Public housing may not just be about the housing

Public housing expert Susan Popkin argues that simply replacing the units from Chicago’s public housing high-rises may not be enough:

I think it was a partial victory. It was a whole lot more successful than anybody expected at the beginning. The odds of it being an absolute failure were pretty high. In the first phases of the plan, they were really struggling to get the buildings down and get people out of them, and they had 11 buildings they had targeted to relocate people from. So people ended up moving from one bad unit in a building that was slated to come down to one that was going to come down later…

So there was a lot of hope that it would do more than just improve people’s physical circumstances. It did reduce anxiety, which is important, but it really took extra wrap-around services before we saw real improvements in people’s mental health and their employment. They’re still very poor, but they’re working more. I think that there was recognition that the people in public housing really need a lot of the services they weren’t getting.

One of your arguments is that providing housing alone is not enough.

Especially not for the kids. The biggest disappointment for me was even when we got the wrap-around services, the parents were doing better, but they were still reporting that their kids were really struggling. And when we talked to the kids, the kids were talking about fighting, feeling really rejected in their new community, doing badly in school—not all, some of them were OK—but a higher proportion than we would have wanted to see.

The physical form of public housing may have changed from high-rises to mixed-income neighborhoods and more decentralized units but some of the basic issues are still the same: are there enough units? Are these units better than substandard and not always located in poor neighborhoods? Are there services available for public housing residents? This is not to downplay the importance of decent housing – it is an overlooked essential in the United States since where you live tends to determine many life outcomes – but it is really about housing plus the community and the opportunities that are or are not available.

A related question: what is the timeline for declaring the Plan for Transformation a success or failure? I wonder if the Chicago Housing Authority and city would rather just not recognize the results of the project at all.

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