Panel: Gentrification challenges public housing residents' sense of community

Crystal Palmer moved out of Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex which has struggled with gang violence and neglect.

Then she moved back.

"I was asked by the president, 'Why do you want to come back?'" she said. "All I could think was, this is my home."

Palmer, now president of Henry Horner's Local Advisory Council, recalled the conversation Tuesday night as part of a  panel that included former Chicago Housing Authority executive Sharon Gist Gilliam and Mary Pattillo, a Northwestern sociology and African American studies professor.

The panel, hosted by the Chicago History Museum and the as-yet-nonexistent Public Housing Museum, took up the topic of how gentrification has affected Chicago's low-income families, particularly those living in public housing. The discussion was part of the history museum's monthly series examining contemporary issues in the city.

During the evening the conversation moved from public housing's history going back to the 1930s, to the difficulty of extracting money from the federal government, to how the other Golden Rule - he who has the gold makes the rules - applies to the CHA's new mixed-income communities.

The CHA's $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation is replacing the city's public housing high-rises with developments that mix public housing, affordable and market-rate units to attract residents from across the economic spectrum. But the mixed-income communities risk imposing "a tyranny of the middle class" on the new communities' low-income residents, Pattillo said.

Pattillo lives in one of these developments, and she said neighbors always are discussing what constitutes appropriate behavior. When is the music too loud? Where is it OK to barbecue? These questions, rooted in race and class, arise because of residents' different backgrounds, yet it's usually the poorer residents who are expected to change, Pattillo said.

"The market-rate folk are just assumed to know how to live in mixed-income communities, assumed to know how to be tolerant," Pattillo said.

This attitude bothers public housing residents, who don't want to be dictated to in their own homes, Palmer said. They want to feel like neighbors in their new communities, and they don't.

But the reality is the market-rate homes subsidize the affordable housing, said Gist Gilliam. The project will fail if well-off buyers avoid these homes, and they will if they dislike their neighbors' behavior.

"In a capitalist society, he who is buying the $300,000 and $400,000 townhouse for the full price is the one who gets, unfortunately, to some degree, to determine what his environment is like," she said.

It costs up to $150,000 to rehab a public housing unit and up to $300,000 to build a new one, Gist Gilliam said. But there's little money for public housing at the federal level, because in the past two decades voters have rejected  political candidates who favor it. Housing is not on the national agenda; the presidential candidates aren't talking about it, though more Americans live in substandard housing than lack health care.

"It comes back to the people you send to Congress," she said.