When Public Housing Is Bulldozed, Families Are Supposed to Eventually Come Back. Why Don’t They?

A fence around 1230 N. Burling St., which was the last occupied high-rise in the Cabrini-Green public housing complex in Chicago.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Since the mid-1990s, the United States government has spent billions of dollars tearing down public housing projects—replacing many of these communities with mixed-income housing on the premise that when the poor and the middle class live together, it’s better forever.

Dissipating the concentrated poverty of aging housing projects may sound like a fine idea, but the new developments—often built on prime urban real estate—rarely end up housing significant numbers of the original residents who must be displaced to make way for new construction. Communities are broken up and never again reassembled.

If there is a slight exception to that rule, it’s in Atlanta. There, on the site of the East Lake Meadows housing project, officials were able to bring back 25 percent of former residents to live in the new development, as my colleagues and I recount in this week’s episode of Slate’s Placemakers podcast. That percentage sounds low—except that the nationwide average hovers below 19 percent.

In cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, Tampa, and elsewhere, housing authorities have told residents of public housing complexes that their ugly, sometimes barely habitable homes would be rebuilt as part of newly beautiful communities. The neighborhoods would be safe, with better schools, jobs, and nice, middle-class neighbors. In the interim, cities started handing out Section 8 vouchers and relocating residents. The tenants sometimes sued to stop demolition, but the bulldozers always won. And while some of those residents do return to those newly polished communities, most stay away for good.

So why don’t most people come back to the neighborhoods they’ve lived in, sometimes their entire lives?

In the new documentary 70 Acres in Chicago, the whole process looks like a targeted hit.

When the city of Chicago decided to tear down and replace the Cabrini-Green housing project beginning in the 1990s, residents heard one promise after another from the city as the demolition began. The biggest promise of all: “Every family that wants to stay in this community will stay in this community,” said Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1997. Today, almost none of the tens of thousands of people who lived in Cabrini-Green now occupy the new townhomes and apartments that sit on the land.

Chicago filmmaker Ronit Bezalel spent 20 years filming the demolition for her documentary. The last of the high rises came down in 2011. And Chicagoans are still uneasy about what happened there. “People are crying at the screenings,” Bezalel told me. Former residents of Cabrini-Green are especially moved to see their old neighborhood return to life on screen. Bezalel’s film is now making the rounds in the film festival circuit, on public television, and at smaller screenings in Chicago.

Among the people she follows in the film is Mark Pratt. He grew up in Cabrini, but he and his wife couldn’t come back to the new mixed-income community, because there weren’t enough apartments for large families. Pratt and his wife took a Section 8 voucher and moved down to another neighborhood, in Chicago’s South Side. “We were all under the impression that we were moving to better neighborhoods,” Pratt said.

But his new neighborhood is just as poor and violent as the one he left. “Even though there was a lot of violence in Cabrini, I did feel a lot safer there,” he said. Networks of friends and relatives in Cabrini kept many of the poor residents afloat. These networks were a casualty of Cabrini’s destruction, when people were dispersed across the city. This disruption of the support networks for poor families is still haunting Chicago today.

Despite the promises that everyone could come back, the numbers don’t add up. The decrepit, infamous Cabrini-Green had 3,600 public housing units. When the rebuilding is complete in 2019, there will be around 2,830 units. Only 30 percent are for families in public housing. Got that? Fewer than 900 units.

The screening process is the next barrier. People are kept out of the new neighborhood if a family member has a single arrest record—even if no charges were pressed. Public housing residents have to submit to mandatory drug testing every year. They can have no record of rent and utility delinquency. They cannot take in friends and relatives. New rules in the neighborhood include no smoking, no barbecuing, no loud music, no washing cars on the street

“You actually have to be a nun,” said Deidre Brewster, one of the few original residents of Cabrini-Green who passed all the requirements and got an apartment in her old neighborhood.

In the film, she sits in a modern kitchen with large windows and beige walls, a stark difference from the old Cabrini apartments.

But coming back to Cabrini was a huge disruption to her family. Her 17-year-old daughter had a misdemeanor for fighting at school. Brewster had to send her daughter to live with relatives in order to keep her lease.

Another reason most people from Cabrini haven’t come back: finances. Moving is expensive and disruptive, and poor families can’t easily absorb these hits twice when they move away from bulldozers.

More cities are in the process of tearing down the projects. Los Angeles will redevelop Jordan Downs in the next decade, the setting of Menace II Society and the Watts race riots. The federal government will foot some of the bill, and every resident is guaranteed a spot in the new community.

This was the case in Atlanta, too, and still only 1 in 4 original residents came back. The rebuilding was quick, the housing project was relatively small, and the tenants were organized and active.

So if that’s the high water mark, the folks in Jordan Downs might want to start calling landlords now. It can take a while to find someone to accept a Section 8 voucher.