A public housing migration

A public housing migration

In 1999, demolition crews began tearing down Chicago's notorious high-rise public housing projects under the federal Hope 6 program.

It has become the largest displacement of public housing residents in the nation, straining Chicago's affordable housing market far beyond its capacity. As a result, thousands of people, mostly public aid recipients and the working poor, have traveled upstate, downstate and to neighboring states in search of a place to live.

The impact of this migration has been felt in schools, public housing, police departments and social service agencies across central Illinois.

For more than a year, staff writer Tracy Moss has tracked those effects, which she first encountered while reporting on the Danville Housing Authority's efforts to increase its occupancy rate. As her research continued, it became apparent that the phenomenon was not confined to Danville, but was being felt in many communities across Illinois and neighboring states.

Starting today, The News-Gazette examines the consequences of the Chicago connection for local communities and for the newcomers themselves:

In 1999, demolition crews brought down the first of many public housing high-rises in Chicago, and the people forced out of those towers created a splash in Illinois' housing market that has carried families and individuals far beyond the Windy City.

The 10-year, $1.5 billion plan to demolish more than 16,000 public housing units in Chicago and subsequently relocate tens of thousands of tenants is the largest displacement of public housing in the United States. And the ripples are being felt not only in Illinois, but in neighboring states, as well.

Several communities in the Midwest, including central Illinois, are feeling the effects:

– Schools are enrolling children from the Chicago area, many of them with special needs.

– Police are seeing more crime with a Chicago connection.

– Public housing is filled, and Section 8 rental vouchers are taken, with long waiting lists for both.

– Social service agencies are encountering increased demand, with some agencies burning through the better part of their budgets in only about half of the budget year.

Chicago's massive public housing transformation reflects a nationwide change promoted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HUD's Hope 6 program provides federal dollars to raze high-density public housing, like the high-rises once visible along the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago, and other multifamily developments. The goal is to build replacement housing that mixes public housing residents with private-market renters in low-rise, more neighborhood-friendly settings.

In the last decade, Hope 6 dollars have taken down public housing all over the country, initially in big cities like Seattle and Philadelphia. Now, it's trickling down to smaller cities like Decatur, Springfield and Champaign, where demolition and redevelopment projects are either under way or scheduled.

But nowhere has demolition been executed on the grand scale – in number of buildings razed and residents displaced – that was seen in Chicago, according to local and state housing officials.

Tenants in the buildings being demolished in Chicago are given temporary or permanent housing vouchers to use anywhere in the private housing market, creating a huge crunch in the availability of affordable housing in the Chicago area.

Richard Unz was hired as director of the Danville Housing Authority a few months after demolition began in Chicago. He said that from what he has seen, residents from the high-rises are not the ones moving downstate. Those migrating south, he said, are low-income residents who cannot find affordable housing because the voucher-holders are saturating the low-income housing market in Chicago.

That view is supported by a spokeswoman for the Chicago Housing Authority.

"Our residents are primarily staying within the Chicago city limits," said Jennifer Chatlani, who added she personally did not know of any housing authority residents with vouchers moving downstate. "We track where residents go."

According to Chatlani, the housing authority assessed the Chicago area's private housing market before 1999 and determined it could absorb the displaced residents.

But a different study suggests the CHA assessment was flawed.

The Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council, in coordination with the University of Illinois at Chicago, conducted a rental market study the year demolition began. Researchers found that from 1990 to 1999, the Chicago-area population increased as the number of rental units decreased, and average increases in rent outpaced inflation by as much as 8 percent that decade. The study also found that rental vacancy rates were low in both the private and subsidized housing markets – even lower than HUD's own definition of a tight rental market.

Low-income Chicago residents squeezed out of Chicago's housing market have found refuge – and opportunity – in available public and Section 8 housing in central Illinois cities like Danville, Rantoul, Champaign-Urbana and Bloomington-Normal.

Some central Illinois city officials noticed the arrival of Chicago residents in their communities as much as five years ago – a year after demolition began in Chicago.

Rantoul Police Chief Paul Dollins said his town has a lot of people who have moved from Chicago for two reasons – available housing and jobs. Rantoul has some industrial plants that are hiring, he said. Also, about 49 percent of Rantoul's housing stock is rental property, and much of it was vacated when Chanute Air Force Base closed in 1993.

"There is a great deal of low-income housing, and it has attracted quite a few people," he said.

Stan James with the Champaign County Housing Corp. in Rantoul said more applications have been coming across his desk with addresses that refer to Chicago. He said Rantoul landlords are also seeing more Chicago people looking for housing.

Social service agencies and school districts also noticed the change a few years ago.

The large-scale migration does not surprise Chicago native Phillip Jackson, who grew up within view of the Robert Taylor high-rise projects.

An education advocate, Jackson once led the Chicago Housing Authority and sat on Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's education advisory panel.

Now, Jackson has devoted his life to running Chicago's nonprofit Black Star Project, which provides academic help to preschool children, elementary, high school and college students.

Jackson said HUD's nationwide mission to demolish the high-rises, coupled with economic pressure, is forcing people out of high-expense areas to lower-income areas, and HUD officials in Washington, D.C., are encouraging people to move into what the agency calls "opportunity communities."

Jackson said opportunity communities are defined by three main characteristics.

– They are not racially concentrated, meaning they are not predominantly black, Hispanic or white.

– They have good schools and an existing network of social development programs.

– They have employment opportunities.

Jackson said the people moving out of the city to these opportunity communities are low-skill workers with meager educations, and their children have issues that will require social and human development programs. His warning to Danville could apply to many downstate communities.

"For five to 10 years, your social service network will be working overtime," he said. "It's going to be strained and tested and challenged in ways it's never been before."

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