University hosts regional conference on housing and urban development

It was standing room only at Ida Noyes Hall on March 31, as more than 250 scholars, practitioners, government officials, advocates and local residents interested in improving affordable housing and addressing urban issues discussed a broad set of topics during a conference entitled “Learning from the City.”

It was the first of five national convenings to prepare for this fall’s U.N. Habitat III global summit in Quito, Ecuador. “Learning from the City” was also the inaugural event of UChicago Urban, a new initiative to capture and amplify the University’s array of urban research, practice and engagement activities.

The United Nations initiated the first global Habitat summit in 1976 to create dialogue and spur large-scale efforts to address the lack of affordable housing worldwide. Habitat II was held 20 years later, in 1996. Now, the main goal of Habitat III is to share best strategies and best practices as well as review some of the most ambitious ways to provide decent homes and communities for citizens. The University of Chicago serves on the National Advisory Committee for Habitat III.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the University’s Office of Civic Engagement, along with UChicago Urban, the conference reflected the current framework for building stronger neighborhoods: Programs and policies need to incorporate an interrelated mix of issues, from place-based development to transportation, from climate change to arts and culture.

“I think we have a history in this country—not just at the federal level but at every level—of defining a problem relatively narrowly and seemingly solving it, but then causing other problems,” said Harriet Tregoning in her keynote presentation. “We can’t afford to do that any more.”

Tregoning, HUD’s principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Community Planning and Development, noted that a century ago, only two in 10 Americans lived in a city. Today, she said, more than 80 percent live in urban areas, yet many cities and neighborhoods struggle with disinvestment and decline. “We think the action is at the local level. We need the critiques of the users of our services. We need the creativity of local government,” she said.

For a panel discussion on securing housing options for all, experts discussed the interplay between homelessness, public housing, racism, declining manufacturing, regional planning and more.

Prof. Robert Chaskin, deputy dean for strategic initiatives at the School of Social Service Administration and director of the University’s Urban Network, framed the issue with a presentation on the historic context of policies and segregation around public housing in Chicago. He also outlined recent goals to disperse concentrated poverty through the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation.

“The results have been mixed at best,” he said. “Most voucher holders moved to a slightly better neighborhood but still one largely characterized by 20 to 40 percent of residents in poverty and with primarily African American residents.”

Chaskin also discussed his research on new mixed-income developments built on the sites of CHA properties, the subject of his most recent book, Integrating the Inner City. He and co-author Mark Joseph found little interaction between residents living in the public housing and market-rate units, a disappointing result, given that the theory of change was, in large part, based on integration of low-income families with the networks of their more middle-class neighbors.

Other UChicago faculty members participating in the conference included Theaster Gates, professor of visual arts and director of Arts + Public Life at UChicago, who spoke on a panel about investing in people and communities; Mark Templeton, associate professor of law and director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, who spoke about how cities respond to environmental shocks and natural disaster; and Stacy Tessler Lindau, associate professor of obstetrics/gynecology and medicine-geriatrics, who took part in a discussion about the role of big data in shaping regional policy.

“The ‘Learning from the City’ convening provided an opportunity to share lessons learned in urban policy and practice over the last 20 years and to forge new partnerships in the work to address common housing issues across cities in the Midwest,” said Derek R.B. Douglas, UChicago’s vice president for civic engagement, who welcomed participants to the conference. “It also enabled a robust exchange between some individuals who make or influence policies and those who experience the impact of those policies.

Several panelists lauded the impact of a cross-sector approach. Dialogue between advocates, researchers, policymakers and the people whose lives are directly affected by the programs under discussion is a hallmark of the Office of Civic Engagement and will be for UChicago Urban as well. Future UChicago Urban programs will bring together academic researchers with community partners to develop evidence-driven, scalable solutions to address the most complex questions facing cities.

“People know the University of Chicago as an intellectual destination for urban research,” said Anne Dodge, executive director of UChicago Urban and co-organizer of the conference. “Through UChicago Urban, we plan to shine a spotlight on this work and connect it with the University’s civic and global engagement priorities, so that people working to better our cities can look to UChicago for tools and inspiration.”