From Development to Neighborhoods

Part: 1, 2, 3, 4

Elena Lawson at work. Lawson says a mixed-income neighborhood could provide "the ability for residents to learn and share."
Photo by Laurie Stern

Moving elsewhere is only one part of the residential mobility anti-poverty program. The other main initiative is for public housing residents to stay close by but move into mixed-income neighborhoods. These are supposed to be one-third home owners, one third working families paying low rents and one-third public housing residents.

"If you think back, most of us that grew up and lived in urban areas lived in mixed-income communities. We just happened to have a name for it now," says Lewis Jordan. "What's key is the ability to co-exist, wave across the fence, give support where support is needed. The ability for residents to learn and share, be it the doctor who lives next door who inspires the kid to be a doctor or the person down the street who has a wonderful garden that inspires a neighbor down the street to do something creative with the yard. That's what the mixed-income communities suggest."

Elena Lawson echoed Lewis Jordan when discussing why she'd like to move with her children to Oakwood Shores, a mixed-income community being built on the grounds of the old Madden-Wells public housing.

"I want them in that environment where you open up your door, yes, you seeing a man go to work every day. Yes, you seeing a mother with her kids, doing her job - you know, a family," she says. "You see a father-provider. You see a role model. That's a good thing for a black child growing up that's been seeing - 'Okay, I've been living here all these years, I haven't seen too many black guys going out of here with briefcases and jobs.'"

Chicago is working with private developers to build 10 mixed-income neighborhoods. Among the developers is Richard Sciortino, the developer of Westhaven Park-formerly Henry Horner Homes. (All the developments have dropped the public housing names-typically named after gritty social reformers-for more suburban sounding appellations, such as Westhaven Park, Oakwood Shores, and West End.) The townhomes, condos, rentals, and public housing are all mixed together. Certainly, driving around an outsider can't tell the difference. Most of the buildings are three to four stories high, brick-faced, with large windows and touches of color.

"We wanted it to feel organic and when you drove through the neighborhood you wouldn't know if this was a rental building or a homeowner building or a condo association," says Sciortino. "It was just going to look like a neighborhood."

Yet it doesn't take long to see a striking difference between Westhaven and more established blocks elsewhere in Chicago: There are no stores. There's isn't a bank on the corner, a deli, a coffee shop, a dry cleaner, or even a bodega. It's a legacy of the riots in the late '60s, as well as higher income folks fleeing the neighborhoods bordering on the projects.

"There's definitely retail lacking, certainly within walking distance," says Sciortino.

Joseph Williams of Granite Development Corp. is helping develop the new mixed-income community Oakwood Shores.
Photo by Laurie Stern

Joseph Williams is the co-founder of Granite Development Corp. It's the developer for the mixed- income community Oakwood Shores. "We can't get prices we want for units unless we have amenities, and the biggest amenity is retail," he says. "The number one question I get from everyone buying a house - some spending $600,000 to $700,000 - when is retail coming and what type?"

Neighborhoods aren't easy to create. Townhome and condo sales have ground to a halt with the severe downturn in the housing market. Tensions simmer between homeowners and residents. Public housing tenants worry about mandatory job or schooling requirements imposed on them by private developers and the CHA. Drug and criminal screenings that deny public housing tenants the right to live in a mixed-income community are tearing families apart. Gangs still roam close to a number of developments.

"So just by creating these developments we haven't yet addressed the fact that there are families struggling in poverty, where again there are little kids who need better schools to go to and safer homes to live in, and so their parents want to make choices about what community to get them in," says Mark Joseph.

Mixed-income development isn't really a new strategy, either. It's how public housing was originally envisioned. Yet New York City is one of the few places where police, firemen, and other working people continue to live in public housing. It's one reason why New York City's public housing never deteriorated to the same extent as elsewhere.

It may have taken scholars and public policy officials years to figure out that neighborhoods are important, but most people have long known that it's a sensible proposition. That's why the current policy of bringing the poor into the community is still a vast improvement for the poverty-stricken compared to warehousing of the poor in geographically isolated projects.

That said, without prospects for better jobs and improved schools, without the reality of greater safety and broadened increased opportunities, it's hard to see the policy of residential mobility leading toward the end of persistent, multi-generational poverty.

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