A joint investigation complicates old narratives about public housing in Chicago

Rockwell Gardens

In the years since officials in Chicago began to demolish the city’s troubled public housing projects, people in the region have become accustomed to hearing stories about where the former residents of Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes, and other developments ended up. They all moved to the suburbs south of the city, the stories went, or even relocated to places as seemingly random as West Lafayette, Indiana. Often, the word-of-mouth tales blamed crime or other problems on an influx of public housing residents.

But those narratives were never grounded in clear data or backed by rigorous accounting. A recent investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association investigation published on June 25 attempts to provide a clearer picture.

After acquiring extensive records from the Chicago Housing Authority and analyzing them along with data from the US Housing and Urban Development Authority and the US Census Bureau, the outlets set out to map where the former residents of the projects are living today and how the footprint of public and subsidized housing has changed. 

“For the last 16 years, as I’ve been reporting around Chicago, you’ve heard people talk about what happened when the projects came down,” said Mick Dumke, the lead Sun-Times reporter on the investigation. “Most of it is speculation and some mythology. I wanted to take a closer look at the actual data and track this beyond the speculation.”

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It’s not the first time journalists have done something like this. Perceptions about where Chicago’s public-housing residents ended up were so pervasive that in 2014, the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, Indiana—124 miles to the south—published a multi-part investigation debunking what it called “the great Chicago migration myth.”

The Sun-Times/BGA project, while similar in spirit, was both broader in scope and focused more directly on Chicago itself. The reporters accounted for the whereabouts of thousands of families who were living in Chicago public housing when the changes began. (Many others have died, violated lease terms, or could not be traced.) They also examined the change over time in subsidized households in census tracts in and around the city. 

What they found: The “Plan for Transformation,” begun in 2000, has had effects across the region, and the number of subsidized households in suburbs around Chicago—to the south, and also to the north—has in fact grown. That’s consistent with policies designed to open up opportunities in places that traditionally had little subsidized housing. It’s also part of a big increase in the total number of families in the region receiving some kind of housing assistance.

But thousands of families who were living in public housing when the changes began remain in mixed-income or traditional public housing within the city. And among thousand of others who took vouchers to pay for new apartments in private buildings, “few moved far.” Most stayed in the city, ending up in South Shore—“the new subsidized-housing capital of Chicago,” the reporters call it—and a handful of other neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides. All 13 neighborhoods that saw the largest growth in use of housing vouchers are predominantly African-American

Meanwhile, neighborhoods near the Loop, the city’s center, that were home to former public housing projects have seen rapid gentrification. Despite the construction of some new mixed-income developments, those areas have seen the greatest reduction in subsidized households.

“There’s a very public narrative about a cause and effect as the public housing units have gone down,” said Andrew J. Greenlee, an assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is quoted in the Sun-Times/BGA investigation. The new reporting, he said, “helps us take a more concrete look at where people actually are. It helps us to understand that many people are remaining closer to their initial homes. It also helps to underscore the struggle people face in trying to live in communities of their choice.”

The recent package, the latest installment in the Sun-Times/BGA “Beyond the Rubble” series, is understated in its language and presentation. But it offers a valuable look at how the city has and hasn’t changed, along with insights into the choices public-housing residents made and how they feel about them today. It also points the way to future reporting opportunities, for example, into the persistence of housing segregation, how neighborhoods respond to change, or where resources are needed.

“Understanding the community and the resources available is important,” said Samantha Tuttle, director of policy and advocacy for the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights. “It really does help us paint a picture and make positive change.”

The BGA is a watchdog and advocacy group that also produces investigative journalism. Brett Chase, the group’s director of investigations, said that to report on the migration patterns, the journalists first filed a Freedom of Information request with the Chicago Housing Authority, which provided an extensive amount of information, including the address of every resident living in public housing or using a voucher for private housing. Because private landlords often enter into long-term contracts with the federal government, the reporters had to look at federal housing data as well. “This became so complex,” Chase said.

Although the Sun-Times and the BGA have often worked together in the past, as CJR noted in a 2014 story, this is the first project of its type that the two have collaborated on.

Jim Kirk, editor and publisher of the Sun-Times, said the partnership was born out of discussions last year. “The BGA over the past couple of years has beefed up its investigative reporting… and we have this great staff, too, so the question I posed to the BGA and our guys is can we do something major that is significant to the community at large, extending our reach,” he said. 

The first story in the collaboration, a March look at people using vouchers to live in pricey areas, didn’t land especially well, prompting criticism from housing writers and researchers.

But one of those critics, Daniel Kay Hertz of City Observatory, praised what he’s seen of the series since then, including stories about former public housing tenants living in private buildings with a history of code violations and the wait list for vouchers.

The latest story was particularly informative, he said. “There have been people in places like South Shore and Chatham and Grand Crossing who have been saying for a long time that there are all these CHA people moving into our neighborhood and they were not happy about it,” Hertz said. “That part was confirmed in some way. But certainly it also debunked some of the public narrative.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.