Helping families thrive: Lessons from Chicago's public housing transformation

By Chantal Hailey :: June 19th, 2013

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In 1999, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) launched its $1 billion “Plan for Transformation” with the goal of rehabilitating or replacing 25,000 distressed public housing units, changing the city’s landscape and improving residents’ lives. Since the Plan began, CHA has successfully replaced its desolate housing with over 21,000 units of mixed-income apartments, scattered-site units, rehabilitated family and senior public housing units, and project-based vouchers.

On March 11, the Urban Institute released a series of briefs on the findings from the Long Term Outcomes for CHA Residents Study, detailing the plan’s impact on the residents of these public housing developments. The Long Term Outcomes Study is a 10-year follow-up with families from the Chicago Panel Study, which tracked the lives of 198 families from Madden/Wells Homes, and a four-year follow-up with the Demonstration participants—a demonstration that began in 2007 and aimed at improving family stability, mental health, and self-sufficiency through an intensive case management model for 475 families in Madden/Wells and Dearborn Homes.

The findings demonstrate vast improvements in residents’ lives:

  • Most residents now live in decent housing in neighborhoods where they feel substantially safer.  When we began surveying residents in 2001, their housing units were riddled with hazards—lead paint, mold, inadequate heat, and infestations of cockroaches and other vermin, but by 2011, more than 75 percent reported that their housing was in better condition than their original unit.
  • The portion of residents reporting shootings and violence as big neighborhood problems  dropped from over half of residents in 2001 to about a quarter of residents in 2011.
  • Those who live in the CHA’s remaining rehabilitated developments report better housing and neighborhood conditions than those who are renting private-market units with vouchers—a finding that speaks to the CHA’s investment in public housing and to the variability of its now over 36,000-unit voucher program.
  • Working-age Demonstration participants living in traditional public housing had significant gains in employment and mental health.

But along with this good news, the findings also reveal a few reasons for concern:

  • Though their parents are doing better, children and youth continue to struggle with school disengagement, delinquency, and trauma. They also exhibit the short-term effects of growing up around violence, including high rates of criminal and delinquent behaviors.
  • Voucher holders have trouble managing utility costs. Approximately half of these families indicate having late utility payments in the past year, while a much smaller share report late rent payments. (Given the risk of eviction, they may be prioritizing their rent payments over their utility payments.)
  • While residents’ new communities are better than the old CHA developments (with poverty rates of over 70 percent and populations that were almost entirely African American), they’re still racially segregated and poor (average poverty rates of 41 percent).

CHA’s housing transformation offers lessons about the benefits and limitations of this bold approach to reforming public housing:

  • Residents moving out of distressed public housing reap benefits, even if most do not return to the new, mixed-income housing, and relocation is an opportunity to promote mobility.
  • Long-term outcomes for Demonstration participants indicate that using housing as a platform for intensive wraparound services helps adults in vulnerable families improve their lives.
  • Improving the life chances for youth growing up in public and assisted housing requires new, innovative solutions.
  • The growth of CHA’s Housing Choice Voucher program relative to its shrinking public housing stock is part of a national trend, and proves that new challenges may arise for housing authorities to effectively administer large HCV programs, particularly voucher holder utility costs and ensuring consistent housing quality.

To learn more about CHA’s public housing transformation and its impact on residents, visit our research page with the Long Term Outcomes for CHA Residents Study briefs.

Photos by David Price, Urban Institute. Left: Madden/Wells Public Housing Development; Right: re-developed Madden/Wells Oakwood Shores.

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