Kari Lydersen’s piece in the May/June 2008 issue of The Chicago Reporter entitled “Won’t You be My Neighbor?” is an important addition to the dialogue surrounding mixed income communities.
One hard part of evaluating the success of the Chicago Housing Authority’s historic Transformation is determining what it should be fairly compared to. It should be clear to your readers that if you compare the new mixed income communities against the former high rise family public housing developments which have been razed, the new communities are a resounding success. Former public housing residents living in the redeveloped communities live without fear of crime and enjoy new units and upscale amenities. Expectations of residents are high, which hopefully will lead to high achievement of residents and their children. These new communities are the realization of the original goals of the public housing program. These communities provide a hand up, not a hand out.
Lydersen’s piece evaluates the Transformation plan by studying the desirability and success of mixed income neighborhoods around Chicago. She concludes that mixed income neighborhoods are not popular, because few Chicagoans live in them. She chides the new developments for having a wide range of incomes, wider than found in some mixed income communities. But this criticism misses the point. A book analyzing the U.S. Census data, Poverty and Place by Paul Jargowsky, discovered the fact that more than 90 percent of white poor live in middle class communities, while only approximately two-thirds of African American poor lives in communities that are not majority poor. Mixed income communities are all around us, not just in Rogers Park and Burnside. Mixed income communities have housing options that can accommodate families at different income levels. Against the backdrop of Chicago’s historic deficit of high quality mixed income housing alternatives for poor people of color, the new communities are a critically important addition to the housing options for all Chicagoans.
Are there tensions in the new communities between the different income groups? Of course, just as there are class conflicts throughout our society. By living together we increase our opportunities to engage with one another, and over time learn to respect each other. By putting us in a situation that forces the poor and middle class to live and work together in our new communities, we have begun the process of healing our deep class divisions.
Maybe the best way to evaluate mixed income communities to follow Churchill’s sentiment when he said, “Democracy is the worst from of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Creating and sustaining mixed income communities is difficult work; we think it is worth the effort, because all of the alternatives are unacceptable.
Senior Vice President