Chicago's experience

October 03, 1994|By Mary Davis and Alexander Polikoff

LAST YEAR 428 mostly black, mostly welfare recipients who live in public housing moved from inner-city Chicago to 69 mostly white Chicago suburbs.

All these moves occurred without incident, or even objection, in the course of a single year in what has been called the nation's most racially segregated metropolitan area.

Those 428 families are merely the latest of more than 2,500 such families -- 10,000 people -- helped to move to about 100 Chicago suburbs over 18 years -- also without incident.

Studies by Northwestern University show that the families who made these moves do better at getting jobs and their children do better at school than their counterparts who remain in Chicago.

The same program in Baltimore, however, has been greeted by opposition in eastern Baltimore County where raucous public meetings have been held on the subject, and charges have been hurled of a plot to destroy neighborhoods. Local public officials have rushed to be the first and the loudest to denounce the proposal. The reverberations have reached all the way to Congress, threatening the Baltimore program's funding.

What did Chicago do to help make the program run smoothly? Below are some key reasons for the smooth operation:

* Program participants are not clustered in a few areas. For instance, in the past eight months, the 60 suburbs involved on average received fewer than five families each. The most any one suburb received was 22.

* Each family receives counseling, including how to manage personal finances and housekeeping skills.

* Landlords are asked not to reveal to others that the families receive federal subsidies.

* Prospective participants must want to make major changes and be willing to leave family and friends behind.

* References from current landlords are required. Families reported by their landlords as having criminal or violent pasts may be excluded.

The Chicago program, known as the Gautreaux program, is the model for the Moving to Opportunity program now going on in five cities including Baltimore. The Gautreaux program, named for one of a group of Chicago public housing tenants who filed suit over living conditions, was formed as the result of court-ordered changes.

Chicago is located in Cook County, Ill., but the two jurisdictions have separate housing authorities. A program run by the Cook County Housing Authority, which also issues federal certificates and vouchers for suburban relocation, does not offer other assistance, like counseling. As a result, it has had problems not experienced by Gautreaux, and has been bitterly criticized by local officials. U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros has suggested that that program adopt the Gautreaux Program ideas like counseling and scattering families over a wide area.

Numerous studies and scholars tell us that the normal avenue of socioeconomic advancement is moving to a better neighborhood, and that exposure to middle-class values in a middle-class neighborhood is an essential step for many ghetto families, particularly the children, to have a chance to become mainstream Americans.

The concerns of working and middle-class Americans about their neighborhoods are understandable. So is the cry to escape the ghetto. Chicago's has shown that the two are reconcilable -- moves to over 100 suburbs resulted in no problems in the "receiving" communities -- with common sense program administration.

The rent subsidy program -- which makes these moves possible -- is only a part of the answer to our ghetto problem. But it is a part we have learned how to do. Our challenge is to show Baltimore County and the rest of the country that the Chicago suburbs are not unique, and that common sense can coincide with doing what is right.

Mary Davis is a Gautreaux Program administrator. Attorney Alexander Polikoff represents Gautreaux litigants.

Moving to Opportunity Facts*

* The MTO program would move 285 poor, inner-city families to more prosperous neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area, using $12.5 million worth of federal Section 8 rental subsidies.

* With the Section 8 certificates or vouchers, program participants will pay 30 percent of their income on private rental housing. The federal government pays the difference between the actual rent and what the tenant pays, usually about two-thirds of the total. The maximum rent HUD subsidizes is 5 percent below local median rents.

* Local housing authorities may conduct criminal checks on MTO applicants and may deny assistance based on such information.

* Baltimore is one of five cities in the experimental program, which was proposed during the Bush administration and approved by Congress in 1992.

* A private anti-poverty agency is to counsel half the MTO families. The other half will relocate without counseling, as a control group in a study.

* In Baltimore, 885 families originally applied for the program. The first families are to begin moving in November.

Information sources: HUD and the Community Assistance Network, the local agency that counsels MTO families.

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