knows anything about the current realities of Chicago’s public housing would agree that its developments desperately need repair. Years of low or no maintenance have taken their toll on buildings that have housed thousands of low-income residents and their families for years and, in some cases, generations.

In 1996, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandated the demolition of more than 100,000 units of public housing nationwide. Of that number, 18,000 units—nearly 20 percent—scheduled for demolition are in Chicago, making the Windy City the target of the largest public housing demolition in the country’s history.

An outside observer might conclude that tearing down unsightly and poorly maintained buildings is the most logical thing to do. But HUD, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), and the city of Chicago do not have in place an adequate housing replacement plan for the 42,000 residents—most of whom are women and children—who would be left homeless after the demolition. Experts say there are already 15,000 homeless people in Chicago and nearly two families for each available low-income unit.

To ensure they have a voice in this issue, residents joined with Chicago advocacy groups in 1996 to form the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. The coalition is comprised of residents and four other main groups: the Community Renewal Society, the Chicago Coalition to Protect the Homeless, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. "These groups work together to change the face of public housing without changing the faces within public housing," said Wardell Yotaghan, resident and coalition leader.

John Donahue, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, looks at the issue from a moral standpoint. "When the Chicago Bulls and White Sox stadiums became dilapidated, city and state officials worked to make sure that neither team was homeless for one night," Donahue said. "Why can’t the same consideration be extended to public housing residents?"

WITHIN THIS TRAGEDY lie some interesting twists. CHA developments now sit on some of Chicago’s most valuable property in the city’s revamped downtown. For example, developers of the properties stand to make a net profit of $100 million dollars if and when the developments are demolished and the land is developed.

To combat this and the planned demolition of 12 to 18 other projects, the Coalition to Protect Public Housing has organized several rallies and prayer vigils at the developments to try to secure an adequate housing replacement plan from federal and local governments. Social activist groups, the ecumenical community, ministers, rabbis, priests, and representatives from several denominations and faiths attended the events. More than 300 protesters at a prayer vigil in Cabrini-Green last March traveled in buses to the offices of HUD, where they sat for four hours until officials listened to their grievances.

The result was a temporary time-out on CHA demolition, the establishment of an oversight committee—comprised of representatives from local and national HUD, the city of Chicago, CHA, and the coalition—to review all public housing issues, and a meeting with HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo. At the August 1998 meeting, Cuomo agreed to work with the coalition to develop a contract with CHA that would guarantee residents basic rights, such as replacement housing, and a voice in the redevelopment of any housing built on land where buildings are demolished.

The coalition, HUD, and CHA are still creating this contract. Meanwhile, the Coalition to Protect Public Housing continues to rally, pray, and fight for the rights of the CHA residents.

—Tonita Cheatham

TONITA CHEATHAM is director of communications for the Community Renewal Society. For more information, contact CRS at 332 S. Michigan Ave., Suite 500, Chicago, IL 60604-4302; (312) 427-4830; www.crspr@aol.com.

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