The Tribune summarizes its examination on Sunday of the CHA’s vaunted Plan for Transformation thusly: “Thousands of families displaced. Hundreds of millions of dollars spent. Years behind schedule. What went wrong with Chicago’s grand experiment.”
To which I can only say: Duh.
The Tribune used nearly 4,300 words to detail what many of us have been arguing for years – that the critics were right from the beginning, that the Plan for Transformation is a failure, and that it was always about slum clearance, PR, and developers, not about housing policy or the city’s neediest residents.
That’s not to say the Trib’s 4,300 words are wasted; in fact, it’s a fine story. It’s just that the paper is a little late proclaiming one of the biggest feathers in the mayor’s cap a grand experiment gone wrong. Let’s take a closer look.
“A Tribune investigation found that almost nine years into what was billed as a 10-year program, the city has completed only 30 percent of the plan’s most ambitious element – tearing down entire housing projects and replacing them with new neighborhoods where poor, working-class and wealthier families would live side by side.”
“In fact, of those public housing units that have been built, nearly half went up before the plan officially started in 2000.”
“Hundreds of additional units are under construction, and Jordan said the current goal is to complete the plan by 2015. But some insiders concede it might take another 10 years beyond that.”
Some think 2016 might be a good goal!
“Former residents may be the least surprised by the situation. From the start, many predicted they would be displaced and forgotten while developers grabbed coveted swaths of city real estate for re-development and private profit.”
And they were right. The real question: how could a giddy press corps be so wrong? First, because they are naive. Second, because it was an irresistible storyline of a courageous mayor exchanging dangerous eyesores for bustling Edens. Third, a failure to examine the facts both on paper and on the ground due to the first two reasons.
“[T]he plan has added to the growing housing crisis for the poor in Chicago, where more than 56,000 have been on a waiting list for years to get public housing. The list has been closed to new applicants since 2001.”
This has never been about housing the poor.
“As the largest redevelopment of public housing ever undertaken in the country, Chicago’s effort mirrors the ambition of other Daley efforts to reshape the city. It also parallels major Daley endeavors in featuring a roster of high-profile allies and friends.”
“At what once was Stateway Gardens, part of the most infamous wall of public housing in the world, construction is being overseen by a team that includes Allison Davis, a powerful developer with close ties to City Hall. The new Park Boulevard on South State Street sits not far from U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox, on what has become prime real estate. It also stands as the most dramatic example of troubles with the city’s strategy.
“As of the end of March, Davis’ team had managed to complete just 53 of the 439 public housing units planned – the lowest number of any CHA development. Another member of the development team has filed for bankruptcy in the wake of the national housing slump.
“Amid all this, one aspect seems to be prospering: On the site’s northeast corner, a Starbucks, Jimmy John’s and FedEx Kinko’s have moved into one of Park Boulevard’s new storefronts.
“Those who control the commercial strip would be familiar to anyone wise to the ways of Chicago: Davis himself and Robert Vanecko, a nephew of the mayor.”
I once toured the Cabrini-Green area with Allison Davis in the early days of its transformation and I found him curiously uninterested in the philosophy behind the change. “It’s fun,” he memorably said of his work.
“Davis declined to answer specific questions from the Tribune but did defend his work at Stateway.
“‘Do you know what was there before?’ he said. ‘Did you see anyone park on the street there and walk to a Sox game?'”
1. Davis doesn’t feel like he owes the public an explanation even though he’s cashed in on taxpayer giveaways.
2. So demolishing Stateway Gardens was all about parking for White Sox games?
“But housing advocates worried about displacing large numbers of people – an estimated 7,000 families – so quickly and urged the city to move more deliberately.
“‘It cannot be sound public policy to take down high-rises willy-nilly if the displaced families must move back into segregated, impoverished neighborhoods’ in other parts of the city, concluded a group long connected with Chicago public housing, Business and Professional People for the Public Interest.
“The plan’s independent monitor predicted precisely that result early on.
“‘We have been told by representatives of several housing groups and experts that . . . current vertical ghettos will be replaced with horizontal ghettos, made up overwhelmingly of African-American families at or below the poverty level,’ former U.S. Atty. Thomas Sullivan warned in 2002.”
Nonetheless, Daley was lauded not only locally but nationally for his heroic efforts.
“The slow pace of construction, coupled with stringent rules on employment and background checks that block most residents from returning, now means there is little hope for many of them to return to their refurbished neighborhoods.”
Which was (supposedly) the central premise of the plan.
“In response to questions from the Tribune, the mayor’s office sent a prepared statement that said, in part:
“‘We are pleased with both the process and the progress of the Plan for Transformation. The communities formerly blighted by CHA high-rises are thriving with new homes, new residents, new schools, new businesses and jobs flocking to places that have become communities of choice.'”
Once again, Daley will not deign to answer reporters’ questions – unless they are desperate cries at a press conference that he can shrug off with comments like, “No hee-haw.”
“Commercial space presented another way for developers at Stateway to make money.
“The development team, including Allison Davis, leased that land from the CHA for 99 years in exchange for a one-time payment of about $200,000. It then built the storefronts that were later sold to a firm controlled by Davis and Vanecko, the mayor’s nephew, which used money from city employee pension funds to purchase the space for $4.2 million.
“The pension funds, in turn, are paying Davis and Vanecko fees to manage their investment in the property.
“Besides controlling the retail space that holds the Starbucks, Davis is also an official of the property management firm at Stateway, state records show. The firm, Urban Property Advisors, or UPA, is run by Davis’ son Cullen.”
All of that is just a coincidence, though. No hee-haw.
“Shortly after the firm was created in 2001, Allison Davis, UPA and other companies connected to Davis began donating to the Democratic organization in the 17th Ward. That is the political base of Terry Peterson, then the CHA’s chief executive.
“By the time Peterson left the CHA five years later, Davis and the companies had donated more than $22,000. Peterson told the Tribune those contributions did not influence CHA decisions.”
The question now is whether the Tribune – and others – will stay on the story, or just disappear for another couple of years.
Photo by Payton Chung.