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The Problem with Mixed-Income Housing

Maya Dukmasova / Jacobin

I meet Charlie Barlow under a strange lump of a bronze sculpture standing at the edge of a park in Chicago’s Oakland neighborhood. The plaque on the pedestal reads:

“RESTORATION by Milton Mizenburg, Jr. This sculpture is dedicated to the men and women who remained in the Oakland community during difficult times and worked hard to restore its former beauty.

Charlie finishes his cigarette and takes me to see his home in the orange brick eight-story building whose tinted bay windows remind me of suburban office complexes. We walk through a quiet lobby, decorated with gigantic images of architectural details of Chicago’s landmark buildings — the kinds of pictures that hang in transitory space all over America, their neutrality designed to give less pause to visitors than bare walls.

He shows me around. There is a “community room” filled with wide desks on wheels and an inviting cluster of brightly upholstered couches. We examine these by pressing our faces awkwardly against the small window in the hallway. The room is kept locked and off limits to residents of the 81 units in this building at all times.

community room
(Maya Dukmasova / Jacobin)

More than an apartment building, this place feels like a hotel, bearing no markers of the residents, inviting no attachment or interaction. As we wind our way through a dimly lit hallway on the third floor, hung with more sterile architectural canvas prints, Charlie points out that doormats are against the rules. The residents are also forbidden from posting any announcements or information anywhere in the building.

During the “difficult times” told by the plaque, Oakland was defined by and stigmatized for its cluster of public housing projects. The “former beauty” refers to the nineteenth-century Craftsman cottages that became dilapidated in the shadows of these projects. Some are now beginning to blossom anew, fetching upwards of $300,000 as the Chicago Housing Authority’s lakefront land is redeveloped into new, mixed-income housing.

Empty lots still strew the neighborhood, interspersed with brand new townhomes. But with the projects gone, Oakland is beginning to attract more middle-class African-American families who have been priced out of the South Loop.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley announced the ambitious Plan for Transformation: eliminate Chicago’s high-rise public housing, construct mixed-income communities in its place, and rehabilitate viable low-rise developments to provide a total of 25,000 new or rehabbed public housing units by 2010.

Now in its fourteenth year, the plan is yet to be completed. While the demolitions triggered displacement of over 20,000 households, only about 2,600 public housing units have been built in these mixed-income developments. The majority of the families currently on the CHA’s rolls reside in the private housing market with Section 8 vouchers or in the few traditional public housing developments that still remain.

Families whose homes were demolished as a result of the plan were given a “right to return” to the new mixed-income communities built to replace them if they remained lease-compliant while they waited. However, the level of scrutiny developers have applied to the selection of CHA families to fill the public housing units in their complexes has left most of those displaced to seek housing elsewhere.

The loss of traditional public housing has meant more than just the loss of shelter for thousands of people in greatest need. It has also meant the destruction of communities where people found ways to bond in the face of decades of marginalization and oppression. As long as they were together, they could not be invisible.

The force of their collective action at times yielded heartening results, such as when residents of the Henry Horner Homes were able to launch a class-action lawsuit against the CHA to achieve redevelopment without mass displacement. When HUD gave Chicago the go-ahead to tear down the projects, the avalanche of bricks and mortar smothered avenues for resident resistance in the blink of an eye.

barlow building
(Maya Dukmasova / Jacobin)

Charlie Barlow is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge and co-investigator at University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. He moved in to Sullivan Station, Chicago’s newest $44 million-dollar mixed-income community, to figure out whether Henri Lefebvre’s notion of citizenship can grow within the constraints set for its residents.

Lefebvre thought that, first and foremost, the people who inhabit urban space have the right to shape it. David Harvey has succinctly described this as a “right to change ourselves by changing the city.” Harvey pointed out that this is “a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization.”

Through his research, Charlie is testing whether he and his neighbors at Sullivan Station are able to exercise their “right to the city,” or whether it is in fact living at Sullivan Station that prevents them from doing so.

“To what extent do mixed-income communities facilitate the possibility for their residents to exercise the entitlements of citizenship? To what extent do residents of mixed-income communities feel able to use neighborhood space to live their everyday lives? To what extent does living in a mixed-income community expand the possibilities for residents to control and direct their futures?” Charlie asks.

So far, Sullivan Station has been a disappointment.

In Chicago, “mixed-income” connotes the combination of white collar, market-rate renters or homeowners with public housing residents on the Chicago Housing Authority’s rolls and low-income residents whose units are subsidized through Low Income Housing Tax Credits.

Those public housing applicants who make it through the screening gauntlet (lease compliance checks, housekeeping checks, criminal background checks, credit checks, employment verification, and drug testing) are allowed into the quiet isolation of places with bucolic names like Parkside of Old Town, the Villages of Westhaven, and Oakwood Shores.

Charlie tells me about his first months at Sullivan Station in the living room of his apartment — a spacious one-bedroom unit with new fixtures, cabinetry, and doors of blonde wood, a large bathroom and floor-length windows. Because he is approaching his research as a resident, he feels frustrated and stifled by the schizophrenic rules that restrict the use of spaces created to allow residents to coalesce into a community.

CHA residents in mixed-income communities are usually quick to express their satisfaction with the new, high-quality dwellings. Some emphasize that they don’t feel embarrassed about where they live the way they used to. But they also reveal that they continue to live with stigma, only now, its source has shifted from project outsiders to their mixed-income neighbors and the management staff ostensibly there to serve them.

In some mixed-income developments, the CHA renters cannot have grills on their balconies, while the homeowners can. They cannot use exercise facilities built in the condo buildings; they cannot have friends and family visit them freely; the property managers check their units for good upkeep. They can’t have parties. They report palpable surveillance at all times.

Again and again, former residents of Chicago’s public housing projects tell stories of the community they built there. Some narratives are recurrent: going door-to-door to collect ingredients for dinner during hard times, knowing one’s neighbors, the process of surviving together.

sullivan sign
(Maya Dukmasova / Jacobin)

The white elites in this city have their own recurring narratives: the shooting of seven-year-old Dantrell Davis at the Cabrini-Green projects, the fact that mothers had to hide their children in bathtubs at night, the squalor and the stench of the high-rises, the “scarring” of the skyline.

The mixed-income development was ostensibly designed to liberate the poor from the projects. Instead, it has created for the chosen among them a sort of well-outfitted prison. Here, they are preemptively pacified through rigid discipline privileging the perceptions and priorities of their wealthier neighbors. Some may be comfortable in this new environment, but many admit to feeling isolated and disempowered.

In Chicago, the usurpation of public assets has been pervasive: Parking meters, bus shelters and fare cards, recycling, the charter school “creep,” and the diverging of taxes from public services to wealthy corporations to subsidize the mayor’s expensive pet projects through tax increment financing. But when the public asset is housing, mangled beyond recognition by decades of mismanagement and disinvestment because those who occupied it were of no use to the city’s elites, the only thing left to do is to transform it into something worth privatizing.

In the Survival of Capitalism, Lefebvre writes that to thrive, capitalism needs to transform space by adding to its value. To become commodifiable and profitable, urban spaces can be transformed through the co-optation of arts and culture, as is common in gentrifying neighborhoods. In the case of Oakland, the spatial transformation is happening through the erasure of homes that are publicly owned and produce no profit, and the substitution of homes that are privately-owned and can be bought and sold.

So far, the neighborhood has welcomed the transition. To those across the street, Sullivan Station looks like a phoenix rising from the ashes of a shameful, failed experiment in housing. Many of the residents of Oakland are looking on approvingly as the projects yield to mixed-income developments. But for Charlie and his neighbors inside Sullivan Station, “restoration” has become inextricable from privatization. Their future in the neighborhood, and their right to the city, remains uncertain.