How the poor fare among richer neighbors

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Ann Griffin sits contentedly in the sunny living room of her immaculate new condominium. She's proud, and she makes no attempt to hide it.

For years, she had lived in Cabrini Green, one of the most notorious housing projects in the US, surrounded by fields of concrete, halls of dim fluorescent light, and the too-familiar sound of gunfire.

Now, Cabrini Green is under the shadow of the wrecking ball, and Ms. Griffin finds herself in a fully air-conditioned, red-brick home, situated among wrought-iron fences and manicured lawns.

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Some of her neighbors are paying off $200,000 mortgages. She pays $54 a month from her widow's pension, part of one of America's most dramatic public-housing experiments.

For most of the past decade, housing officials have razed monolithic housing projects and replaced them with single-family homes designed for poor and working-class families. But Chicago is moving a step further, trying to integrate homeowners from the projects into middle- and - in Griffin's case - even upper-middle-class neighborhoods.

There's a catch: Inspectors periodically drop by to make sure the house is tidy, the grass is mowed, and radio volume dials have been kept below 10. While some residents have complained, others see it as an invaluable opportunity to improve their lives.

"It's nice," Ms. Griffin says. "It's beautiful. The neighbors are beautiful."

Since 1993, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has given $4 billion to 90 cities to rehab or demolish housing projects and build anew. Other cities such as Seattle have similarly ambitious programs. But Chicago's $1.5 billion plan to renovate or tear down and replace some 25,000 public housing units in over 50 high-rises is by far the largest undertaking in the country.

Over the next five to 10 years, some residents will move into mixed-income communities designed to blend in with the community, while others will settle into complexes of new low-rise homes that are solely public housing units. Still others will use federal housing vouchers to search for living quarters in the private rental market.

"What we want to avoid is the isolation that Chicago Housing Authority residents have felt for years," says CHA spokesman Francisco Arcaute. "We want a community where you cannot tell the difference between a public-housing resident and a non-public-housing resident."

Breaking up projects and creating mixed-income communities, though, is a delicate task. No matter how bad the conditions in public housing may seem to outsiders, many residents are reluctant to leave and are ill-prepared for the drastic change of moving out.

"It's really hard when you are a second or third generation from public housing for you to understand that (1) you need to get a job, (2) it has to have a livable wage, and (3) you have to be able to put some of that money away," says Martina Pilar Shera, executive director of Cabrini Green Youth and Family Services, a social-services agency.

Indeed, many people living in Cabrini Green have little education and have been dependent on welfare for years. By moving some of the most responsible residents into mixed-income settings, officials hope the new residents will find role models among their neighbors.

"When you have no role models and all you know is poverty and, in many cases, despair, it's difficult to pick yourself up and do something different," says Elinor Bacon, HUD's deputy assistant secretary for public-housing investments.

Yet private-property managers have made it clear they won't let just anyone in. They have been screening prospective residents for criminal records, and in the development where Griffin lives, residents also abide by strict rules: Don't blast loud music, out-of-town visitors can't stay longer than five days, and no more than two children can live in a two-bedroom condominium.

To some, such standards may seem an imposition. Griffin takes a matter-of-fact view: "I like it quiet," she says, with a wide grin.

In Seattle, housing authorities also screen, but they've found ways to tailor their mixed-income townhomes and single-family dwellings - housing an equal number of public-housing residents, low-income families, and middle-class people - to their needs. Many public-housing residents there are Asian immigrants, and social services are chipping in to help them obtain citizenship, child care, and jobs.

"It's a very well-implemented program, because they didn't just throw residents together and expect them to make it work on their own," says Jim Kjeldsen, a spokesman for the Seattle Housing Authority.

Such mixed-income developments - in Seattle and Chicago - help take away the stigma associated with living in public housing. Yet some experts are worried that cities are not replacing the public housing they demolish with an equal number of units.

Instead, housing officials are increasingly relying on federal housing vouchers, which can be a problem because of a shortage of affordable housing in hot residential markets. Sometimes residents using the federal vouchers end up clustered in fragile low-income neighborhoods, reconcentrating the poor and exacerbating the area's existing problems, says Arthur Naparstek, who has written about cities' experiences with HUD's grant program.

Judging by appearances, though, the community immediately surrounding Cabrini Green, which is being rebuilt as single-family homes, is showing signs of improvement. Even before the wrecking ball has touched any of the boarded-up high-rises, commercial developments have spread as fast as witch grass in formerly vacant lots. A block away now stands a grocery store, a video store chain, and a Starbucks.

"I don't know if it's going to work," says Susan Popkin, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington of these experiments. "There are certainly a lot of good forces trying."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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