Moving in Circles: When does a new home lead to a new life?

(MehveÅŸ Konuk)

Movement is part of the American dream. Across an ocean to the new world, west to the last frontier, then up the social ladder, out to the suburbs–or so they say it­ goes. Social mobility and housing mobility are inextricably linked in the national psyche. But there is a darker, less public story about this movement; for many Americans, a change of housing isn’t an opportunity–it’s a necessity. On Chicago’s South Side, gentrification, the foreclosure crisis, and the city government’s demolition of public housing have in recent years forced thousands of people from their homes.

The housing crisis is responsible for much of the movement in Woodlawn, according to Mattie Butler, executive director of Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors (WECAN). “People are moving because they lost one place, so they move in with relatives or friends and in about a month they have to move out because their friends start to have a problem [paying their rent or mortgage]. They keep on moving within Woodlawn till they exhaust their options.” WECAN provides affordable housing and supportive services to Woodlawn residents, like those displaced by the 557 foreclosures that occurred in the neighborhood this past January. With many cases still pending, Butler predicts that the worst of the foreclosures is yet to come.

Woodlawn is also one of many neighborhoods in Chicago undergoing gentrification–or, at least, it was before the housing market collapsed. “We have more affluent people who have moved to Woodlawn, but now they’re not moving that often because the housing market has got a great big hole in the bottom of it,” Butler says. But this hasn’t prevented the displacement of low-income residents. “We were having a problem with poor people being pushed out because rental housing was used for condo conversion, but it didn’t stop fast enough to keep people from being moved,” explains Butler. Developers were hit by the foreclosures too, and now, at the same time as many struggle to afford housing, “there’s a lot of new construction sitting on the ground, vacant and boarded-up.”

The foreclosure crisis is also driving an increase in movement throughout the South Side. According to Carlos Nelson, executive director of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation, people in his neighborhood “are typically moving around just for additional housing.” They tend to stay within about a five-mile radius that includes Englewood and Grand Crossing. Jacques Conway, a member of the community organization Teamwork Englewood, adds, “People move frequently based on how many times they run out of money to stay in a particular apartment. Often, when they know they have to move or they will be evicted, instead of paying their landlord back — which they know they can’t do — they use it as a security deposit to rent at another place. They usually stay in the community, but either move when they get behind on rent, or when the building is in such disrepair that they don’t want to rent there anymore.”

This process can quickly become a self-perpetuating cycle, as each move leads to greater instability. In a November 2009 report, researchers at D.C.-based think tank the Urban Institute dubbed this process “residential churning.” “Churning movers,” or people who move frequently without improving their situations, made up nearly half of all moving families in ten U.S. cities surveyed in the study (Chicago was not among them). These families tend to be young and low-income, and dissatisfied and disconnected from their neighborhoods, though they rarely move far outside them.

One woman who fits the profile of a churning mover is Cheryl*, a 38-year-old mother of three. She has moved around a lot in her lifetime, twice due to evictions. “I had to start over once, then I got divorced and I had to start over after that. Now I’m at a place in my life where I’m starting over again.”

One eviction followed her divorce. With her husband gone and without a job, “I didn’t have the means to care for the apartment or pay the rent,” she says. The second happened because, she says, “I was living a life at that time where I was reckless–I wasn’t too smart. Today I’m a different person. I think more about the consequences of my actions.”

Cheryl currently lives in Englewood with her children and partner, and she wants to move. “There’s a lot of open [criminal] activity here,” she explains. She would like to live in a more culturally and economically diverse neighborhood such as Oak Lawn, where she lived several years ago, or Hyde Park. In the latter, she says, “everything’s convenient. It’s a thriving area. There are lots of different places that my children can become a part of–a wealth of things going on in the area.”

Cheryl’s evictions pose an obstacle–she has “horrible credit,” she says, and her partner has none. But as she tries to start over this time, she’s in a much better position. “I have a different team of people with me. I have a companion now who helps me with everything, which makes it a lot easier. I have resources now.” She’s also working with an organization in Hyde Park to try to find an affordable apartment there.

Cheryl may have been a churning mover in the past, but she’s in a good position to become what the Urban Institute calls an “up-and-out mover” if she relocates to a higher-income community with more opportunities. The very fact that she knows about neighborhoods like Oak Lawn and Hyde Park puts her at a significant advantage.

Chicagoans tend to be familiar with neighborhoods in which their own racial group predominates, according to the 2008 study “Racial Blind Spots: Black-White-Latino Differences in Community Knowledge.” The study, led by University of Illinois-Chicago professor Maria Krysan, found that people decide where to move based primarily on information from social networks and realtors, two sources that usually resemble them racially, thus reinforcing the already extreme segregation of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

But as Krysan and her colleagues found–and Cheryl attests–people want to live in more diverse neighborhoods than they actually do. The fact that African-Americans, for example, tend to congregate in particular neighborhoods has more to do with the fear of discrimination elsewhere, plus the aforementioned “blind spots,” than with an innate preference to be around people of the same race.

A new nonprofit called MoveSmart is trying to remedy these racial blind spots by providing movers with easy access to housing-related information. Their “Neighborhood Finder” allows users to plug in their priorities–low density or high, good schools, banks, farmers markets, libraries–and see which areas fit them best.

According to Executive Director Justin Massa, the idea for MoveSmart was born over coffee with two other fair housing advocates in Chicago. “We started realizing that lots of housing counselors don’t have access to all the rich information that’s out there.” After a lot of brainstorming, he says, “We finally got around to the concept of taking lots of data that’s complex and honing it down into a system where average people can address their own needs.”

(courtesy of Zol87/Flickr)

One of the incidents that helped refine their idea was a 2003 class action lawsuit filed by the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The case alleged that the Chicago Housing Authority failed to provide adequate assistance to public housing residents whose buildings were demolished as part of the CHA’s Plan for Transformation. The Committee won, and the CHA was ordered to actively advance fair housing opportunities.

Now, an agency called Housing Choice Partners (HCP) has a contract with the CHA to counsel former public housing residents with Section 8 vouchers (federal rental subsidies). “We work with them pretty intensively,” says Executive Director Christine Klepper. “We lead tours so they can see what we call ‘opportunity areas,’ which are areas with a lower poverty rate and a lower [minority] population. We talk about considering the quality of schools, researching the crime rate, what kind of amenities are nearby.”

“So often, low-income people, don’t necessarily think about those things, because they’ve never had a choice,” Klepper explains. “They just kind of look around them and make decisions based on what’s nearby.” HCP’s counseling has measurable success: the average participant moves from a census tract with 60 percent poverty to one with 30 percent. But, Klepper says, “A neighborhood that has 30 percent of its residents in poverty is still a pretty distressed neighborhood. [The first move] is just a stopping point.”

Although most people don’t want to move far from the communities they know, Klepper says that “families that move to opportunity areas are always more satisfied. They like their neighborhoods better, their landlords better, their units better.”

Sometimes, we need a big move in order to get a fresh start. In economic hard times, and across the intensely divided geography of Chicago, the services that organizations like MoveSmart and HCP provide to residents can mean, at the very least, a move in the right direction.