Chicago’s Crumbling Kingdom in Federal Government’s Hands : Public housing: City is hopeful but tenants are wary. ‘They have to prove themselves first,’ one longtime resident says.

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Sue Sago’s first days in public housing began with an omen: With the elevators broken, she had a heart-thumping climb up and down 11 flights of dark, urine-soaked stairs, towing her children, groceries and laundry.

She walked those stairs for six long months before repairs were made. But new problems surfaced.

Some nights, she shivered when the heat didn’t work. Some days, she stuffed clothes under her door to prevent flooding from the spewing burst water pipes outside. Some weeks, she feared stray gunfire would hit her kids.


The Chicago Housing Authority, in Sue Sago’s eyes, has always been a slumlord. For years, she has fought the agency, pressing for change. Now, the federal government has taken charge, and it says change is coming.

Calling it the “worst public housing in America,” Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros recently announced a federal takeover of the CHA and vowed to reform a mismanaged, scandal-tainted agency that has come to epitomize government fraud and failure.

But Sago, a 12-year veteran of the Henry Horner Homes who has seen plenty of politicians and heard plenty of promises, is not celebrating yet.

“They have to prove themselves first,” said the 40-year-old mother of five. “They knew that CHA wasn’t taking care of business properly. They should have stepped in a long time ago. You don’t wait until everything is in ruins.”

“If you gave me money to clean your house every day,” she added, “and you came in and your house still was dirty, wouldn’t you stop paying me or find someone else?”

Both the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city of Chicago have much at stake with the takeover: The agency, facing the budget ax, wants to prove its worth. The city, preparing for the 1996 Democratic National Convention, which will be held in the shadow of the Horner Homes, wants to look its best.


But the impact will be greatest on CHA residents. And they’re wary.

“When you have people downtrodden so long, you have to show them something,” declared Sago, a welfare recipient. “You can’t come in and say, ‘I’ll do this, I’ll do that.’ You’ve got to do something tangible.”


As the CHA’s new landlord, the federal government holds the keys to a crumbling kingdom.

Of 40,000 apartments, 58% are considered unfit to live in, with problems including rats, roaches, broken toilets and stoves, steadily running faucets, rusty plumbing and giant holes in the walls.

“We don’t have enough janitors, engineers, plumbers or carpenters,” said Mamie Bone, a 40-year Horner resident. “Nothing ever gets repaired.”

An audit showed one CHA tenant had no hot water in the kitchen for five months, another no working toilet for 10 weeks because simple parts were not in stock. Elevators, too, break frequently.

“The most dangerous transportation in the city of Chicago is the Cabrini Green elevator,” said Ed Marciniak, a Loyola University urban affairs professor and public housing expert, referring to the notorious project.

About 90% of the CHA’s 86,000 residents are black and unemployed. The city’s public housing, according to one academic, accounts for 11 of America’s 15 poorest neighborhoods. Average annual income: $4,000.


Other cities have similar problems, but Chicago’s public housing is denser, more segregated, more isolated. In New York, for instance, most buildings are smaller, the residents more dispersed; the average income is triple that of Chicago, and only 55% of the residents are black.

“Chicago is unique,” said Joseph Shuldiner, the top HUD public housing official dispatched to take over as CHA chairman. “You have racial concentration, poverty concentration, geographic concentration, a yucky stock and a non-functioning housing authority.”

More than 16,000 people, for example, live in a 2 1/2-mile stretch of dilapidated high-rises along South State Street, a 10-minute drive but a world away from shimmering Loop skyscrapers featured in tourism brochures--a world as foreign to some CHA children as Paris or Istanbul.

Cisneros’ reform plans include better maintenance, demolition of high-rises, building smaller, less dense housing, and increased use of rent vouchers to help people move into integrated communities--an idea bound to meet resistance.

The program mirrors that proposed by Vincent Lane, the millionaire real-estate developer who recently resigned as CHA chairman. In seven years, his drug-and-gun searches of tenants’ apartments captured headlines and his housing ideas won admirers up to the White House, but his management style stirred critics to claim he had allowed widespread corruption to flourish.

Lane dismisses the attacks as shortsighted, and says Chicago’s public housing system is unmanageable and must be divided into small pieces.


“The only hope is dismantling the agency,” he said.

HUD is considering hiring a private management company to take the helm of public housing because the job may be too demanding and complex for one person.

Marciniak says HUD itself must cut its own mind-boggling red tape and, even then, public housing needs more than a new boss.

“What we have done is concentrate poverty and misery,” he said. “You can put in the [light] bulbs and bring in the people to get rid of an army of roaches, but you still have the basic problem--you have a lot of incompetent families.”

With that comes crime, sometimes shocking, such as last year’s death of a 5-year-old dropped from a 14th-floor public housing window, allegedly by two adolescents.

“I’ve seen narcotics-trafficking, murder and robbery before, but I’ve never seen it in such a quantity as I’ve seen it here,” said CHA Police Chief George Murray, a law enforcement officer for more than 20 years.

CHA security costs have exploded from $8 million in 1989 to $74 million last year, mostly due to the creation of a 455-person police force. Both private and agency security guards also work at the projects.


Although serious crimes have declined, rival gangs, armed with Uzis and assault rifles, intimidate residents and security guards and control many of the buildings, dealing drugs--mostly to outsiders.

“They sell inside the buildings, outside the buildings,” Murray said. “They sell anywhere they can make a profit and stay alive.”


Public housing once had great promise. When high-rises replaced old tenements in the 1950s and ‘60s, they were planned as way stations for people struggling to get on their feet, many of them blacks who migrated from the South.

There were tenant screening standards, cleanliness fines and many more two-parent families. Today, women head 77% of the households; some are third-generation CHA residents.

Jo Ann Longstreet remembers coming to Horner 31 years ago.

“When I moved in here, it was beau-ti-ful,” she said, stretching out the word with a sad smile, watching kids play on rusted, broken swings in a gravel-and-dirt filled lot. “The people were united. . . . We’ve got people here now that don’t want to empty their trash. We’ve got people here on drugs.”

Today, 41% of Horner is vacant; in a few buildings set to be demolished, vandals stripped out copper and aluminum and hauled away toilets. Tenants in other high-rises live with graffiti-scarred brick walls, broken windows, ripped out mailboxes and garbage-strewn stairwells.


“We just need to get rid of drugs and gangs,” said Gloria Hampton, Sue Sago’s sister and a longtime resident whose bright, immaculate apartment has a delicate china set on her dining room table. “If they kept screening people, maybe it wouldn’t look like this.”

“They make all us suffer,” said her son, Larry Sago. “Not every apartment is dirty. Everybody is not bad here.”

Horner residents--including Sue Sago--fought a four-year legal battle to improve living conditions, but HUD now wants to alter the consent decree it signed this spring.

Many tenants are suspicious of HUD, noting Horner is in a community bustling with development, including the sleek new United Center, site of the 1996 Democratic convention.

“All the government is trying to do is throw people out,” Longstreet contended. “This is prime property, close to downtown.”

Horner’s downfall typifies the decline of Chicago public housing.

Shoddy construction, poor maintenance and the collapse of the screening system for tenants became a social recipe for disaster. With no jobs and lots of young people, gangs began to flourish.


Adding to the mix were racial politics and a blatant policy during the late Mayor Richard J. Daley’s tenure of keeping poor blacks out of white neighborhoods. In 1969, a federal judge ruled that Chicago had purposely segregated public housing in minority neighborhoods.

The CHA itself was a political fiefdom, with disreputable leaders doling out millions in service contracts to business cronies. One former CHA chairman owned a string of Skid Row hotels.

“The whole system was born in corruption,” said Robert Starks, associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University. “It had the tradition of being the piggy bank for all the political and economic entities.”

Last year, word broke of a multimillion-dollar CHA pension scandal and other improprieties, including security companies overbilling the agency and CHA police falsifying time records.

Former U.S. Atty. Anton Valukas, hired in the wake of that scandal, announced in June that the CHA has lost more than $26 million in just three years, including $15.3 million in lost pension assets and $6.4 million in fraud and other wrongdoing by vendors and CHA personnel.

Recently released audits portray a system riddled with abuse: nearly $60,000 embezzled in laundry collections at a mixed-income development; 467 “missing” refrigerators that were supposed to be delivered to residents; thousands of dollars in phone calls made at CHA security guardhouses to such exotic locales as Sao Tome and Moldova.


“There’s a 30- to 40-year culture of people stealing,” Lane said. “Because 4,000 people are scattered from one end of the city to the other with all kinds of materials and vehicles, it’s very difficult to stop them.”

“We’ve gotten control of the things we could control,” he said. “We upgraded the buildings. . . . There are no major outages in heat. . . . Given the resources we had, we did a miraculous job. CHA is far better today than it was seven years ago.”


Shuldiner calls the takeover public housing’s last best hope.

“Everybody gets to put aside parochial interests and belly up to the table,” he said. “Everybody says they want something better for these people. . . . This is, in effect, put up or shut up time.”

But will HUD succeed? Even that its own internal auditor said a court-appointed receivership might work better.

“You’ve got one bureaucracy, instead of two. That’s a step in the right direction,” said Alexander Polikoff, the lead attorney on the case that found public housing was intentionally segregated.

HUD officials, facing budget cutters and proposals to eliminate the agency, say the nation’s public housing system is on trial. But they caution against quick turnarounds in a system that decayed over decades.


“We ought to give them a chance,” said Marciniak, the housing expert. “I don’t think it could get worse, and maybe it might get better.”

Florence Wright, a 20-year Horner resident, is skeptical.

“You get tired of them promising and not delivering,” she said. “We’re hoping this time they’ll deliver. But it’s a gamble.”


CHA by the Numbers

Some statistics about the Chicago Housing Authority, provided by the agency and CHA police:

Buildings: More than 1,400.

Population: 86,000 officially; 100,000 unofficially. CHA estimates thousands of people live in developments illegally.

Racial breakdown: 92% black, 2% white, 2% Hispanic, remainder other.

Annual average household income: $4,000.

Average monthly rent: $100.

Vacancy rate: 16% systemwide, though much higher in some developments.

Employed: 11%.

Households: 77% headed by women.

Age: More than half the residents are 18 years old or younger.

Crime: Homicides fell from 90 in 1991 to 44 last year. Serious crimes, which include murder, sexual assault, robbery, burglary and theft, fell from 7,654 in 1991 to 6,485 last year. Crimes in senior housing, however, have increased.

Security force: More than 1,700 working in CHA police, CHA security and contract security.

Arrests: About 1,300 a month.

Gangs: About 8% of CHA population.

Drugs: Police estimate 75% of drug customers are outsiders.

Source: Associated Press