Did Demolishing Chicago's Public Housing Make Residents Better Off?

With the demolition of notorious high-rise housing projects such as Cabrini-Green over the last decade and a half, Chicago became a model for a new approach to public housing. A new study tracks former high-rise residents to see how they've fared.
March 11, 2013, 7am PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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As the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) prepares to release a revised version of its 12-year-old Plan for Transformation - "the largest, most ambitious redevelopment effort of public housing in the United States" - a new study by the Urban Institute of 381 families that once lived in the Madden-Wells and Dearborn housing complexes seeks to examine just how successful that influential plan has been.

According to Antonio Olivo, "Public housing residents in Chicago are marginally better off today than when they lived in the high-rise towers that have since been torn down, though more social services are needed to prevent a backslide, a study scheduled to be released Monday finds."

"Continuing problems with poverty and crime in their new neighborhoods point to a potentially dark future for many of those nearly 16,000 families, particularly children, the report by the Washington-based Urban Institute says."

What the study seems to make clear is that more than a change of scenery is required to improve people's lives.

"You still have a lot of people with very severe health problems, low levels of employment, lots of criminal justice involvement, all the kinds of things that they had before," Susan Popkin, the lead researcher in the study said. "Where we saw the improvements in terms of people's mental health, physical health and employment was when the housing was coupled with very intensive supportive services for a subset of residents."

Another obstacle: despite the goal of the CHA to move public housing families into "areas of opportunity" that are socially and economically diverse, "just seven of the 381 families tracked by researchers live in areas which fit that category."

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Published on Sunday, March 10, 2013 in Chicago Tribune
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