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Self-Help: the New Tenet At Chicago Housing Project

For years, Arlene Williams managed to sidestep the many blots on life at Chicago's Cabrini-Green public-housing project: gantlets of graffiti, gangs and drug pushers, trash-strewn stairwells.

But when Ms. Williams mistakenly thought that her son was killed in random courtyard gunfire, she and nine other tenants decided to take matters into their own hands.

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Today, residents have cleaned up the hallways, opened a laundry room, and provided summertime outings for children. More important, they have ousted the drug pushers and gang members and dramatically reduced crime.

The transformation of building 1230 North Burling highlights a growing - but controversial - trend in American public housing: tenants managing their own buildings. While the idea isn't new, it lies at the core of public-housing reform in Congress. It also dovetails with an emphasis in national politics on budget cutting, bootstrap self-help, and transferring federal power to states.

"In this time of budgetary shortfall, the greatest assets we have are the resident managers themselves," says Joseph Shuldiner, executive director of the Chicago Housing Authority, which manages Cabrini-Green, and a big supporter of tenant management.

After six years of training, which included accounting and management courses, Williams and the handful of other tenants launched a Resident Management Corporation (RMC) in 1992. They do everything from maintain their 15-story building, to screen prospective residents, to keep their own 24-hour security watch.

"We decided we either had to move out or get this building together," says Williams, who is president of the RMC.

Lawmakers laud efforts

"It is a great inspiration," says New York State Rep. Rick Lazio (R). "RMCs are a very important tool: Buildings run by residents are more creatively managed, display more innovation, and there are some resounding successes," says Mr. Lazio, chairman of the Banking Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity.

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As part of rejecting the welfare-state ethos, Congress is challenging the bedrock assumptions and policy framework that have supported public housing since 1937. The House and Senate plan soon to begin reconciling bills that, through block grants, would give local officials more power over housing the poor. The bills support programs for tenant management.

At the same time, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are rallying around the notion that the best way to save public housing is to destroy it. Republicans advocate razing 100,000 of the nation's 1.3 million public-housing units and giving tenants vouchers for private rentals.

The Clinton administration intends to tear down 70,000 public-housing units in the next four years - more than double the number razed in the past decade. At Cabrini-Green, local housing officials have demolished two of 23 buildings at the project and plan to soon bring down a third.

The pride, hard work, and sense of community at Williams's building suggest that dwellings can work under tenant management.

But RMCs aren't without their critics. Ironically, the local bureaucracies Congress intends to empower with block grants are usually the most stubborn obstacles to RMCs. Many local housing officials doubt impoverished residents can manage their own buildings. Critics cite other reasons for their resistance, though.

"Resident management goes against the grain - the moment we begin to manage, we put people out of jobs and end up saving the taxpayer money," says Brenda Gilkey, a public-housing activist and chief executive officer of Urban Women Inc., a St. Louis-based consultancy.

"The bureaucrats oppose us because their careers depend on us staying poor," she says.

Even the US Department of Housing and Urban Development is at best ambivalent about resident management. It has granted $22 million to 328 RMCs since 1988, but only 15 have assumed most of the control over their buildings, according to an audit last year.

"Although there have been notable accomplishments by some tenant organizations, the overall success of the Resident Management Program has been minimal," the audit states.

Critics of RMCs

Even when backed by the full weight of bureaucracy, residents frequently lack the long-term devotion needed to make RMCs work. Tenants must learn basic accounting and management skills, often coping without a high school diploma. They also often must overcome a sense of hopelessness and harassment from the gangs that dominate much of the nation's failed public housing.

"A lot of RMCs fail because you got to want this in your mind and your heart - it's not just given to you, you have to work for it," Williams says.

But when fully fledged, RMCs can spur a striking transformation in buildings and the lives within them. "Resident management doesn't work everywhere, but when it does work, wonderful is not too good a word to use," says CHA's Mr. Shuldiner.

For example, since Kelvin Cannon quit the Gangster Disciples gang, he has found support at 1230 North Burling for his new, family-centered outlook. After serving a prison term for armed robbery, Mr. Cannon returned to the project in 1986. Soon after his release, he locked arms with Williams and other tenants and plowed a cabal of gang members out of the building lobby.

Today he is the maintenance mechanic for his building, and twice each week, he coaches the building's little league baseball team.

"A lot of these kids need a father figure, and that's what I've become," he says: "The kids, instead of police, come looking for me now."

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