Report: CHA plan has improved residents’ lives

March 11, 2013

(WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
Oakwood Shores is a mixed-income development that replaced the Ida B. Wells public housing development.

For residents who moved out of Chicago’s notorious public housing high rises in the last decade, life has improved. But many children in these families suffer from low school performance and growing up with chronic violence.

A new report released Monday by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, paints a largely positive picture of the Chicago Housing Authority efforts. The study comes while the CHA is retooling its Plan for Transformation, an ambitious multi-year effort begun in 1999 that broke up concentrated high-rise developments.

The Urban Institute’s Sue Popkin has studied CHA for the past 25 years. At the beginning of that period, she recalled, one could observe high rises with backed-up incinerators, dank hallways, gang wars and faulty elevators.

“I didn’t expect to be in a place 10 years later where I would say this is basically a housing intervention and it’s worked okay. For the most part people are living in better housing in safer neighborhoods,” Popkin said.

CHA’s controversial $1 billion Plan for Transformation tore down high rises and replaced them with mixed-income communities. The Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green were synonymous with Chicago’s skyline and had the worst housing reputation in the country. Since the Plan began, CHA has moved almost 16,000 family households from derelict buildings. The agency has rehabilitated or built 19,000 public housing units, which includes 3,200 in mixed income.

Several years ago the Urban Institute told CHA that moving families wasn’t simply a construction issue; to succeed, residents needed services. Popkin said that steep learning curve for CHA has paid off after the housing agency implemented a strong resident service program in 2007.         

Researchers say that vulnerable residents need intensive wraparound services to address mental health, low literacy and lack of job skills. The report suggests that residents who’ve received intensive case management have fared better. The services cost about $2,900 annually per household but can increase family stability and reduce depression. CHA families have grappled with the trauma of poverty: physical health problems, anxiety, high mortality rates.

But Popkin said it’s not all a pretty picture. Emphasis on adults has meant that improvements have not always trickled down to children. Relocation has been especially hard on them and causes disruption in school and socially.

“I worry a lot about the kids,” Popkin said. “The services that helped the adults do better don’t seem to have helped the kids. It’s an urgent issue. These are kids who have grown up in families who’ve lived in chronic disadvantage for generations and it’s going to take more than just moving to slightly safer places to help get them on a better trajectory.”

Some young people have struggled academically and have had a tough time adapting to new neighborhoods where they are perceived as outsiders. And they continue to live amid violence. The Urban Institute is currently working on CHA incorporating a dual generation approach at Altgeld Gardens, a public housing development on the southern edge of the city.

“Frankly, at this point it’s going to be a matter of money,” Popkin said. “This is obviously not CHA’s fault. But the sequester and everything else that’s going on, I worry about the threat to human services at a point where we really need it to make a difference.”

Mary Howard leads resident services for CHA said the agency is looking at how to provide services to children whose families participate in the housing voucher program. There are 38,000 Chicago households that use vouchers to rent in the private market.

“One of the things that we’re looking at is how to open up some of our opportunities that have traditionally been available for public housing families to the house choice voucher population,” Howard said. For example, making sure discounted park district programs reach these youth.

Resident leaders say they want CHA to listen to their suggestions about what’s working and what’s not.

“Let us help you out. Work with us,” Francine Washington told housing officials Monday.

CHA’s Plan for Transformation is the largest of its kind in the country. Researchers say the housing agency’s mistakes and triumphs can inform federal policy. The Plan is expected to be completed by 2015.