Public Housing Residents Learn the Rules for Mixed Income

Public Housing Residents Learn the Rules for Mixed Income
Walkways at Oakwood Shores give the community a suburban feel, according to some residents. (Jason Reblando)
Public Housing Residents Learn the Rules for Mixed Income
Walkways at Oakwood Shores give the community a suburban feel, according to some residents. (Jason Reblando)

Public Housing Residents Learn the Rules for Mixed Income

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The mixed-income experiment is supposed to help break cycles of poverty and help create new opportunities for Chicago Housing Authority residents. But before a resident can move into Oakwood Shores, or any of the CHA mixed-income developments, he or she must pass a test. A test that raises some sensitive questions about social behavior and acceptance. The second story in Mixed Income, Mixed Blessing focuses on the success of mixed-income developments several years after their inception.

ambi: sound of class
INSTRUCTOR: Before we go any further tell me if it’s a daily chore, weekly chore or periodically. You change your bed linens? Hello…
CLASS: Weekly.
INSTRUCTOR: Okay. Take the garbage out?
CLASS: Daily.
CLASS: Weekly!
INSTRUCTOR: Put away food?
CLASS: Daily!

ambi: Sound of class continues

Melanie Toney continues this lecture with the cadence of a drill sergeant. And while she may sound condescending or even overbearing, no one here is daring to complain.

She’s a housing counselor responsible for making sure prospective residents understand what it means to fit in at a new mixed-income community.

Those in the room are some of the remaining residents living in Ida B. Wells Extension near 35th and Vincennes. Once those buildings are razed, they’ll move to another public housing development, a federally subsidized apartment – or, for the lucky few, a mixed-income unit at Oakwood Shores.
This is all under the auspices of the billion-dollar CHA Plan for Transformation.

ambi: sound of class

Before moving out of places like Wells, public housing families must connect with social service agencies to get help in areas such as job training, substance abuse counseling and financial literacy.

CHA contracts those services out, which is why Toney is running this group at a Heartland Alliance office, one of those contractors.

ambi: Sound of class

Heartland’s Latisha Bell says money matters is always a bombshell.

BELL: When integrate out into new mixed income communities it’s more of a shocker. I actually had a resident who’s lived in a development for 50-something years. Never paid utilities. And it was shocker for her when she got her first bill. And she was like, ‘Whooo! 78 dollars! How am I going to pay 78 dollars?’

TONEY: Got to pay rent on time. Can’t just pay when you want to. Moving to mixed income communities. It’s a new sheriff in town.

Imparting rules on black people is hardly a new practice. During the Great Migration, the publisher of the Chicago Defender used the newspaper as a vehicle to lecture Southern migrants on proper social behavior.

The printed rules such as:

VOICE READS: ‘Don’t promenade on the boulevards in your hog-killin’ clothes.’
VOICE READS: ‘Don’t clean your fingernails and pick your nose on the street.’
VOICE READS: ‘Don’t flirt with the grocer, especially if your hair is still chunky and full of bed lint.’

Part of that tension was whether Southern blacks could adjust to the Northern black way of living.

Decades later, it’s not just social stigma that threatens those who break the rules – CHA residents in mixed-income communities must acquiesce to the standard of living.

Three people from Oakwood Shores have been kicked out and sent back to traditional public housing. Housing officials say they didn’t meet site-specific criteria, such as working.

And at Cabrini-Green, on the city’s Near North Side, a woman renting a public housing unit was served an eviction notice when an inspection turned up a cluttered closet. After legal wrangling, the mother got to stay.

JORDAN: There’s no edict that says you have to wash dishes every night.

That’s Housing authority CEO Lewis Jordan. But he says rules, which some CHA residents helped formulate in work groups when these communities were being planned, keep an environment clean and safe.

But the rules for CHA residents living in mixed income are raising sensitive questions about the clash of culture and class. CHA head Jordan.

JORDAN: These aren’t rules a particular class of people created. This isn’t forcing a culture over another. Do we find it acceptable for folks to hang out in big groups in front of our entryway as people are trying to walk by?

JOSEPH: What’s the difference between hanging out and loitering? And what for someone may just be spending time with your friends outside, for another person is seen as loitering.

Mark Joseph is a professor at Case Western University studying Chicago mixed-income communities. Joseph says low-income neighborhoods had a different form of social control. Hanging out also brings eyes on the street to watch out for neighbors.

JOSEPH: And this is when we really get into the issues of race and class and culture and behavior that underlie a lot of what’s playing out socially in these developments and assumptions and expectations that people have about appropriate behavior. 

Sandra Young is a CHA commissioner and owns a condo at Oakwood Shores. A former resident at Wells, she recalls the drug dealing and violence in her old community. That’s why she says her new home life so lovely: there’s a higher quality of life.

YOUNG: A lot of the times when I’m walking on that walk path, I stand on the other side and I look over because it looks suburban. I just start saying a prayer. We have an opportunity to live decent like everyone else.

One of the problems at Oakwood Shores is the lack of green, public space. The result is that although Oakwood Shores is a beautiful development, there’s and a sterile quality to these cul-de-sacs. It’s often eerily silent. And that’s by design.

Public community areas are planned for the next building phase. But nearby Mandrake Park on 39th and Cottage Grove is a magnet for families craving sunshine.

ambi: Sound of people in the park

The Jackson family takes advantage of some rare warm weather this spring by barbequing – a no-no for Oakwood Shores renters. The family grills rib tips, hot dogs and chicken on a small portable grill.

Oakwood Shores resident Henry Jackson says he loves living in the new development but some rules irk him. One time he got written up.

JACKSON: If I stand waiting for the bus in the hallway in the wintertime, I get a report. Well, Mr. Jackson is hanging in the hallway. I’m waiting for the bus. It’s cameras. I’m not hanging, I’m sitting there, waiting for the bus while it’s cold.

Jackson’s father-in-law, Richard Clippard, lives with him and says he’s very content living in Oakwood Shores – but he predicts his days here are numbered.

Blacks make up nearly all those living in Oakwood Shores apartments. Clippard says there’s not much racial diversity.

CLIPPARD: The whole idea that they should mix more. I imagine they don’t want to come because they got the blacks over here.

He adds that means people like him might be on the way out.

Tomorrow, Natalie Moore reports on how mixed-income is transforming the larger community, creating a tug of war between progress and displacement. 

Read more about mixed income communities at The Chicago Reporter.