Integrating the Inner City

Professor Robert Chaskin's in-depth study of three mixed-income developments in Chicago.

By William Harms

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


Chicago's mixed experience with mixed-income housing.

Integrating Inner City Book


Chicago launched a $3 million project in 1999 to remake public housing and address the problems of concentrated poverty. SSA Professor Robert Chaskin, and Mark Joseph, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University, studied the effort and published their findings in Integrating the Inner City, The Promise and Perils of Mixed Income Housing Transformation, published in November 2015. They did an in-depth study of three mixed-income developments. They found that new, mixed-income housing developments that replaced the former high-rise public housing structures improved neighborhoods economically. However, former Chicago Public Housing residents who moved to the developments were often made to feel unwelcomed and continued to live in poverty. They suggest a number of strategies for overcoming the problems, including broadening the range of incomes for residents, finding ways to improve incomes for CHA residents, improving public spaces to encourage better use by residents, and looking at new ways to build community.


Public housing has long been recognized as a massive failure of public policy, and a recent effort to reform has had mixed success, according to Integrating the Inner City: The Promise and Perils of Mixed-Income Housing Transformation by SSA professor Robert Chaskin and Mark Joseph, associate professor at Case Western Reserve University. The changes revitalized neighborhoods with new housing, which replaced the decaying public housing complexes. The neighborhoods became safer. But benefits of this transformation have largely not been realized for the majority of public housing residents relocated to make way for the new developments.

he two scholars spent six years studying the largest effort in the nation's history designed to remake public housing and address concentrated urban poverty, Chicago's $3 billion Plan for Transformation, launched in 1999. In their book, published in November 2015 by the University of Chicago Press, Chaskin and Joseph look at the assumptions behind the plan, present groundbreaking findings from their extensive fieldwork, highlight key policy implications, and make recommendations for addressing many of the outcomes of the Transformation.

Colorful book with title integrating the inner city

Central to the Transformation was the replacement of large-scale public housing complexes into mixed-income communities.

By the time city officials began considering the Plan for Transformation, conditions in Chicago had become desperate. Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) residents' average income was $4,665. A total of 95 percent of CHA residents were African American, and almost 50 percent were under age fifteen.

"Eleven of the fifteen poorest census tracts in the nation contained CHA developments. The physical environment of the developments also deteriorated. Residents endured broken elevators, erratic heat and utilities, poor sanitation, vandalism, and increasing numbers of vacant units," Chaskin and Joseph found.

To get a better look at how the Transformation worked, Chaskin and Joseph did an in-depth study of three mixedincome developments replacing public housing: Oakwood Shores and Park Boulevard, both on the South Side, and Westhaven Park on the West Side.

The new housing, erected by private developers, includes units for public housing residents as well as higher-income renters and owners. This mixed-income housing was intended to create new opportunities for public housing residents who had previously lived in highly segregated communities that limited their access to opportunity in the city at large and contributed to their continued poverty.

"At the center of the Plan is a stated emphasis on integration—on breaking down the barriers that have left public housing residents isolated in racially segregated, severely economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and, through relocation and community development, incorporating them into the broader contexts, institutions, and opportunities provided by the city as a whole," the authors write. But achieving effective integration through housing is more complicated than simply moving poor and wealthier people to the same development, the authors discovered as they document how the program has met challenges. Housing redevelopment, by itself, is an ineffective way of overcoming the problem of poverty.

Mixed-income developments have been effective in improving housing and promoting economic (and sometimes, to some extent, racial) diversity in the neighborhoods relocated public housing residents move to, the authors point out. But a variety of factors, including the way the new communities were organized and how the people who moved in responded to each other resulted in a new kind of dynamic that left the CHA residents feeling disadvantaged and excluded.

"This failure raises significant concerns about the likelihood of achieving more broadly shared benefits from the substantial redevelopment that remains to be completed and about the longer-term stability and viability of the existing mixed income communities," they continue.

Trying to find solutions to housing probl ems for disadvantaged people has a long history. The first public housing was built in the wake of the Great Depression to provide affordable housing and replace substandard housing in many poor areas. Public housing was significantly expanded in the 1950s and 1960s in cities across the country.

Chart that discusses race and housing occupancy between 1990-2010


In an effort to overcome the problems of public housing, the US Congress made a commitment to mixed-income developments with the launch in 1992 of HOPE VI, part of the Housing and Community Development Act. The change envisioned using market forces to help encourage a deconcentration of poverty.

The Transformation in Chicago is part of a broader policy trend nationally and internationally, especially in Western Europe. Studying the Transformation thus provided an important research opportunity for Chaskin and Joseph. Most other research on public housing transformation has focused on the impact of demolition and relocation.

In contrast, "our principal focus on the mixed-income development component examines these policies as community interventions—efforts to reshape urban space, remake urban neighborhoods, and integrate public housing residents into new, well-functioning, economically diverse communities. So there was a real opportunity, and a real need, to understand how this is working on the ground and for the people who live in these new communities," says Chaskin.

Joseph, associate professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western University, came into the project with the experience of having run a youth enrichment program at a housing development in Atlanta, GA that was among the first to be transformed in the early 1990s into a mixed-income community. He later moved to Chicago, where he took up graduate studies at the University's Harris School of Public Policy. He received a PhD in 2002 and when he became a post-doctoral scholar at SSA, he and Chaskin worked together to develop and launch the study.

With support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Chaskin and Joseph and their research team conducted extensive interviews with residents, developers, and others. They also gathered administrative and archival data and engaged in extensive observational fieldwork, including attending community meetings. Leading up to the publication of the book, they presented their findings periodically to CHA executives, developers, and civic leaders involved in the redevelopments and published a series of research papers and briefs.

In addition to mixed-income housing, renovation of some family and senior housing, the expansion of public housing choice vouchers to move public housing residents into subsidized private housing were all part of the Plan for Transformation.

The mixed-income developments in Chaskin's and Joseph's study all received considerable financing from private and public sources. The private developers were responsible for building the units, finding tenants, setting up social services for CHA residents, and for organizing community events.

Train stop sign that says 35 Bronzeville

That plan had some substantial shortcomings, the authors learned. The developments were designed to meet the expectations of the developers by appealing to higher income people. They were meant to promote interactions that would encourage poorer people to seek new opportunities. The approach did not provide a chance for the poorer people to participate in the initial planning.

The approach has tended to favor market-oriented goals over social goals. As a result, the new communities were places where the poor lived among higher income people but were still not incorporated into the community. The poor felt economically and socially excluded.

Although the transformation was intended to improve the lives of public housing residents, the CHA restrictions for the new mixed-income developments became a particular burden. In order to meet lease compliance requirements, CHA residents have to be working at least thirty hours a week, have no unpaid rent or utility bills, pass a drug test, and pass a three-year criminal background check. Residents can be designated as "working to meet" eligibility requirements and be accepted to the developments if they are engaged with service providers. They are then given one year to meet the criteria. Allowances are made for people with disabilities and those attending school.

The new eligibility requirements and a host of other factors also prevented many public housing residents from moving to the mixed-income communities. Ten years after the Transformation began, only about 13 percent of the nearly 10,000 residents still living in CHA (non-senior) subsidized housing (and only 8 percent of the nearly 17,000 leaseholders in the system at the start of Transformation) were living in mixed-income housing sites, said Chaskin and Joseph.

Man riding his bicycle outside of the starbucks

Overall, 40 percent of relocated CHA residents moved to subsidized housing in the private market using housing vouchers while 32 percent returned to traditional, renovated public housing.

The intention of the mixed-income developments was to create a space where poor and higher income residents could share activities and learn to create new vibrant, economically diverse communities that would benefit CHA residents and be attractive to higher-income newcomers. The fieldwork revealed vast differences in outlooks between the public housing residents and their more affluent neighbors as developers tried to create new communities of mixed-income residents.

"I think we came in with the idea that it was going to be like this big happy community where all mixed-income—you know, public housing, market rate—were going to be playing together, neighbors were going to be chatting it up. And we've scaled that back," one community stakeholder said. As one public housing resident in Park Boulevard described it, "You're trying to interact, but it's just like you're invisible. Nobody wants to recognize you. I know what the problem is. It's them. It ain't me. I can interact with anybody."

The community meetings and other organized activities, such as barbeques, picnics and holiday celebrations were not attended by members of all of the groups. "We do community bingo, we have salsa class, we have stepping class, we have financial workshops, and 90 percent of our participants would be public housing. We have very few [residents of] market-rate or [affordable units] that would sort of attach because there was a stigma that any offerings were sort of social service," said a development manager.

A resident told researchers, "I was very stressed out here because it takes more to live under these rules as opposed to [in my former public housing development]. We didn't have the rules and people here watch [your behavior]. [They] make sure you empty the garbage right or the kids [are not] too loud, so I've been stressed here."

Buildings in the city

The book makes suggestions for how the situation could be improved to make the housing developments work better. The problems actually begin when the housing opportunities are advertised to appeal to people who can afford to buy condominiums in the developments or pay market-rate rent, the authors contend. Those potential residents should be aware of the mixed-income nature of the development and about the social goals in that particular site, Chaskin and Joseph point out. Marketing materials, meant to attract higher income purchasers of units and renters, frequently do not mention that CHA residents live in the developments.

Another suggestion concerns the problem of social distance, which is dramatic between the poorest and wealthiest residents. A broader range of incomes for people in the developments would decrease the sharp contrasts between the wealthier residents and the poorer ones, the authors suggest.

Improving the incomes of CHA residents is another recommendation as most public housing residents who moved into the mixed-income developments did not see improvements in their economic situations. "Indeed, at the threshold of the Great Recession, fewer than half of the relocated public housing families in mixed-income developments in Chicago had any income from employment, despite the requirement of employment eligibility in most mixed-income sites," write Chaskin and Joseph.

CHA could help to improve people's incomes and employability through education and vocational training, the authors contend. The Plan for Transformation had a major work force initiative, a five-year partnership with the city, the CHA, and the Partnership for New Communities. It surpassed its goals and placed 5,185 relocated public housing residents in jobs while helping them increase their skills and earnings. Individual annual earnings remained low, however, under $11,000.

Another source of jobs would come from the mixed-income developments themselves. "Development professionals note that one of the benefits of these mixed-income public housing redevelopments has been the number jobs created, particularly for construction, but also in allied tasks and services," they write. Public housing residents could be trained for these jobs and community benefit agreements could be negotiated with employers who invest in the revitalized communities.

Developing longer-term assets such as encouraging saving via individual accounts with matched saving provisions is another promising opportunity. Oakwood Shores and Roosevelt Square (site of the former ABLA Homes) worked with CHA's Choose-to-Own program to encourage public housing residents to consider home ownership.

Another suggestion is to take a new look at community building. "This is no easy task, and it is obviously risky given the need to attract market-rate renters and owners," the scholars find. "Establishing more inclusive forums—resident associations, neighborhood associations—to support deliberation and decision making among residents across incomes and housing tenures may be a key element of more equitable, and ultimately, more sustainable mixed-income communities."

The public spaces within neighborhoods need to be designed for general use and reflect the needs of the entire community, the authors contend. The communities should include places that can be shared by all, including stores, coffee shops, recreational facilities, and schools.

Improvements also need to be made in the help given to individuals in the developments who are CHA residents.

"More attention needs to be paid, and more resources dedicated to providing social services and supports for residents with intensive needs and to supply, particularly for youth 'primary supports' that offer normative contexts and resources to foster social and individual development," they point out.

Although these suggestions can improve how the mixed income communities operate, a bigger problem remains concerning the ability of housing policy to impact poverty.

Housing alone cannot solve the problem of urban poverty. "It is very clear that the central reliance on housing policy and expectations for income mixing are insufficient to address—are not in fact really designed to address—other structural factors that create and reproduce urban poverty," Chaskin says.

"Inequalities in access to quality education, the absence of living-wage employment for those with limited education and skills, and a range of institutional barriers . . . all contribute to the persistence of urban poverty and the difficulty of plotting a path toward self-sufficiency and social and economic development," he adds.

Chart that is titled mixed income development population by housing tenure 2000-2013


"Promoting effective integration and responding to poverty and inequality require other tools, investments, and orientations," the authors write.

As the city moves on with the program, it is dealing with a changing real estate market as well as the outcomes of the problems of the Transformation. The first phases of the mixed-income developments were built at a time when real estate prices were booming. In most cases, the neighborhoods around the units were improving as the former eyesores of public housing were torn down and the developers sold new units at market-based rate.

Then, due to changes in the market, building slowed. At the time of the book's writing, Oakwood Shores was projected to have 3,000 units, but so far only has 854 units and Park Boulevard, which was projected to have 1,316 units, now has only 367. Westhaven Park, on the West Side, with 1,098 units is closest to their projected goal of 1,317.

Chicago is looking at possible solutions for the problems that were part of the Transformation. After a series of forums around Chicago with stakeholders, The Plan for Transformation was re-envisioned in 2013 as Plan For Transformation 2.0—Plan Forward: Communities That Work. It was intended to respond to what was learned during the first decade and called for expanding affordable housing options by acquiring and rehabilitating available housing in "vibrant neighborhoods"; using CHA land for economic development, not just housing; finding new ways to provide rental assistance, and expanding services to CH A residents.

The plan includes changes that resonate with findings in their book, Chaskin and Joseph said. Among those changes are annual community engagement plans customized to each development. "Without more detail, it is difficult to determine the depth of commitment or strategic approaches to the critical challenges we have examined," they write.

A new approach by the Obama administration offers an opportunity to address problems of poverty and housing at the same time. That effort would address structural barriers to overcome poverty, including poor education opportunities and lack of jobs for people with limited skills. The Promise and Choice Neighborhood programs are intended to make those changes. In the Choice program, for instance, affordable housing is included in a plan that promotes improved educational opportunities, social services, and economic development.

"Given the scope and complexity of the Choice Neighborhood design, the grantee cities will need to galvanize a long-term commitment of public will and resources to sustain the redevelopment beyond the five-year grant period and put in place a high-capacity collaboration anchored by strong coordination and leadership from the mayor's office," they write.

Entering the next phase of combatting poverty and creating affordable housing options accordingly requires wisdom gained from research as well as the political will displayed in the establishment of the Plan for Transformation. Only with this, in combination with the "resilience and fortitude of low-income families plus the dedication and commitment of development professionals, advocates, and activists can effective solutions be created to combat urban poverty and create a more livable, just, and equitable urban reality," says Chaskin.