The promise and peril of mixed-income housing

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Editor and Publisher Susan Smith Richardson

Editor and Publisher Susan Smith Richardson

Almost 20 years ago, a wrecking ball leveled a 14-story high-rise at the Henry Horner Homes on the city’s Near West Side. What has happened since then is both amazing and disturbing.

Horner, a public housing development, became Westhaven Park, a mixed-income community of market-rate renters, homeowners and former Horner residents. The transformation from Horner to Westhaven was a bold leap to create a better environment for public housing residents who had complained of everything from roaches to gangs to unlit stairwells. In many ways, life is better.

In 1991, the Mothers Guild, a group of Horner residents, sued the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Chicago Housing Authority. The women claimed that the agencies were effectively demolishing public housing, in violation of federal law, by failing to repair and lease out the units. Their lawsuit jump-started the improvements at Horner, now Westhaven.

But the new development isn’t exactly what the Mothers Guild envisioned. They were fighting for a decent place to raise their children. Mixed-income residences came later.

In this issue of The Chicago Reporter, database reporter Jonah Newman investigates, through the lens of the former Horner residents, how well the mixed-income community is working. The mere proximity of middle-class and low-income residents hasn’t pierced the barriers of race and class that divide them, Jonah reports. And when residents do interact, it’s often with skepticism.

For all its problems, Horner was home to longtime residents. Now many of these same residents fit uneasily into the new mixed-income developments. They are viewed as recipients of subsidies, not as members of a community with the right to a voice in their futures.

This year, the Plan for Transformation, Chicago’s sweeping blueprint to turn former public housing developments into mixed-income communities, turns 15. The fate of the former Horner Homes may provide clues about the future of the Plan. The Chicago Housing Authority has been shamed for displacing former public housing residents.

Units sit vacant as thousands of people clamor for a place on housing waitlists. And the agency collects federal dollars for the vacant units.

Even if you don’t care about public housing, you can appreciate that residents shouldn’t be collateral damage in their struggle for a better quality of life.

The race for City Hall

On April 7, Chicagoans will head back to the polls to vote for the next mayor. Incumbent Rahm Emanuel will attempt to defend his second-term bid against Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. In our fall 2014 issue, we noted the mayor’s slumping support in the African-American community, driven by shuttered neighborhood schools and a staggering unemployment rate.

Preliminary election results from the mayor’s race indeed show that Emanuel lost some juice in neighborhoods that energized his first run. Despite the big bucks and the big gun—his former boss, President Barack Obama, endorsed him—the mayor couldn’t avoid a runoff election.

For perspective on the issues at play in what promises to be one of the hottest Chicago mayoral races in decades, read our last issue online and follow us daily at chicagoreporter.com.