Linking the policy experiments of Ren2010 and the Plan for Transformation

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #6 in June 2008]


Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver and a number of other cities in the USA are purposefully creating mixed-income schools. In Chicago and other cities, this policy is linked with federal initiatives to dismantle public housing for very low-income people and replace it with privately owned or managed mixed-income developments. Advocates claim that these policies will reduce poverty and the inequitable educational opportunities affecting low-income students. They contend that mixed-income schools are important to attract working and middle-class families to mixed-income developments and to build relationships across class lines. They also maintain that income mixing in the classroom improves the educational performance of low-income children. Socio-economically integrated schools are discursively linked to the democratic purposes of the common school, racial desegregation, educational equity and justice. Thus, mixed-income policies seem, on the surface, to be common sense and egalitarian solutions to intractable educational and social problems — a possible way out of the morass of concentrated poverty, economically devastated inner city neighbourhoods, dysfunctional public housing, and failing public schools that have become iconic for urban poverty in the USA.

However, I would like to problematise the common sense of mixed-income strategies based on my observations and research in Chicago.

The Chicago context

In 2004, Chicago launched Renaissance 2010 (hereafter Ren2010), a radical reform that will close 60 to 70 public schools (all, so far, in low-income communities of color) and open 100 new schools of choice, two-thirds of which will be run as charter or contract schools by outside organisations. Ren2010 opens up the third largest school system in the USA to a market model of school choice, privatisation, and elimination of school employee unions and elected local school councils. At the same time, Chicago launched a $1.6 billion transformation of public housing — the Plan for Transformation (PFT). One of the most extensive revamps of public housing in the USA, the PFT has nearly completed demolition of 22,000 units, including all the remaining ‘family’ units of three, four, or five bedrooms. On paper, most are slated to be renovated or replaced, many as mixed-income developments. [1] However, some estimates are that less than 20% of former residents will be able to return to the new developments.[2]

Chicago’s housing plan is a local implementation of the federal HOPE VI Act (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere). Launched in 1992, HOPE VI passed federal responsibility for public housing to local authorities and replaced government housing provision with privatized management of public units. The state essentially moved from being a provider of housing to an agent of the housing market. [3] The Act’s driving theory is that the concentration of very low-income people in dense public housing units has been a major contributor to pathological behaviours and the inability of poor people to rise out of poverty. The Act calls for revitalising or demolishing ‘distressed’ units and relocating public housing residents in scattered site housing, giving them vouchers in the private housing market, and financing mixed-income developments as public-private partnerships. These partnerships draw on public tax dollars to subsidise developers. HOPE VI requires self-sufficiency of public housing residents and promotes home ownership. A key revision in 1995 eliminated the requirement of one-to-one replacement, meaning residents can be displaced without guarantee of return to new or revamped units. Public housing is one of the few remaining obstacles to gentrification, and this revision eliminated a significant barrier to its demolition, [4] thus opening up public housing sites to large scale private market-rate development.

The national impact of Chicago’s PFT was summed up by the MacArthur Foundation, which provided $50 million in support, including loan guarantees for investors: ‘Chicago…has the potential to demonstrate, at scale, the impact of mixed-income housing on neighbourhood revitalization.’ [5] Ren2010 promises mixed-income schools in these communities. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) launched Ren2010 in the African American Midsouth area with the goal to ‘reinvent the area’s 25 schools and make them a magnet for the return of middle-class families.’ [6] The MacArthur Foundation underscores the role of schools in mixed-income developments: ‘The city has made a commitment to improving the local schools, without which the success of the new mixed-income communities would be at great risk.’ However, some scholars question whether class integration is actually the goal, [7] or whether it simply masks (and facilitates) neoliberal urban development and displacement of public housing residents. A telling example is the redevelopment of the ABLA public housing development located in a prime gentrifying area of Chicago. The Chicago Housing Authority was removing ABLA residents at the very time the area was becoming mixed income. [8]

Viewed as an example of neoliberal urbanism, the PFT is part of a development agenda which merges local, national, and transnational capital, in partnership with city government, to make Chicago a first-tier global city. The heart of that plan is downtown development, tourism, and gentrification of large sections of working-class and low-income Chicago, particularly communities of color . [9] The city’s aggressive support for capital accumulation and corporate involvement in city decision-making extends to incentives for developers and corporate and financial interests, as well as to public-private partnerships, the city’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, cuts in funding for social welfare, control of labour, and privatisation of public assets. If downtown development and gentrification are the ‘icons of the neoliberal city,’ [10] Chicago epitomizes this agenda, as working-class communities and public housing have been replaced by condominium developments, refurbished homes, and upscale shops and restaurants.

Although present-day ‘third wave’ gentrification is often cast as a positive strategy for urban decay and the achievement of social stability, critical urbanists argue that it is driven by finance capital at multiple scales and is a means for the middle and upper-middle classes to claim cultural control of the city. The class and race nature of this process is, as Neil Smith points out, hidden in the language of ‘mixed income communities’ and ‘regeneration.’ [11] A global city driven by neoliberal economic and social policies simply has no room for public housing as devised in the 1950s and 1960s [12] or for low-income African Americans who are, from the standpoint of capital, largely superfluous in the new economy and ‘threatening’ to the corporate and tourist culture. Indeed, public housing and education policies are critical components of Chicago’s bid to be a first-tier global city and to restructure its economy on neoliberal lines.


Connecting unemployed people and low-income families to new educational opportunities and jobs is essential if we are to reduce poverty, as is upgrading and expanding the deplorable stock of affordable housing and reinvesting in communities that have been profoundly neglected for the past 30 years. That youth and their families need excellent health care and schools, good housing, rich opportunities for leisure and recreation, safe neighbourhoods, and inexpensive and accessible transportation is a truism. But neoliberal plans for mixed-income schools and housing are distant from these goals. The contrived mixed-income developments spawned by neoliberal national and local policy are a far cry from organic and egalitarian communities. Nor are they an outgrowth of greater racial tolerance or reduced poverty or equalisation of resources. In fact, they codify and institutionalise social separation and stigma through separate sets of rules and surveillance, educational tracking and magnet schools, and formal and informal selection mechanisms.

Counter to claims that nobody knows how to fix poor schools, [13] there are significant redistributive remedies that have never been tried. There has been no substantive effort to equalise school resources or transform the structural aspects of schools that reproduce inequality and marginalise students of color. This is also true for providing quality housing and eliminating poverty, although these remedies are within the scope of the productive resources of the USA and other advanced capitalist societies. J. Anyon argues that to get to the roots of inequitable educational opportunities and outcomes we need an expanded education policy paradigm. ‘What should count as education policy would include strategies to increase the minimum wage, invest in urban job creation and training, provide funds for college completion to those who cannot afford it, and enforce laws that would end racial segregation in housing and hiring’ (p.13). [14]

However, the roots of educational inequality, mis-education, and subordination are also located in cultural and political marginalization. Nancy Fraser‘s (forthcoming) framework for Social Justice is useful. Fraser proposes three essential, interrelated dimensions of social justice: economic redistribution (economic restructuring), cultural recognition (cultural transformation), and political representation (parity of participation). [15] This framework resonates with working class parents and communities of color in Chicago who call for more material resources and the reallocation of public resources, for the ‘valorization’ of their cultural identities, for channeling their collective knowledge into policies about school and youth development, and for genuine democratic participation in the decisions affecting their lives. [16]

Rectifying gross inequalities in educational resources requires economic redistribution policies that both expand educational funding to ensure the highest quality education for everyone and reduce poverty. This is quite different from remedies that move students around but leave economic inequalities in place. Counter to the colonising cultural deficit approach of improving low-income children by mixing them with middle-class students, cultural recognition might include culturally relevant curriculum and a critical examination of difference, symbolic forms of power, and the multiple histories and experiences of peoples in the USA and globally. This would be a step toward reconstructing knowledge, curriculum, and what counts as valued cultural capital for all students. A social justice approach to reconstructing schools and housing requires the full participation and self-determination of those affected — public housing residents and families, community members, youth, and committed teachers.

In relation to public housing, Janet Smith argues, ‘the goal should be to put real control in the hands of the people we are planning with to help them identify and implement real alternatives’ (p.3). [17] In Fraser’s terms, this is ‘the politics of needs interpretation” (p.9) — the power of marginalised communities to define their own needs. However, the ideal of full participation runs up against unequal material and cultural resources. Thus, full political representation requires economic and cultural reconstruction as well: ‘…inclusion per se is not sufficient for democratic legitimacy; rather, parity of participation [emphasis original] is also required. Parity of participation, in turn, depends on two further social conditions: fair distribution of resources and reciprocal recognition of participants’ social standing (Fraser, forthcoming, p.11). [18]

Such an alternative framework may seem utopian in a period in which neoliberal discourse limits policy to what is possible and ‘efficient,’ and neoliberal solutions are posed as inevitable. From the standpoint of social justice, transcending this fatalism may be the most essential task. At the end of his life, Paulo Freire wrote against ‘an immobilising ideology of fatalism, with its flighty postmodern pragmatism, which insists that we can do nothing to change the march of social-historical and cultural reality because that is how the world is anyway. The most dominant contemporary version of fatalism is neoliberalism.’ Yet, the essence of an alternative vision is concretely present in Chicago in the voices of public housing residents, displaced families, and parents who have insisted on full participation in decisions that affect them, recognition of their knowledge and community wisdom, and a just distribution of resources. ♦

Excerpted from Mixed-income schools and housing: advancing the neoliberal urban agenda Journal of Education Policy


1. Bennett, L. Smith, J. A. and Wright, P. A., Eds. (2006) Where are poor people to live? Transforming public housing communities. (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe).

2. Wilen, W. P. and R. D. Nayak. (2006) Relocating public housing residents have little hope of returning: Work requirements for mixed-income public housing developments. In L. Bennett, J. L. Smith and P. A. Wright, Eds., Where are poor people to live? Transforming public housing communities, pp239-258. (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe).

Venkatesh, S. A., Celimli, I., Miller, D., Murphy, A., Turner, B. (2004, February). Chicago Public Housing transformation: A research report. (New York: Center for Urban Research and Policy, Columbia University).

3. Smith, J. L. (2006) Mixed-income communities: Designing out poverty or pushing out the poor? In L. Bennett, J. L. Smith and P. A. Wright, Eds., Where are poor people to live? Transforming public housing communities, pp.282-300. (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe).

4. Hackworth, J. (2007) The neoliberal city: Governance, ideology, and development in American Urbanism. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

5. MacArthur Foundation. (2005, Spring). Revitalizing Bronzeville: Mixed-income housing is key to community strength. Newsletter. Retrieved February 10, 2007 from

6. Olszewski , L. and Sadovi,, C. (2003) Rebirth of schools set for South Side. Chicago Tribune, Sect. 1, p.1. Dec. 19.

7. Bennett, L. and Reed, A. Jr. (1999) The new face of urban renewal: The Near North Redevelopment Initiative and the Cabrini-Green Neighborhood. In A. Reed, Jr. Ed., Without Justice for All. (Boulder: Westview Press).

Bennett, L. (2006) Downtown restructuring and public housing in contemporary Chicago: Fashioning a better world-class city. In L. Bennett, J. L. Smith and P. A. Wright, Eds., Where are poor people to live? Transforming public housing communities, pp.282-300. (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe).

8. Bennett, L. Smith, J. A. and Wright, P. A., Eds. (2006) Where are poor people to live? Transforming public housing communities. (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe).

9. Demissie, F. (2006) Globalization and the city: The remaking of Chicago. In J. P. Koval, L. Bennett, M. Bennett, F. Demissie, and R. Garner, Eds., The new Chicago: A Social and cultural analysis. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press).

10. Hackworth, J. (2007) The neoliberal city: Governance, ideology, and development in American Urbanism. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

11. Smith, N. (1996) The new urban frontier: Gentrification and the revanchist city. (New York: Routledge).

12. Bennett, L. (2006) Downtown restructuring and public housing in contemporary Chicago: Fashioning a better world-class city. In L. Bennett, J. L. Smith and P. A. Wright, Eds., Where are poor people to live? Transforming public housing communities, pp.282-300. (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe).

13. Kahlenberg, R. D. (2001) All together now: The case for economic integration of the public schools. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press).

14. Anyon, J. (2005). Radical possibilities. (New York: Routledge).

15. Fraser, N. (forthcoming). Introduction: The Radical imagination between redistribution and recognition. In N. Fraser, Mapping the radical imagination. Retrieved July 12, 2007 from

16. Lipman, P. and Haines, N. (2007) From education accountability to privatization and African American exclusion — ‘Chicago Public Schools’ ‘Renaissance 2010.’ Educational Policy, 21(3), pp.471-502.

Lipman, P., Person, A. and Kenwood Oakland Community Organisation. (2007). Students as collateral damage? A preliminary study of Renaissance 2010 school closings in the Midsouth. Chicago: Kenwood Oakland Community Organisation and on-line:

17. Smith, J. L. (2002) HOPE VI and the new urbanism: Eliminating low-income housing to make mixed-income communities. Planners Network.. Retrieved March 15, 2006 from

18. Fraser, N. (forthcoming). Introduction: The Radical imagination between redistribution and recognition. In N. Fraser, Mapping the radical imagination. Retrieved July 12, 2007 from

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