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Editorial: Life gets better at CHA

Updated: April 12, 2013 6:14AM

Few people in 1999 would have predicted that the notoriously incompetent CHA would actually achieve one of its primary goals when it tore down its high-rise projects: improve life for its residents.

Turns out we were wrong.

Most public housing tenants now live in better housing and in safer neighborhoods, Urban Institute researchers concluded in a series of reports released Sunday, culminating 10 years of study of the Chicago Housing Authority’s efforts. The researchers from the Washington D.C think tank tracked through 2011 residents who had moved to redone CHA units, private apartments with a voucher or into a mixed-income community. Lead author Susan Popkin has studied the CHA since 1986.

Moreover, the most vulnerable adults who received intensive social services fared much better than those who did not, in terms of employment, physical health and reduced mental health problems.

This is a story rarely told, the focus usually on what’s gone wrong since 1999 — and there’s plenty to say on that.

But with the CHA on the cusp of announcing a plan to try to finish what it started in 1999, it’s worth noting what CHA has done right.

A main lesson is that better housing alone is a start for the most troubled families, but not enough to change lives. After a poor start, the CHA has learned over the years that an ongoing investment in supportive services for residents pays off.

That investment, along with potential new investments, is at risk as government scales back funding. The federal sequester could cut CHA’s budget by 5 percent.

Popkin also notes the many problems, most notably poor outcomes for relocated CHA children. Patterns of troubling behavior among kids are depressingly similar to what was seen in the CHA projects in 2001, with far too many failing in school and in legal trouble, many showing signs of trauma after growing up around violence.

The CHA also remains years behind in replacing the family units it has demolished and is struggling to ensure quality housing and social services for residents renting private apartments with vouchers.

The report also notes that while families are in safer neighborhoods, they ain’t on the North Shore — most still are in poor, segregated neighborhoods.

The researchers did not go into the negative impact of CHA relocation on certain neighborhoods, which has been an ongoing issue.

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