HOPE VI and the New Urbanism: Eliminating Low-Income Housing to Make Mixed-Income Communities

By Janet L. Smith


Chicago’s public housing is testimony to a long history of struggle between poor people and politicians. The latest contest is over the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) Plan for Transformation, which aims to reduce the existing unit count from 38,000 to 25,000. Fifty-one buildings–most of them high-rise–are slated for demolition. Some developments are being cleared entirely and replaced with new, mixed-income communities.

This public housing “transformation” hinges on a narrowly constructed argument that high-rise, high-density sites are inherently bad. Embracing the rhetoric of new urbanists (NU), transformation plans around the country are promoting mixed-use and mixed-income development at a neighborhood scale. In practice, however, they are resulting in the net loss of low-income housing units.

For the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the CNU’s approach is a means to reduce the concentration of poverty: transforming “the projects” into communities will encourage higher-income working families to live in redeveloped sites. But with all the talk of community building and building new communities, it is still not clear who is to benefit. Preliminary findings from a national study of HOPE VI being completed by the Urban Institute indicate a real disconnect between policy and practice. While policy speaks of creating communities for families, the reality is that many of these redeveloped sites do not house the original families that were displaced. Many families chose to live in the private sector with vouchers, but many others had no choice, since the development they moved out of offered fewer replacement public housing units.

In the transformation of public housing, NU is not categorically the culprit. Rather, the NU principles are used to justify reducing the number of public housing units overall. Instead of dismissing it wholesale, activist planners need to capitalize on the NU climate, particularly the promotion of mixed-income housing, to push for more, not less, affordable public and private housing in all our communities.

Learning from Cabrini Green

Reducing the number of public housing units in order to make redeveloped sites “mixed-income” is an issue in Chicago, where most of the plans call for only one-third of the units to be public housing, with the rest either “affordable” (80-120 percent of area median income (AMI)) or market-rate. At Cabrini Green, one of the City’s best known sites, residents fought in court to ensure that those who wanted to stay could be included in the new community that the city envisioned for them. They also fought to get more control over the process to ensure that replacement housing be built first and that demolition happen afterwards, whenever possible. Their view–and the one expressed here–is that while the physical design is important to residents, having enough replacement public housing is essential to the success of housing plans. Otherwise, this “new urbanism” is just another form of displacement of poor people.

While Cabrini Green is a unique case, it offers strategies and principles planners and community activists can employ to ensure that current residents get mixed in rather than out of these new public housing communities.


Located within walking distance of some of the most expensive real estate in the city, Cabrini Green was the first HOPE VI grant in Chicago. Chicago received a $50 million HOPE VI grant in 1994 to redevelop a portion of the 3,600 unit site. Initially the CHA had made an agreement with the Local Advisory Council (LAC)–the elected leadership for tenants–to demolish 660 units, rebuilding 493 new units of public housing and issuing 167 housing assistance vouchers in place of the balance of the units.

Soon after the plan was approved, the federal government took over the CHA. Two buildings containing 398 units were demolished and no replacement units were provided. A Request For Proposals (RFP) was issued to replace what was going to be torn down. None of the responses fully met the minimum criteria of the RFP in regard to reducing density and providing the appropriate number of replacement units on-site, so the City of Chicago declared all the plans inappropriate. Soon afterward, the City and CHA entered into “private” meetings to compose an alternative strategy, producing the Near North Redevelopment Plan and the corresponding Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district. The plan was to demolish 1,300 public housing units and produce 2,300 new units in a larger geographic area (340 acres compared to ten acres in the original proposal). Only 700 units would be public housing, and half of those would be for “working poor.” In response to this plan, residents filed a lawsuit against both the City and the CHA on the grounds that the plan was prejudicial to their interests. Residents were outraged because the plan, besides violating the previous development agreement with the LAC, was to demolish more buildings and move more residents permanently off-site. In the spring of 1997, a federal judge stopped CHA from demolishing anything more until this conflict was resolved.

Cabrini Green Tenants Win in Court

While TIFs are controversial–especially in Chicago, where there are more than 110 districts and several new ones proposed–the City’s decision to create a TIF significantly expanded the development site. This was an important factor in the ruling on the tenant’s lawsuit against the CHA in the summer of 1998, which gave the LAC substantial control over the development process and the outcome of the demolition of the remaining six buildings. The court ordered the CHA to build 895 public housing-eligible units in the HOPE VI Planning Area, which was now defined by the boundaries of the TIF and not just the public housing site. Furthermore, demolition could not begin until at least one-third of the replacement units were underway, funds and sites for another 400 units were secured, and proposal(s) were received for rebuilding remaining units on the CHA land. The LAC also negotiated to reduce down to less than forty percent of AMI (about $30,000) the income levels in “affordable housing” units subsidized with Low Income Housing Tax Credits, which made more units available to current public housing residents. The LAC will serve as co-developer of the site, and shall comprise half of the review panel.

While the consent decree was appealed and later revised to reduce resident control from fifty-one percent to fifty percent, the final settlement was still considered a victory by tenants since it both maintained the policy that units had to be built prior to demolition, and gave them substantial, although not sole, control over the redevelopment process. To date, the first phase of development is nearly completed: 350 units have resulted, one-third of which are public housing. Phase two will begin shortly. All stages have been controlled by the LAC and the developer to ensure that the outcomes meet the requirements of the lawsuit. Based on accounts from both partners, residents and the developer appear to be working well together. In addition, a group of residents has been working to convert their building, which is not slated for demolition, to a limited equity co-op.

Transformative Strategies

Clearly, a bigger vision of transformation is needed in the US–one that is not just driven by new urbanist design ideas. We need transformative strategies. Similar to the notion of transformative community planning that Marie Kennedy describes in her Planners Network working paper, the goal should be to put real control in the hands of the people we are planning with to help them identify and implement real alternatives. These may or may not include NU design ideas. The NU principles used in public housing plans should be broadened to include the areas outside of public housing. Transformative strategies should include three principles: clear outcomes, expanded space and public control.

Clear Outcomes

An outcomes component to the housing plan, similar to the one negotiated in the Cabrini Green case, will ensure that all residents are provided a unit if they choose to return. It will also help meet future needs for affordable housing. The premise here is that residents generally want to return to the site once it is redeveloped. However, the goal should always be to maximize the number of public housing units to meet current and future demand, even if there are residents who do not chose to return to the neighborhood. While not legally binding, these outcomes can then function as guiding principles for negotiating how, when and where units will be built.

Expanded Space

Expanding the space of public housing means changing the scale of redevelopment to include more than just the original site. This avoids the need to challenge federal limits on how many units can be built back on-site. More importantly, however, it is a means to open up adjacent communities, especially in locations like Cabrini Green, where the surrounding housing development was also income segregated. In this case, however, the income levels of people surrounding Cabrini were well above the city median, and depending on how you drew the boundaries, the neighborhood was already a mixed-income community. Mechanisms to produce affordable housing, whether publicly or privately owned, can be part of the plan. For example, in a development adjacent to Cabrini Green but in the TIF district, the City required a set-aside of eleven percent “affordable” units. While still out of the price range for most (up to 120 percent of AMI), the set-aside is a step in the right direction, and is now being pushed by a citywide coalition. In addition, two strategies should be considered that are not in widespread use but have proven effective: inclusionary zoning, which requires a proportion of a development to be affordable, and linkage programs, which generate funds to produce affordable housing from development exactions.

Public Control

A public control component is critical to ensuring that public housing is first part of the mix and, once built, remains in the public domain and affordable. Many different strategies could be used to keep public investment accessible and affordable to low-income families: land trusts, which keeps the land in the public domain; reciprocal agreements, a method already used in public housing, which requires developers to keep housing affordable for a long period of time; and limited equity cooperatives like the ones being pursued by tenants in Cabrini, which help very low-income tenants become owners and keep property off the speculative market. Public control may also include resident management, which ensures that tenants also control the property, but this should be up to residents to decide.

These strategies aim to empower residents, but not simply by making tenants into property owners. As Bill Peterman describes in his book Neighborhood Planning and Community-Based Development, a progressive view of empowerment means giving residents real control. In public housing transformation this means that residents really make decisions about the future of their developments and really have control over the resources needed to implement them. The strategies outlined here aim to reduce the power of private partners in public-private partnerships–the sanctioned means to fund neighborhood revitalization and community development in the US these days. While we work on getting more public funding for affordable housing (e.g., a National Housing Trust Fund), there is an immediate need to re-position the public in these partnerships. We know that efforts by planners to control development do not necessarily discourage private investment. The key is to make known the return on investment and the public’s quid pro quo. The assumption should be that high-quality and durable public housing is a good investment. If NU design principles are a means to ensuring public housing development, then we should consider how to capitalize on the movement so that there is more, not less, public housing built in our communities.

While this may appear opportunistic and idealistic, the logic here is that well-designed mixed-income communities are not fundamentally bad. It’s the underlying assumptions and processes used to produce them that we should worry about, especially when they are used to reduce housing options for people who already have few. Equally important, however, planners need to look beyond the sites of public housing to produce these new mixed communities. NU principles can be good rules to plan by, but only if adhered to in all forms of development and in all places.

Why is HUD only promoting the mixing of uses and incomes in public housing when it is clearly needed everywhere? There is no reason to stop at the public housing border and every reason to look beyond the public housing sites in central cities to fashion mixed-income communities as the new urbanists propose. Given the spatial patterns created by a long history of segregation by race, ethnicity and income, planners should add a principle to the new urbanist mantra: do not endorse the new urbanist experimentunless it is uniformly implemented in all development.

Janet L. Smith is assistant professor in the Urban Planning and Policy Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

For a view of resident concerns at Cabrini Green and their encounters with the City of Chicago planning staff, see Voices of Cabrini, a film by Ronit Bezazel and Antonio Ferrerahttp://www.voicesofcabrini.com/

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