On a freezing morning in February four years ago, Verna Berryman, 46, packed up her things, bade goodbye to the Cabrini-Green housing project and embarked on a journey that she would probably rather forget. Forced out of the 16th-floor apartment that had been her home for six years, Berryman and her youngest child, Vernon, 17, joined a small group of other Cabrini families in what were the first steps of a massive plan to empty and demolish Chicago's decaying high-rise projects.
The program is ambitious, envisioning no less than a revolution in housing the poor. Other cities--Atlanta, Boston, Miami and Oakland--are also in the midst of knocking down public housing and relocating tenants, but no city plan matches the scale of Chicago's. The Windy City intends to move some 60,000 people out of crowded, bullet-scarred projects like Cabrini and into private apartments or new low-rise public housing in mixed-income neighborhoods scattered around the city.
Razing the projects and dispersing the poor is better for everybody, claim Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) officials, who have grandly named their program the Plan for Transformation. Even as the 40-year-old towers fall and the wrecking ball does its work, private developers are moving in and have started to revitalize the site with supermarkets, coffee shops, video stores and town houses. And who could argue with the proposition that children lifted out of dangerous projects and placed in racially and economically diverse neighborhoods are better off when the people they pass on their block are M.B.A.s and Ph.D.s instead of DOAs? With $1.6 billion in federal financing and the political juice of Mayor Richard Daley propelling it, Chicago's plan guaranteed that no one would be left out in the cold. "It was wrong to isolate the poor from the rest of the city," says CHA chief Terry Peterson of the sociological sea change behind the plan. "This is a new day."
Yet while the CHA can point to some success stories, the Cabrini-Green exodus has not played out as smoothly as many of the former tenants had hoped, leaving them in conditions hardly better than those they left. For the relocations have come amid the worst affordable-housing crunch in recent memory. During the economic boom of the 1990s, as middle-class buyers purchased condominiums at a record pace, Chicago lost about 52,000 rental units. As more properties were converted to private ownership, the rates for remaining rentals climbed, pricing out people at the lower end of the market and pushing them into marginal neighborhoods. Last year the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment reached $776 a month, beyond the budget of any family earning less than $28,000 annually. For Cabrini tenants, whose average income is about $8,600 a year, the chances of finding an apartment narrowed sharply.