Last night, public housing residents and leaders from across the city gathered to hear Chicago's mayoral hopefuls answer one important question: What are you going to do with our homes?
The answer? Well, it was a bit fuzzy. To start with, only three of the six candidates running for mayor even bothered to show up, and they weren't the three you're used to seeing on your TV screen. Rahm Emanuel and Gery Chico didn't come, and although Carol Moseley Braun said she would, she didn't actually make it.
The auditorium was often tense as panelists and community members brought together by the National Museum for Public Housing asked tough questions: What are you going to do now that the city's Plan for Transformation has stalled? Do you think only mixed-income communities can work, or could traditional public housing work too? Do you support laws that kick residents out for any arrest, even if they're not convicted of a crime?
Like most politicians, the candidates were hesitant to give too many specifics. Sure, they all loved "mixed-income," but what exactly goes into the mix? We must be tough on people who don't want to be good neighbors, but kind and understanding to those who just need help. We have to spend lots of money to build affordable housing, but ... uh ... well, we don't have any money.
Here's a good sketch of what each candidate has said about public housing. For those candidates who didn't show up, I've taken information from the Chicago Tribune's editorial board questionnaire, which includes a question on the city's public housing.
Miguel del Valle
Del Valle stressed that he believes in mixed-income communities and wants to avoid concentrating poor families. However, he took a strong stand against building any market-rate homes on the site of Lathrop Homes, a current housing project in Lakeview. When William Walls said he wanted to build a city that didn't need public housing because residents were so prosperous, del Valle countered it by saying, "there will always be a need for public housing."
He also stressed that it was important to change city residents' minds about having low-income families living in their neighborhood--be it those in public housing units or voucher holders.
"They're all painted with the same brush, and landlords are reluctant
to rent because they think that they're going to bring problems," he said.
Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins
Watkins talked a lot about her own upbringing in Cabrini-Green. "My mother was able to raise us there, get her degree and get us a good job so we could move up and out," she said. Public housing needs a champion, she said, and identified herself as that champion. Watkins told the Tribune that she wants to go back to an old U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development policy for public housing--building one unit for every one that's torn down.
"I believe it is important that any future projects provide one-for-one
housing replacement with housing assistance programs that provide
transitional housing and prioritize those displaced for new residences," she wrote.
William "Dock" Walls
Walls talked about his dislike of the Plan for Transformation, which displaced too many residents, he said. He drew lots of applause from the audience by proclaiming that Chicago's public housing residents needed to be helped through their struggles, not tossed out on the streets.
"We have to meet them at their point of need," said Walls. "We can't just put them out in the streets."
The name "Rahm Emanuel" with the words "public housing" brings to mind dozens of stories I've been told by residents about his time on the Chicago Housing Authority board. Rahmbo, as we've heard, has a bit of a nasty mouth, and many residents have told me just how angry he got at residents who opposed the Plan for Transformation.
But in his Tribune questionnaire, Emanuel seemed to take a step back from Mayor Richard M. Daley's housing policies.
"There are plenty of things that need to be improved as we continue to
learn from the experience, listen to the residents impacted and adjust
to the market realities of the current housing crisis," he wrote.
On Lathrop Homes, he wrote, "we have only one chance to get this right." What does "right" mean? Emanuel didn't say. Is it a mix of market-rate homes with public housing units, or an all affordable and public housing like many residents want? I guess we'll wait and see.
Carol Moseley Braun
Moseley Braun, who's name tag sat in front of an empty seat at last night's forum, was the candidate I was most looking forward to hearing talk about public housing. Although Moseley Braun is now the official "black consensus candidate," she's been trying to broaden her appeal beyond just the black community. So, what would she have to say to an audience of primarily African-American women on what is often a racially charged topic?
Unfortunately, she didn't come, but her answer in the Tribune supports the Plan for Transformation, calling the former high-rises "traps which gangs controlled."
And the future of public housing in Chicago? "But the real question is," she wrote, "what do we do now to meet the needs of the poor?"
She said mixed-income developments are better than Section 8 vouchers, and that current public housing should be retrofitted with green technology, rather than demolished.
Chico provides an extremely long answer to the Tribune's question on the Plan for Transformation. To sum it up, he said it did a lot to get poor families in safer conditions, but many still struggle with unemployment and self-sufficiency.
"I will ensure we have adequate safeguards in place to prevent people from falling through the cracks of our system," Chico wrote.
He added that he wants to increase educational and job training opportunities for residents.
Overall, to be perfectly honest, I haven't seen too many good, concrete answers from any candidate on the big struggles that are ahead in public housing--mainly, how the heck are we going to pay for the rest of the Plan for Transformation, now that the housing market has gone down the toilet? And for developments in communities that aren't getting a mixed-income makeover, like Dearborn Homes and Altgeld Gardens, what are they going to do to make sure the same problems don't happen again in the new rehabbed units?
Of course, politicians aren't into talking specifics. At least, not until after they've won. But for Chicago's public housing residents, specifics mean the difference between being able to move back home or not, living in a place where your children can't go outside or in a safe neighborhood, and whether their new communities will have anything more to offer than the old ones did. They're not just political questions. They're personal.