Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.
Annette Hunt: It was like, roach-infested. I mean, you open your cabinet, a gag of roaches jumped out from everywhere.
The wretched public housing projects in Chicago are being torn down. New, cleaned up homes are taking their place.
Jamillah Gilbert: Grass, trees, cut and manicured lawns. It was like stuff I saw on TV but I'd never seen it before with my own eyes.
It's a bold experiment: mixing poor and middle-class people to decrease poverty.
Mark Joseph: Simply putting people to live next to each other in proximity is not going to be enough.
I'm Stephen Smith. In the coming hour, After the Projects, from American RadioWorks. First this news.
Michael Whitehead: My story in the projects, as I walk out the door.
[Sound of keys and door closing]
Smith: Michael Whitehead kept an audio diary last summer at the Ida B. Wells housing projects on the South Side of Chicago, where he lived.
Whitehead: The first thing I notice: the janitor has not did anything whatsoever in the building today [Sound of key locking door]; odors of urine hit you as you walk out the door…
Smith: Sometimes Michael walked out to the smell - and sight of human feces.
Whitehead: Ooh, that stink.
Smith: Homeless people frequently spent the night. They used to wash up in the janitor's pail.
Whitehead: Just like the other day, I come out my apartment, guy laying on the floor, hollering, screaming, still got the needle in his arm. You get sick of seeing it, but what can you do?
Smith: What you can do is move the people out - that's what Chicago's doing. The city is in the middle of a massive undertaking to empty out the old housing projects. The buildings around Michael's are boarded up. Michael's building is next. He'll have to go.
From American Public Media this is an American RadioWorks documentary, After the Projects. I'm Stephen Smith.
Around the country, public housing projects are coming down. The idea is to break up areas of concentrated poverty; to move poor people into middle class neighborhoods; to help them find a better life.
American RadioWorks wanted to know whether the new plan was really changing lives. We decided to focus our story in Chicago and we asked Chief Economics Correspondent Chris Farrell to lead the inquiry. Hi, Chris.
Chris Farrell: Stephen, we chose Chicago because it has more public housing residents than any other city except New York. And public housing is for the poorest of the poor. They pay little to no rent.
Smith: So when we think of inner-city housing projects, we think of places that are wretched and dangerous for the people who are living there, but your research shows that they weren't always this way.
Farrell: No. The modern era of public housing really started with FDR's New Deal. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, people were losing their jobs. They were living in slums. And the idea was to build some good housing with modern amenities, like running water and fixtures that worked, and move out of the slums and live for a period of time with your family in better circumstances until you could get yourself back up on your feet. And for a period of time, they worked. But by the 1980s, these complexes that were separated from the rest of the city, they deteriorated and the drug dealers took over; the gangs moved in; and most disturbing of all, you ended up with persistent poverty, generation to generation. It was not a temporary home, but a permanent home.
Smith: So now across Chicago, these public housing projects are coming down.
Farrell: And they're coming down in other places, like St. Louis, Baltimore, Atlanta. But the question is: where are the people going to go? Where are they going to live? And a new idea has taken hold: place matters. In a lot of these public housing complexes, remember, block after block, you had many poor people living together, and they were surrounded by crime and the schools weren't very good and there were no job opportunities. But what if you moved people into a neighborhood where you had good schools? Job opportunities? People were going to work every day? What might then, be the prospects for their children?
Smith: Over the next hour, we'll talk with residents of Chicago's public housing projects as they are forced either to leave their homes or change their habits. Many of them have never known life outside the projects. They've never had to pay rent. They've never had to sign up for utilities.
And many of them are bewildered by the choices they've been facing.
The 25,000 families who used to live in the projects have three choices: they can look for an apartment and use a government voucher to help pay the rent; they can choose a public housing unit in a mixed-income neighborhood; or they can choose a place in a cleaned-up, downsized version of the projects.
The hope is that the new homes will mean new lives, perhaps with jobs, or schooling. The results, so far, are mixed.
[Sounds of cars passing]
Sandy Roberts: Mr. Whitehead? This is Sandy Roberts I work with Melanie Tony and I'm going to take you to see your apartment today. Uh, are you ready? Okay, well will you come out to the curb? I'm driving a gray, silver-looking Scion--that's a little box car.
Smith: Sandy Roberts is part of an army of social workers deployed by the government to move public housing residents to the private sector. The social workers have three months to get everyone out of Ida. B. Wells--including Michael Whitehead.
Roberts: Your voucher should say how much rent you're paying according to income. Did you look at your voucher sheet?
Whitehead: It was so many papers I didn't know which was which.
Whitehead: This is it.
Roberts: No, that's not it.
Whitehead: That's not it.
Smith: The social workers told Michael he had several options for new places to live. He decided to take what's called a Section 8 voucher. He'll find a private apartment. The government will pay his new landlord most of his rent. Michael will be responsible for utilities. He's never looked for an apartment before; that's why he's getting help.
Roberts: But your fear is what again, that you…?
Whitehead: Like I said, I don't want to go somewhere and then have problems. Like I say, with the light bill or whatever.
Roberts: One of the good things is you can control your lights. That means you can turn 'em on and off at will.
Whitehead: That's true.
Roberts: So if you feel that you're using too much, you can, you know.
Whitehead: But I wouldn't know that until the first bill comes.
Roberts: I don't think you have much to worry about.
Smith: Michael's never paid a light bill. A lot of Sandy's clients - like Michael - have no experience living outside public housing. Michael moved to the projects when he was nine. Now he's 57.
Whitehead: Like I said, I have worked all my life and stuff. It's not that I'm scared to work or don't want to work; it's just not happenin' for me yet.
Smith: Michael has been unemployed for several years - since a construction accident left him blind in one eye. He lives on about $300 a month from the government. He pays no rent at Wells. Sandy drives him back there, past boarded-up buildings to the one where he lives.
Whitehead: This is 540. This is one of the buildings they closed.
Roberts: We emptied this one already.
Whitehead: And this one right here next to it, 527.
Roberts: We emptied that.
Whitehead: That was a drug-infested building, both of these. The one right here next to it, 559--drug-infested.
Roberts: It's a slow day, huh?
Whitehead: Yeah. All these folks out here-that's the police-all these folks out here, still laden with drugs. Ain't nobody out here 'cause the police there. This the building I live in.
Roberts: What? Right here. Wow.
Smith: The Ida B. Wells project is on the South Side of Chicago. Wells opened its doors in 1941, when housing segregation was still legal; a cluster of mid-rise apartment buildings for 13,000 African-Americans.
Experts call the people who live at Wells "the hardest to house." Many of them have substance abuse problems, a mental illness or long criminal records. But some are still here just because they don't want to move. Now they have to.
[Footsteps down stairs]
Smith: Michael started recording his audio diary while he was waiting to move.
Whitehead: We in the park now, you very seldom see kids. It's dope fiends, crack heads; that's all that's be in the park. It's about 20 or 30 people out here-no kids, they're all dope fiends and crack heads. And what's sad, this is every day, all day.
[Man in park: U-S-D-A! U-S-D-A!]
Smith: Each dealer attracts his own customers for his own brand of crack or heroin. The names include USDA, Red Bull and, believe it or not, Obama.
[Men in park: Obama! Obama blow's working! Obama blow's working!]
Whitehead: So I'm headed to 39th and Cottage, over in Mandrake Park, where I hang out with the old timers-- sit out play cards, tell jokes, tell a few lies…
Smith: Michael has his regular card table and a guy he plays chess with almost every day. The friends reminisce about the old days when kids still played in the playground and people who shot up at least disposed of their needles instead of leaving them everywhere.
Man: That's the worst thing you can do with them needles. You can be through with them - dispose of them the correct way. You got kids out here you know how bad they is now; they didn't grow up like how we did. I been around people. My uncle he shot up and had an overdose, but he was respectful, you know back in the day. He was respectful with his shit. He even broke the thing off, too.
Whitehead: Not only that smoking crack, doin' blow in front of kids, you shouldn't do none of that shit- be respectful, man.
Smith: Michael and his friends say a long time ago, people were proud to live at Chicago's Ida B. Wells projects. Michael remembers when neighbors mowed the lawn here and kept up their apartments. But drugs took hold in the late 70s and early 80s just as blue-collar jobs in the neighborhood were disappearing. Drug dealers became the breadwinners. Kids sold drugs to their parents. The gangsters made the rules. But they won't be working out of Wells any more. At summer's end, all the buildings were boarded up - including Michael's-- and all the residents were gone.
Whitehead: So I been here a month. A month and two days.
Smith: Michael found an apartment 30 blocks south of Wells. He stands at the door of his building. He's smiling. It's a three-story brownstone with a security entrance and a fenced backyard. Sprinklers keep the lawn green.
Whitehead: So far it been-it been great. I like the building 'cause it's clean all the time; it's no people standing in front. You know, it's a big difference from where I came from. Let me show you the backyard and stuff. [Sound of opening the door] At night, sitting out in the yard. Got chairs and stuff, grills out here.
Farrell: You got a nice wooden fence, a little bit of grass, a little bit of brick.
Whitehead: Like uh, you be coming in from the alley, you need a key to get in so you don't have to worry about people just walking in on you and stuff. It's a big difference, yeah.
Smith: One flight up, Michael's kitchen and bathroom have modern fixtures. The Chicago Housing Authority gave him $200 to help with the move - he spent it on a microwave, a set of dishes and some minutes for his cell phone. He'll pay $20 a month rent - which will leave him $80 plus food stamps to live on for the month.
Whitehead: Only thing I can see is hurtin' me-- it all depends on what this light bill's gonna be like. Other than that, yeah, I can make it.
Smith: Michael knows there are programs to help him with his utility bills, just like there are programs to help him find a job. He's been through many of them. He keeps certificates of completion in a cardboard box in his closet. And he's proud to show them off.
Farrell: The mock interview workshop; perfect attendance in the Building Craft Trades training program.
Whitehead: It's not happening. I done put in applications and stuff and, and tried to use these little certificates I got at one time to get different jobs and it just wasn't happening. For me I think it's-to be honest with you-me being my age and not having a high school diploma. That's it. That's it and that's all.
Smith: The idea behind the new housing plan is to mix people of different incomes. That way, poor people can see other ways to live - and that not all neighborhoods are ruled by drug dealers. But Michael isn't really mixing with his new neighbors. Most days he takes the bus back to his old neighborhood, where his friends and connections are.
Whitehead: Hello? Hey - how you doin' Barbara? What's happening tomorrow?
Smith: He might not make it without his old friends - they find odd jobs that help him to survive.
Whitehead: Fifty dollars a day - we fixin' to hang a ceiling. That's an odd job.
Smith: Michael has also applied for Social Security disability because he has diabetes. But if his income goes up, so will his rent.
Michael doesn't see how moving will help him become more self-sufficient or more likely to find work. He misses being closer to his friends. Still, Michael says, he's glad he moved.
Smith: The idea of moving people out of the projects is based on a program that actually worked. That program came from the Civil Rights era. Chicago's public housing projects had turned into warehouses for black people. Local housing ordinances excluded African Americans from the suburbs and many of Chicago's neighborhoods. Black people were confined to a few wards on the south and west sides, and so the high rises got higher and more crowded.
Martin Luther King Jr.: My place is in the sunlight of opportunity. My place is in the dignity of a good job and livable wages…
Smith: In 1966, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. brought his Poor People's Campaign to Chicago. He rallied for better schools and more jobs but his main focus was on housing.
King: Once the city is open, and it is known that we can get out of the ghetto, everything else begins to improve, outside and inside.
Smith: It was called the Chicago Freedom Movement. All summer, Dr. King led protest marches through Chicago's all-white neighborhoods. Meanwhile, downtown, civil liberties lawyers were preparing their own battle against segregation. In August 1966, the movements came together when a public housing resident named Dorothy Gautreaux put her name on a class-action lawsuit against the city and the federal government. Lawyer Alex Polikoff took the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
Alex Polikoff: We were lucky because we got, first of all, evidence that we didn't expect to get.
Smith: Polikoff had to prove racial animus: he had to show that Chicago was intentionally keeping black people out of white neighborhoods.
Polikoff: We found some memos and we had some testimony from aldermen and others, even people on the CHA staff. So surprisingly, we got the smoking gun: "Yeah, we're putting these buildings in black neighborhoods because we don't want blacks to have access to white neighborhoods through subsidized housing."
Smith: The Gautreaux case was settled ten years later, in 1976. The government funded a plan to move residents to neighborhoods that were at least 70 percent white. That's how more than 3,500 black families found themselves in the Chicago suburbs.
The Gautreaux families were the subjects of a long-term study by James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University.
James Rosenbaum: We found that those that moved to the suburbs were more likely to graduate from high school; they were more likely to go to college; they were more likely to go to better colleges--four year colleges. Those that didn't go college we found were more likely to have jobs, and to have better jobs--jobs better pay and jobs with benefits. People changed, children changed. And they caught up. And so it was a very striking, strong impact.
Smith: Jamillah Gilbert lived in Chicago's housing projects when she was a little girl. She went to kindergarten at a neighborhood school.
Jamillah Gilbert: I know that the school I went to--water bugs, all through the…and it was just roaches all through the classrooms. And there was no air conditioning. Some windows were busted out and never replaced. I knew that other schools on TV were not like this school.
Smith: In 1976, Jamillah's mother heard about Gautreaux and saw a way out of the projects. The Gautreaux program helped her move 20 miles west to the suburb of Woodridge. For Jamillah and her two sisters, it was a different world.
Gilbert: Grass [laughs], trees, nicely paved roads, cut and manicured lawns. It was like stuff I saw on TV but I'd never seen it with my own eyes. And I just remember looking around, thinking, "I am…where am I?"
Smith: Jamillah remembers one biracial girl her age, but everyone else was white. That was part of the Gautreaux plan. The communities had to be mostly white.
Gilbert: Kids stared and I stared, too, you know. We were looking at each other. But children are just forgiving and they are embracing, you know? It was the teachers that… It was very difficult to walk down hall because the teachers would move their line of students away. Every time we entered a circle or group or an organization or anything we went in knowing that we had to give people time to get used to us. We had to. It was just a part of it. You know: smile, be on our best behavior, please and thank you. We knew what we needed to do to reassure everyone that we were safe because people didn't--they acted like we weren't safe
Farrell: So you were constantly being tested?
Gilbert: Oh constantly. And it got to the point where you just, you get used to it, you know? Okay, you walk in restaurant and we haven't been in this restaurant before, children. We all knew. My mom would look at us, like, "You know what to do." So and then, so if we visited again. Okay, that family is safe.
Morley Safer: When they arrived in Woodridge, they found themselves in a strange, white world with few prospects. They worked the world for all it was worth.
Smith: The Woodridge years were captured in a 60 Minutes episode that aired on CBS News in 1993. Valencia Morris is Jamillah's mother.
Safer: Valencia Morris went back to school, got a nursing degree, and got off welfare.
Valencia Morris: I was embarrassed when I would go to the store with food stamps, and everyone around me either whipped out checks or cash.
Gilbert: I remember thinking, "Mo-o-m!" You know, "Mom!" I wasn't angry with her for bringing us out there; I was just angry that once we're out there, it's hard as a kid to see why you just don't have what others have. She couldn't afford childcare and we didn't know this at the time, that it was very unconventional for a college student to be bringing her children to class with her [chuckles].
Farrell: She brought you to class?
Gilber: Oh, yes. We attended college with her.
Smith: Valencia Morris worked two jobs while she got her nursing degree. By the time they were in third and fourth grade, they were getting themselves off to school and watching their little sister. Their mother was gone a lot, but Jamillah says Valencia Morris helped her daughters become strong, self-confident - and proud to be black.
Gilbert: Paul, in second grade, told me I was ugly and my skin was black and ugly. "Am I ugly?" And the next day my mother was telling me how beautiful I am and I knew that she was beautiful and I looked like her. So - I am beautiful. And after that, couldn't nobody tell me I wasn't beautiful 'cause I already knew it. My mom would tell us, "You are intelligent - you are the smartest children in that school. Did you know that?" If we did cheerleading, we were the best cheerleaders [chuckles]. Whatever we did. You know, if we wrote, we were the best at writing. I guess it might sound like she was giving us--or building us up with the big head, but she was completely counter-attacking all of the lies that we were being told outside of the house. And then as we grew into high school students and teenagers and started to realize that, no, we were not necessarily the best… but by that time, we had overcome that fragile age.
Smith: Jamillah's mother became a nurse. All three girls earned college scholarships and went on to professional careers. Jamillah and her husband Mark are teachers. They live in an integrated neighborhood in Bloomington, Illinois.
Girls: We are the champions, of the world.
Gilbert: Have you guys washed your hands?
Gilbert: Okay, get a plate.
Smith: At dinner time, everyone pitches in to set the table for take-out pizza, a rare treat. The dining room is a bit cramped for six people. The Gilberts have lived in this small, creaky two-bedroom for twelve years. The three girls share a room and Mark, Jr. sleeps on a mattress in the upstairs hallway. Mark and Jamillah have been saving for a bigger house.
J. Gilbert: Honey, could we talk through the second house again?
Mark Gilbert: Um, right now, you know I'm about to--we can talk, but right now I'm about get down to some serious eating.
J. Gilbert: Yes, you'll eat and I can talk, 'cause I know you don't like to talk and eat.
Nia Gilbert: Can I talk about the first house?
J. Gilbert: Yes, what did you like about the first house?
Nia: I liked it…
Smith: Nine-year-old Nia is excited about moving.
Nia: I'd like to see six bedrooms, I'd like to see the stairwell be pretty big and have carpet on it, um, I'd like to see …
Smith: Mark and Jamillah's kids can't even imagine the world of the Chicago housing projects - the world their grandmother opted to leave. Valencia Morris joined the middle class and all three of her daughters are professionals with good incomes. Jamillah says credit for their success goes to the Gautreaux program. But it also goes to her mother.
J. Gilbert: She just insisted. So whether we were in suburbs or not, we were going to excel and live up to a certain standard of living and achieving. We were going to achieve as high as that ceiling allowed us to go. And in the suburbs, it's amazing how driving 20 miles west, the ceiling was lifted.
Smith: The Gautreaux plan started in 1976. It moved more than 7,000 Chicago families who signed up to get out of the housing projects. The Gautreaux program ended in 1998.
This is Stephen Smith. You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, After the Projects. Coming up...
Elena Lawson: 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 brief cases and jobs."
Smith: To hear more from Michael Whitehead's audio diary and to see a slideshow of the Ida B. Wells housing projects, visit our Web site, Americanradioworks.org. There, you can download this and other American RadioWorks programs. All of that at Americanradioworks.org.
After the Projects is part of "The Real Face of Poverty " sustained coverage of poverty and opportunity in the United States. Support for the series comes from the Northwest Area Foundation. Major funding for American RadioWorks is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Stay with us. Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, After the Projects. I'm Stephen Smith.
In most American cities, the giant housing projects have been demolished. In Chicago, some former public housing residents have moved to apartments throughout the city.
The hope is that getting away from concentrated poverty will lead to better lives. And for many families, the quality of everyday life is better in the new place.
But many public other public housing tenants still live in rough neighborhoods. They ended up renting apartments in areas with high poverty and few jobs. Their kids are still attending poorly-performing schools.
That is why so many urban reformers are pinning their anti-poverty hopes on a different initiative: brand-new, mixed-income developments. American RadioWorks wanted to know what happens when policymakers deliberately try to mix homeowners and renters with steady jobs with people who have lived all their lives in public housing. Chief Economics Correspondent Chris Farrell has been looking into this question in Chicago. Chris.
Farrell: Well, we looked at a number of these developments that had these suburban-sounding names like Westhaven and Oakwood Shores. So the massive public housing complexes are coming down, and on those vacant lots, they're building two-, three-story condos, town homes; nice brick fronts and siding.
Smith: Who built these places?
Farrell: Private developers. The developers get land for free; the city gets a new way to house the poor; and the middle class, they get to rent or buy relatively inexpensive condos that are near work. But it's a high-stakes experiment. We talked to Professor Mark Joseph about it. He's from Case Western Reserve University. And he's studying the new developments.
Mark Joseph: It's not just about getting people of various backgrounds onto one single site, but really trying to integrate them physically so that they're actually living as close to each other as possible. They're sharing hallways, and elevators and public space. So you're really creating a situation where people are gonna be able to get to know each other and interact with each other.
Farrell: So here's the goal: one-third of the residents in a mixed-income development will be paying market rate, either as renters or homeowners; one-third are the working poor and their rent will be subsidized; and one-third are the public housing residents. Now, the public housing residents do have to qualify. There are several tasks they have to pass: drug test, criminal background; and then they have to have a job, show that they're trying to get a job, or at a minimum, getting the education that might lead to work.
Smith: The idea is to nudge the former public housing residents into the middle class by learning from the example of the people next door. But so far, relations between these new neighbors have been a bit uneasy.
One of the new developments Professor Joseph is studying is called Westhaven. It's still under construction on the site of the old Henry Horner Homes. Luke Jones and Calvin Kinsey grew up at Horner. They're in the front yard of a neat three-story walk-up, visiting relatives.
Luke Jones: I been around here a long time.
Calvin Kinsey: Yeah, this place come from a long way, I tell ya, it aint like it used to be. It's way, way different. Way, way different.
Jones: And it's beautiful.
Kinsey: And they did a good job, a very good job.
Smith: Henry Horner used to be one square mile of mostly high-rise housing for 23,000 poor black families.
Man: They had 15 stories high, and the building was side-by-side… It's too many people. It was like a jailhouse, it really was.
Smith: Now, all the 15-story buildings are down. Two nine-story buildings stand at opposite ends of the development that replaced Henry Horner. One of those buildings is new and the other is renovated. The renovated building is where Annette Hunt lives.
Annette Hunt: And this is exit area that goes right out into the parking lot. This is the parking lot area.
Farrell: Oh, it's a fenced in parking lot.
Smith: Annette Hunt's building is finally safe and secure. You need a key now to get in. And you pass a security desk at the entrance. Annette lives on the fourth floor.
Hunt: Uh, this is a three-bedroom apartment. I can't show you all the bedrooms 'cause my kids haven't cleaned up their rooms.
Smith: The kitchen and living room are spacious and neat. Furniture is simple: a sofa, TV and a glass dinette set. There's no hint of the old decay. Annette hasn't lived in a place this nice before.
Hunt: My mom would get these apartments and we would stay there for a minute and next thing you know, we was put out in the streets and most of the food came from churches. We had churches bring our foods to survive.
Farrell: And no one knew really you weren't going to school?
Hunt: No - my mom didn't care. My mom wasn't there. My mom was in a crack house. She wasn't there, so she didn't care if I went to school or not.
Smith: Annette left school in the fifth grade. She was 13 before her mother got off drugs. That was in 1967. Her mom moved the family to Henry Horner. For Annette, it was a step up, but she never did go back to school. She had children of her own, and raised them at Horner, too. By the 1980s when her children were still small, conditions at Horner had deteriorated.
Hunt: It was like roach-infested, mices was running all through the houses. I mean, you open your cabinet and click your light on and a gag of roaches jump out from everywhere. And most of us had to sleep with-you know, my kids and myself had to sleep with cotton in our ears because we got roaches in our ears and that roaches would lay a nest and we had to go over to the hospital to get it out.
Smith: Annette's public housing project was descending into chaos. Drug addicts slept in the hallways of her building and used them for a bathroom. Dealers controlled the entrances and gangs ruled the streets. Of the 3,000 units at Horner, half stood empty.
Hunt: My son - I think he was about 14 yrs old - we used to have a store Paulina called Cicero where the kids used to go when they get out of school and my son went to the store and he come running home to me and he said, "Mom, Mom!" Like, "What happened?" And he said some guys jumped out the car and stuck him up, and took his jacket. The kids couldn't even walk a block without getting beat up or trying to get them-- jump them into gangs.
Smith: By 1991 Annette and a few other mothers were fed up. With the help of Legal Aid, they filed a lawsuit against the government.
Hunt: The reason I did it is because I wanted to show my kids that you can't give up. If we gonna live here let's make it our home, let's change it.
Smith: They did change it. The lawsuit was settled in 1995. The high rises were all torn down. Annette's building is all public housing, but completely fixed up. Other Horner residents moved into renovated brownstones in the surrounding neighborhood. And still others are in the ambitious housing development called Westhaven.
[Sounds of construction]
Smith: Westhaven is a mix of subsidized housing, full-price rentals and owner-occupied condos. Developer Rich Sciortino says the homes for poor people will look just like the homes for middle-class people.
Rich Sciortino: And when you drive through the neighborhood you wouldn't know if this was a rental building or a home ownership building or a condominium association-it's just going to look like a neighborhood. And I think that's our intent.
Smith: The new Chicago neighborhood covers 14 city blocks. Most of the new homes are three-story brick. The design is contemporary and no two are alike. There are blocks of modern row houses, and other blocks with stand-alone townhomes. Many have wrought iron balconies, bay windows or patio doors. They have small, tidy lawns, freshly poured sidewalks and mulch-covered boulevards. Half the development is complete and half is still under construction.
Antwan Dobson: I closed July 5th of '06.
Smith: Antwan Dobson was one of the first people to buy a condo. He paid more than $300,000 for a two-bedroom unit in Westhaven's only new high-rise. It's nine stories. A few public housing families live on each floor, but most of the units sell or rent for thousands of dollars a month.
Dobson: And this location is actually almost the heart of the city. You have access to all the expressways basically in the immediate Chicago area.
Smith: It's ten minutes to downtown and just a few minutes to Oprah Winfrey's TV studio, which anchors blocks of lively restaurants and luxury apartments. But you don't have to pay luxury prices to live at Westhaven. That's one of the reasons Antwan bought here. He also likes being near where he grew up.
Dobson: I'm actually reared on the west side--the more rougher part, further west. So this was nice to come back somewhat near the community I grew up in.
Smith: Antwan is a big man in his early thirties. He grew up poor. He lived in a foster home not far from here, surrounded by gangs, drugs and violence.
Dobson: Statistically, I'm supposed to be dead or in jail. In fact, I'm not dead or in jail-I make decent earnings; married; property; I have a good job, and it's a job I always wanted to do.
Smith: When he was kid, Antwan found mentors at the local firehouse. Today, he is a firefighter.
Dobson: I am assigned to Engine 38, in the city of Chicago, the busiest engine in the city of Chicago. We suppress the fire. We find the fire, and put the fire out. We rock and roll. We're pretty busy.
Smith: Antwan is active in his condo association. He wants to protect his investment.
Dobson: Well there's a constant fear that the property values are going to be decreased because of the crimes and the just the things that are not favorable to a community.
Smith: Part of the point is for working people to provide an example. Antwan doesn't go out and mentor people, but he hopes his own lifestyle shows that that there are alternatives to being a drug dealer or to getting a government check.
Dobson: It's a different lifestyle from what they come from to what it is here. It's a different lifestyle; it's a culture shock to both homeowners and-to some homeowners-and to some CHA residents. The challenge is, the challenge is trying to get both entities to mesh together a little bit better.
Smith: It's hard. Most market-rate residents are like Antwan - singles and couples just starting out. Most public housing tenants have kids. Many of them are teenagers who take their loud music outside. Neighbors complain about gangs coming in from outside the community. And they don't like it when the residents themselves hang around during the day. Developer Sciortino says loitering was a problem in Antwan's building.
Sciortino: The public housing residents were-there's no work requirement here, so they're not necessarily working during the day. And they could come down and sit in the lobby, for hours. Sometimes they'd be there all day. The condo owners would come home from work and the same people--there'd be a group of people hanging out in the lobby. And it turned into this little confrontation and the next thing I know, the condo association decided to take all furniture out of the lobby and they put in, you know, the meeting room. And they locked it up so that nobody could sit there. There are rules. This is the condo owners' mentality: there are rules; everybody's got to follow the rules; doesn't matter who they are, just follow the rules. And I'm preaching, you know what that's simple to say, but people are people; it's not black and white. Why don't you get engaged a little bit? Get to know everybody; you'll know who your neighbors are. Once you get to know people, they'll be neighbors, they're not gonna be… And you know, the attitude is: listen, I work all day long. All I wanna do is come home, open a beer and watch TV. I don't really want to engage. So that's been, I think, our biggest hurdle is what we had hoped was we were going to be able to get people to engage. We didn't expect we were gonna get everyone to engage, but we're not getting--we're getting very little engagement whatsoever.
Smith: Rich Sciortino mediated a settlement so that Antwan Dobson's lobby has its furniture back, along with a no-loitering rule. Antwan says there should be more rules for public housing residents including a rule that require them to work.
Dobson: If you got nothing to do, you're gonna probably end up doing something wrong. And work gives you a sense of responsibility. So now if you gotta go to work, you're not, you're not gonna have your buddies and your relatives come over at two, three, four in the morning, making all this noise. Why? 'Cause now you gotta get up and go to work.
Sciortino: It's not like we're saying, you know, you have to have a job or you're getting evicted; what we're saying is we'd love for you to have a job but if you don't have a job, then you should be trying to find a job, or working on your skills so that you can get a job.
Smith: This summer, Developer Sciortino and Resident Dobson got their way - sort of. It's called the Horner Engagement Program and it says public housing residents must be looking for work. Going to school counts if you don't have a high school diploma or marketable skills. That's why at the other end of Westhaven, Annette Hunt is walking to class.
Hunt: And I'm almost at the finishing point of that. Then I'll just go right over to the GED.
Farrell: And you use Excel, that's what the--
Smith: Annette Hunt walks to class four days a week, past the brand new condominiums that are for sale in her neighborhood. She predicts they'll go quickly because of the location. And that scares her.
Hunt: If everything keep changing it's gonna be harder and harder to live. It's just that they gonna fade us out. In a second we're not gonna be here. I believe that with all my heart.
Smith: Annette is afraid that market demand for her Chicago neighborhood will lead to gentrification. Property will become so valuable, there will be no room left for poor people, like her.
Graduate Student: Are you hopeful you can work all this out with your new neighbors?
Crystal Palmer: Oh yes, but they have to come to the table not when it's a crisis. Not when it's a crisis. Not when it's a crisis.
Smith: Annette and her neighbors have attracted the attention of many scholars. In the community room of their renovated building, Annette and two friends field questions from graduate students about what the mixed-income experiment is like. They want the students to know that it's not just the public housing tenants that present problems; their middle-class neighbors can be a nuisance, too. They have different habits - and different pets.
Palmer: One of the biggest things we have a problem with is the dogs. I say this all the time: We don't do dogs. We do cats [laughter]. But we don't do dogs. And if you look outside, you walk on the grass, you see poop everywhere. We don't do that. That's an issue. If you have your dog, clean up--the same way, we're sitting in the lobby, you know you're not supposed to be sitting in the lobby, go upstairs. You know, it's the same thing. That's antisocial.
Smith: For the mixed-income communities to succeed, public housing residents and their better-off neighbors will have to find common ground. Annette's friend Crystal Palmer says those who want to live in public housing will also have to find work.
Palmer: Let's get on the bandwagon (Annette: Mm hmm), let's become self-sufficient because if you don't, those of us that work won't be able to live here because you that didn't work didn't pay into the property and we're gonna be displaced because you didn't help.
Farrell: Didn't work.
Palmer: Yeah. You didn't help keep this community.
Hunt: Let's clarify why she keep pointing at me-her and Crystal. I did work for over ten years and I'm presently going to school right now, but I don't have a problem being self-sufficient and going out there and doing what I need to do to save my-to keep my apartment. I just didn't like how it was-the way it was presented, because I felt like it had to have been my choice to do it. But now I'm forced to do it now.
Smith: Some people think Chicago is moving too quickly. The city tore down all the public housing projects to eliminate the violence and poverty bred there. But the Chicago Housing Authority still hasn't figured out where the residents should go. It's turning out to be a hard question--for the city and the residents. Some public housing residents have taken Section 8 vouchers to help pay the rent to private landlords. Some have moved into new mixed-income neighborhoods. Professor Mark Joseph studies the new mixed-income developments and he knows that not all public housing residents will qualify to live in them.
Mark Joseph: One of the key elements of these new mixed income developments is a very high degree of screening, in terms of who gets to live there. Not just anyone is going to be able to live in this new community. If it's going to effectively attract and sustain a broad range of families from various income levels and economic backgrounds, it's got to be folks who are willing to abide by certain rules and live their lives in certain ways and not create problems in the new community.
Smith: Most new developments require drug screening, a good credit history, and a criminal background check.
Joseph: There are residents who might think, "Well, I might pass it now, but can I continue to pass these things?" Right? Residents continue to be screened and monitored when they're in the developments.
Smith: Joseph says the rules force some mothers into an impossible choice: do they move to a safer neighborhood with a better school for the sake of little ones? Or do they stay behind with teenagers who may have criminal records that disqualify the family from moving?
So, thousands of people are staying in Chicago's public housing. They may not qualify for other choices, or they may simply be more comfortable living in their familiar surroundings.
It's a dilemma for the Lawson family.
[Sounds of people greeting each other]
Smith: Donzella Lawson leaves her oxygen tank upstairs when she's visiting her daughter Elena, who lives on the third floor of a mid-rise building in the Dearborn housing projects. The Lawsons have been at Dearborn for three generations.
Donzella Lawson: I'm making it. I'm making it. Like I said, we're getting ready…
Smith: On this late spring day, Elena Lawson's apartment is extra crowded with social workers and family members. They've come to help Elena and her mother move.
Elena Lawson: I want those. I eat those.
Social Worker: Okay.
Smith: The city is closing the building that Elena and her mother live in. They must move to another building at Dearborn while the Housing Authority builds them a new home. They have a choice: they can move to a new mixed-income development, or stay at Dearborn in a renovated apartment.
Valorie Wright is a social worker whose job is to help the Lawsons make that choice.
Valorie Wright: So Dearborn will still be public housing.
Michelle Lawson: It'll all be the same.
Wright: It's just newly rehabbed. You're gonna get brand new everything.
E. Lawson: But it's gonna be the same people.
M. Lawson: Why you say "no"?
Wright: I say "no," because CHA is implementing new work--the work policy. It's things that are being changed that will affect the developments and how--the things that are being changed with the residents will affect the developments once it's redone in its entirety.
E. Lawson: Like drug screening? Like you have to work or go to school?
Smith: The Chicago Housing Authority is changing the rules, and, it hopes, the culture of public housing. Starting this year, tenants who can must work 30 hours a week or prove that they're looking for work. The rules may be even stricter in the new mixed-income developments. Private landlords can require drug tests and prohibit loitering or other activities they think are "antisocial." And that sounds good to Elena.
E. Lawson: I chose Oakwood Shores.
Smith: Elena wants to get her two teenage sons away from the gang violence that still dominates life at Dearborn.
E. Lawson: My sons don't even come outside. When I take my sons out, I'm with them. By theirself, no. They're not-no.
Paris Lawson: 'Cause most gangs, 'cause most gangs make threats like, "If you don't join us, we're going to assume that you're with another gang, and we're gonna, and we're going to try to beat you up to make you join our gang."
Smith: That's Paris Lawson, the 15-year old. He says gangsters who try to recruit him call him "gay," or "lame," or "white."
P. Lawson: You put family over reputation in high school. I go to school because I want to go to college and have a good job. So I can provide for people around me. Like my mom, my family. And I'm gonna have kids some day, and I do not want them growing up the way I did. I want them to have a better life than me.
Smith: So his mother, Elena, has decided to live in a better neighborhood. She's on the waiting list for a public housing unit in a new mixed-income development with a view of Lake Michigan.
She wants her sons to be around new people.
E. Lawson: For real. I want them in that environment where you open up your door, yes you seein' a man go to work every day. Not just the mother doing everything; you see a man playing his part as well. 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 day--all these years, I haven't seen too many black guys going out of here with brief cases and jobs."
Smith: Elena thinks the move would be good for her mother, too.
E. Lawson: Okay, she comin' around. She finally ready to make that move. And that's all I wanted for my mama. You know how happy I'm gonna be to say, "C'mon, Mama. You can walk down to the lake." I'll take my time with her. We'll be going shopping together. She'll feel more comfortable getting out. With her oxygen tank--she don't like that. I said, "That's why you need to be free. Get out."
Smith: Elena moved to her temporary apartment last May. In July she found a job -with a contractor for the Chicago Housing Authority. She takes two buses to the big, red building in the East Loop, and an elevator up to the 13th floor:
E. Lawson: I'm using Excel, Word, Prologue--Prologue Manager is like a construction database.
Smith: Elena's gray cubicle is among several dozen on her floor. There's a hard hat on her top shelf - and several fat reports on her desk.
E. Lawson: I be on the move, I'm working!
Smith: But Elena couldn't quite reach escape velocity when it came to leaving Dearborn. She changed her mind about going to Oakwood Shores and she can't change it back. She'll be staying at Dearborn with her mother.
E. Lawson: I wasn't gonna make my mom do it. Because I didn't want that weight on me, on my heart: I move her and she pass. So if it takes for me to stay where I am with my mom so she could sleep a little better at night, the time that she has left here, I'll do that. I will. And I don't mind doing anything for my Ma. I mean, she gave up her life for us. She did. So I have to give that back.
Smith: Elena is still picturing a better future for her sons. She's found a mentor for Paris and says she's trying to save money to send Paris to private school - to get him away from the gangs.
Most of Chicago's giant public housing complexes are gone. The infamous high rises on the south and west sides of the city are down. Slowly taking their place are new neighborhoods of low rise condos and townhomes. "For Sale" signs and "For Lease" signs are everywhere on the construction sites.
What's missing is retail. Without a local dry cleaner, a coffee shop, a couple of restaurants--it's hard to imagine these neighborhoods will become real, middle-class communities. They are works in progress. Mark Joseph of Case Western Reserve.
Joseph: Simply putting people to live next to each other in proximity is not going to be enough. It's going to take far more than building some high quality housing and putting people in an environment where they're surrounded by others who are working. You need to have jobs. And so the fact that we're in a struggling national and local economy means that that part of the puzzle is not going to be solved.
Smith: Jobs are critical. So are good schools. Both are lacking in Chicago and in poor neighborhoods around the country. With the current economic downturn eliminating jobs and making it harder to fund schools, Chris Farrell, how can this be a good time to try a risky housing experiment?
Farrell: You know, Stephen, something had to be done - certainly this is better than nothing.
Smith: You spent a year talking with residents as they were moving out of the Chicago projects and into their new condos and apartments and there is no question: the living conditions are better; the apartments are nice; they're secure; there's more police protection. But the story doesn't end there. All is not solved.
Farrell: No and you know, after all the time we spent in Chicago, and studying this issue, I wish you could say, "Here is the answer." But there are a lot of questions that remain. For example, many of the people have moved out of these public housing projects into another neighborhood. But it turns out in that neighborhood, they're still surrounded by lots of poor people; there aren't any jobs; and their kids are going to the same, bad schools. And then with the mixed-income development communities, well, we're seeing some culture clashes--not so much of rubbing shoulders and learning, but kinda not sure how we're going to get along. So will this development of concrete and brick become a community and a neighborhood? We don't have the answer to that. Putting up buildings is really easy. Changing lives--lives that have been stuck in persistent poverty, generation after generation--remains hard.
Smith: There is obviously no one prescription for eliminating poverty. But common sense and scholarly research both come to the same conclusion: place matters. To some extent, we are who we know and where we live. The values and expectations of a community; the ambitions and examples of our neighbors; the ties of family; and the networks of peers are all critical.
After the old projects are gone, the risk is that the fragile progress has been made will disappear without greater effort to bring the poor into the American mainstream.
After the Projects was produced by Laurie Stern and Chris Farrell. It was edited by Catherine Winter. We had help from Ellen Guettler, Ochen Kaylan, Suzanne Pekow, Nancy Rosenbaum, Ariel Kitch and Craig Thorson.
I'm Stephen Smith.
To learn more about Section 8 vouchers, and Chicago's Plan for Transformation, visit our Web site: Americanradioworks.org. There, you can listen to this and other American RadioWorks programs, download our podcast and signup for our e-mail newsletter. It's all at Americanradioworks.org.
After the Projects is part of "The Real Face of Poverty," sustained coverage of poverty and opportunity in the United States. Sustained coverage for the series comes from the Northwest Area Foundation. Major funding for American RadioWorks is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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