The current problems of mixed-income development in Chicago

The challenges facing a new Chicago mayor are large. Within a story about how growing Chicago’s middle class will prove to be one of these challenges, the Chicago Tribune summarizes the progress of the mixed-income developments that replaced a number of public housing high-rises:

For years, miles of high-rise public housing buildings stretched across the city’s skyline, blocking off entire neighborhoods from any hopes of improvement and further defining Chicago as an urban failure.

Today, much of the city’s stability rides on the success of the $1.6 billion effort launched by Daley in 2000 to tear down those public housing towers, sending thousands of Chicago’s poorest residents to new neighborhoods.

As part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, the mixed-income developments going up in those neighborhoods are meant to be cornerstones for further growth, luring urban pioneers whose presence there would then attract new stores, restaurants, better schools and even more residential development.

The plan has worked in some neighborhoods, most notably, the area near the Gold Coast that was home to the infamous Cabrini-Green housing complex. Synonymous for decades with urban despair, the community has been transformed to a bustling center of urban chic, even before the CHA began demolishing the last high-rise building there last month.

But in other Plan for Transformation communities, the weak economy has altered plans for new development, generating concerns about an effort that has been blamed for destabilizing some neighborhoods.

Unable to attract enough interest for the middle-income homes that are the linchpins of those developments, several developers have recently won approval to instead build more rental homes, including public housing units and other low-income apartments.

That has stirred worries that pockets of poverty are being re-created, though a federal judge overseeing the effort has emphasized the importance of including the mixed-income units.

“If you get too much rental, and too much of it is low income, the neighborhood can get fixed with an image that is hard to change, so that’s an ongoing concern,” said Alexander Polikoff, a director at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a law and policy group that has monitored the Plan for Transformation’s efforts as part of a federal court settlement stemming from a 1966 class-action lawsuit.

In a 2009 report, BPI criticized developers for the “slow pace” of building on middle-income homes that could have been sold when the housing market was still strong.

Some thoughts about this summary:

1. We will still need time to assess the full impact of the Plan for Transformation.

2. For sources like the Chicago Tribune, just getting rid of the public housing high-rises is an important enough feat. Because Chicago no longer has these high-rises, is it now not an urban failure?

3. The emphasis here is on neighborhoods, collectivities of institutions and individuals, and their status. What about the residents who left the public housing high-rises. What sort of neighborhoods are they in?

4. Within the Plan for Transportation, how much planning was there for harder economic times? When the Plan was conceived and put into practice (late 1990s-2000s), it seems imperative that middle-class professionals would want to purchase in the mixed-income neighborhoods. If this pool of buyers is not available or is not as big, then the neighborhoods can’t be what they were intended to be.

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