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Mixed-Income Communities Bring Neighborhood Changes

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Mixed-income communities are supposed to bring sweeping changes to neighborhoods marred by disinvestment and isolation. But critics of these new enclaves say they trigger gentrification. The Chicago Housing Authority has resettled a fraction its public housing residents into these communities. One of the oldest is Oakwood Shores. In the final of our series Mixed Income, Mixed Blessing we look at how the social experiment is affecting the larger community.

Kelly Smith lives in an Oakwood Shores public housing apartment with her husband and children. It’s on the same block she grew up on when her address was part of the Ida B. Wells CHA development.

When Smith was 17 and living in Wells, a friend had a party in her building. A shooting broke out the teenager fled.

SMITH: And as I was running around the corner. That’s when the shooting starting getting worse. That really scared me. I was actually right there at the time. My heart just dropped to my stomach.

Today, her Oakwood Shores address looks more like a suburban subdivision.

It’s part of the North Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood near Lake Michigan. In mixed-income communities, like this one, affluent families are supposed to rub off on lower-income families. There’s yet to be a Norman Rockwell-esque portrait of these neighbors barbequing or even having block club meetings together.

But private developers overseeing the experiment now use a different measuring stick. They see themselves as being a major catalyst in revamping the larger neighborhood.

DAWSON: We’ve kind of over-emphasized the mixed income as opposed to a neighborhood that was emerging to what it was to what it is. As any neighborhood does. We really are proponents of folks, residents being able to come to this neighborhood.

Felicia Dawson is a point person with The Community Builders, the nonprofit developing Oakwood Shores. Dawson and property manager Daisy Black say they want public housing residents to shed the CHA label.

DAWSON/BLACK: They wear the stigma that’s given to them. They wear it. And they’re proud of it. Let’s be clear about that. They’re not ashamed that that’s where they came from. But at the same time what we’re saying is: now we’re moving on, here’s the next level of opportunity, growth.

As you drive the streets around Oakwood Shores, there are small signs of uplift. Three charter schools have been started here in the last four years, offering promises of better education. Prior to 1993 there was little to no development in this neighborhood. Ten years later the value of building permits issued totaled more than fifty-million dollars. So new homes and condos are dotting once empty lots.

Ambi of park…swings

But of all the signs that one might deem progress, loud and clear is Mandrake Park, across the street from the mixed-income development. The city created the park in 2000. And if residents mix anywhere, it’s likely to be here.

PAYNE: I love it over here. Plus, where I used to live I got tired of going to the Laundromat. There’s washer and dryer inside. I love it down here.

That’s Vonkisha Payne. She moved into an Oakwood Shores two-bedroom unit and pays $850 a month. She says she doesn’t mind living next to public housing residents. And, in fact, this was one of the only decent places to rent around here at that price, so she’s pleased with mixed income.

Before Wells got torn down, the nearby CHA Lakefront high rise properties were demolished in 1999. And transformation started to trickle around that time. But all this change doesn’t sit right with some people.

BENNETT: It’s a façade for we know gentrification, I think. In that it only brings a third of the residents back.

Shannon Bennett is an organizer for Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, or KOCO. The group has been organizing tenant councils to preserve affordable housing in the larger area.

BENNETT: Now people might say, well, we can’t have concentrated pockets of poverty or things like that. We’re not of course advocating that. But we are advocating a fair, meaningful balance of people who have been the long-term residents of this neighborhood.

And according to the Chicago Rehab Network, about 40 percent of renters in the greater neighborhood are rent burdened – that means they spend more than one-third of their income on rent. So if this neighborhood turns completely, these people stand to be out of luck.

Bennett himself lives in a nearby mixed income development called Jazz on the Boulevard. And he has mixed feelings about this. Living here means he’s part of the gentrification process, but the rent was so affordable amid all of the condo conversions, he felt he had to grab the place. I get the impression he’s holding his nose as he writes his rent check.

And like others around here, he’s torn between loyalty to the old neighborhood and hope that new businesses will come.

That’s what happened at Cabrini Green.


BURNETT: Before these buildings were torn down you never would have got a Dominick’s across the street. The market-rate residents what they do for us over in this neighborhood … when they come to the neighborhood then the incomes come and the demographics change and then you start having businesses that want to move over here.

That’s Alderman Walter Burnett at a mixed-income grip-and-grin event at Cabrini Green on the Near North Side. Burnett might be right about the Dominick’s. But what long-time residents of the Oakland area want to know is why investment – whether public or private – only arrives when prosperous people move in?

It’s true. Starbucks and other chain businesses have moved into the Cabrini area. A few years ago The Chicago Reporter found that residential property sales within blocks of mixed-income developments reached a combined total of more than $2 billion.

One city that has been measuring whether mixed income improves the lives of low-income families is Atlanta.

BOSTON: There were dramatic improvements among families who moved into the mixed income communities relative to their status when they lived in public housing projects.

Thomas Boston is an economist at Georgia Tech University. Atlanta is doing mixed income on a much smaller scale. But it’s still instructive to see what’s happening there.

BOSTON: There’s been a cluster of assets that have been built into the communities that families have access, too. In addition to having access to better and higher quality housing they also have access to improved schools. Professor Boston found family income went up for public housing residents living in mixed income.

The economist is working on a Chicago study to be released later this year. Maybe that study will find similar benefits for public housing residents living in Oakwood Shores.

But how that mixed income-community is improving the surrounding neighborhood is a delicate question. Some residents have noticed a billboard advertising Oakwood Shoes as the “next great lakefront community.” The sign appears to feature a white toddler playing in the sand.

When white families start to move into this neighborhood, and the new grocery store finally arrives, African Americans who have long called this area home may find the only affordable place to stay will be in mixed income.

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