The Horner Model

Perhaps no public policy initiative has changed both the geography of poverty in Chicago and the city’s physical landscape as much as the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation. Under the Plan, CHA has demolished thousands of public housing units with the promise of building mixed-income communities—most with far fewer units for public housing residents than the developments they will replaced. In the following article, William Wilen, an attorney for residents of the Henry Horner public housing development, explains why the redevelopment of Horner, which is being remade outside of the Plan for Transformation, presents a better model for residents. —Editor

The redevelopment of the Governor Henry Horner public housing development on Chicago’s Near West Side began in 1995 as a result of a class action lawsuit brought by the tenants there in 1991. I first represented these tenants in 1990, as an attorney working for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago. Since 1996, I have represented them as an attorney at the Shriver Center in Chicago. This article aims to recount the history of Horner and its redevelopment from the legal counsel’s point of view.

When transforming and revitalizing its public housing units, Chicago, through its Plan for Transformation, opted for immediate demolition of its high-rises and mid-rises, and immediate relocation of the residents. This decision resulted in the re-segregation of most relocated public housing residents into the poorest black areas of the south and west sides of Chicago. Chicago has also opted for stringent and arbitrary screening, less resident participation, and less effective social services to and representation of individual residents. This has resulted in preventing most of the residents who were displaced from returning to the new “mixed-income” developments being constructed on the sites of the former high-rises and mid-rises.

The Horner Model shows that neither demolition nor relocation needed to be immediate for the redevelopment to be both successful and beneficial for both the public housing residents and the surrounding community. The Horner Model also shows that successful redevelopment can be achieved through reasonable screening, meaningful tenant participation, and effective tenant services.


The Henry Horner Homes were constructed in 1957 in a 10 city-block area, bounded by Hermitage, Lake, Damen, and Washington. The development consisted of eleven buildings containing 920 units—seven that were 7-stories tall, and four that were 16-stories.

By 1961, the Henry Horner Extension was completed, adding another 736 units. The Extension, covering 12 city blocks, was bounded by Damen, Lake, Oakley, and Washington. These buildings were the typical Chicago “gallery-style” high-rises, with wire fencing of the galleries on both sides of the elevator shaft on each of the upper floors.

The final complex completed was the Horner Annex, located a few blocks south of the Homes and Extension. The Horner Annex was finished in 1969, and consisted of 109 units located in a seven-story mid-rise building and two, three-story, 18-unit walk-ups. The Annex was located on one city block, bounded on the east by Wood, Monroe, Honor, and Adams.

In the beginning, these apartments, in spite of their location, tenant-mix, racial make-up and physical problems did provide residents with a new sense of hope and community.

Long-time Horner residents have informed Horner counsel that, in the beginning, the buildings were clean and well-maintained, in-coming families were strictly screened, housekeeping and grounds-keeping rules were enforced by CHA, tenants who violated their leases were evicted and their apartments quickly made ready for a new family who soon moved into the vacant unit. The apartments themselves were well heated, had hot and cold running water, were reasonably clean, and stood in stark contrast to the residents’ previous housing in slum tenements.

In November 1981, the overall vacancy rate at Horner was 2.3 percent, or 40 vacant units. The vacancy rate at Horner climbed steadily for almost ten years. The vacancy rate peaked in May 1991 at 49.3 percent, or 868 vacant units.

Because these buildings had been constructed “on the cheap,” they had numerous physical problems—no actual lobbies, no communication systems between residents and guests, an open building design that allowed easy access to persons entering the buildings with criminal intent. Trash chutes located on each floor were too narrow to handle all of the trash, causing pile-ups. There was hardly any overhead lighting in each apartment, and the walls of the apartments were cinder block, rather than finished plaster, which gave the apartments a prison-like feel.

In 1991, CHA stated that in the opinion of many residents, staff and housing activists, Horner “is the authority’s most troubled development,” and “one of the most distressed public housing properties in the nation.”

Redeveloping Horner

Due to the deteriorating conditions, the Horner residents filed a lawsuit to improve these conditions. In 1991, the Henry Horner Mothers Guild (a not-for-profit corporation operating out of the Horner Annex that was established to improve living conditions at the development), tenants of other Horner buildings in the Homes and Extension, and applicants for public housing at the Horner developments filed a class action lawsuit against the Chicago Housing Authority and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that oversees public housing.

In 1995, the Horner parties agreed on the terms of a consent decree to resolve the litigation. Under the decree, Horner was to be redeveloped in phases, with demolition phased so that displacement would be minimized. Each Horner family was to be offered their choice of replacement housing and for each Horner unit demolished, one replacement unit would be provided. Under the decree, the residents of the Horner Annex were allowed to vote on whether the Annex was to be demolished or rehabilitated. The residents voted 54-14 in favor of rehabilitation.

When the amended decree was entered, federal law required public housing authorities to replace each unit demolished with a new one. However, HUD was actively lobbying Congress to repeal it. The parties agreed in the amended decree that all units demolished in Phase I had to be replaced on a one-for-one basis, whether or not Congress repealed this requirement. But if Congress subsequently repealed the requirement, the parties would have to renegotiate the number of replacement housing units to be provided in Phase II to the remaining Horner residents as a result of future demolition.

Congress did repeal the one-for-one replacement provision, and the parties, after a year of deliberations, reached agreement on the number of units to be constructed in Phase II, the mixed-income phase, which included a sufficient number of units for the remaining Horner families.

Demolition of all the Horner high-rises and all but one of the Horner mid-rises has been completed, and over 800 units of public housing, affordable housing and market-rate housing has been constructed through Phase IIB. The Horner mixed-income redevelopment effort was selected as Chicago’s best for-profit neighborhood real estate project in 2005 and has been praised as a national model for public housing transformation.

In 1995, Horner consisted of 1,775 units of public housing, including 8 high-rise and 11 mid-rise buildings, occupied exclusively by very low-income families. After revitalization is completed, Horner will consist of 1,325 units of low-rise and mid-rise mixed-income housing.

Why the Horner Model Works

The Horner redevelopment exemplifies a successful public housing redevelopment effort. It includes smooth implementation of demolition and rebuilding; design quality, with residents involved every step of the way; and improved tenant organizing capacity.

So why has the Horner redevelopment achieved the measures of success that it has? I believe Horner’s successful redevelopment effort was due primarily to five reasons, briefly described below:

1. Phased demolition

At Horner, CHA was required by the decree to phase its demolition. Demolition began on two vacant 16-story Horner Extension high-rises, and on three adjacent Horner Extension mid-rises, two of which were sparsely populated. The existing residents were consolidated, first into one of the Horner Extension mid-rises and then into one of the existing Horner Homes mid-rises.

The vast majority of Horner residents remained in their units until their replacement housing was constructed and provided to them. In fact, the residents of the occupied Horner Extension high-rises could look out their windows and see the construction of their new units taking place right before their very own eyes.

2. Reasonable screening criteria

Eligibility requirements for obtaining the newly constructed units in the mixed income community allowed a reasonable opportunity for residents to actually move into the replacement housing. At Horner, residents must be in compliance with their lease and be willing to sit for an interview—a family needs assessment—before moving into the new replacement units. There are no additional eligibility requirements for obtaining replacement housing.

3. Effective resident participation

There must be effective resident participation in the decision-making process of the redevelopment effort so residents have a stake in the outcome. The housing authority, the developer, or management must not compromise resident leadership.

The Horner decree provided for the creation of the Horner Residents Committee (HRC), a seven-member resident committee, to help implement and enforce the consent decree. The decree requires CHA, the Horner developer, and Horner management to consult and attempt to reach agreement with the HRC on all matters relating to the implementation of the decree. If agreement is not reached, any party may seek resolution through the Horner court. The HRC has met monthly with its counsel and consultants for the past 12 years to make decisions regarding the Horner redevelopment effort.

4. Enforceable procedures to protect residents’ interests

There must be enforceable procedures to protect the residents’ interests when problems arise. At Horner, the HRC is able to seek court resolution of issues when agreement is not reached. During the past 12 years, the HRC sought court resolution when delays occurred in construction of replacement housing, when other stakeholders objected to aspects of the on-going redevelopment process, and when the housing authority and the management company failed to follow the provisions of the decree.

5. Social services to and representation of residents

Each individual public housing resident must be assisted by competent social service providers, and an ombudsman or other representative, including legal representation when necessary. At Horner, plaintiffs’ counsel works with the Horner Service Connector, Project Match, and other social service agencies to assist residents in maintaining residency, resolving issues relating to the residents’ current housing, assisting the residents in meeting the eligibility for replacement housing, and dealing with issues arising after moving into the replacement housing. Adapting to life in the new Horner mixed-income community is the most important issue for many families.

CHA’s Plan for Transformation

The Horner redevelopment effort affects several hundred public housing residents while CHA’s ongoing redevelopment efforts affects thousands of them. It is fair to inquire how these residents are faring compared to those at Horner. The objective answer is that they are not faring nearly as well.

One of the major reasons for this was CHA did not phase their demolition. Although CHA had been considering massive demolition of its inventory of housing since 1995, CHA finally reached agreement with HUD and the tenants’ Central Advisory Council in 2000 on a redevelopment plan, which they called the Plan for Transformation.

Under the Plan, CHA will demolish its entire inventory of high-rise and mid-rise housing, and in some cases, low-rise housing (about 22,000 units). CHA will then rebuild or rehabilitate 25,000 very low-income public housing units over a 10-year period (2000-2009), which has now been extended to 2014. Approximately 6,200 units will be constructed in mixed-income communities. Under the Plan, demolition has far outpaced new construction and rehabilitation.

CHA had entered into a Relocation Rights Contract with the residents that promised to help displaced families move into neighborhoods more racially and economically integrated than those from where they were displaced. Instead, CHA residents were relocated by CHA into neighborhoods that were racially segregated and nearly as poor as the communities from where they were forced to move.

Another reason is the Plan’s stringent and arbitrary screening criteria. Under the Plan for Transformation, CHA has adopted an especially stringent and arbitrary set of tenant screening criteria, including minimum 30-hour per week work requirements. Advocates estimate that only 12 to 15 percent of the displaced families will be allowed to return to the mixed-income communities being constructed on the sites of their former homes. If these estimates prove accurate, then many of the residents who have been displaced by CHA during the demolition process and who seek to return to their historic communities, newly revitalized and consisting of a mix of incomes, will be denied that opportunity.

CHA also has less resident participation in its redevelopment and the agency’s social service provision to residents has been weaker than what’s available to Horner residents.

With real resident participation and representation, the Horner residents determined their own fates, whether to go or whether to stay, and when. They were not forced out, re-segregated, and then required to meet unreasonable screening criteria to get back in. The Horner Model offers policy makers, developers and advocates alike a critical lesson on how public housing redevelopment can have a much better chance for success. ♦

Reprinted by special permission of Northwestern University School of Law, Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy.