For richer, for poorer
America's mixed-income experiment
ABOUT a year ago Sandra Young moved into Oakwood Shores. The mixed-income development, south of downtown Chicago, is neat and new. But head west along 38th Street and the tidy scene gives way to an expanse of dirt, rubble and what remains of the Ida B. Wells Homes, where Ms Young lived from 1978. Wells was where she brought up her children, where she attended picnics and dances, where she dealt with rats and gangs, and where she, as a tenant leader, helped plan for the demolition of her own housing estate and two nearby, so that Oakwood Shores could rise in their place.
Ten sites in Chicago are being reborn as mixed-income communities, part of the city's big plan to transform its public housing. Cities across America have seen similar developments, driven largely by HOPE VI, a controversial federal law passed in 1992 to target the worst housing estates (the acronym stands for Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere). Now, with HOPE VI up for reauthorisation, cities are seeing some results of the mixed-income experiment.
A few favourite success stories have come from Richard Baron, a developer based in St Louis. With Murphy Park in St Louis and Centennial Place in Atlanta, Mr Baron helped create models for other estates: a developer uses public money to leverage private investment, builds public housing within mixed-income developments and owns the estate. (Previously, only the government owned public housing.) Centennial Place, which Mr Baron built with a local developer, has been a particular source of pride. It has one of the best schools in Atlanta. A good school, Mr Baron explains, not only serves local children, but unites families of all incomes. A further selling point for Centennial Place is that its crime rate dropped 93% between 1993 and 2004, according to a report for the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC think-tank.
Such statistics suggest that mixed-income estates help to revive neighbourhoods and attract further investment. Others have produced less encouraging numbers. In a survey of five public-housing developments, the Urban Institute, another Washington think-tank, found that in 2005 only 5% of original residents had moved back to the revitalised sites.
No city is debating the displacement of residents more heatedly than Chicago. When the city's “Plan for Transformation” was announced in 1999, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) had a whopping 25,450 leaseholders, many in some of the most dangerous housing estates in America. When the plan is completed, supposedly by 2015, the city will have redeveloped 25,000 public-housing units, with 7,697 built in mixed-income developments. It is an epic task.
At Oakwood Shores, with only the first phase built, about 150 original residents have moved back. The development will eventually offer 3,000 homes: 1,320 market-rate units, 680 “affordable” ones (for those earning below 60% of the area's median income) and 1,000 units to replace the 1,426 public-housing flats that were occupied at the time when the redevelopment was announced.
The challenge, as building continues, is to help more residents return. Under a contract with the CHA, displaced tenants have the right to move into the new developments. But many have trouble meeting screening criteria. At Oakwood Shores the developer, the Community Builders, worked with residents and their advocates to draw up leasing requirements. These now include working 30 hours a week, passing a criminal background check and being tested for drugs each year.
The work requirement, according to the developer, has been the biggest hurdle. More than a year before new buildings are scheduled to be finished, caseworkers call residents who might want to move back. If a resident does not have a job, a caseworker tries to help him get one. Spruiell White of the MacArthur Foundation, which supports such efforts, describes an array of barriers, from poor literacy to poor health. The CHA is launching a programme this month that it hopes will smooth the path to work.
The share of residents moving back to the mixed-income developments will probably increase as more projects are completed. But many will stay away, either because they do not meet a site's criteria or because they are settled elsewhere, many using vouchers. “I think we can solve one problem,” Mr White says of tearing down the old estates, “and create an entirely new set of issues...But that's the nature of evolution.”