Did Chicago's Plan for Transformation succeed?

Back in 2002, Terry Peterson, then CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority, said the city’s overhaul of public housing, dubbed the Plan For Transformation, would be successful.

“I have every confidence we will succeed in improving the quality of life for the great majority of CHA residents and helping them share fully in Chicago’s blessings,” Peterson wrote in a Chicago Tribune editorial.

Eleven years later, a new study from the Urban Institute examines if Peterson’s confidence was correct.

It shows that while the majority of CHA residents now live in higher-standard housing, the ones for whom life has improved the most were those who received intensive social services–education, job counseling and training, physical and mental health services. The others may be living in better housing, but their quality of life hasn’t gotten the same boost.

The study by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute draws on two groups of residents–a group of 198 household heads from Bronzeville’s former Madden/Wells Homes labeled the “panel study sample,” and another group of 475 Madden/Wells and Dearborn Homes household heads labeled the “demonstration sample” that got the social services.

The demonstration residents were chosen because they faced many challenges in securing a job or finding stable housing–credit problems, low literacy, families with criminal histories, few work skills or employment histories, or physical and mental health problems.

Their progress has been substantial. Their rates of employment improved, even after they stopped receiving the job help. About 70 percent reported working in the last 12 months–an increase of 25 percent from 2007.

Their health also improved, both physically and mentally. In 2007, over half of the demonstration residents rated their own health as “fair” or “poor,” but by 2011, that number had gone down to 38 percent. Worry, anxiety and symptoms of depression had decreased.

By contrast, employment rates for the panel participants–who didn’t get the special services– stayed the same.

In addition, their health seems to have deteriorated. In 2001, 36 percent of residents who didn’t receive the special services said their health was fair or poor. Ten years later, it increased to 48 percent. Mental health has also gotten worse. Residents reported higher rates of depression and anxiety in 2011 than back in 2001.

Why the big differences? Susan Popkin, one of the study’s author, said housing alone wasn’t enough to address the many problems residents faced, including “mental and physical illness, domestic violence, family members with criminal records, and long-term disconnection from the labor market.”

“The intensive services the demonstration provided directly addressed these issues,” said Popkin. “Participants got regular support from case managers as well as access to clinical mental health services and transitional jobs programs.”

The study’s results were not a surprise to Breann Gala, associate at the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Gala, a housing expert who has studied the Plan for Transformation, describes housing as a platform to improve a family’s life, but adds that it’s not enough. Her organization has developed Reconnecting Neighborhoods, a program at three Plan for Transformation sites which helps improve transportation, retail businesses and school partnerships in the new mixed-income communities the CHA has built.

“Housing programs alone, particularly when serving a historically disenfranchised population, have not been able to achieve long-term family self-sufficiency,” said Gala. “It is hard to overemphasize the strain that comes with living in chronically violent environments.”

Gala says that Section 8 voucher recipients face many of these same challenges, with the additional hurdle of families being spread out, making it harder for them to get the kinds of services they need. Last year, Gala helped launch the Chicago Regional Housing Choice Initiative, an effort to help voucher holders from eight regional housing authorities move to areas with more economic opportunities, and to connect them with services to help them thrive.

And what about current CHA residents? Can the housing authority afford to provide the kinds of intensive services that made such a big difference in outcomes for residents who participated in the Urban Institute study?

Popkin said the housing authority currently spends nearly $40 million a year on resident services, but that’s not enough. However, not all residents need that kind of focused help, she said.

Currently, the Urban Institute is working with the housing authority to address a group that didn’t see improvement – young people. Even when intensive social services helped the adults in the demonstration group, their children were still struggling – behavior problems in young children, teen delinquency, crime and a lack of engagement in their education. One third of young adults who came from families that received services is neither in school nor employed.

“The next challenge is to develop strategies for two-generation models that serve the whole family simultaneously,” said Popkin.

Charles Woodyard, the current CEO at the CHA, said the agency is using the study to inform its policies and figure out how to best help residents.

“The study also underscores our ongoing effort to provide key services and support for low-income residents who are on the road toward self-sufficiency and preparing to enter the global economy,” Woodyard said in a statement. “CHA will also partner with organizations to leverage resources for services to provide families with new opportunities and needed services.”

Coming up with the money for additional services for residents may be tough. But if Popkin’s study is correct, without them, many residents might not enjoy the full promise of the Plan for Transformation.

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