If Cabrini Green Can… Why Can’t We?


Cities of all sizes face an explosive housing situation. A growing poverty population that is segregated into a pocket of the community inevitably results in violence and crime. The best intended, most ambitious welfare-state initiatives of the past provide a blueprint of what NOT to do.

Chicago’s Cabrini-Green

In 1942 the low-income Cabrini row-houses, named for Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, completed in 1942, brought 586 units spread over 54 buildings. In 1957, 15 more public housing buildings holding 1,925 units were completed as part of the Cabrini Homes Extension. By 1962 23 towers held 3,000 apartments. In 1962, the Green Homes, named for labor activist William Green, consisting of 1,096 units, were added. The low-income Cabrini-Green housing was built blocks away from Chicago’s wealthy “Gold Coast” neighborhood.


The Cabrini Green neighborhood became a city within a city. The well-intentioned but misguided low-income public housing project segregated a poverty population into one pocket of the community. It resulted in a nightmare of violence, crimes, drugs, and gangs. Snipers shot at firemen and murdered Chicago police officers. Gangs moved in and went to war with rival gangs over heroin and crack cocaine territories. Gambling and prostitution flourished. Hallways were covered in graffiti and urine.


In the 1990’s the Clinton administration’s Office of Housing and Urban Development ordered that public housing projects that were too blighted to be rehabilitated be demolished. Many of the Cabrini Green housing units had been in the demolished high-rise towers. Only the original rowhouses remained. The Chicago Housing Authority then moved away from managing publicly owned residential properties. Some of the now-homeless former public housing tenants were given Section 8 vouchers which reduced the rent on private-sector housing. Chicago developed a ‘Plan for Transformation’ which created requirements for public/private housing. Residents were to have easy access to hospitals, grocery stores, parks, swimming pools, and education. Some privately managed residential developments were mixed-income housing which favored senior citizens as tenants. The new public/private housing development would carefully screen applicants. Applicants would be rejected for drug use, criminal records, unpaid bills, or if their children were habitually truant from school.

Public/private partnership

The city of Chicago and the Chicago Housing Authority issued a ‘Request for Proposal’ seeking a private sector real estate partner who had experience in buying, rehabbing, and managing housing rental units. Holsten Real Estate Development Corporation was selected. Holsten had successful experience in rehabbing existing buildings to provide affordable low and moderate-income housing. Holsten partnered with the Kenard Corporation. Kenard had experience in creating market-rate housing. Land purchased from the Chicago Housing Authority or the City of Chicago was required to designate 50 percent of that land to market-rate housing, 20 percent to affordable housing, and 30 percent to public housing. The developers could negotiate for incentives from an area Tax Increment Financing arrangement. TIF funds were used to clear accumulated trash and other pollution from the vacant property. Public/ private housing administration could carefully screen applicants.

Modern Urban Planning, Design, and Construction

The new public housing reconfigured the city street grid with through streets that connected the development to the rest of the North Town neighborhood. North Town’s mix of housing types included mid-rises, duplexes, coach houses, and townhouses. The design of the public housing development would both intended to spatially and visually connect the project to the rest of the neighborhoods. Chicago’s North Town neighborhood has architectural styles from the 1920s. The public housing would aesthetically resemble the style of surrounding market-rate neighborhood housing. The city required a density of no more than 40 units per acre with one parking space per unit. Green space was included wherever possible. A nearby park provided a recreational area. The new public housing units initially would be reserved for the former residents of the Cabrini-Green projects. Rental pricing was set to maintain a mix of incomes in each building.


Several financing sources were available to developers. The TIF Department of Housing Home Loan Program, Apollo Housing Capital, Fannie Mae Development Authority, the Federal Home Loan Bank Affordable Housing Program, and the CHA provided grants, loans, and subsidies. North Town Village consists of 261 units located on seven acres, next to where the Cabrini-Green project once stood.

Rules and services

Applicants for the new development were subject to strict rules. Prospective renters had to pass drug tests and could not have a criminal record. Those who did not pass the new requirements were referred to other Section 8 housing opportunities. Holsten Human Capital Development (HHCD) is a 501c3 non-profit organization with the mission to strengthen at-risk populations by expanding their access to viable resources that promote self-sufficiency, wellness, and stability. Holsten Human Capital Development provides residents with community and support services such as job training and employment opportunities. It established an on-site office with a support staff member. Services for resident’s children include educational programs, summer camps, and travel outings. An on-site case manager makes referrals for child care, budgeting and credit counseling, parenting skills, and physical and mental health care. Community resources such as the Near North Ministry Alliance, Children’s Memorial Hospital, Winfield Moody Health Center, and the New City YMCA provide other services. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOPE VI fund subsidizes some services’ costs.

Blueprint for the future

The Near North Unity Program was established to involve the community in decision-making to produce the Near North Quality-of-Life Plan and Design Guidelines. The guidelines created a blueprint for community involvement, educational concerns, community safety, site design, and recreational space planning for future mixed-income projects.. Holsten Chicago has received city money to rehab the North Town Village rental units as they age. Holsten Chicago has now developed Parkside of Old Town with input from the Cabrini Green Advisory Council. This property stands adjacent to The Cabrini Rowhouses; built in the early 1940s and are the only remaining parcels of the original 3,607-unit Cabrini-Green development.

If Cabrini Green can… why can’t we?

Urban areas of all sizes have experienced a growing poverty population. The history of Cabrini Green teaches us that when the poverty population tends to be segregated into pockets of the community violence follows. Thanks to Peter and Jackie Taylor Holsten the continuing development of Chicago’s Cabrini Green community provides a blueprint for success that all urban communities can follow. Challenged urban areas all over America need to ask themselves the question, ‘If Cabrini Green can… why can’t we?’


Thanks and a tip of the hat to Mary Sheridan. Also, https://www.holstenchicago.com/communities/northtownvillage.html and https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidwilson1949/8736241401/for the images.

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