A Housing Program That Actually Works

It's the sort of public housing you might expect to find in Marin County: handsome apartments, manicured lawns, children's splash pools near the performing-arts stage. But instead of San Francisco Bay, these two high-rises overlook Lake Michigan. And the not-so-New Age landlord is the Chicago Housing Authority, whose more notorious properties include the crime-ridden Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green. Last summer, when CHA chairman Vincent Lane opened the expensively refurbished Lake Parc Place as a mixed-income-housing experiment (NEWSWEEK, Aug. 19,1991), critics said he wouldn't be able to keep working-class families living in what had long been gang-infested projects. They were wrong.

One year later, Lake Pare Place is thriving. Valerie Robinson, 29, who fills catalog orders for Spiegel, moved in with her daughter, lured by a larger apartment. Roderick Hill, 26, a Loop office worker, scored a small apartment--and, to the envy of his friends, escaped his parents' house. Even more encouraging is sketchy evidence that some of the poorest of Lake Parc's residents have begun to follow neighbors like Robinson and Hill into the work force. So far, 12 previously unemployed tenants have been hired in security or maintenance jobs, and 15 residents are studying to work in the development's new day-care center. That is sweet music to Lane, cochair of a national commission that earlier this month unveiled proposals to revive the nation's worst public housing. Driving that agenda is the canon of Lake Parc Place: freed from economic isolation, poor people just may change their lives.

Lane's scheme is a twist on mixed-income-housing efforts that other cities largely abandoned in the 1970s. Rather than scattering the poor among the middle class, Lake Parc includes nearly equal numbers of welfare recipients and working families earning 50 to 80 percent of median Chicago-area income. The families on public assistance have annual incomes of $6,196, one fourth that of the working families. Some residents confide, with varying degrees of pride and concern, that they often can't tell which tenants come from which group. The confusion appears not to have hurt Lake Pare's reputation. The waiting list, which includes families from both income groups, has more than 2,000 names.

Much of Lake Parc's success stems from careful screening and security procedures that the CHA and many other public-housing agencies abandoned decades ago. Rescorp Realty, a private company hired by the CHA to manage Lake Parc, has not rushed to fill the building. Rescorp visits each applicant's current home and also cheeks credit, criminal and rental histories. (Conviction for a serious offense makes it almost impossible to get in.) New residents meet with managers and current residents to discuss what behavior is acceptable and what--such as loud stereos--is not. Lake Parc security "doormen," wary of dope dealers and unauthorized tenants, log guests in and out. Individuals who aren't named on a lease can't visit for more than 14 days. Such rules have led three tenants to enter drug-rehab programs and a fourth to the altar. Rescorp president Larry McCarthy admits that the precautions can appear Orwellian: so many tenants arrive from unsanitary housing that even before families pack to move, Rescorp sends exterminators to spray their belongings for roaches. But many residents say living in such clean, safe surroundings justifies the rules. And Chicago police confirm that crime in the 15-story buildings has all but vanished.

Lake Parc still has its share of doubters. Some of the poorest tenants remain bitter that they had to be relocated for five years while the CHA--which had lost control of the project to street gangs--closed the buildings for remodeling. Carlos Roberts complains that some working-class residents don't mingle with his fellow welfare recipients. But Lake Parc's toughest detractors--neighbors who wanted the buildings demolished--have gone silent. Alderman Toni Preckwinkle says she's not getting complaints, "and there are people in the community very prepared to complain." Lane, who wants to copy the Lake Parc concept in four vacant towers nearby, says he's at least disproven the notion that high-rise public housing always fails.

Preckwinkle, who wants to limit public housing in her ward, opposes the next rehabs. But she supports Lane's plan to dot the neighborhood with 564 units of low-rise housing. Three fourths would rent at market rate; the rest would be subsidized, low-income replacements for the half of Lake Parc's apartments now occupied by working families. Rescorp's McCarthy says he isn't yet turning a profit, but he's convinced that a combination of market-rate rents and existing federal subsidies can make mixed-income housing pay for itself.

In a better world, Lake Pare would be as integrated racially as it is economically. For now, its proponents will settle for smaller victories. On-site manager Ameshia Hardison has had to open up Lake Parc's gleaming playground to children who live elsewhere in the neighborhood. Seems they had grown pretty jealous of the kids who get to live in public housing.