Has Chicago’s $3.2 billion public housing makeover successfully re-integrated the poor?

New book from Mandel School faculty says no

A $3.2 billion (and counting) transformation of Chicago’s notorious high-rise public housing has dramatically changed the urban landscape there, attracting affluent residents to segregated areas and catalyzing revitalization in long-marginalized neighborhoods.

But far fewer low-income Chicagoans at the heart of the city’s initiative—replacing deteriorating public housing with high-quality mixed-income communities—have been helped than was intended when the ambitious plan was launched 15 years ago.

In fact, mixed-income development—an anti-poverty strategy to build diverse communities of market-rate renters, owners and public housing residents—has often created a sense of isolation for poor residents within their own communities. So far, the approach has helped few improve their social and economic standing.

Book cover of "Integrating the Inner City" by Mark JosephThe mixed success of Chicago’s foray into mixed-income development is detailed in the new book Integrating the Inner City: The Promise and Perils of Mixed-Income Public Housing Transformation (344 pages, University of Chicago Press), co-written by Mark L. Joseph, founding director of the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities at Case Western Reserve University, where he is an associate professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.

“As an anti-poverty strategy, policy was ahead of knowledge,” said Joseph, who co-led a seven-year, in-depth study of three new mixed-income developments in Chicago. Researchers collected interviews with hundreds of mixed-income housing residents and numerous development professionals and observed more than 500 community meetings and events.

“We found some measures of success: The pizza guy will bring pizza to these neighborhoods now. Low-income families live in beautiful housing in safer and more stable areas,” Joseph said. “But as a platform to get out of poverty? Our analysis suggests that is not happening on the aggregate.”

Microcosm of urban America

Mark Joseph
Mark Joseph

In the late 1990s, the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation” was a response to the city’s “calamity” of public housing—“environments not fit for human living,” as Joseph said—which devalued neighborhoods, concentrated poverty and deepened racial segregation.

When Chicago demolished and replaced public housing complexes with modern mixed-income units, residents of every stripe were drawn to convenient urban locations, appealing price points and attractive housing. No-go, economically unproductive areas became safer, more prosperous places where residents felt comfortable letting their children play outside for the first time, according to interviews conducted by Joseph and his team of researchers.

The benefits of living in these neighborhoods would set the stage for low-income residents to access better opportunities, according to the Plan for Transformation, including proximity to more prosperous neighbors.

While these assumptions drove the multibillion-dollar effort in Chicago, Joseph and researchers found scant evidence they have integrated the poor more fully into mainstream society.

For one, property managers were ill-equipped and unwilling to handle conflicts and culture clashes—or tackle the delicate task of creating a community among their diverse range of residents. In some cases, complexes even had two sets of rules; lower-income residents were not allowed to grill or have pets, while condo owners could do both.

As a result, lower-income residents reported feeling stigmatized and alienated by their middle- and high-income neighbors.

“Whatever people carried in terms of stigma or discomfort became intensified in close quarters,” Joseph said. “Hearing each other through walls and sharing elevators and common space activated stereotypes of race, class and culture among all residents.

“These communities are a reflection of the broader project in America: How can we live together in a diverse society, across lines of difference? How do we live together when we’re uncomfortable with each other?”

Hope still for transformation

When the Plan for Transformation was in its early stages, more than 90 percent of public housing residents that would be relocated from the old developments by the strategy indicated a desire to retain their right to move back into the future mixed-income developments—yet only 8 to 10 percent actually have thus far.

The remaining 90 percent moved into private housing with vouchers, other public housing or elsewhere; these Chicagoans still are mostly poor and live in segregated, unsafe communities, Joseph’s team’s research shows.

“Given how few of the original public housing residents moved into the new housing, and those that did are having these social challenges, it becomes a question of: Did it work as a strategy to lift people out of poverty?” Joseph said. “We have to conclude, no, at this stage.

“But we have many ideas about how to make it work better.”

The book, co-authored by Robert J. Chaskin, a professor at the University of Chicago, suggests mixed-income developments could be more effective at decreasing poverty if part of broader strategies addressed workforce development and public education as well as an approach to property management and community engagement that create a more even playing field.

Center turns research into action to improve future developments

In 2013, responding to increasing demands from policymakers, practitioners and other researchers, Joseph founded the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities at the Mandel School at Case Western Reserve to serve as a go-to resource for the field.

The applied research center provides information resources—such as a mixed-income database and library—and project consultation. Drawing lessons from Chicago and other United States cities, Joseph and colleagues are working with governments, private builders and citizens, including most recently in Washington, D.C., and Ferguson, Mo., to create future mixed-income developments more effective at fighting poverty.

“There’s great potential in mixed-income communities, and, frankly, we don’t have an alternative that seems more promising,” Joseph said. “The question now is: How can we better achieve what these efforts set out to do?”

Book launch and signing

Joseph and the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities will host a public affairs seminar and conversation on Integrating the Inner City Through Mixed-Income Development, followed by a book signing, on Friday, Nov. 20, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Community Studies Center, Room 115. Refreshments will be served.