Changing neighborhoods can change your life

Seitia Harris (right), and her daughters Neosha (left) and T'nya (center). The family moved eight years ago from a public housing project in Chicago to a middle class suburb, as part of a residential mobility program known as Gautreaux II.

Chicago’s recent spike in gun violence has economic effects -- and causes -- that can feed on each other in a vicious cycle. Playing a central role in that cycle is, of all things, housing policy. Chicago’s policies have a long, racially charged history that has lead to segregation and high concentrations of poverty in pockets across the city. One side effect is that now, certain neighborhoods face much higher rates of violence than others.

To break that cycle, the city has launched a series of radical housing experiments that move people from poor to middle-class neighborhoods. But do they work?

Shinnette Johnson hopes so. She leads workshops for the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Mobility Counseling Program,” through a nonprofit called Housing Choice Partners.

She recently welcomed a handful of people to one of those workshops, in a conference room in downtown Chicago. After offering coffee and donuts, she projected a giant map of the city on the front wall.

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“We're going to talk about all the polka dots on the map,” Johnson told the attendees, as she explained the basic idea behind the workshop. And the idea is basically this: the polka dot you live in can directly affect your future success in life -- income, health, the quality of your education. And -- this is the important part -- you can profoundly change those things, just by moving to a different polka dot.

Of course, housing bureaucrats don’t talk about “polka dots.” They talk about "Traditional Areas" and "Opportunity Areas." In Chicago, the definitions have changed over the last few years, but currently Opportunity Areas are neighborhoods with a poverty rate under 20 percent, low saturations of public housing, and “improving community economic characteristics.” In other cities, the definition can involve a wider set of criteria, including employment rates and school rankings.

The bottom line, Johnson tells her audience at the Mobility Counseling Workshop, is that these are areas that theoretically have “better schools, healthier environments, low crime, jobs close to home and racial integration.”


Shinnette Johnson leads a Mobility Counseling Workshop in Chicago.

To qualify for Johnson’s workshops, you must be low-income, you must receive rental assistance from federal Section 8 housing vouchers, and you must have an interest in moving to a new neighborhood.   

That’s why Krystal Stribbling is there, sitting in the front row.

Stribbling explains that she has a 12-year-old son who she wants to be able to “go outside without nobody trying to induct him in to a gang. He's very smart in school,” she says. “And I want him to be the next president.”

The problem is that even though Stribbling knows she wants to move out of her current neighborhood, she isn't sure where to go. And that's where mobility counselors like Johnson come in. “A lot of people are stuck within the four corners of their own neighborhoods,” Johnson says. “That's all they know.”


A Mobility Counseling Program questionnaire asks what participants are looking for in their new neighborhoods.

If you don't have a car, Johnson says, and all your family and friends have lived in the same place for generations, then even if you have the will to move, it can be hard to find the way.

“For example, Garfield Ridge. Who knows where Garfield Ridge is?” she asks her workshop attendees. 

Nobody answers.

Johnson points to Garfield Ridge on the map -- it's near Midway airport -- and starts singing its praises: low crime, high ranking schools. Now her audience is leaning in. “In that area alone there's 19,000 jobs,” says Johnson. “Hotels, motels, Holiday Inns, T.G.I. Fridays, the airport, Ford City mall, all the car lots you can go to! So that's opportunity for us and our families to grow and prosper, correct?”

The attendees nod in unison, and everybody's taking notes.

Mobility Programs got their start in Chicago in the 1970s, after a Supreme Court case known as Hills v. Gautreaux forced the city to address decades of housing policies that promoted racial segregation and concentrated poverty.  

Since Chicago’s early experiments, mobility programs have spread to other cities. And the big question now is do they work? Can moving from one polka dot on the map to another really affect a life, down the road? 

Seitia Harris and her family have one answer to that question.

Eight years ago, they moved from a public housing project in Chicago to a middle class suburb a 40-minute drive away, where they didn't know a soul. Harris was 35, single, and had just given birth to her fourth child. In an interview she did back then she explained her motivation for moving. “I didn't want another generation of my family being stuck,” she said. “I wanted them to strive for much more.”

Seitia Harris interview from 2005. Originally aired on APM’s Weekend America.

Now, Harris and her family live in another Chicago suburb, and her newborn, T’nya, is a second grader. 

T’nya has had a very different childhood from the rest of her family. She knows her brother and sisters grew up in a poor neighborhood. She's visited it a few times, and it’s left an impression. “They shoot there,” she says. “And boys’ pants go down.  They sag.”

T’nya's oldest sister, Neosha, was in middle school when her family moved. Now Neosha is about to graduate college with a double major in business and education.


Neosha Reese in her college dorm room.

Neosha has always been a smart kid and a good student, and it’s quite possible she’d be exactly where she is today even if she’d never left her old neighborhood. But sometimes, when she goes back to visit, she wonders.

“I see the people I grew up with,” she says. “It's like ‘oh, wow. If was still here would I have a baby like they do? Would I have dropped out in high school like they did? I'm just really grateful that we actually did move. That I did have opportunities.”

Neosha believes moving offered her new opportunities, and new expectations. At her old school, she says she was Student of the Year every year. “There was no competition. And then once I moved, I was no longer student of the year anymore. I had to actually work hard to get back to where I was.”

Stories like Neosha’s are familiar to James Rosenbaum, a sociologist at Northwestern University, who’s spent decades tracking families who’ve participated in Chicago residential mobility programs. Again and again, he’s heard tales of people “uncovering abilities they didn't know they had,” he says.

“This program takes families out of neighborhoods that are dangerous and stressful and puts them into neighborhoods where they can go out and play and not worry about gunshots, and live a calm and quiet life where they can concentrate.” 

Things don't always work out, Rosenbaum cautions. Some families face isolation or discrimination in their new neighborhoods.  Some move back to their old ones. But, Rosenbaum says geography clearly has some real power over destiny. 

Over time, he's followed families involved in an early mobility program from the 1990s known as Gautreaux, which moved people from Chicago housing projects to remote middle class suburbs.  Rosenbaum found “down the line, really big improvements,” for the outcomes of the children who moved compared to their counterparts who stayed in poor urban neighborhoods. “They were more likely to graduate high school, they were more  likely to go to college, and if they didn't go to college they were more likely to have a job,” he says.

Still, you might ask, instead of uprooting people from their neighborhoods, why not invest in those neighborhoods, and bring more opportunities to them? That's important, Rosenbaum says. But it also takes time. And kids grow up fast.

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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