Opinion: Study Shows City Needs More Equitable Housing Plan

New findings suggest not all Chicago neighborhoods are gentrified equally

Chicago is often called a city of neighborhoods. Yet a new study out of Harvard shows that certain city neighborhoods—especially if they’re considered “too black”—don’t receive the same level of investment and gentrification other, less black neighborhoods routinely enjoy.

Using Google Street View to scour thousands of Chicago streets for signs of gentrification, researchers from Harvard found that:
“[N]eighborhoods an earlier study had identified as showing early signs of gentrification continued the process only if they were at least 35 percent white. In neighborhoods that were 40 percent or more black, the process slowed or stopped altogether.”
“This is really a sobering finding,”[Jackelyn] Hwang, the paper’s lead author, said. “Even in neighborhoods that are showing change, even when we control for things like crime, perception of disorder, and proximity to amenities, race still matters.”
A recent story on the study by WBEZ made the study’s findings even clearer:
Hwang said that also means that the same neighborhoods that saw massive disinvestment when they became mostly black and poor are not benefiting from the waves of new construction and new businesses that gentrification necessarily brings along with it. "What's really happening is that the neighborhoods that could use some reinvestment and renewal aren't even being touched," she said.
The new study adds yet another layer to a story that’s been ongoing in Chicago for 50 or more years: critically-needed neighborhood investments regularly flow into more “desirable” neighborhoods while poorer and less ethnically-diverse neighborhoods starve for the very resources needed to sustain residents and transform themselves into more prosperous communities.
Even the city’s most recent plan for reversing this trend—a five-year plan known as “Bouncing Back: Five Year Housing Plan, 2014-2018”—is seen by many housing and community activists as helping skew development in Chicago away from promoting programs such as increased economic development, job creation, and community amenities to toward encouraging development in already-gentrified and wealthier communities.
In fact, the plan itself even drops the word “affordable” from it’s name, lest there be any question over who the plan aims to support. In it’s place, the plan focuses on private-market lending and a goal to “fully leverage the community of non-subsidized owners.”
As Chicago Magazine pointed out, the first item in a bullet-pointed list of the plan’s goals is to “attract high-income, high-skill residents who move to Chicago for jobs in growth sectors such as technology, engineering, finance, and health care.” For many, that doesn't sound like a plan to help current residents transform their communities on their own.
As well, it’s impossible to understand how the housing strategies in Chicago work without taking a look at how the Chicago Housing Authority is run. And there, the story is particularly troubled.
In 2011, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) received more than $74 Million in federal grant funding for public housing based on vacant units and apartments no longer physically standing, but then withheld funded vouchers for 15,000 eligible households and pushed funds designated for building replacement housing into a general CHA fund, according to a recent study produced by the Chicago Housing Initiative.
The study revealed significant declines in low-income housing opportunities under the CHA Plan for Transformation (PFT), and linked this drop to the privatization of public housing, with federal de-regulation, limited accountability and mayoral control as enabling factors.
While Chicago has made some notable strides in protecting affordable housing—such as a recent moratorium on SRO hotel conversions—the city’s overall record on reversing years of housing and community redevelopment remains ineffective at best and damaging at worst.
Between 2000 and 2010, the proportion of renters paying over a third of their income for housing—the federal standard for “cost-burdened”—rose by 32.5 percent, while the proportion of homeowners who are cost-burdened rose by an astonishing 78 percent, according to the Chicago Rehab Network.
At the same time, the CHA remains far behind in it’s goals of building more affordable housing. As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, at the end 2013 the CHA was 3,300 units short of its goal of replacing 25,000 demolished apartments. Roughly 12,000 people have been waiting a decade or more for a single new unit, with another 210,000 families have applied for the 40,000 slots on the CHA’s current waitlist.
Meanwhile, more than 138,000 Chicagoans were homeless last year, a rise of almost 20 percent from the year before, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
While Chicago should be applauded for any effort at all to reverse decades of housing inequalities and a lack of sustainability in troubled neighborhoods, it can hardly be said that for the millions of dollars being spent, the city is seeing the kind of success its most vulnerable citizens deserve.
In Chicago, no neighborhood that needs reinvestment resources should be left behind to starve while other neighborhoods receive whatever they need to thrive.
Even if that neighborhood is considered “too black” for some people’s tastes. 
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