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Hard Lessons From Chicago’s Public Housing Reform

Two decades ago, the city embarked on an ambitious—and controversial—plan to transform its troubled public housing system, uprooting thousands of low-income residents. Today, researcher Susan Popkin reflects on what worked—and what failed.
End of an era: Workers prepare to demolish the Robert Taylor Homes complex in 1998.
End of an era: Workers prepare to demolish the Robert Taylor Homes complex in 1998.Scott Olson/Reuters

My first trip to the Robert Taylor Homes—a high-rise housing project on Chicago’s South Side—was after a shooting. Dust blew everywhere because there was no grass to hold down the dirt. The elevator was covered with graffiti and stank of urine. There were police cars and an ambulance in front of the 16-story building, which was one of a complex of 28 concrete towers that comprised an enormous public housing development. At one point, more than 20,000 people lived there.

That was nearly 30 years ago; I was a 25-year-old Northwestern graduate student collecting data for my dissertation. The many visits that followed opened my eyes to the often sad and frustrating story of public housing in America: Too many children were growing up in terrible places because they had the bad luck to be poor and brown in cities that had long neglected those residents. That neglect was born of a toxic combination of racial segregation, failed government policies, and gross indifference. In Chicago and other cities, economic investment was minimal at best, the schools were lousy, parks and libraries were an afterthought, and grocery stores and other basic amenities were hard to find.