The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 13, 2013

25 Years of Working with Chicago Public Housing: A History of Reform

March 13, 2013

Note: This is the third in a series of blog posts from Sue Popkin on her long history working with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and the results of a ten-year study  on the experiences of CHA families as they were relocated and their buildings were demolished and replaced with new, mixed-income housing.

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Chicago Housing Authority's Old Ida B. Wells Homes and new Oakwood Shores Mixed Income Development. Photo by Flicker user Zo187 used under Creative Common license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

As noted in my previous posts, I first came to the Chicago Housing Authority in the mid-1980s as a graduate student working on my dissertation. I went in and out of CHA developments during that first spring, each time more convinced that these communities were so troubled that they were undermining the life chances of their residents.

Getting Away from the Shootings and Violence

When I finished my PhD, I had the opportunity to become the research director for several studies examining the Gautreaux housing desegregation program, which provided vouchers for current and former CHA residents to move to areas that were less than 30 percent African American. In practice, that meant most moved to the suburbs around Chicago, while a smaller number were allowed to use their vouchers in “revitalizing areas” of the city.

The study is famous for its findings that suburban movers ended up more likely to be employed and their children seemed to do better in school. But what struck me was the fact that the women we spoke to—some of whom had left CHA more than 10 years earlier—still talked about how glad they were to feel safe, to get away from the shootings and violence that had taken over CHA’s communities.

“The Sweeps”

In the late 1980s, the CHA began an intensive anti-crime effort. The most controversial component was what the agency called “the sweeps,” where CHA police and staff would literally shut down a building, go door to door checking for weapons, drugs, and illegal residents, install steel security doors and guard booths, and issue every resident an ID.

In 1992, I responded to a request from the CHA to evaluate their anti-drug initiative. That small project evolved into a seven-year study that tracked residents’ responses to the agency’s efforts to control crime and gang violence.

We watched as the CHA spent nearly $500 million on state-of-the art anti-crime initiatives that ultimately proved futile as the chaos and violence overwhelmed the combined efforts of police, security guards, and resident activists. By 1998, one of the most effective resident leaders we’d come to know told us that she was so distressed by the violence overtaking her development that she was chain smoking and had to take medication to “calm her nerves.”

Address Chronic Violence through Redevelopment

Toward the end of our research, the CHA began its first major demolition and revitalization efforts in the Henry Horner Homes—one of the three developments we’d been tracking. While residents were distressed about losing their community, for the first time, they saw real and sustained reductions in crime and disorder.

We concluded that, sadly, the only way to address the chronic violence and chaos was to demolish the large developments and replace them with new housing. But we also wondered if the residents who had endured the worst days of CHA would really end up better off. It seemed unlikely they would meet the criteria for new, mixed-income housing, and there was a real possibility that this new effort would just be one more blow for these already-vulnerable families.

But the study we released this week shows that many of those fears were unfounded. Instead, residents are now far better off than they were.

Some of our findings:

  • The majority of residents now live in decent housing in neighborhoods where they feel substantially safer.
  • Those who live in the CHA’s remaining rehabilitated developments report better conditions than those who are renting private-market units with vouchers—a finding that speaks to the CHA’s investment and to the variability of its now very large (more than 36,000 unit) voucher program.
  • Most exciting is that Demonstration participants’ mental and physical health has improved significantly and their employment gains have held.

But along with this good news are reasons for concern:

  • Though their parents are doing better, children and youth continue to struggle.
  • Voucher holders report trouble managing utility costs.

While residents’ new neighborhoods are better than the old CHA developments, most are still racially segregated and poor.

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