Chicago: Dislocation and Resistance

Or...How Public Housing is Disappearing for the Poor

Revolutionary Worker #1041, February 6, 2000

We don't have enough low income housing."

A 7-year-old boy at
Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago

The problem is as plain as day. There are 30,000 families, homeless, doubled up with relatives, who are waiting for apartments in Chicago public housing. Yet there are buildings in public housing standing half full. This last fall, instead of fixing up empty apartments for homeless people, the City of Chicago emptied and closed down nine highrise public housing buildings. And they did this in the face of determined and growing opposition. While they claim there is not enough money to house poor people, plans are on the drawing board to build, in Chicago, another "tallest building in the world"--and there is plenty of money for that!

This past summer and fall witnessed an intense round of confrontation over the future of public housing in Chicago. This included a hard fought 33-day occupation to save the 5266 building in Robert Taylor Homes (see RW 1037).

The people learned much in this whole round of struggle, and they are strategizing over how to continue the fight. Yet, in the end, from November 15 to December 20, 1,350 apartments were closed down in Robert Taylor Homes, Rockwell Gardens and Washington Park. More than 450 poor families were displaced, and more than 200 families were moved from November 6 to November 15 alone--to other CHA highrises or dispersed to Section 8 housing around the city.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Housing Authority sent a "Five-Year Plan for Transformation" to Washington, DC for approval--a five-year, $1.5 billion plan which would result in thousands of poor families being driven out of public housing. The plan calls for the demolition of 18,532 units of family public housing. City publicity about the new plan says that the city will build 24,000 units of new or rehabbed housing. But the great majority of poor families now living in CHA apartments will not qualify for the new housing.

There are now 29,296 units of family public housing. In the city plan, 40% of the new housing will be for senior citizens--no children allowed. The city claims that there will be 14,864 units of family housing. But the plan mandates that all the new housing will be for mixed income families. And this means that, in reality, only 2,294 homes would be priced for the 16,446 low income families who now have leases in CHA housing.

The Conflict Over Public Housing

In the early days of December last year, defenders of public housing sat in the Social Room in 5266 in Robert Taylor Homes watching the rebels in Seattle on TV and cheering them on. In Seattle people were taking on many brutal aspects of imperialist globalization at the conference of the World Trade Organization. The sense of common cause in 5266 was deep. The leaner, meaner capitalism of today's "Global Environment" has hard consequences for the proletarian people.

In Chicago one of the drumbeats of the boom economy has been the relentless push of the developers. One new development near Cabrini Green housing project sold out before the developers even got clearance to build--250 condos, going for $300 thousand or more each, were snapped up in one day of bidding.

For three years in the mid and late '90s, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) ran the Chicago Housing Authority. They oversaw "revitalization" efforts that drove thousands of families out of public housing, emptied and demolished hundreds of homes, and laid plans for the transfer of acres of land to private developers.

By June of 1999 17,000 families remained in CHA's family developments. To the power structure of Chicago, this meant 17,000 families lowering the property values of nearby creeping redevelopment; 17,000 families on land that developers wanted; 17,000 poor, Black families with no reason to love this system--living close to the downtown center of power.

On June 1, 1999 the Chicago Housing Authority returned to local control. Chicago's Mayor Daley chose a man with no experience in housing matters to head the agency. The new CHA head, Phil Jackson, had been in charge of "Community Affairs" for Chicago's well publicized and brutal school reform. This was not a good sign.

Emboldened by "a federal policy environment that includes mandatory building closure rules [and] affirmative efforts to deconcentrate poverty," CHA moved to "end public housing as we know it."

One of Jackson's first acts was to close down the small Lawndale Gardens housing complex. CHA said that all the tenants wanted to move. The tenants said, "We're one big family that CHA has broken up....We were told when we would move, where we would move, how we would move. We were not given any choice in the matter."

The closing of Lawndale set off alarms within Chicago's Coalition to Protect Public Housing (CPPH). Resistance had to increase--and fast. Across Chicago, CHA was starting to move people out of buildings as part of an undisclosed plan they inherited from HUD. Social service workers on Chicago's Black southside were dealing with more and more homeless people displaced from public housing, and they began strategizing with CPPH. New church groups and religious associations became involved in the struggle. In two separate Catholic parishes--one on the northside and one on the southside--groups were set up to support public housing residents.

"I would ask Phil Jackson: `How would you feel having a saboteur in your house busting windows and pipes just to get you out of your home? Are you satisfied you have succeeded in making families on top of families homeless?"

A 19-year-old man at
Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago

Residents of 5266 S. State in the Robert Taylor Homes projects had started resistance in March of 1999. Led by Barbara Moore, the president of the building, 5266 had joined with the CPPH in a campaign to save that building from demolition slated by the (then) HUD-run CHA administration. They wrote letters to the mayor and to Congress. They marched on City Hall and on the CHA Headquarters. They held prayer vigils and strategy sessions.

In September "Fix 'Em Ups" (FEUs)--began to take place every weekend in 5266--where residents and young revolutionaries took matters into their own hands to fix up the buildings that were deteriorating from CHA's program of conscious neglect. New friends and allies came forward through the fight. Middle class people, mostly organized through the CPPH, came right into the "notorious Chicago highrises" to put their backs into the FEUs. They joined hearts and hands with some of the poorest--and most lied about--people of Chicago. Prejudices were broken down and broken lights and plumbing were fixed up.

On September 30, CHA announced its "Five-Year Plan for Transformation." 51 highrise apartment buildings and hundreds of other structures in public housing would be demolished within a five-year period. At the same time the hidden plan which had CHA moving people out of buildings all summer was revealed.

Winterization 2000

In January of 1999 sabotage and poor maintenance left hundreds of public housing tenants literally freezing and resulted in the death of a baby. CPPH had called for CHA to see to it that the heating systems were fixed before winter this year forced the closure of more buildings. Instead, in the name of "getting ready for winter," CHA was emptying buildings it wanted to get rid of. Nine buildings in the Robert Taylor Homes were to be permanently closed in this cold plan CHA called "Winterization."

As CHA officials traveled from development to development to sell their five-year plan and talk about winterization, residents of public housing denounced them in every housing project in Chicago. Resistance was boiling up from the bottom. Yet CHA described the process as "resident input" and claimed that these meetings somehow made the plan legitimate because residents "had input."

All through the battle this pattern of CHA distortion was to continue. CHA played to racism and social prejudice at every turn. In one interview, talking about people who would be forced out of public housing by CHA plans, Jackson said, "Some of them are not lease compliant because their sons are drug dealers." Jackson added insult to injury at Lawndale, saying "We are going to ask them to change the way they live and live up to standards they are not used to....We are going to ask them to keep the insides of their apartments clean." and "We, the CHA, brought the neighborhood down."

The CHA and the Chicago power structure told lie after lie to create public opinion for the demolitions. In a call-in poll by the Chicago Sun-Times 80% said the public housing highrises should be torn down. Given the history of press coverage on public housing it was more surprising that 20% said they shouldn't be. Public housing was called "a dismal social and housing experiment" and "a blunder of historic importance." It was called just about everything except what it is: One of the main places poor people can afford to live.

Fall Offensive

"They are destroying not only a building but a lifetime of memories."

A 19-year-old man at
Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago

"I've lived here 16 years. I don't want to move. I plan to write a book about the projects and what we did as kids: running up and down the stairs, having water fights, playing basketball."

A 16-year-old youth at
Robert Taylor Homes

In mid-October 1999, CPPH organized an ad to 1) change the terms around public housing, 2) unite diverse groups and people in defense of public housing, and 3) send a message to the other side. The ad was signed by numerous groups and individuals including a number of college professors, the African American Contractors Association, the Latino Taskforce on Homelessness, the National Center for Poverty Law, the Statewide Housing Action Coalition, a number of ministers, and the presidents of several public housing developments among many others.

The ad demanded a moratorium, an immediate halt to further displacement of CHA residents and demolition of public housing. Describing the results of CHA's actions, the ad read, in part:

"Communities are being disrupted and families broken up. Networks of neighbors who have depended on and watched out for each other for decades are being dispersed. Church congregations are being devastated. Children are being forced to bus for hours across town to continue to go to school, People are unable to get to jobs and doctors. And many people--far too many--are falling through the cracks into Chicago's already burgeoning homeless population."

This exposure of what the destruction of public housing actually meant for the masses--along with the signatory list showing broad support for the Moratorium--appeared in the Chicago Defender, a daily newspaper serving the Black community; Streetwise, a paper sold all over the city by homeless people; and the South Street Journal, a community newspaper for Chicago's southside. The ad got an immediate response. On the first day the ad was published, the Chicago Sun-Times carried an editorial from Chicago's Mayor Daley himself, defending the CHA Plan.

On October 28 the call for a moratorium was taken to the streets. Over 1,000 people surrounded City Hall in a march to defend public housing. The majority of the marchers were residents of public housing. Young men dissed by society as "gangbangers" marched with their girlfriends and babies. Older women who had raised generations of kids in public housing marched. Alongside the residents of public housing were ministers, rabbis and priests, labor unions, college students, and professors. And people came out from many groups organized to defend low income communities under attack across Chicago.

That weekend, top HUD officials came to Chicago to hold special hearings on CHA's plan. At the hearing, Harold Lucas, the Undersecretary for Public and Indian Housing, commented, "Tempers are rising [on this issue] people are in the streets. We don't want the temperature to get to the point that it burns the house down." More than 300 people attended this special hearing. HUD memos faxed to CHA later expressed "essential agreement with most aspects" of the plan.

October saw a broadening of the movement to defend public housing. But the struggle shifted, in early November, into the projects.

"Kosovo" on State Street

"Really, all the abandoned buildings should be fixed up, and the homeless can come in. Close the shelters and bring the homeless in."

A resident of Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago

Just days after CHA announced its transformation plan, the Central Area Council (CAC)--a group made up of presidents of all the public housing developments in Chicago--held a press conference to denounce the plan. Bertha Gilke, a nationally known public housing activist, laid it out this way: "I don't want to say it's a racial thing, but it is. It's called ethnic cleansing, just like in Kosovo."

Seven of the nine buildings in CHA's "Winterization plan" are in Robert Taylor Homes. And Robert Taylor is scheduled for total demolition in CHA's "Transformation Plan." This housing development was once the largest in the nation. It is located at the far south end of the State Street Corridor--four miles of almost continuous public housing developments. In heavily segregated Chicago, Robert Taylor is deep in the southside Black ghetto.

With 5266 as an example, tenants in many other buildings in Robert Taylor wanted to start Fix 'Em Ups (FEUs). And FEUs did get started in 5100 S. State, the threatened highrise closest to 5266 and a building with a history of resistance to police raids. Still, to organize the FEUs successfully in all the buildings where they were desired required that many people reach out to each other across a social distance greater than the four miles of the State Street corridor.

When evacuation day, November 15, came, families dug in and refused to move in five of the seven buildings slated for closure in Robert Taylor Homes. However, because of a concerted CHA push to get people out, the conditions caused by scavengers, saboteurs and CHA neglect and the impact of the first cold days, the only buildings with a large number of tenants were 5100 and 5266. On November 15, as night fell across the courtyard on 5266 S. State and 5100 S. State, there were more than 50 families in each building. Then, the Friday of Thanksgiving week sabotage flooded 5100 and the remaining resisters moved out as streams of water poured down the stairs.

Something new that developed in 5266 was the "Fill 'Em Ups"--where homeless people, "House Sitters," moved into empty apartments to protect them from damage. These (formerly) homeless "Sitters" played a vital role in the struggle at 5266.

The social room at 5266 became the headquarters of the struggle and a place where people gathered to strategize and organize. A Sitter who moved into the building with her nine grandkids commented, "What's happening here is fascinating. I felt like coming down here [to the social room] and joining in. I've spread out for the first time in my life. I ain't been in a bed by myself in I don't know how long. And by me having my grandkids, it's nice having adults to talk to now. This fight, it makes sense to me. People think that if you're poor, you're shit, but there are some very intelligent poor. The initiative to fight comes from looking down the tunnel and seeing a little bit of light."

On December 11 a car caravan for Mumia used the social room--the headquarters of the struggle in 5266--as a jumping off point. Ms. Moore spoke to the 100 or so gathered for the caravan about the importance of people like Mumia and the importance of the struggle for justice for both Mumia and for public housing residents. Many of those in the caravan were of the new generation becoming active today.

Ms. Moore grew up in the Jim Crow South. She remembers drinking out of the segregated water fountain marked "White." When shocked white folks asked her why she was doing it she would say "I want to see how `white' water tastes. I already know what `colored' water tastes like."

The coming together in Robert Taylor of the different generations and different sections of society was one of the strengths of this struggle. Many people crossed a deep social divide to do it. And it pointed the way toward what needs to be done on a much bigger scale in the next round of battle.

The Resisters of 5266 and the Lowdown Ways of the CHA

"Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution."

Mao Tsetung

In 5266 S. State people organized a whistle patrol to warn of the arrival of the authorities on evacuation day. That night it was decided that no differentiation could be made between police coming to harass the young men of the street organization and police coming to harass anyone else. For 33 days no one called the police to solve any problems. Problems among the people were solved by the residents themselves, who discussed everything from the World Trade Organization to how to deal with alcoholism to the best thing to use to get rid of roaches. All this increased the unity of the tenants and the organization of the building.

Off of the October 28 demonstration the mayor's chief of staff offered to meet with the CPPH. She offered a different, friendlier face than the attack dog, Phil Jackson. When these talks started, there were still dozens of families in 5100 and 5266--and a handful of families occupying other "closed" buildings. At the first meeting this official seemed sympathetic and offered the possibility of keeping some buildings open. She promised to help get an independent engineer in to assess the buildings' ability to make it through the winter.

Yet the pressure on residents to move out continued, even as further meetings were scheduled. Days, and then weeks dragged out and the independent engineer was not given access. In the end this turned out to be just a high-stakes game of Good Cop/Bad Cop. People learned that they have to rely on themselves and their struggle. They learned that, in the end, everyone who works for the powers-that-be... works for the powers-that-be.

Throughout the battle the authorities avoided taking on the defenders of public housing in a face-to-face showdown. For a month and half--starting on September 30--CHA talked about the November 15 deadline. Some in the housing movement were discussing November 15 as a day for civil disobedience to protect 5266. Yet on November 15 CHA officials stayed far away from 5266.

The cover for CHA's actions was that "everything is being done in the best interest of the residents of public housing." When tenants refused to just move out and let public housing buildings be closed many across Chicago began to ask, "What is really going on in public housing?" One TV news station even had a shot of Phil Jackson saying, "We are not moving people around like cattle," followed by an interview with Ms. Moore saying, "They are trying to move us around like cattle." The vision of poor people dragged from their homes during the Thanksgiving and Christmas season was not a scene CHA wanted on the 6 o'clock news.

While the residents and their allies were prepared for a frontal attack, the constant sideways pressure wore on people. Attacks came from every angle. Workers for the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) told one family that their kids would be taken away if they didn't move out of the building. "CHA says the building is unsafe so you will be guilty of child endangerment unless you move," DCFS workers said. And threats against children were made by the police as well, who told another tenant, "We will bust through the wall and take you to jail and give your children to DCFS."

CHA even paid some local church preachers $50/hour to try to convince people to leave their homes. In the end Phil Jackson went on the radio day after day, spreading the most outrageous lies and slanders about Ms. Moore, hoping to break her and crush the struggle at 5266. In the face of this, one tenant commented, "I want to show my daughters that it is important to stand up for your rights, even when it seems everyone is against you."

There is a legal process for "relocating" CHA residents. That process includes grievance procedures, the filing of papers, court hearings, etc. Tenants who refused to move in 5266, 5100 and elsewhere had every legal right to stay. CHA never began a single valid legal step. In a process where they wrote all the rules, they feared opening up another platform where families living in public housing could raise the issue of the need for housing for the poor. Everyone had to move "voluntarily" to keep CHA's cover.

A back-and-forth went on daily to hold tenants in the face of threats and harassment. One 7-year-old explained, "We don't have enough low-income housing. People are talking about this fight. We need more people. We could win. Winning means staying. People need to know to come and battle with us."

The number of House Sitters increased as word got out. All this resulted in stabilizing the building in early December. No more people were moving out--and Sitters were still moving in.

As the defenders were catching their breath and preparing for an offensive of their own, CHA launched another sideways attack. Linked with an assault in the press, charging that the defenders of 5266 were costing the taxpayers too much money, Phil Jackson threatened to just evict people. CHA claimed that the now low number of tenants--28 families--eliminated the need for the relocation process. CHA was "changing the rules."

On December 18 the fighters of 5266 marched out of the building they had held for 33 days and into the Robert Taylor building at 5247 South State where many would take up residence and continue the struggle.

In the October special HUD hearing the Undersecretary for Public and Indian Housing commented, "Chicago sets the standard for how public housing is done." The stakes are very high. The developers stand to make millions, and the urban planners intend to break up dangerous concentrations of oppressed people. The people stand to lose the very roofs over the heads of tens of thousands of proletarian people. Neither side can afford to stop fighting.

"What's the point of tearing down low income housing to build something else?" a 19-year-old man told the RW. "How long is it going to be that Phil Jackson and Mayor Daley get to do their dirty deeds to the people--'til it is our turn to give it back to them with no remorse?"

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)