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Kelsey Blackwell/Medill

Lenora Jane Estes/Medill

Melissa Schmitt/Medill

North Town Village: Mixed emotions from one of the city's first mixed-income developments

by Kelsey C. Blackwell , Lenora Jane Estes and Melissa Schmitt
Dec 04, 2007


Kelsey Blackwell/Medill

Arthur Mitchell examines his windowsills, which have been damaged by water.


Lenora Jane Estes/Medill

From left: Mike Brown, Lyric Mitchell, Arthur Jr. and Arthur Mitchell with their dogs Strawberry and Nemo.

Deneen Pughsley lives in the shadow of the Cabrini-Green projects she once called home.

On most days, she might as well be a million miles away from the high rises slowly being demolished on Chicago's Near North Side.  On other days, the looming buildings are too close for comfort.

One month ago, a group of teenagers from the Cabrini towers approached her 15-year-old son, Andre, while he was waiting for a bus.  They roughed him up, splitting his lip open.

"I have thought about moving," said Pughsley.  "But you can't run from trouble."

Pughsley, 37, is a Chicago Housing Authority resident who lives with her five children in North Town Village. The community is the first mixed-income development, built between 2000 and 2002, on the site of the former Cabrini-Green housing projects.

Sandwiched between Cabrini's remaining concrete hulks on Division Street and the glittering storefronts of North Avenue, North Town Village represents a new vision for public housing in the 21st century. CHA residents live side-by-side with market-rate homeowners and families who bought homes through affordable housing programs. 

The development represents the largely untested theory that scattered-site, mixed-income housing will lead to increased security and self-sufficiency for CHA residents.

"There are no isolated areas of CHA anymore," said Derek Hill, the press secretary for CHA. "You can no longer drive down the street, point and say, 'That's public housing.'"

In an attempt to move away from the rampant crime and violence of the former Cabrini-Green projects, the CHA said it carefully screens any resident who wants to live in North Town Village. 

Potential residents must have good credit and no criminal record. They must be employed, actively looking for work or in school, and they must pass a drug screening. 

"You can't come and stay here forever with generations and try and do nothing," Hill said. "We're trying to institute this as we speak."

Carefully Cultivated Community has Cracks

The streets of North Town Village, now over five years old, are well maintained, with compact, neatly trimmed yards.  The low-rise, red-brick facades line the streets in symmetrical rows.  It is difficult to point out which units may be public housing. 

But the uniform physical appearance belies a multitude of conflicting opinions about the development and its surrounding neighborhood. Some tensions exist between individual neighbors, and while the neighborhood is in transition, it still has rough edges.

For many, North Town Village is an ideal place to call home.  Kim Winzeler, one of the first owners to move into the development and an active board member of the owners' association, said she enjoys the surrounding neighborhood and feels a sense of community in North Town Village.  

However, Winzeler acknowledges tensions with a few CHA families in the past. "We've had some really bad families… We had families in there that were disrespectful. They were never going to fit into that community."

Winzeler said many of the safety issues inside North Town Village can be traced to the nearby projects. 

"There are still three buildings left within close proximity to North Town Village," she said, "and we were hoping those will come down sooner rather than later. I mean, it's already four years past when they were supposed to come down, so that’s an on-going issue with crime, with gangs."

Reggie Jones, a former renter in the development who now owns a town home, has mixed emotions about the mixed-income development.  While he enjoys the neighborhood's diversity, he is concerned with gang activity.

"They're dealing with the whole transition, and they're still communicating back into their old community," he said. "It leads to conflicts sometimes because of the gang issue."

Jones, 27, lives with his wife and three young daughters. He said he's never had any problems with his neighbors and socializes primarily with CHA residents inside North Town Village. 

One of his friends moved in from the projects and hoped to leave his gang affiliation behind.  In July his old life caught up with him, and gang members fired shots into his home. 

"When we came home, there was yellow tape and detectives and bullets scattered all over the house," Jones said.  "The CHA does screening, but what I feel they should be screening for is gang affiliation. I think the most important thing is, are you mixing up rival gangs into your development?"

Still, Jones said his motive for eventually moving out of North Town Village has little to do with crime or gangs. It's the area's under-achieving schools and lack of green space that will drive him to the suburbs in a few years. 

"I want to raise my kids," he said, "in the kind of place where I can let them ride their bike to the end of the block and play in the backyard.''

A Dream of Home Ownership Turns Sour 

Arthur Mitchell and Mike Brown weren't drawn to North Town Village because it was mixed-income. They just wanted to own a home. 

Mitchell and Brown, partners who share parenting responsibilities for Mitchell's two children, had looked for nearly four years for a home in their price range.

"The housing market in Chicago is tough," Mitchell said. "If you want a nice place, you need quite a bit of money."

He found the town home on a real estate Web site along with a waiting list of over 150 people. The home was set aside as an affordable housing unit. He met the qualifications for the City of Chicago's affordable housing program and bought the house in July.

"I had hesitations about this house from the minute we came in," Mitchell said, "because I knew the neighborhood was going to be an issue. I thought it wouldn’t be too much to put up with. Now I’m second guessing myself."

Mitchell and Brown are concerned about the foot and vehicle traffic that comes into the neighborhood from Cabrini and the fights among teenagers.  They said kids from the outside neighborhood pried open a metal gate and used it to get into the development.

The shooting inside North Town Village one month after they moved in solidified their concerns. "I don't let my children go out in North Town Village without me," Mitchell said. "Their activities are very limited-it's in the house. And if we do go out, we'll go elsewhere."

Both men are disappointed with the atmosphere inside North Town Village.

"I know quite a few people in the neighborhood," Brown said. "Do I feel like it's a community? No. It's very pretentious. People are afraid to say anything to the CHA residents, and then they go to the association meetings and just complain and complain and complain."

The two are considering putting their home up for sale, but there are hurdles.  The affordable housing program knocked down the home's sale price, but the discount was added as a lien. If they sell the house during the next 30 years, they must pay back the money. 

"I've planned to move," Mitchell said. "I'm just trying to see how the economy, the housing market recovers…I think I might just put the place up for rent." 

Success of Mixed-Income Communities Difficult to Assess 

Experts are uncertain  if mixed-income communities are the best option for housing low-income residents.

"There was really not a lot of work done as this policy was getting rolled out as to why mixed income is good," said Jeff Leslie, an associate law professor at the University of Chicago and the director of the Irwin Askow Housing Initiative at the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. "How does it work? What are the mechanics for why mixed income makes a difference in people's lives?"

Most studies have focused on public housing residents who were given vouchers to move into upper-income neighborhoods, not on those living in mixed-income developments.

The studies concluded that the benefits of living next to upwardly mobile neighbors were not significant for low-income residents.

"The idea." he said, "that the low-income residents now living next to people who have access to jobs and educational opportunities, that they'll learn more about these opportunities or that they’ll somehow adopt a stronger work ethic--it hasn't really been shown to work that way."   

Still, CHA residents are experiencing one clear benefit from moving out of public housing high rises: increased safety.

"Just living in dangerous public housing impacts all the way through your life," Leslie said, "so just getting to a physically safe environment is a huge benefit."

Not a Better Environment, but a Better Home

Pughsley doesn't let her kids go to the store by themselves and urges them not to take certain routes where there might be trouble. 

North Town Village, she said, is "not so much a better environment, because the kids still come over here. [But] it’s a better place to live, being in a home."

Maybe that will change once the rest of the projects come down.

For now, Pughsley enjoys her five-bedroom town home, with its dishwasher, garbage disposal and two-car garage.  Her children help the neighbors by walking their dogs and shoveling the snow.

Pughsley especially enjoys going up to her rooftop with a skyline view of the city and what's left of the projects still in sight. "I might have a glass of wine and just sit up there until I fall asleep or until somebody finds me...It's beautiful."