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Lessons From Chicago's Public Housing Transformation

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Lessons From Chicago's Public Housing Transformation

Image of the Madden/Wells Homes as they appeared in 2005 before demolition.
The Urban Institute tracked outcomes for former residents of the distressed Madden Park Homes and Ida B. Wells Homes/Wells Extension. Above, Madden/Wells Homes as they appeared in 2005 before demolition. Image courtesy of David Price, Urban Institute.
In 1999, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) launched its $1 billion Plan for Transformation in an ambitious effort to improve housing and neighborhood conditions in the city’s most distressed public housing developments. Much more than a physical transformation, the plan also sought to improve the life chances of public housing residents. Since the plan’s inception, CHA has successfully replaced much of its dilapidated housing with more than 21,000 units located in mixed-income developments, scattered-site apartments, rehabilitated family and senior public housing units, and project-based vouchers.1

Since 2001, the Urban Institute has been involved in a series of studies to understand the challenges, opportunities, and outcomes presented by CHA’s Plan for Transformation. In March 2013, Susan J. Popkin, senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, presented findings from the Long-Term Outcomes for CHA Residents study to staff and officials at HUD headquarters in Washington, DC. This most recent research effort combines the outcomes from the respective sample populations from the Chicago Panel Study and the Chicago Family Case Management Demonstration into a single study of long-term resident outcomes at years ten and four, respectively.

The Chicago Panel Study began in 2001 and measured outcomes across several variables for 198 families living in Madden Park Homes and the Ida B. Wells Homes/Wells Extension (Madden/Wells) before and after housing relocation. The initial survey administration raised concerns about the ability of some public housing residents to secure offsite housing as relocation efforts progressed; these fears were confirmed by follow-up surveys and interviews in 2003 and 2005, which found many hard-to-house residents unable to relocate. This group of residents faced significant barriers to securing stable housing and were identified as needing intensive services designed to promote greater self-sufficiency, family stability, and expanded housing choice. In 2007, CHA partnered with the Urban Institute and other service providers to assist hard-to-house families living in the Madden/Wells and Dearborn Homes secure permanent and stable housing through the Chicago Family Case Management Demonstration study. The Demonstration provided intensive services (case management, clinical mental health counseling, transitional jobs, enhanced mobility counseling, etc.) for 475 households whose outcomes were tracked by Urban Institute in the subsequent years.

The Long-Term Outcomes for CHA Residents study reports on a 10-year follow-up of the panel study families and a 4-year follow-up of the demonstration study participants. Although the studies cover different lengths of time and did not utilize an experimental research design, the Panel Study does serve as an approximate benchmark to assess the potential benefits associated with the intensive services that Demonstration participants received.

The dilapidated Madden/Wells Homes were replaced by Oakwood Shores, as shown in this photo in 2005 shortly before completion.
The dilapidated Madden/Wells Homes were replaced by Oakwood Shores, shown above in 2005 shortly before completion. Image courtesy of Megan Gallagher, Urban Institute.
The findings presented by Popkin demonstrate significant improvements in residents’ lives, with most residents now living in decent housing located in neighborhoods where they feel substantially safer. When survey administration began in 2001, residents lived in extremely distressed units with multiple hazards such as lead paint, mold, inadequate heat, and infestations of cockroaches and other vermin. By 2011, more than 75 percent reported that their current housing in better condition than their original unit. In addition, the proportion of residents reporting shootings and violence as major neighborhood problems declined from more than half in 2001 to about a quarter in 2011. Furthermore, residents’ new communities are less segregated and poor than the old CHA developments, which had poverty rates of more than 70 percent and populations that were almost entirely African American. These problems persist in the new communities, but the average poverty rate is 41 percent.

The study also finds that Demonstration participants living in traditional public housing experienced significant gains in employment from 2007 to 2011. These participants were also more likely to report good health and less likely to report symptoms of depression, worry, and anxiety than they were in 2007 and 2009. In contrast, the self-reported health of Panel Study participants declined over the ten-year period, and reported levels of depression and anxiety increased.

Despite many of the positive findings presented by Popkin, there is also cause for significant concern. Children and youth in the study continue to struggle with academic failure, delinquency, and trauma; they also exhibit the short-term effects of growing up around violence, including high rates of criminal and delinquent behavior. Improving the life chances for youth growing up in public and assisted housing will require new, innovative solutions. The results also suggest challenges facing the more than 37,000 Chicago households who rely on housing vouchers. In 2011, voucher holders experienced more housing problems than their public housing counterparts. Voucher holders reported trouble managing utility costs; approximately half of these families indicate having late utility payments in the past year, but a much smaller share report late rent payments.

Overall, CHA’s housing transformation illustrates the benefits and limitations of a comprehensive approach to reforming public housing. The research indicates that the physical transformation and increased resident mobility can improve housing and neighborhood conditions, and also may have positive outcomes on residents’ health and well-being.



Published Date: May 21, 2013

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.