When the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) started moving residents out of two South Side developments nine years ago, Susan Popkin, a public-housing expert at the Urban Institute, worried that it wouldn’t turn out well for the folks who got relocated. “I had a lot of concerns that these people would not manage,” she says, “that it was really going to [harm] them.”
But last week, Popkin and some colleagues released an in-depth study that found life is markedly better now for the families who were moved out of the Ida B. Wells and Madden Park housing developments (the linked complexes were known as Madden-Wells). “There’s been a real, positive impact on the well-being of the people who left there,” Popkin says. “They live in better housing in safer neighborhoods, their quality of life is better, and their stress levels are down.”
A key reason for the improvement: The people who were relocated “are not being exposed to the toxic violence that they were living with,” says Popkin, who directs the Urban Institute’s program on neighborhoods and youth development. “The graffiti and garbage were everywhere around them.”
While the relocated families have largely wound up in poor communities with little economic or educational opportunity, Popkin says that these locations are “nothing like the conditions they had been living in at Madden-Wells. They’re not in great places now, but in decent places.” Tracking 198 households moved from Madden-Wells, the research team found that 84 percent say that their present homes are in excellent or good condition, and that most say they feel safer.
Popkin describes one former Madden-Wells resident as emblematic of the change. “She was in a troubled family that had been involved in some of the violence, and she wasn’t doing great—wasn’t doing anything, really,” Popkin says. Now the woman is living in a rehabbed public housing development, and she has completed high school and is enrolled in community college. “She told us she felt like she could do these things that she never could have [done] at Wells,” Popkin says.
Among the relocated people, the study found, severe health problems are numerous. “The mortality is stunning,” Popkin says. “These people are dying in their 50s, and it’s from poorly managed chronic diseases.” She attributes the poor level of overall health both to the horrid living conditions at Madden-Wells (“it’s all stress-related”), and to the fact that “it was housing of last resort, so the people who felt better had [already] moved out.”
Popkin also took note of changes at the CHA. Where officials there used to see themselves as managers of a real-estate portfolio, in recent years the focus has been on “resident services,” Popkin says. “The Plan for Transformation has had a transformative effect on the housing authority, too.”