Chicago and other cities have pursued ambitious plans in the last two decades to tear down public housing high-rises (like at Cabrini-Green) and replace them with mixed-income neighborhoods where public housing residents and market-rate homeowners would live near each other. Here is an update of how this is working out in one mixed-income neighborhood in Chicago:
But the common thread that binds many of these theoretical effects is the same: For them to occur, residents of extremely different incomes must connect on a deeper level than hellos in the hallways. And that doesn’t seem to be happening. Joseph, along with Robert Chaskin of the University of Chicago, documented and analyzed the interactions of residents in two of Chicago’s new mixed-income developments. Far from job networking, most of the encounters between residents were paper-thin. Nearly 25 percent didn’t know a single neighbor well enough to ask them a favor or invite them into their home. In the rare instances of deeper exchanges, like “looking out” for a neighbor with an illness, these interactions occurred almost exclusively between people who were in the same income group…
Community building doesn’t need to mean picnics in the park, however, says Joseph. “It doesn’t necessarily mean everyone becoming friends and having dinner. It means a set of neighbors who appreciate the fact that living in a diverse place means having to build common ground with people who are different than yourself.” He calls this positive neighboring.
If positive neighboring is happening at Parkside, though, so is negative neighboring. The day I visited, a sign taped to one apartment window had a picture of a handgun pointed at me, along with the words, “I Don’t Call 911 — No Loitering.” There have been reports of market-rate tenants being the targets of derogatory name-calling, and subsidized tenants having the police called on them anonymously for hosting parties. A feature in Harper’s magazine reported that when market-rate families felt threatened by large groups hanging out in the lobby at one mixed-use development, the management removed all the furniture. The same article described the fates of two different Parkside families that held loud gatherings at their apartments one night: The next day, the public-housing unit got an eviction notice; the market-rate unit did not. “They can get buck wild, but as soon as we get buck wild, they want to send an email blast to CHA [Chicago Housing Authority] to complain,” said one of the subsidized tenants.
Critics of the model have asserted that this is what happens when cities engage in “social engineering.” But it might be more accurate to say that the social engineering that the city was counting on isn’t happening. Parkside’s residents might have been more interested in a killer deal than building a community. (The market-rate condo prices, in the $150,000s, are a steal for the location, a mile from downtown and steps from the Gold Coast.) “Could it be — and could people be afraid to admit — that market rate buyers simply don’t want to live right next door to government subsidized renters?” asked one Internet commenter.
This seems to fit with other research that suggests that although people may live near each other, they don’t necessarily interact in ways that are helpful to both groups. This is a sort of “black box” still to be figured out by reserachers: in living with more middle- and upper-income residents, how exactly will public housing residents move up to the working class or middle class? Earlier research suggests this may take some time; kids benefit from going to better schools while adults have a harder time crossing pre-existing socioeconomic and social boundaries.
The article suggests that some look at these mixed-income neighborhoods and call them “social engineering.” Deconcentrating poverty is a goal worked at by a number of groups since sociologists like William Julius Wilson started talking about this in the 1970s and 1980s. HUD has pursued or promoted policies like these throughout the country. It is not like the market-rate residents don’t have a choice in this matter; the housing units can often be cheaper than comparable units nearby. For example, some of the market-rate units in the mixed-income neighborhoods on the former site of Cabrini-Green are quite cheaper compared to units in nearby Lincoln Park or other “hot” neighborhoods. Additionally, the city of Chicago is certainly happy that the public high-rises are gone as they attracted negative attention. (Whether the city cares about the fate of the public housing residents displaced from the high-rises is another story.) Overall, however, some social policy is needed in the area of housing as cities like Chicago offer have severe affordable housing shortages.