The Long Way Home

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Resident Anthony Fisher, 9, in front of the Cabrini Green housing project

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.

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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.

And that made an existing housing squeeze for the city's poor even worse. Already 48,000 families are on the waiting list for public housing, and 38,000 more are wait-listed to receive subsidized rent payments known as Housing Choice vouchers. Over the next few years an additional 4,000 voucher-bearing families are expected to hit the market. The CHA's rapid rate of demolition is worsening the problem; so far 7,300 units have been demolished, but only 699 have been built, forcing tenants in and out of temporary housing as they vie for permanent shelter in a desperate game of musical chairs. At Cabrini a total of 922 units have been demolished, but only 700 new units will replace them, which means residents wishing to return will be selected by lottery. All others will be placed in housing elsewhere or will receive vouchers.

Although Berryman received a voucher to cap her rent payments at 30% of her income, she quickly learned that even with the subsidy, she could not afford a place that improved much on the one she had left behind. She had to move three times before finding a place where she felt secure. Her first apartment, a two-bedroom walk-up in an economically struggling neighborhood in the Far North Side, appeared fine at first, and at $585 a month was in her price range. "It was a relief to not have to duck when I walked by my own window," she says, referring to the stray gunfire that crackled through Cabrini after dark. Nearly anything would be safer than Cabrini, she reasoned. But just two months after she moved in, a vandal torched the building entryway. In the fire and smoke, all her possessions were lost. After enduring several days in a shelter, Berryman and her son squeezed into the three-bedroom apartment of her daughter Kizzy, 23, and her six children for a few months until the two could find a new place to stay. Their next stop was a $680-a-month two-bedroom on the city's West Side that was spacious — even if the neighborhood, dotted with run-down buildings and full of underemployed men, seemed threadbare. With a little help from the Salvation Army, Berryman furnished the place with a dining-room set and new beds. Eight weeks later she abandoned that apartment too when she discovered the building was infested with rats. Her ordeal ended when she and her son finally settled in a tidy $950-a-month three-bedroom in an African-American and Latino neighborhood on the Near West Side. "You move out into what's supposed to be a better world, and there's nothing but drama and hassle," says Berryman. "Sometimes I think the better world isn't necessarily better."

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