It has been asserted so widely for so long that it is accepted as fact: When Chicago's public housing projects came down, many of their former residents moved into middle-class South Side neighborhoods and brought crime with them.
But whether it is true remains the subject of an intense and sensitive debate more than a decade after city officials began razing high-crime public housing properties, forcing 25,000 households to relocate as part of a vast redevelopment effort dubbed the Plan for Transformation.
Long-time residents and leaders in some historically stable neighborhoods on the South Side say an influx of former Chicago Housing Authority tenants has brought economic decline and a rise in violence to those areas. But available city statistics don't support that claim. In fact, they show that the rate of violent crime is dropping across the South Side.
The issue is hotly debated in Chatham, a middle-class community known for wide lots, manicured lawns, and large bungalows. For decades, black professionals, business leaders, and city workers flocked to the area, roughly bounded by 79th Street, Vincennes Avenue, 91st Street and Cottage Grove. But many longtime residents said Chatham has shown signs of deterioration in the last decade, and they believe the Plan for Transformation is part of the problem.
They say the new, young residents play loud music and let their children roam while many long-time homeowners have died or grown too old to maintain their properties. Far worse, residents said, they often hear frequent gunfire.
“Last Saturday night I could hear the shooting from my house,” said Tony Washington, a 35-year resident who works in Internet marketing and sales. “It's gotten so I start to dread when the weather gets warm.”
City budget problems have thinned police ranks, and two off-duty officers were gunned down in the area last year, rattling the neighborhood.
Like many other residents, Washington attributed much of the problem to an increase in renters who are involved in drugs and gangs. “The Plan for Transformation has devastated this community,” he said.
However real that perception might feel to residents of Chatham, police data and information from the housing authority do not support a connection between an influx of former public-housing residents and an increased crime rate. Police reports show that total violent crime in Chatham has dropped since the Plan for Transformation was launched. Between 1998 and 2009, the most recent year available, aggravated assaults and batteries, which include shootings, have declined 24 percent, from 515 to 392. Murders have climbed, then fallen back, from 11 in 1998 to 22 in 2001 before dropping to 13 in 2009.
The number of former public housing residents in Chatham has also decreased in recent years, according to C.H.A. figures. As of the end of December, 2010, 117 former C.H.A. families were living in Chatham with the help of rental subsidy vouchers. That's down from 163 in 2005 and ranks 15th in the city.
The housing authority's analysis determined that the figure represents less than 1 percent of the housing units in Chatham.
But thousands of other former public housing residents have left the system, either by choice or because they failed a criminal background check or violated other rules, officials said. Still others used to stay in public housing with relatives or lived there illegally. C.H.A. officials said they have no way of knowing where such individuals ended up.
Officials with both the C.H.A. and police institutions said they have never tracked crime linked to tenant relocation.
In response to the controversy, the Chicago Housing Authority commissioned Susan Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, to study the issue. Results are not expected before summer, but Popkin said she is skeptical that clear links will emerge.
“Part of the problem is that these neighborhoods are changing anyway, so not all of the poor people moving in are from the C.H.A.,” Popkin said. “I think it's become a socially accepted way to say, 'My neighborhood is changing and I don't like it.' “
Chatham is undeniably going through a challenging transitional period. The commercial corridors on Cottage Grove and 79th and 87th Streets are struggling. The number of business licenses in the 60619 ZIP code, which includes Chatham, declined 5 percent, from 1,248 to 1,180, between 2000 and 2011, according to the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
At the same time, the area's housing has become less stable than in the past. More than 1,200 homes have gone into foreclosure in Chatham since the beginning of 2007, according to the Woodstock Institute, a research and advocacy organization. That is far less than in many troubled South Side communities but a shock for relatively affluent Chatham.
The population of Chatham dropped by about 2 percent between 2000 and 2009, the census estimated, and renters now appear to constitute a larger slice of the community. The number of owner-occupied units in Chatham and surrounding neighborhoods dropped 10 percent during the time period, while the number of housing units occupied by renters grew slightly, according to an analysis by the Chicago Rehab Network, a housing research and advocacy organization.
“People have viewed Chatham as a little island,” said Roosevelt Vonil, president of the Greater Chatham Alliance, a residents' group. “But I think it's getting progressively worse.”
Eddie Johnson, a police officer, is typical of Chatham residents who have mixed perceptions about the roots of crime there. He has been commander of the Sixth District, which includes Chatham, since 2008, and in the 1990s he patrolled the community as a beat cop.
Johnson's family lived in public housing until they bought a home in the middle-class Beverly neighborhood when he was 10.
Total crime may be down, but Johnson said he believes violence is more persistent and touches more of the Sixth District than when he was a patrolman. Much of it is traceable to people who have lived there for years, he said, but he asserted that some is connected to the CHA relocation program.
Lewis Jordan, the housing authority's CEO, said he regularly hears complaints that the C.H.A. has sent all its crime problems into new neighborhoods. “It's perplexing,” he said. “There's no empirical data to support this.”
Jordan said that the Plan for Transformation has improved the quality of life for thousands of families who were once “held hostage” by criminal activity in the old properties. Most public housing tenants were never involved in crime, he said, but it is possible that the redevelopment efforts displaced others who had illegally set up shop.
“If Joe was selling drugs on in those areas, maybe now he's selling somewhere else,” Jordan said. “I'm committed to talking about the causes of violence, but this is broader than the CHA.”
Along with some of her City Council colleagues, Alderman Freddrenna Lyle (6th Ward) has blamed the Plan for Transformation for causing spikes in violence.
Ms. Lyle lost her re-election bid in April after opponents hammered her for not doing enough to improve city services or fight crime.
“Statistically crime is down, but statistically you can't tell anybody on the street,” she said shortly before losing to attorney Roderick Sawyer. “I'm running against the perception that this community has lost its essence.”
An earlier version of this story was published April 28 by the Chicago News Cooperative. Reporting for this series was supported in part by a grant from the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College.
This is part one of a five part series. Read the other four parts at Chicago News Cooperative.