When Chicago’s public housing developments were born in the 1930s, the stated plan was to create idyllic enclaves where low-income working families could develop close-knit communities and thrive.
The reality, in Chicago and nationwide, turned out quite differently, thanks to factors including government neglect, police corruption and crime. So in 1992, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched its Hope VI program, designating mixed-income communities as the way to redevelop and revitalize public housing. Significant funding was made available for housing authorities nationwide to carry out this model. And it soon became de rigueur for public housing redevelopment from New York to New Orleans to Chicago to Oakland.
The Chicago Housing Authority is almost nine years into its $1.6 billion “Plan For Transformation,” started in 1998 with Hope VI funds. In the wake of Hope VI, “mixed income” became a beloved buzzword in government and policy circles nationwide.
“When people are isolated on a [public housing] property like Stateway Gardens or [the Robert Taylor Homes], all they see is poor people, people who sell drugs, bad habits,” said CHA Press Secretary Derek Hill. In a mixed-income community, “children may be inspired to be a doctor or nurse or like anyone who lives around them.”
The goal of mixed-income communities created through Hope VI is to decentralize poverty by creating pockets where there is an equal distribution of low-, middle-, and upper-income residents, with the idea that, as Hill said, poor people will learn from their more affluent neighbors and enjoy the increased resources and amenities that inevitably flow to higher-income areas.
Popular as the concept is among developers now, mixedincome communities are nothing new. In Chicago, they formed after segregation kept minorities from certain neighborhoods. But those types of economically mixed neighborhoods, upon which the CHA is pinning its hopes for transformation, aren’t perfect as tensions and limited interactions between people of varying incomes can limit the inspiration Hill speaks of. And those mixed-income neighborhoods aren’t popular–”as many people don’t live in them and the economic mix doesn’t always last for very long.
The Chicago Reporter analyzed census data to find out where exactly mixed-income communities really exist in Cook County, and how well they function. The Reporter found:
* Cook County has more than 5.4 million residents but just 330,000, or 6.2 percent, live in areas resembling the CHA’s definition of “mixed-income” communities.
* Many of these mixedincome areas–”as opposed to the ones intentionally developed by the CHA–” can largely be broken into two categories: longstanding stable ones; and gentrifying ones in states of instability and transition rather than harmony.
* Many areas that statistically fit the CHA’s definition of mixed-income in reality look and feel like lowincome neighborhoods. Nearly 18 percent of the families in the mixedincome areas earned at least $60,000 annually, compared with nearly 46 percent of families elsewhere in Cook County.
* More than 51 percent of the mixed-income areas the Reporter found were predominantly black; another 37 percent were mostly Latino.
Ironically, official and de facto redlining of decades past helped create mixedincome communities.
Before the Fair Housing Act of 1968, it was a common practice for realtors to refuse to sell black families homes in white neighborhoods. Banks also refused to give home loans to people from certain neighborhoods and actually drew red circles on maps around the neighborhoods they didn’t want to lend to; hence the term redlining. As a result, many black people ended up being clustered together, regardless of their income, on the city’s South Side.
So by default, mixedincome communities were created. But today, they look and feel much different than what the CHA is proposing. They are more homogenous–”often they’re mostly black or mostly Latino–”and built upon longstanding webs of familial and neighborly relationships, according to Northwestern University professor and author Mary Pattillo.
In one such enclave in South Shore, the varying economic worlds come together. Lakefront property and the grand South Shore Cultural Center are within blocks of vacant, weedy lots and boarded- up buildings. The local library is across the street from a discount liquor store.
One of the selling points of mixed-income communities is that there is a healthy mix of incomes. However, census numbers show that the difference between the income levels in naturally occurring mixed-income neighborhoods are much narrower than the spread that occurs in CHA redevelopments.
“The range of incomes is super wide” in the CHA’s planned redevelopments, Pattillo said, with some market- rate units going for more than $500,000 while public housing residents living in the same complex might only earn $5,000 a year.
Pattillo noted that a naturally occurring mixed-income neighborhood like South Shore “doesn’t have as much of that high, high upper-end; it includes a larger working class; and the poor families are often not as poor as public housing families.”
In many of its mixedincome developments, the CHA strives to achieve an equal balance of public housing, affordable and marketrate units. In 2000, the median family income for public housing families in Chicago was $8,542, as reported by the Chicago Housing Authority. Individuals earning up to 60 percent of the area median income are eligible for “affordable” rental units in the CHA’s mixed-income developments. In 2000, the median family income for a family of four in Chicago was $67,900, according to the CHA’ s 2000 annual plan.
The Reporter examined 2000 census data and identified Cook County census block groups as “mixedincome” if less than 40 percent of the households fit within rough equivalents to the CHA’s three income categories: less than 30 percent of the area median family income, between 30 and 60 percent and more than 60 percent. Families earning below $20,000 a year were considered the equivalent of public housing; families earning between $20,000 and $39,999 were considered the equivalent of affordable; and families earning $40,000 or more were considered market-rate.
By definition, two-thirds of families in these neighborhoods are low-income, earning less than 60 percent of the Chicago area’s median income. But the wealthiest families in many of these mixed-income neighborhoods–”those who would be considered “marketrate” in the new CHA developments–” earned modest incomes, just enough to make it into the top one-third tier. While the CHA is hoping to attract market-rate homeowners who can afford $300,000 to $500,000 townhomes, the mixed-income areas the Reporter found have few such homeowners. As a result, residents there often perceive these areas as more low- than mixed-income.
For example, on a chunk of blocks statistically identified as “mixed income” in South Shore, people who live and work in these specific blocks say they feel like low-income areas, with gangs, drug dealing, subsidized housing and lack of retail development.
“It’s mostly Section 8, subsidized housing, older people who have been here for years,” said Deborah Johnson, 59, a special education teacher at a local elementary school in South Shore near one of these “mixed-income areas.”
“It’s changed, but not for the better,” said Edward McLaurin, 80, a retired electrical plant worker who has lived in the area since 1969. “There are problems with gangs and very poor services.”
Janitorial service owner and long-time South Shore resident Rick Robinson, 54, said “people care more” than they did years ago, but the area still suffers from a lack of grocery stores.
In neighborhoods like South Shore, the commercial investment which is supposed to be one of the benefits of mixed-income areas often materializes slowly, if at all. South Shore residents spent $353 million more than businesses in the community took in, according to a 2007 market profile of the area from LISC Metro Edge.
Intentionally created mixed-income redevelopments, including the CHA’s, are marketed with rosy images of people from vastly different backgrounds and income levels sharing barbecues and front porch chats.
But relationships between people of different income levels in many neighborhoods are strained and hostile, according to various residents across the city. Higher-income new residents are afraid and annoyed with their low-income neighbors, blaming them for crime and failing to maintain their property. And lowerincome residents are threatened by their wealthier neighbors who might force them out through higher property taxes and rents associated with the more valuable property.
These dynamics are playing out in Bronzeville, an upscale mecca of African- American culture in the first half of the 20th century before it fell prey to disinvestment and concentrated poverty. Now an influx of higherincome, mostly black families and young professionals have made it–”at least for the time being–”a mixed-income area.
According to 2000 census data, just 19 percent of families in Grand Boulevard and Douglas, the community areas that make up most of the Bronzeville area, reported earnings of at least $60,000 a year. But 69 percent of the people who’ve secured mortgages for properties in those community areas since 2000 earned at least $60,000 annually.
Tenille Brooks watches life go by outside her balloon and candy shop on 45th Street and Indiana Avenue in Bronzeville as if she were watching television. She sees the dramas, the tensions, the throes of a neighborhood in transition, with a sometimes-colliding mix of very low-income people who have lived there since it was a bastion of high-rise public housing and middleclass and upper-middle-class newcomers, who have moved into half-million-dollar condos and three-flats.
“You know who the condo people are and who’s been here forever,” said Brooks, 29, who grew up in west suburban Bolingbrook and opened her shop a year ago. “I hear it at community meetings–”talk about –˜those kids.’ Well I love my (neighborhood) kids.” Haroon Rajaee, a 57-year- old photojournalist who grew up in the Altgeld Gardens public housing development and now lives in the 4500 block of South Wabash Avenue, said lower-income residents are afraid the rapid gentrification of Bronzeville will force them out.
“Before it was like family and everyone knew each other,” he said. “Then they started tearing down Robert Taylor and everyone scattered.”
Academic and community experts studying the issue think there’s merit to the mixed-income concept, but many flaws that have no clear remedies in place.
Alejandra Ibañez, executive director of the Pilsen Alliance, a community rights and affordable- housing group, said she sees no way a mixed-income community can exist without intentional programs that promote, protect and subsidize affordable housing. And, she said, these projects must include a homeownership component for low-income people, since someone renting their house will always be less stable and have less of a feeling of ownership of the community.
The faith-based Resurrection Project in Pilsen helps low-income people buy homes in the community. But affordable- housing advocates across the city complain there are not near enough well-funded programs of this sort. “And developments that claim affordability are not even affordable to the majority of people in Pilsen,” Ibañez added, noting that the largely immigrant neighborhood’s median income of $27,000 in 2000 is well below the city median.
Nacho Gonzalez, associate director of the University of Illinois at Chicago Neighborhoods Initiative, said gentrifying mixed-income communities are characterized by stress and upheaval. “In the abstract mixed-income housing does sound good,” he said. “You don’t have that concentration of poverty; low-income people have professional role models so they realize they can be more than a corner hustler.”
But those benefits are pointless if the low-income people are soon forced out of the area by rising property values.
“Low-income people have so much social capital–”networks, families, churches–” that when those bonds are broken it takes a long time to redevelop that social capital,” Gonzalez said.
In worst case scenarios, higher-income people moving into a mixed-income area make their neighbors feel unwelcome and criminalized. Condo associations, block clubs and police beat meetings become venues for new residents to vent their culturally- and economicallybased fears and stereotypes.
“Higher-income people have a sense of entitlement,” said Gonzalez. “They don’t want kids on the basketball courts. And they are always out-maneuvering low-income people because they have different skill sets.”
But in a best-case scenario, higher-income newcomers who move to a neighborhood craving its diversity can play an active and rewarding role in maintaining that diversity and building a true mixed-income neighborhood.
“Newcomers are in some ways dying for community,” said Jesse Mumm, an anthropologist pursuing a doctorate at Northwestern University and a long-time neighborhood activist. “They really want to feel community, they move to these neighborhoods in some cases because they don’t have that where they came from. There are existing organizations in these neighborhoods that fight for affordable housing. If people would just contribute to what’s already being done, giving time and money, they could find in that work many of those connections that really sustain people.”