Only three candidates showed up for Tuesday night’s forum on public housing at the Cultural Center -- Miguel del Valle, Patricia Watkins and William “Dock” Walls. That meant the biggest star in the room was the moderator, Bern Nadette Stanis, who played sassy teenager Thelma on Good Times, the ’70s sitcom set in a Chicago housing project.
(Carol Moseley Braun was scheduled to attend, and at one point the audience was told she was “en route,” but she never showed. Supporters said the debate “overlapped” with another event.)
The high rises where the Evans family lived have been torn down. Last month, the last residents moved out of Cabrini-Green, which was featured in Good Times’s opening credits. (The Evans’s fictional address was 943 N. Gilbert Ave.) Where those residents are going next was the subject of the night’s debate, which was sponsored by the National Public Housing Museum.
Del Valle favors building mixed-income housing and using Section 8 vouchers to ensure that the poor are scattered throughout the city, rather than packed together in ghettoes. The city clerk believes “people should be allowed to live anywhere they want in the city of Chicago,” and that an “integrated community is the best community,” but acknowledged that negative stereotypes about public housing residents make them hard to place.
“Mixed income development is the best type of development,” del Valle said. “We don’t want a concentration of poverty, but we still live in a city where there still is resistance when it comes to making low-income housing available, when it comes to making vouchers available. There are lots of poor families out there that are not criminals, that are not drug dependent, that are looking for good housing, but they’re all painted with the same brush by landlords who are reluctant to rent to them.”
Watkins, who grew up in Cabrini Green, disagreed with proposals to put a seven-year limit on residence in public housing.
“My father was injured in an accident,” Watkins said. “He couldn’t work. If we had term limits, my father would never have been able have been able to keep his family there.”
Walls agreed, saying a term limit “is too much pressure during these tough economic times.
The Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan For Transformation, a 10-year plan to move residents out of high rise and integrate them into neighborhoods, began in 2000. It’s been extended another five years. Walls thinks that’s still too fast.
“Stop the Plan For Transformation until the economy turns around” and CHA can afford to build more housing, Walls said. “People shouldn’t have to move to Wisconsin or Indiana. These people are Chicagoans. They built this city.”
Of course, a better economy will reduce the need for public housing.
“The best plan for housing assistance is to help people get a job that pays a living wage,” del Valle said.