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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Trying to instill independence

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.

Even most critics of the guidelines agree that high expectations are a good thing. But employment is just one piece of getting a derailed life back on track, they note - and often the last one to come into place after things like housing, childcare, and domestic turmoil are stabilized. The firm employment rules may be beyond the reach of many residents, and they question if the support and training will be enough.

Welfare research in Illinois has shown that even in good economic times, only 30 percent of recipients find 30 hours of work a week, says Rose Karasti, a senior analyst with the Chicago Jobs Council. She worries that the new requirements don't take into account the realities of a temporary or often fluctuating job market. She also thinks the training programs in place aren't meant for people who already have a certain skill level.

Peter Holsten, the developer responsible for North Town Village in Cabrini, admits the requirements may pose a challenge at a new mixed-income community his company is creating. At Hilliard, he says, the literacy rate is around a third- or fourth-grade level - much lower than at Cabrini. "It's a huge educational process to undertake before we can even get them into jobs that are living-wage or meaningful," he says. "But we're not going to ban them. We're just going to do double duty" with job training and literacy.

It's that kind of flexibility that was central to success in Atlanta, says James Brooks, former deputy director of the housing authority there, who's been a consultant for several Chicago projects. "It's one thing when you look at this on a bureaucratic level, but another when you think about individual families," he says.

Chicago's new rules are stricter than in many similar communities around the country. But Mr. Brooks believes the families that are more self sufficient "will thrive" in the mixed-income communities. "The hope is that public housing goes back to being transitional housing, which it was originally intended to be," he says.

Lack of credibility

One challenge the CHA faces is simply trust among residents. Most have been skeptical of the transformation plan to begin with, seeing it as a "land grab" to benefit developers. The new rules just cement that perception. "It's just what we initially said: They're getting rid of public housing and not looking out for the people," says Carol Steele, president of a Cabrini Green advisory council. "They have the contract that says you have the right to return, but it didn't tell you about all the stipulations that go with that."

At Stateway Gardens, a South side development that has already seen many high rises torn down, Lloyd "Pete" Haywood is no longer sure he even wants to live in the soon-to-arrive mixed-income community. He's lived in Stateway his whole life, moving three times as buildings have come down. He doesn't want to leave.

The tenancy rules may preclude him anyway: He has bad credit, carries debt, and only works sporadically at construction jobs. But he's also convinced the new communities discriminate against the neediest people like him. "Every time it's a new twist they add," Mr. Haywood says.

Ultimately, many agree the CHA needs to improve its credibility. "Whatever the merits of the different criteria, the perception of people who have long had a vision of this mixed-income community is that they're not welcome," says Jamie Kalven, a writer and local public-housing activist. "It's so demoralizing for residents."

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