There’s No Place Like Home

Kelly Smith never had a dishwasher or clothes dryer. She stands on the balcony she never had and lets the quiet bathe her.

“You can hear birds chirping and singing,” said the 29-year-old. “That’s a good thing to hear instead of all that pow-pow-pow, ducking and dodging bullets.”

What she may not have bargained for is the dissonance resonating between former public housing residents like herself and residents of the mixed-income neighborhood that she moved into.

Nowhere else in the country is the face of public housing changing like it is in Chicago. Mixed-income communities are the latest trend for lodging the poor; the ideology is low-income families benefit from their more affluent neighbors.

The Chicago Reporter found that the Chicago Housing Authority remains behind in its effort to place dislocated residents into new developments, whether it’s mixed-income housing or elsewhere.

Part of the ambitious $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation is to de-concentrate poverty in isolated, mostly African-Americanpopulated housing developments. Longneglected buildings are razed to build comely condos and suburban-like subdivisions. In this public-private financing venture, “mixed-income” translates to onethird public housing, one-third affordable housing and one-third market-rate housing.

“What we really want residents to do is take off the CHA label,” said Sheree Steward of Heartland Alliance, a nonprofit agency that helps residents in their transitions. “They wear that with pride. Unfortunately there’s some stigmatism that goes along with that.”

This sweeping social experiment replaces public housing developments such as Ida B. Wells–”named for the famed black journalist and anti-lynching crusader of the late 1800s–”the low rises Smith lived in all her life.

For residents lucky enough to get into the mixed-income development, life is better, but many hurdles remain in creating a natural bond between residents of the neighborhood and their new public housing neighbors. Though the plan is still being implemented, there’s been no assessment by the CHA as to how well it’s working.

Many CHA residents say they are happy and living stress-free in Oakwood Shores, located in the Oakland neighborhood. Billed as “Chicago’s next great lakefront community,” Oakwood Shores is hot real estate just a few miles from downtown.

But new neighbors, new rules and a new identity has complicated the transition for public housing residents.

Smith, her husband and their three children live in Oakwood Shores, one of the new CHA mixed-income developments. A McDonald’s employee, Smith pays $240 a month for her carpeted three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment. In Wells, she only had one bedroom and slept on the couch. Drugs, broken radiators, water bugs and backed-up work orders dominated the blocks.

Not every former CHA resident gets to return. Residents must be employed, pass background and drug tests, and the waiting list can take years. The rules range from no barbecuing to no loud music to no “loitering.”

Before public housing residents unpack their boxes in the mixed-income developments, they go through an orientation and counseling period that starts at least a year prior. The CHA has contracted out social services, and developers give support, too. This includes public housing families learning about utility bills and not offending their middle-class neighbors.

For now, it’s unclear whether there’s meaningful interaction among neighbors of different socioeconomic status. All public housing units are wholly integrated and physically indistinguishable. Neighbors aren’t supposed to know who pays what for which unit. Despite this, there’s little interaction among neighbors when there are opportunities to gather.

In Oakwood Shores there are no block clubs. The CHA wants to nix tenant councils at mixed-income properties while condo owners have their own association. Public housing service providers host social events onsite and in a nearby park, but in the beginning, only public housing renters showed up.

Smith, however, describes having a sense of community. The hallways aren’t soiled with urine in Oakwood Shores, but Smith doesn’t socialize with her neighbors. Neither do her children, though they did in Wells.

“I stay to myself. It’s not a reason why. That’s just what I do to keep a lot of things down,” Smith said. “[It’s not] like I don’t like anybody.”

AUDIO: Richard Steele talks with The Chicago Reporter‘s Kari Lydersen about her research into life in mixed-income housing on the Chicago Public Radio’s 848 program. Click here to listen.

Chicago Public Radio’s Natalie Y. Moore produced a three-part series on life inside the Chicago Housing Authority’s new mixed-income developments. Click the links below to listen.

Part 1: “Mixed-Income Living“–”Natalie Moore begins the first installment of a three-part series on life in one mixed-income community in Chicago.

Part 2: “Public Housing Residents Learn the Rules for Mixed Income“–”Learning “how to behave” raises sensitive questions about class and culture.

Part 3: “Mixed Income, Mixed Blessing“–”Natalie Moore brings us part three in her series chronicling life in one mixed income community.

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