By Krissy Clark
Special to the NNPA from
Marketplace Wealth and Poverty Desk
Squirrels. If you have lived in a middle-class neighborhood for most of your life, you might take them for granted. But when Valerie Love and her 12-year-old daughter Jada recently moved to Albany Park on the north side of Chicago, squirrels were the first things they noticed.
Jada remembers how her mom began throwing jelly beans to the squirrels. “They was coming out from every direction,” her mom laughs.
Their old neighborhood, says Jada, had a different kind of wildlife. ”It had bugs,” she says.
Those aren’t the only differences between the Love’s old neighborhood and their new one. The old area was notorious for gun violence and riddled with abandoned buildings that made it look like “somebody took a grenade and blew up half the blocks,” said Valerie.
In contrast, Jada calls their new neighborhood “peaceful and clean.” And, Valerie adds, “there’s no gangs hanging on the corner.”
Valerie is proud, too, of her shiny, new kitchen, which she says the landlord used as a big selling point. “He said it’s a European-style kitchen, microwave over the stove and a stainless steel refrigerator.”
From the shiny appliances to the squirrels, these new experiences are welcome for the Loves. But there are other adjustments involved in their recent move that have been hard and uncomfortable.
As an example, Valerie goes in to her bedroom, where she’s taped plastic over the windows for extra insulation in the cold winter. She says when her landlord visited, he told her he didn’t like the plastic, or the blanket, with the face of a tiger, that she’s hung over the doorway to the guest room. “He came here complaining about that, too,” she says.
It’s an unspoken thing, but even after seven months in their new world, it’s easy to feel judged by a landlord over decorating choices, and by new neighbors.
“In the back yard, everybody has grills on the porch,” says Valerie. But even so, she hasn’t met any of them. “I don’t socialize too much with the neighbors in the building,” she says. It’s clear she feels like an outsider.
The Loves moved to their new neighborhood as part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s “residential mobility program,” one of many such programs around the country. At the heart of these anti-poverty initiatives is the simple notion that the zip code you live in can have a big impact on your economic destiny.
With that in mind, mobility programs help low-income families move from neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, struggling schools, and few economic opportunities to middle-class places where schools are often better — and, at least in theory, the opportunities are better, too.
But while there may be an economic pay off in an “opportunity area” down the road, in the short term, a move to a very different kind of neighborhood involves a lot of adjustments, many of them not easy.
Jacqualine Williams also recently made a move through a residential mobility program to a middle class neighborhood on Chicago’s north side. It’s called Edgewater, and like the area where Valerie and Jada Love live, Williams says it doesn’t have a lot of other Black residents.
“The first tendency is to say, you know, I’m just going to keep to myself. But that’s not going to feel good for you and you might have a lot that that community can benefit from,” says Williams.
Williams says in some cases, she’s faced outright discrimination. She says two landlords told her they wouldn’t rent to tenants who had federal rent vouchers, and she’s filed legal complaints against them. Williams says even though she feels like she sticks out — for having subsidized rent, for being Black – she’s trying to make connections in her new community.
“I patronize the boutiques and the restaurants,” she says. Street festivals are useful networking venues, too. She brought her granddaughter to a local Halloween block party. “There wasn’t that many African-Americans there,” she says, “but we got to meet people.”
Williams has been getting help adjusting to her neighborhood from Tracey Robinson, a mobility counselor with a group called Housing Choice Partners in Chicago. Robinson goes down a mental list of some of the common challenges clients run into.
One woman couldn’t get used to how quiet her new neighborhood was.
Another was worried about leaving behind friends and family from her old neighborhood who helped out with babysitting. Once she moved, she realized she’d made a trade-off: in a safer neighborhood, her kids could do more stuff on their own. ”Her grandchildren can actually ride the bus on their own now, and she’s glad she made the move,” says Robinson. “She don’t have to worry.”
Robinson also has first-hand experience with moving from a poor neighborhood to a middle class one. Her family went through a mobility program a few years ago and she still remembers the rocky beginnings.
“It was almost a month, we were getting the cold shoulder,” says Robinson. Eventually, she went up to one of her neighbors to see what was wrong. “I introduced myself. I just let her know if we had offended her in any way, accept our apology. And that’s when she went to tell me about how the parking went,” says Robinson.
It turns out there was an unspoken rule on her new block that everybody got one parking spot in front of their own house. The Robinsons had been parking in front of other people’s homes.
“If somebody had said ‘You know what, welcome to the neighborhood, we kind of let everyone park in front of our house, blah blah blah,’” Robinson says, “we would have ran with that. But, we didn’t know.”
Now, the Robinsons do know, because they asked. Tracey Robinson says it was a little thing, but it made it so much easier to feel comfortable. She’s been friends with her neighbors ever since.
For more stories from the Marketplace Wealth and Poverty Desk visit www.marketplace.org/wealth-poverty.