The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Volume 21 | Issue 1 | Winter 2014
Transformed 16,000 - Number of families moved out of traditional public housing in Chicago

Chicago has relocated residents out of public housing and into a mix of different kinds of homes. How well are they doing?

Twelve years after the start of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, thousands of public housing residents have been relocated from their homes in traditional (mostly high-rise) public housing buildings into a variety of housing contexts, including new mixed-income developments, private rental housing subsidized with vouchers, rehabilitated traditional public housing developments, and scattered-site public housing units built in small  clusters among market-rate housing in a variety of Chicago neighborhoods.

The Plan for Transformation represents the most ambitious effort in the United States to remake public housing. Scheduled for completion in 2015, the Transformation will result in the demolition of approximately 22,000 units of public housing, the rehabilitation of more than 17,000 units, and the creation of more than 10 new mixed-income developments containing a mix of public housing replacement, affordable and market-rate units.

The Transformation’s stated goals have been to reduce concentrated poverty, revitalize neighborhoods, end the social isolation of residents of public housing and improve wellbeing. But questions remain about what has happened to the residents. Where did families end up? Does family well-being differ based on housing type? In research published in “Public Housing Transformation and Resident Relocation: Comparing Destinations and Household Characteristics in Chicago” (Chaskin, Joseph, Voelker and Dworsky, Cityscape 14(1): 183-214), my co-authors and I have found some  answers to these questions.

Households that relocated with vouchers appear more vulnerable than the others and may have a harder time benefiting fully from relocation. Most have moved to neighborhoods that are high-poverty and predominantly African-American. They had family characteristics which likely presented more barriers to economic and residential mobility in 1999 and—even after controlling for differences in family composition and residential history—were less likely in 2008 to have earnings from employment. They also earned significantly less and were more likely to receive food stamps than families in all other housing types.

Despite stringent screening processes, households that moved into mixed-income developments do not appear to have been “creamed” from the general public housing population and were not faring relatively better than families in other types of housing in 2008.

Households living in remaining traditional public housing developments do not appear to be the highest-need families based on the indicators we measured. Notably, the employment rate for this group nearly doubled between 1999 and 2008, and working households were earning almost twice as much on average in 2008 compared to the start of the Transformation.

The most promising story seems to be among residents in scattered-site housing, who are much more likely to be living in lower poverty and more racially diverse neighborhoods. Scattered-site residents outperformed all other groups on employment and earnings measures in 2008. Stability may also be a factor here; many of these households were already living in scattered-site housing at the start of the Transformation and have been able to return to their permanent housing following rehabilitation. In contrast, many residents who lived in public housing complexes slated for demolition were moved multiple times before settling in their current homes.

Large-scale public housing relocation and redevelopment efforts continue in Chicago and elsewhere. In light of these findings, we suggest recommendations that can be considered by housing practitioners and policymakers and would impact the social services available to public housing residents:

Post-occupancy support for households relocated to mixed-income developments appears critical. The Chicago Housing Authority originally planned to end social services to relocated households once they had moved into a mixed-income development. More recently, the contracts to service providers have been extended to a year of post-occupancy support. Our findings suggest that much longer-term support will need to be provided.

Consider developing an outreach, assessment and support system tailored to voucher holders. This large population has been dispersed into neighborhoods across the west and south sides of the city, many of which are isolated and have limited resources to support such households. Our findings suggest that this population is more disadvantaged and systems-dependent than other families who relocated, and the Plan for Transformation has had no service strategy designed to meet the special circumstances of this hard-to-reach population.

Explore the possibilities of expanding scattered-site housing approaches as a strategy for deconcentrating poverty. The CHA recently began using project-based vouchers to continue momentum towards the Transformation’s ultimate goal of 25,000 redeveloped public housing units. Project-based vouchers have the potential to achieve a similar dispersal of public housing residents as scattered-site housing, without the expense of building new developments. This strategy also relieves residents of the challenge of finding landlords willing to accept vouchers, as that responsibility would shift to the CHA.

Robert Chaskin is an associate professor at SSA. For more on this work, visit Based on this research, a book on the Plan for Transformation, with a particular focus on the mixed-income communities being built on the footprint of public housing complexes, is expected next year from the University of Chicago Press.