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Some Public Housing Residents Try a New Life in Mixed Income

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They stand no more: high-rise public housing buildings that once pierced the cityscape have been demolished. So-called “mixed-income” communities are growing in their place. The largest and oldest of these communities is a place called Oakwood Shores on the South Side. Here low-income blacks have moved in next to middle class blacks. It’s all part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s billion-dollar plan to deconcentrate poverty. Other cities are eyeing the Chicago experiment because of the enormity of it. Thousands of people have been removed from CHA homes. The question is whether the new living situation has improved the lives of CHA residents.

Tune in tomorrow for part two from the series, Mixed Income, Mixed Blessing.

In some ways, Bobby Bailey’s public housing story isn’t the typical narrative we hear about life in the projects. She grew up in Ida B. Wells in the 1970s and 80s. Hers was a two-parent home with a landscaper father and housekeeper mother.

BAILEY: When I was younger, it was beautiful. Even though it was a housing project, we had fun. My father always made sure we left the neighborhood so we could see what is was like outside of the neighborhood.

During the 30-plus years that Bailey lived in Wells, life slowly deteriorated just like the paint on apartment walls and the rickety elevators. Bailey’s brother joined a gang and did a jail stint. She says another brother died from falling out of a window.

But Bailey stayed at Wells, raising her daughter while side-stepping drug dealers. The beautiful Ellis Park turned into a nonchalant drug market.

BAILEY: It got to the point where you couldn’t take kids to the park because there were so many drug addicts over there. Drug dealers, drug addicts.

Then two years ago something remarkable happened. Bailey moved into a brand new apartment in Oakwood Shores, the community replacing Wells. She’s in one of the 100-plus units slotted for Wells families.

This is the first time she’s had a dishwasher. Bailey walks her daughter to school freely. ambi On a Saturday afternoon the eight-year-old calls to tell her mother she’s on her way to the movies.

Bailey chats on the cell phone, her feet sinking in the plush carpet, an amenity she never had in Wells.

Ambi: Baily on phone with daughter.

Mixed income is the showpiece of CHA’s Plan for Transformation although it remains five years behind schedule. Some twenty-four hundred public housing families now live in these new communities.

But at Oakwood Shores only a handful of the slated public housing units are finished. Public housing residents aren’t roped into a special section. Units are integrated and indistinguishable from higher-end rentals.

Maybe it’s too early to tell if this mix is succeeding in bettering the lives of low-income residents who now call it home.

JOSEPH: There’s so much hype around it now. And it some ways it’s looked at as a silver bullet. That if we could just build these and get families in there, then society has then done its job. And it’s up to families.

One man who’s spent a lot of time at Oakwood Shores is Mark Joseph, professor at Case Western University.

JOSEPH: But the realities are that mixed-income development only takes care of part of the issues. Right now, we have much larger structural issues in our society around employment and discrimination and access to opportunity and so on. Without addressing those as well it’s going to be very hard to put on a path of self sufficiency just by changing nature of housing.

But that’s exactly what CHA hopes to achieve. And Bailey herself says being in a more peaceful environment has impacted her life.

Ambi: neighborhood sounds.

Hear that? This is what peace and quiet sounds like at Oakwood Shores. It’s what former Wells residents say they relish.

BAILEY: I love the fact that it’s minutes from shopping. Minutes from my daughter’s school. Right down the street park. Right there, a few doors down is a center and recreation and all of that for kids. The lake is still right across the bridge. Like it’s always been since I was a little girl.

There’s no CHA data on employment or income figures to show whether life is actually better for residents. But Mark Joseph has found many public housing residents say their stress level is down since moving into mixed-income neighborhoods.

JOSEPH: The level of anxiety and social pressure that came from the environments in which people used to live. When you can just people get out of environment, and so that is an important part but it’s only a part.

Still, it means a lot to Bobby Bailey. She suffers from asthma so bad that at times she can’t work. Poor health runs in her family. Indeed, high blood pressure, diabetes, even depression are common public housing ailments.

BAILEY: My sister Patricia, she’s deceased. She died last year. Her and my mother both died of congestive heart failure. My father died of pancreatic cancer.

Many of the women I talked to said their new homes aren’t about them. It’s about their children. Mixed income means cleaner, safer neighborhoods. But often the move causes angst for young people.

Ambi: gathering of young people.

A group of Oakwood Shores teens recently wrote and performed a play entitled “The Other Side of the Fence.” Here’s a scene from rehearsal between mother and son characters.

PLAY: Nobody asked me anything. Nobody asked me if I wanted to move to Oakwood Shores. You all happy to move over there. I don’t want to move over there.

MOM: Don’t you want to move somewhere safe? I’m a single working mother and I want to know while I’m at work you’re safe.

SON: Mom, aren’t you the person who always told me no place is safe? What makes Oakwood Shores safer than what’s left of the Wells? Why they gotta tear down where we live? I know it ain’t the best place in the world but I love it here, I grew up here. My friends are here. I want to stay.

MOM: I don’t know what to tell you except that we’re moving whether you like it or not.

Many of the young people moving into mixed income feel as though a piece of their identity fell into the rubble along with the demolished buildings. And their new surroundings look and feel completely different.

Ambi: Smith kitchen.

Kelly Smith shows me around her three-bedroom Oakwood Shores apartment while telling her daughter to clean up. When Smith made the move to Oakwood Shores, she also decided to transfer her children to charter schools. She says these schools are better. In fact she feels like she’s starting over here.

SMITH: Over it was just so much going on, you were scared to leave your kids or go outside and play for one minute. Over here, you can let them go outside and play and not have to worry about too much.

A criticism of mixed income is that only a fraction of CHA residents get to return to the new communities. The public housing units demolished exceed the number of replacement housing.

And Case Western’s Joseph found up to 80 percent of residents don’t meet the criteria to live there. Oakwood Shores residents like Smith and Bailey who came from Wells know they are being held to a higher standard of behavior than what was the norm at Wells.

All CHA residents new to mixed income housing must attend a class on “how to behave” before they can move in. Residents deal with it. But it raises touchy questions about class and culture.

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