Chicago raises the bar for living in public housing
As part of the largest US attempt at a public-housing makeover, some residents are now being required to work.
Driving down Halsted Street in Chicago's Near North neighborhood, the contrasts are stark. The collection of new red-brick three- and four-story apartment buildings that make up the mixed-income North Town Village - all with tailored landscaping and individual balconies - eventually gives way to old Cabrini Green high-rises, ugly concrete behemoths that sometimes have more plywood than glass in their windows.Skip to next paragraph
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The move toward mixed-income communities - an integration of public, affordable, and market-rate housing - has already made Chicago the nation's premier laboratory for making over its public housing stock. And it's had some success: Portions of the once infamous Cabrini neighborhood, a symbol for the nation's public-housing errors of the 1970s and '80s, are coming to resemble the high-priced areas that surround it.
Now the city is launching another experiment in its mixed-income communities that, although controversial, could end up being replicated across the country.
Recently, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), as part of its plan to select who can live in the mixed-income neighborhoods, decided to mandate a self- sufficiency ethic. Among other things, heads of household will have to work 30 hours a week. All other adults over 18 must either work or attend self-sufficiency, education, or basic-skills programs for 30 hours a week. It's the first city to carry the responsibility ethic this far in public housing.
Proponents hope the requirements will be a tough-love incentive to get public-housing residents off the government dole and on the road to independence, similar in some ways to the welfare reforms of recent years. But critics contend the requirements are unreasonable for a population with little work experience, especially in an economy that's faltering. They also see it as a way of "creaming" off the most desirable residents for the model mixed-income communities, while pushing the rest of those in subsidized housing out into more isolated units or out of the system altogether.
The move is raising basic questions of finance and fairness in public housing:
• If mixed-income communities are the goal, how do you balance the needs of market-rate tenants while still serving the public-housing population?
• Do strict requirements cater to middle-class anxieties without looking at the realities of peoples' lives?
• Assuming some demands are necessary, just how much is reasonable to ask?
"Obviously, no one opposes work," says Kate Walz, a lawyer at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago. "But the concern is that we'll have these model, mixed-income developments, with a lot of resources and access to public transportation and new schools, while all families ineligible will be pushed out to the same old public-housing developments, so nothing will have changed."
CHA officials, on the other hand, see the rules as fair, flexible, and necessary to make the new communities function well. "We want to create an incentive, and we think the way to change behavior is to create something people want," says Charles Levesque, deputy general counsel for the CHA. "For too long, expectations have been nonexistent. That creates a cycle of dependency, and we want to break that cycle."
Not everything is set in stone, he notes. Heads of household, for instance, will have a 12-month grace period in which they can look for work or attend job training. The CHA will help people find work or put together the 30 hours of related activities, and those who can't meet the requirements will still have a home in traditional public housing elsewhere.