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Well-Being of Relocated Subsidized Households in Chicago

A significant number of households in Chicago experienced dislocation and relocation as the city transformed its subsidized housing stock over the last dozen years. Researchers from the University of Chicago and Case Western Reserve University have investigated the welfare of 9,900 of these households. The results of this research were reported in the most recent issue of Cityscape, a journal published by HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research, and are highlighted below.


In 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) launched an ambitious Plan for Transformation to rehabilitate or redevelop the city’s entire stock of public housing units, much of it in very poor condition. The plan contained strategies to address concentrated poverty via redevelopment, as well as diversification and geographic dispersal of public housing units. The reforms included demolition of 14,000 units, construction of 7,700 units in mixed-income developments, renovation of scattered-site units, and rehabilitation of the city’s traditional public housing — all scheduled for completion by 2015. CHA increased the number of Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs) issued and replaced large clusters of public housing with smaller developments and neighborhoods, to deconcentrate poverty and integrate public housing into the mainstream community. Supportive services were also offered to assist resident families with summer programs, day care, job training and placement, substance abuse treatment, and education.1

Rehabilitation and redevelopment of the public housing stock meant the dislocation of 16,000 households, whose preferences for where they would live during and after renovation and construction were considered but could not always be accommodated.2 Factors that influenced where residents would live were family size, screening and eligibility criteria for different housing types, contingencies on mixed-income units (employment, current on rent and utility bills, absence of criminal convictions, and ability to pass drug tests), difficulty in finding landlords who accepted vouchers, and rental market dynamics.

Well-Being, in General

The sample of households studied by Chaskin et al. had lived in subsidized housing from 1999 to 2008, gone through the transformation, and were residing in their new or newly renovated homes. During this 10-year period, the households in this sample with employment had increased their incomes; total earnings among workers had risen; no change had occurred in the proportion of households receiving food stamps; participation in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program had declined; involvement with the juvenile justice system had increased as children grew older; and most households still lived in high-poverty neighborhoods, although the poverty was less concentrated.

Findings by Housing Type

The researchers sorted this large sample of relocated households into four subgroups according to the type of housing in which families were living in 2008 — private rental housing with HCVs, scattered-site public housing, rehabilitated traditional public housing, or new mixed-income housing — and compared the four groups on indicators of well-being.3

By 2008, the households with HCVs had realized no opportunity gains and seemed more vulnerable and challenged than those living in other types of public housing. Although a few of these households moved to more affluent and integrated neighborhoods, most had relocated within high-poverty and predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the south and west sides of the city. The households using vouchers were the only ones in the study whose earnings did not increase in 10 years; their employment rate had stagnated and earnings were low and irregular. These HCV households received food stamp benefits at a greater rate than other household groups. To explain the less successful outcomes of HCV households, Chaskin et al. noted that these households might have had more challenges than were initially apparent and had more difficulty meeting the screening requirements for new or revitalized housing. Too little attention may have been given to these households’ need for support, particularly if their usual service providers and social networks became distant or inaccessible after relocating.

Households in scattered-site housing were more likely to have employment income (59%) than those in other types of housing (45%), and their earnings were greater. Most of these residents had also lived in scattered sites since 1999 and escaped having to live in severely distressed units. The rehabilitation went relatively quickly in scattered-site units, making the experience less disruptive. More of these households were located in the affluent, racially integrated north side of the city, which has more attractive amenities and ready access to schools and jobs.

Households who returned to traditional public housing units were seemingly doing as well in 2008 as those in scattered-site housing and mixed-income developments. Except during the renovation, 84 percent of these families had lived in the same development since 1999 and had maintained the same social support networks over time. In addition, they realized significant improvements in the safety and quality of their neighborhoods.

On most measures of well-being, the researchers saw no clear difference that distinguished households residing in new mixed-income developments from those living in traditional public or scattered-site housing. This outcome may have been influenced by the fact that nearly a third of mixed-income households were exempt from work due to disability, and others had as much as a year to meet screening requirements while working with a service provider to resolve a particular issue.


Chaskin et al.’s study identifies several implications for effectively deconcentrating poverty and enhancing opportunity for low-income, disadvantaged families. The findings suggest that before households who reside in subsidized housing can become integrated into the social and economic mainstream, significantly more intensive and comprehensive support from the Chicago Housing Authority and community-based organizations will be necessary. The researchers point out that housing choice voucher holders seem particularly vulnerable and services designed to fit their unique needs would be appropriate. The researchers also noted that scattered-site public housing units seem to be relatively successful in deconcentrating poverty without the expense of new development and that project-based vouchers do not require renters to negotiate with private landlords.

Household Earnings in 1999 and 2008 by 2008 Subsidized Housing Type

Total (n=9,980) Mixed-Income HCV Scattered Site Traditional
Households with any earnings
1999a 33.3% 33.4% 44.6% 24.8% 23.3%
2008b 47.5% 44.6% 45.0% 58.9% 46.1%

a HCV significantly different from mixed-income, scattered site, and traditional public housing; mixed income significantly different from scattered site and traditional.

b Scattered site significantly different from traditional, HCV, and mixed-income. Source: Exhibit 6 in Chaskin, Joseph, Voelker, and Dworsky, “Public Housing Transformation and Resident Relocation: Comparing Destinations and Household Characteristics in Chicago,” Cityscape 14:1 (2012), 197.