Study: “Community” proves slow to emerge in mixed-income developments

Mixed-income housing developments, intended in part to reduce social isolation for public housing residents, don't automatically lead to strong communities, new research at the University of Chicago shows. While these developments appear to be successful in improving physical conditions and safety, the social environment is proving more challenging.

Rather than mixing with others from different walks of life, people who move into the communities typically form friendships with people from similar economic backgrounds, and organized activities can reinforce the separation between low-income and higher income groups, according to the research, said Robert Chaskin, Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.

The study focused on three new mixed-income housing developments established through efforts of the Chicago Housing Authority. The CHA, like many public housing agencies around the country and the world, is engaged in a massive transformation project to replace dense high-rises with mixed-income developments.

Some early findings from the University of Chicago study of the Chicago experience are presented in "Building 'Community' in Mixed-Income Developments: Assumptions, Approaches and Early Experiences," published in the current issues of Urban Affairs Review. Chaskin is joined in writing the article by his co-researcher, Mark Joseph, Assistant Professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Science at Case Western Reserve University.

For the study, the team is looking at three housing developments: Oakwood Shores (projected to be 3,000 units) and Park Boulevard (projected to have 1,316 units) on the South Side of Chicago and Westhaven Park (projected to have 1,317 units) on the west side of the city. The developments all have a mix of units that are reserved for CHA residents, units made affordable with subsidies for other low-income people and market-rate condominiums.

"As a redevelopment strategy, mixed-income development is about transforming urban neighborhoods formerly characterized by high levels of deprivation, isolation and concentration of social problems into safer, more sustainable, better-functioning neighborhoods," said Chaskin, who is leading a multi-year project studying mixed-income developments.

For their study, Chaskin and Joseph are leading a team that conducts field work and interviews residents across income groups in the three mixed-income developments, people who help manage the developments (including developers, service providers and property managers), community activists and public officials active in the neighborhoods.

They are finding complicated dynamics among the different groups of residents. Efforts to create joint activities to bring low-income and higher-income people together were frequently disappointing, the interviews showed.

"We do community bingo, we have salsa class, we have stepping class, we had financial workshops, and 90 percent of our participants would be public housing (residents)," one member of a development team said.

A market-rate resident told researchers of the public housing residents: "I didn't notice until it got warmer that they all know each other. They all hang out. They take their kids to the park together. I guess they don't feel like they have to open up to me because they already have people around that they'd prefer to speak to."

Although specifically organized social activities did not draw the different groups together, other gatherings were scheduled over issues of mutual interest, such as crime. Those meetings were sometimes a source of tension.

"Many of the stated concerns by middle- and upper-income residents about safety and public order, for example, implicitly if not explicitly, lay blame at the feet of relocated housing residents and their visitors," the researchers write.

The experience in Chicago may be a reality check for policymakers with high ambitions for changing the social fabric through mixed-income communities, the researchers contend. People who move into the communities often modestly expect that they will form friendships with people from other groups, the scholars found, but even those limited goals can be difficult to achieve in real-life settings.

Ultimately, the study found that many of the problems that face low-income residents are beyond the power of housing planners, even with targeted job placement services and other social services. Broader efforts are needed to reduce social inequality and promote economic development, the team suggests.

The research was supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.