A recent study examining the social and physical environment of “hard-to-house” residents in two distressed public housing developments in Chicago that are undergoing transformation under HUD’s HOPE VI program suggests that these residents disproportionately face high levels of social disorganization, financial constraints, poor housing, crime, and violence. In their analysis, the authors identify a causal relationship between these economic and environmental stressors and poor mental health, namely depression.
This study uses baseline survey data from the Chicago Family Case Management Demonstration that were collected by the Urban Institute in 2007. At that time, these developments, Wells/Madden Park and Dearborn Homes, were partially occupied; many units were boarded up or simply vacant as they awaited demolition or renovation. The Demonstration served the hardest-to-house residents, loosely defined by the authors as the most vulnerable residents who remained in these two public housing developments, and was designed to help families maintain safe and stable housing during and after the transition period. As part of the Demonstration, surveys were used to examine residents’ perceptions of fear, violence, physical and social disorder, and housing quality.
Residents reported facing economic hardships, with the greatest challenge being able to pay rent on time. At least 15% of the residents surveyed faced the threat of eviction at some point in the last year. Housing quality was also a major issue for these residents; 60% reported poor or fair housing quality. The most frequently reported problems were cockroaches, peeling paint, and mold.
Perceptions of crime and disorder plagued these public housing developments. Residents in both developments perceived crimes as a major problem, with 50% of all residents reporting the use and selling of drugs and gang activity as big problems. In addition, a majority of residents in both developments (78% in Wells and 54% in Dearborn) reported vacant apartments to be a big problem, and 54% of those in Wells and 31% of those in Dearborn reported trash to be a big problem. In comparison, drug dealing, vacant housing, and trash were named as large problems by 36%, 16%, and 27%, respectively, of Chicago residents in a 2000 citywide survey.
Surveys of the hard-to-house residents also measured connections among neighbors. While the majority of residents in both developments reported getting along with, trusting, helping, and sharing the same values of their neighbors, these numbers were below percentages reported in a 2000 national survey.
To gauge mental health, the study looked at indicators of depression among the respondents, and determined that 18% of residents suffered from depression. Residents in both developments also reported high levels of anxiety, with nearly half of all residents reporting that they “felt worried a lot more than others would in your [their] situation.”
The authors hypothesized a causal relationship between environmental factors and the poor mental health of the residents, when controlling for age, gender, income, and years lived in the development. Their analysis identified direct and indirect significant pathways to depression. High levels of economic stressors were found to have a direct impact on depression, while social and physical disorder and violence were found to have an indirect effect. That is, environments of distressed public housing units characterized by social and physical disorder and violence were found to increase perceptions of fear and decrease perceptions of collective efficacy (likelihood that neighbors would act for the betterment of their community), which in turn, were found to increase the likelihood of depression.
The 2010 report, An Examination of the Social and Physical Environment of Public Housing Residents in Two Chicago Developments in Transition, is available at: http://www.urban. org/UploadedPDF/412134-chicago-public-housing.pdf