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Social Tension Rises at Chicago Housing Authority Mixed-Income Development

There is a building called Westhaven Park Tower just a few blocks from the United Center on Chicago's near West Side. The building is part of the Chicago Housing Authority's billion-dollar mixed-income experiment. It was created to invent new neighborhoods with racial and class diversity. But an us-vs-them mentality is bubbling at Westhaven among condo owners and public housing residents.

Westhaven Park Tower is nine stories high. Of the 113 units, 79 belong to market-rate homeowners. CHA renters live in the rest.

Enter the lobby and the walls are colored in inviting chocolate and sage colors.

The elevators here work – unlike the ones in the now torn down public housing high rises. The market-rate homeowners have stainless steel in their units. And many other accoutrements. No one here is worried about amenities. But they are concerned about security.

SWOPE: It's like a big echo chamber. Anything here, you can hear it perfectly.

Ian Swope stands on the balcony of his one-bedroom condo that he shares with his wife Nancy. He's complaining about the late-night noise that emanates from the parking lot.

Swope and some other homeowners want CHA to continue giving $15,000 toward their security budget. And they want 24-hour security to stop loitering and unwanted guests out of the building.

Kathy Quickery is president of the Westhaven Tower condo association.

QUICKERY: I don't think it's our responsibility to go and confront the people having the problems.

HARRIS: We just don't click in with them. They look at you up and down like you crazy and all that.

Renter David Harris admits there have been complaints about him for the heavy volume of people who come to visit. He says he loves living here; its much safer and cleaner than the CHA Henry Horner Homes – the former Westhaven site. But the tension with homeowners isn't lost on him.

HARRIS: I feel that that the homeowners are racist toward the CHA residents because some of them paying their rent and some CHA residents not paying no rent. And they'll speak and I won't speak back because I'm kind of racist toward the white people.

One of the cultural clashes at Westhaven stems from how people live. Condo owners say they are happy to simply come home and enjoy their units. Those who spent years living in public housing say they are used to an environment where everyone knows everyone.

At the entire Westhaven development, 100 percent of the CHA residents are African American. Every one of them had to go through a rigorous background check, rules orientation and training sessions to get in here. The housing agency doesn't track race for homeowners but homeowner Ian Swope, who is white, says the issue isn't about race anyway.

SWOPE: I don't really look at other people's class or their racial background. I expect everybody to live in the building like I live in the building.

JOSEPH: Part of what's really underneath this is a judgment about social scientists would refer to as the undeserving poor.

That's Mark Joseph. Joseph is a professor at Case Western University who has studied mixed-income communities in Chicago.

JOSEPH: So here is being put in people's face folk who are benefiting from public subsidies yet seemingly making much of the opportunity.

Joseph's research has shown that sometimes condo owners have blamed building wrongdoings on CHA residents only to find out that a fellow homeowner put the trash in the wrong place.

And he likes to point out that Westhaven was built on federal land. Subsidies at Westhaven Park Tower also benefited homeowners, not just those paying rent. Joseph says what Westhaven needs are more opportunities for all residents to express grievances.

Crystal Palmer is the CHA tenant president for all of Westhaven. She says it's not just condo owners who want CHA to keep its commitment of paying $15,000 toward the security budget.

PALMER: I understand them asking for $15,000 just say we have a certain amount of public housing units in the building because the residents feel the same way. They need security also.

Housing officials say they are reviewing whether to give the supplement or find other ways to improve security – and communication among all residents.

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