A Chicago Community Puts Mixed-Income Housing To The Test

Feb 5, 2015
Originally published on February 5, 2015 2:38 pm

Right next to the Chicago River on the city's North Side, Lathrop Homes, with its black, white and Latino residents, is considered the city's most diverse public housing.

It's also on the National Register of Historic Places. And with 925 low-rise units on about 30 acres, it's big. But these days, only a fraction of those apartments are occupied.

Miguel Suarez has lived in Lathrop Homes for 25 years. He says the Chicago Housing Authority, or CHA, offered people housing vouchers to move elsewhere when they decided that Lathrop would be rehabbed — part of a massive effort to revamp public housing in the city.

But residents at Lathrop say they don't live in a distressed neighborhood that needs change — so they are fighting to keep their homes intact.

The New Face Of Public Housing

It's been two decades since the federal government's HOPE VI Program offered public housing authorities around the nation money to tear down blighted public housing projects.

Across the country, cities used it as an opportunity to experiment with breaking up pockets of poverty. They replaced the housing projects with "mixed-income housing," where people who have money live next door to people who don't.

But mixed-income housing changes the profile of a city — and it's often controversial. The CHA launched a massive program in 1999, promising to tear down troubled high-rises and rehab or rebuild 25,000 units of public housing.

"Our interest, and the CHA's interest, is in making a vital, vibrant mixed-income community here," says Jacques Sandberg, a vice president at Related Midwest, one of the developers involved in revamping Lathrop Homes.

The Lathrop Homes Plan

Suarez, who is semi-retired, is the chairperson of a group of residents called the Lathrop Leadership Team. During a driving tour of the neighborhood, he points out how all of the three-story apartment buildings and smaller row houses on the northern side of the development are boarded up and fenced in.

Throughout the development, arched colonnades connect the buildings and sweeping snow-covered lawns. There's a lot of new, pricy housing surrounding Lathrop, and plenty of businesses and stores.

Suarez says he knows why there's a push for change. "It's moving the poor out and bringing the rich in," he says. "Gentrification — 'We don't care where you go, just get the hell out, because we want this.' "

That's the fight when it comes to mixed-income housing: determining the right mix of incomes, and how many public housing residents get to return to a refurbished development.

The latest plan for a redeveloped Lathrop Homes calls for one half of the historic development to be torn down and the rest rehabbed. The new Lathrop would include 500 market-rate condos and townhouses, but only about 200 low-income or affordable apartments and 400 public housing units, down from the current 925.

It's controversial, and Sandberg says creating mixed-income neighborhoods can be difficult.

"There are people who have legitimate positions that have to be reconciled," he says. "Sometimes they are at odds and are fundamentally irreconcilable, and there are people's lives at stake."

The Fight For Lathrop

A group of Lathrop residents say they aren't on board with the plans for their home. Lathrop Advisory Council member Cynthia Scott, a former receptionist who is on disability benefits now, says it has been frustrating to hear developers and others talk about "concentrated poverty" and how Lathrop Homes is isolated from the rest of the neighborhood.

"If you go outside this community, everybody else's community is gated. We are not gated," she says. "People walk their dogs around here. Our parks are open; their parks are closed. So who's to say we are not an open community?"

Recent home sales near Lathrop range from $500,000 to about $1 million. Titus Kerby, the Lathrop Advisory Council's president, says the plan for Lathrop means hundreds of public housing residents won't be able to return to a thriving neighborhood that's already mixed-income.

"Our position is, if you are only going to bring back 400 units here in Lathrop Homes, the other 525 units must be located here on the North Side," he says.

Most of the Lathrop Homes development is located in the ward of Chicago Alderman Proco Joe Moreno. Moreno says market-rate housing — or what he calls "unrestricted" housing — actually helps fund mixed-income projects.

Even so, Moreno says he's committed to bringing displaced Lathrop residents back to the North Side and wants more affordable housing in the Lathrop plan. That will allow public housing residents who will live in the new Lathrop a next step, he says.

"I know it sounds a little utopia — that a public housing resident comes in, gets to affordable rent and gets to an affordable purchase and then, maybe, perhaps gets unrestricted," Moreno says, "but it's not without precedent. And if we don't provide the opportunity, it's not going to happen."

Mixed-Income Housing Results

Studies of Chicago's existing mixed-income housing show that public housing residents in the new developments are doing better, while most who had to move elsewhere still live in segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods.

Lawrence Vale, an urban studies professor at MIT, has studied mixed-income housing in Chicago and other cities. "There are lots of assumptions about what the new neighborhoods should do to help low-income residents find role models or better social networks," he says, "but the empirical evidence of that has been scant."

But there are some aspects of mixed-income housing that are promising, Vale says.

"There's a sense of people finding enhanced security, increased investment in the surrounding neighborhoods and higher expectations for the management when they have the pressure of people putting more of their own money into payments," he says.

The Chicago Housing Authority says construction at Lathrop could begin by spring of 2016, and that it plans to update residents soon. If Lathrop does indeed become a mixed-income community as planned, even its developers say it may take years to determine how it functions as a neighborhood — and whether a new Lathrop is a success.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're spending time this morning in Chicago where there's an effort to turn housing that's exclusively for the poor into a community for all incomes. It's part of the NPR Cities Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Becoming a world-class city.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Engaging the neighborhood deeply.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Who is to say that we are not an open community?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: If other cities can do it, we can do it.

GREENE: Public housing. It's wildly viewed as a failed urban policy. Critics say it concentrates poverty, perpetuating it, creating pockets of crime. One new motto is mixed income. The idea is to get people who have money to live next door to those who don't.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The federal government put up money some decades back to tear down blighted public housing. In Chicago, the Housing Authority has been destroying troubled high-rises and renovating thousands of other units. Now a sparkling makeover is in the works for a project on the city's North Side. It's called Lathrop Homes. Jacques Sandberg of Related Midwest is one of the developers.

JACQUES SANDBERG: Our interest and the CHA's interest is in making a vibrant, vital mixed-income community here.

GREENE: The thing is people who live there don't see a Robin Hood strategy. Residents say they don't live in a distressed neighborhood that needs change. And they're fighting the plan. NPR's Cheryl Corley takes us to Lathrop Homes.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: I'm standing in the 2900 block of Leavitt Street in Chicago at the northern edge of Lathrop Homes. Lathrop is considered the city's most diverse public housing. Its residents are blacks, whites and Latinos. It's on the National Register of Historic Places, and it's big, a collection of low-rise units - 925 of them on about 30 acres. But these days, only a fraction of the apartments are on occupied.

MIGUEL SUAREZ: Good afternoon.

CORLEY: I'm getting a driving tour for a better look.

SUAREZ: My name is Miguel Suarez. I've lived here at Lathrop for 25 years.

CORLEY: Miguel Suarez is my guide. He's semi-retired and a chairperson of a group of residents called the Lathrop Leadership Team. He says after the Housing Authority decided Lathrop would be rehabbed, it offered people housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

SUAREZ: If you look at the backside of that building, it's all boarded up.

CORLEY: This is the north side of the development. All of the three-story brick apartment buildings here are boarded up and fenced in. Lathrop sits right next to the Chicago River, and as we roll by, Suarez points out the buildings' archways and sweeping snow-covered lawns. Surrounding Lathrop, there's lots of new, pricey housing, plenty businesses and stores. And Suarez says he knows why there's a push for change here.

SUAREZ: It's moving the poor out, bringing the rich in, gentrification. We don't care where you go. Just get the hell out of here 'cause we want this.

CORLEY: And that's the fight when it comes to mixed-income housing. What's the right mix of incomes? And how many public housing residents get to return to a refurbished development? The latest Lathrop plan calls for 500 market rate condos and townhomes, but only about 200 low-income or affordable apartments and 400 public housing units, down from the current 925. It's controversial. So much so that the CHA and developers won't talk about it in person. But developer Jacques Sandberg tells me by phone that creating such neighborhoods can be difficult.

SANDBERG: Because there are people who have legitimate positions that have to be reconciled and sometimes they're at odds and are fundamentally irreconcilable, and there are people's lives at stake.

CORLEY: I'm back at the south end of Lathrop where it's garbage pickup day. This is the occupied side of the development. Residents live mostly in two-story row houses, and I'm about to meet with a group of them at the Lathrop Advisory Council Office.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Pull up a chair. Make yourself at home.

CORLEY: We gather around an office table, four residents and a minister of the nearby church. So I ask if they're on board with the plans they've seen so far for Lathrop.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: No.

CORLEY: Cynthia Scott, who worked as a receptionist, is on disability now. She says it's been frustrating to hear developers and others talk about concentrated poverty and how Lathrop Homes is isolated.

CYNTHIA SCOTT: If you go outside this community, everybody else's community is gated. We are not gated. People walk their dogs around here. Our parks are open. Their parks are closed. So who's to say that we are not an open community?

CORLEY: Recent home sales near Lathrop range from a half million to $1 million and Titus Kirby, the president of the Advisory Council, says the plan for Lathrop means hundreds of public housing families won't be able to return to a thriving neighborhood that's already mixed-income.

TITUS KIRBY: And our position is if you're going to only bring back 400 units here in Lathrop Homes, the other 525 units must be located here on the north side.

CORLEY: Studies of Chicago's mixed-income housing already in place show that public housing residents and the new developments are doing better while most who've had to move elsewhere still live in segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods. From his office at MIT, Urban Studies Professor Lawrence Vale, who studied mixed-income housing in Chicago and other cities, says there are lots of assumptions about what the new neighborhoods should do.

LAWRENCE VALE: To help the low-income residents find role models or help them build better social networks, and the empirical evidence on that has been scant.

CORLEY: On the other hand, says Vale, some aspects are promising.

VALE: There's a sense of people finding enhanced security, increased investment in the surrounding neighborhoods and higher expectations for the management when they have the pressure of people putting more of their own money into payments.

CORLEY: At a small Cuban cafe about a block from Lathrop, I meet with Alderman Joe Moreno. Most of the development is in his ward.

JOE MORENO: Can I get a cafe con leche? Would you like anything?

CORLEY: Moreno says market rate - or what he calls unrestricted homes - actually help fund mixed-income projects. But he says adding more affordable housing in the Lathrop plan will give public housing residents a next step.

MORENO: I know it sounds a little utopiac (ph) that a public housing resident comes in, gets to affordable rent, then gets to an affordable purchase and then perhaps maybe gets unrestricted. But it's not without precedent. And if we don't provide the opportunity, it's not going to happen.

CORLEY: The Chicago Housing Authority says it plans to update residents soon on what's happening at Lathrop. If it does indeed become a mixed-income community as planned, even its developers say it may take years to determine how it functions as a neighborhood and whether a new Lathrop is a success. At the corner of Diversey and Damen in Chicago, I'm Cheryl Corley for the NPR Cities Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.