Academic journal article Policy Review

Public Housing Sweep Stakes: My Battle with the ACLU

Academic journal article Policy Review

Public Housing Sweep Stakes: My Battle with the ACLU

Article excerpt

In the late 1980s, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) was the worst public housing authority in the country. Its crime rate was three times that of the city as a whole. It seemed as if public housing had a monopoly on nearly every example of inner-city rot: shootings, open-air drug deals, assault, poverty and fear. The first thing I did when I took over CHA was to hold town meetings with the residents, and define what the problems were. The major problem that I heard then - and still hear - was safety.

In the five-and-a-half years since I became CHA chairman, we have made real headway in a number of areas. Since 1991 serious crime of nearly all types has declined between 30 and 60 percent. Sexual assaults, homicides, and battery are all down by 44 percent. At our notoriously violent Cabrini-Green development, for example, there have been only two murders - over a love triangle - and no gang-related killings in the last 18 months. No longer do criminals set curfews; they don't control and keep people from coming and going; they don't sell drugs in the open, or shoot craps in the lobby.

Have we solved all the problems? No. Random shootings, assaults and thefts continue. Have we eliminated gangs? No, because many of the gang members are the children of our residents, and they live in the buildings. We've lowered the CHA's crime rate to only twice that of the city, but it costs $70 million a year. Not exactly a resounding success.

The most important thing we've accomplished, however, is to bring a sense to the residents that it doesn't have to be this way. We've brought a sense of possibility, of innovation to public housing - by not just reacting to problems, but finding long-term strategies that get at their root causes. That's something I've been trying to convey to Congress and to legislative groups, public housing residents, foundations, and the business community.

Capping Crime

Reforming public housing requires simultaneous attacks on several fronts - on welfare, job training, and education. But all these efforts are doomed to failure unless you tackle head-on the crime issue.

When I joined the CHA, the gangs were in control. It was not just a management problem, it was a sociological problem. Gang members were firebombing apartments, setting curfews for the tenants, and refusing to allow janitors to clean buildings. If you're not in control of property, it's impossible to institute management improvements. I went to the police and told them, We've got to take these buildings back. We've got to control the access; we've got to issue photo ID cards; and we've have to inspect the units and try to clean them up." We've now accomplished these tasks in over 200 buildings.

In 1991 there were 90 homicides throughout the CHA. In 1992, there were 66. In 1993, the number fell to 50. So we're making progress. Sometimes that's overlooked because homocide still is a ma or problem. But as I've always said, you have to take the first step if you ever hope to complete the journey.

Because of our anti-crime tactics we've tangled in court with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) nearly from day one. And unfortunately for the residents of the developments, they've prevented us from doing several things. First, in an out-of-court settlement, the ACLU forced us to end our policy of positive verification. The policy had allowed us to require visitors to the buildings to show photo Ids. ACLU lawyers objected on the grounds that in non-public housing guests aren't required to prove their identities. The problem with that argument is that someone can come in and claim to be Yogi Bear, and as long as the tenant backs him up, we have no choice but to let him in. His identity is never on record, and very often he's a drug dealer.

We also set curfews when we first secured buildings, rather than allow the gangs to set them. At midnight, all visitors had to leave; any apartments with visitors who hadn't signed out were checked on. …

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