THE Clinton administration today hopes to rally Congress behind a pathbreaking initiative aimed at leading thousands of Americans out of crime and poverty in titanic public-housing projects.
President Clinton will ask Congress to allow Chicago to issue more than $1 billion in bonds to move residents out of low-income housing complexes and into small clusters of apartments sprinkled across mixed-income neighborhoods. The plan, sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), would be funded by by bonds backed by federal money earmarked for repair of public housing.
If approved by Congress, the plan would begin the breakup of what city and federal housing officials call the most adverse and unwieldy public-housing system in the United States.
``If we can do it, it will be one of the great legacies of Mayor [Richard] Daley and the City of Chicago - to undo a problem that, for generations, has isolated people and made life more difficult in Chicago,'' says Henry Cisneros, HUD secretary.
``And it would be a contribution to the nation because it is a tool we would be able to use across the nation,'' he said in Chicago April 15.
Crime and poverty have thrived among dense concentrations of poor residents in the isolated complexes blotting urban America.
Social problems tend to ease when residents move to homes scattered among working- and middle-class neighborhoods, housing officials and sociologists say.
Thus, housing officials call the breakup of Chicago's giant housing complexes a sweeping, lasting way to curtail random shooting, drug dealing, and gang warfare around groups of towering dwellings.
The administration's proposal follows a more immediate initiative to curtail crime in the projects announced by President Clinton April 16. He proposed what he said were constitutionally correct ways to step up police searches for guns and drugs.
Among the measures proposed, he urged housing authorities to ask tenants to agree in their leases to allow warrantless police searches of their apartments. He also proposed that police frisk suspicious persons for weapons.
Response to `sweeps' decision
The president's initiative, drawn up by HUD and the Department of Justice, is in response to an April 7 decision by a federal judge to bar the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) from staging warrantless apartment searches.
The CHA mobilized for the ``police sweeps'' last month to stem a rash of deaths from gang-related violence around the Robert Taylor Homes, the largest public-housing project in Chicago. The judge upheld a claim by civil libertarians that ``sweeps'' defied the constitutional rights of residents.
The plan by the CHA to dissolve the projects has also come under fire. Critics say that by scattering poor citizens in new homes throughout several neighborhoods, officials would merely seed the entire city with the social problems that are deeply rooted in public housing.
``By dispersing the people with problems, you are just dispersing the problems - you still are not dealing with the root cause of the violence,'' says Robert Starks, associate professor of political science and inner-city studies at Northeastern Illinois University.
Instead, the city and federal governments should help residents in public housing secure jobs. The government should also improve the residents' living conditions, offer them opportunities for recreation, and give them the chance to assume ownership of the apartments, says Dr. Starks.
However, some sociologists say dispersal of residents from Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini-Green, and other public-housing projects would eventually help reduce crime and poverty citywide.
``There is substantial evidence that people benefit when allowed to move into neighborhoods that are more diverse in class terms,'' says Douglas Massey, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago.
``People [who] have moved into areas with low concentrations of poverty have ended up benefiting in a variety of ways,'' he says. They're more likely than their counterparts in projects to eschew welfare, hold a job, and go to school, says Dr. Massey, co-author of ``American Apartheid,'' a book published last year on racial segregation.
Valid reasons for concern
At the same time, the record shows that there are valid reasons for concern that the government will move low-income residents from the large housing projects and do little more to help them eliminate causes for lawlessness and penury.
``Residents are reacting to a history in Chicago where black people have been displaced from land and just been forgotten,'' says Massey.
In the first step toward dismantlement of the projects, the CHA would tear down three buildings at Cabrini-Green, a massive sprawl of high-rise apartments on 70 acres of land a few blocks from Chicago's Magnificent Mile shopping district.
The cleared land would be leased to private developers who would build clusters of low-rise buildings for tenants, made up of 75 percent middle-class and 25 percent poor people.
The city would renovate the remaining buildings in the project and integrate them with working-class families.
Cabrini-Green residents who could not be accommodated at the site would be offered housing elsewhere in Chicago or in the suburbs.
The plan was prompted, in part, by CHA figures showing that small, racially integrated housing projects tend to have the lowest incidence of crime.
The federal government has, so far, put up $50 million of the $350 million needed for the project.