Scholarly scrutiny

Over the past couple of weeks, two talks by noted scholars of public housing  history highlighted issues still percolating in Chicago, 77 years after the founding of its Housing Authority and 13 years since it began its $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation.

Purging the Poorest

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Lawrence Vale showing an image used to promote slum clearance in Chicago in the 1930s (Maya Dukmasova)

On the frigid evening of Thursday, January 23 Lawrence Vale, Professor of Urban Design and Planning at MIT delivered a lecture to a sizable crowd gathered at the Harold Washington Library’s Pritzker Auditorium. He focused on the major lessons gleaned through research for his latest book, Purging the Poorest: Public Housing and the Design Politics of Twice-Cleared Communities.

Vale’s book narrates the remarkable historical pattern of displacing the very poor in Chicago and Atlanta as both cities aimed to revitalize their cores in the post-Depression era and then again beginning in the 1990s.

Initially, the ambitious programs of “slum clearance” in the 1930s and 40s gave way to new public housing projects.

“It’s not just sites being cleared, it’s communities being cleared,” Vale noted in his talk, as he showed images of dingy hovels and unpaved roads, the faces of unkempt children peeking out from dark alleys.  His research has shown that very low numbers of slum-dwellers actually got accepted to live in the early public housing developments built on top of their former homes.

“Public housing was never simply humanitarian aid to the poor. It was a sorting and evaluation system, it was a reward to a certain kind of poor person and a marginalization of others based on race and ethnicity, based on family structure, based on earning capacity or even behavior and attitude,” Vale explained.

Back then, one could simple be too poor to live in the projects.

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Audience listening to Lawrence Vale at the Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Library (Maya Dukmasova)

“What does it say about a society that public housing is for the poor but not the poorest? It’s pragmatic, it may be financially more viable, but it also is showing distrust of the least economically successful people, especially if they’re jobless, even if it’s a Great Depression, suggesting their joblessness is their own fault.”

Vale views the history of public housing both in Chicago and Atlanta as proceeding along the following pattern: First, the clearance of slums to build housing for the upwardly mobile working class. Then, as welfare and other social programs were expanded in the 1950s, allowing the not-so-poor to move out, the projects became tools to consolidate the poorest. And finally, the 1990s bring about a second phase of replacing the very poor and their very poor housing with the less-poor in better homes.

Blueprint for Disaster

One week later, on the evening of Thursday, January 30 three historians gathered at the Newberry Library to similarly explore the policies that made American cities what they were in the post-WWII era. In a panel discussion moderated by University of Illinois at Chicago history professor Leon Fink, D. Bradford Hunt (Professor of Social Science and History at Roosevelt University) and Eric Fure-Slocum (Assistant Professor of History at St. Olaf College) discussed their new books. Hunt’s Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing focuses on Chicago housing policy history while Fure-Slocum’s Contesting the Postwar City is devoted to urban politics and policy in Milwaukee.

Hunt explained that the first thing he had to conclude based on his research is that “It’s really hard for a government to build and manage community.” While the government could effectively run schools and public utilities, public housing presented an unprecedented challenge. 

One of the central problems was figuring out how to provide for public housing maintenance costs while keeping units affordable for low-income people. With rent prices tied to family earnings, the projects eventually became a place of concentrated poverty, as those whose earnings grew graduated to wider options in the private market.

Another policy decision which would have staggering repercussions on the public housing history of Chicago was the conscious decision on the part of the Housing Authority  to build apartments for large families.  The result, in literal contrast to Alex Kotlowitz’s famous book about the Chicago projects, There Are No Children Here, Hunts points out that there were, in fact, too many children there.

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From left: Leon Fink, D. Bradford Hunt, and Eric Fure-Slocum (Maya Dukmasova)

And while some well-intentioned policy decisions ended up creating many unmanageable problems for the Housing Authority, Hunt was quick to point out ideas that have been assigned undue importance. Namely, the role played by black politicians capitalizing on “vertical precincts” in large tracts of public housing on the South Side. While the projects “became political fiefdoms in some ways, and that didn’t always help in their ability to extract services from the rest of government,” Hunt urged the audience to remember that that didn’t mean more power for the people.

In a regular neighborhood, “if a streetlight goes out, you call your alderman, you get it done, you get it fixed,” said Hunt. “Well, it was very difficult for public housing residents to get that in part because their votes could be taken for granted. And so there’s that lack of political power despite being well-connected to, say, a black [political] machine.”

Moderator Leon Fink reminded the audiences of  the need to remember this human element when evaluating public housing. “We tend to focus on the health of the city, and how’s the city doing, and how can we save the city, and somewhat neglect what’s happening to the people who live or once lived in the city.”

Indeed, the ugly buildings where trash was not picked up by the city for months, mail went undistributed, and pizza delivery guys refused to venture, were also home to many tight communities and meticulously kept apartments. In conversations about Chicago’s welfare since the high-rises were torn down, the impact of displacement on tens of thousands of people’s lives too often goes unmentioned.

Mixed-Income dreams

At both events the authors also evaluated the current state of the transformation of public housing in Chicago and assessed avenues of hope for the future.

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Lawrence Vale shows off his tie which features a map of Chicago. Cabrini-Green is “on the wrong side of the tie” (Maya Dukmasova)

Vale’s work has focused on what has happened at the Cabrini-Green site in Chicago since the redevelopment there started in the mid-90s through the HOPE VI program and then continued through the Plan for Transformation. The idea has been to demolish public housing high-rises and “deconcentrate poverty” by constructing low-rise, mixed-income developments where a portion of inhabitants are public housing tenants, a portion are low-income families receiving tax credits, and a portion are market-rate home owners.

But the mixed-income social experiment, predicated on the idea that the problems of the poor can be solved by designing a certain type of community has been as politically fought and complicated as the original slum clearance initiatives that created public housing. In part, this is because tenant selection criteria have repeated the historical preference for the less-poor in new housing.

Focusing on Peter Holsten, who developed most of the mixed-income sites in the Near North neighborhood, Vale says “It was really a challenge to find people that would be acceptable to a well-meaning, and well-intentioned, and civic-minded developer, and still begin to undo the damage that that community felt had been done to it by tearing down so much of Cabrini-Green.”

So far, only about 10% of the 26,000 CHA households that were displaced as part of the Plan for Transformation have gotten the opportunity to return to mixed-income communities. “The bottom line,” says Vale, is that “20 years into Cabrini-Green’s redevelopment of 3, 600 public housing units, there are about 400 [in new mixed-income sites].”

The process has also been complicated and slowed by the housing market collapse in recent years.  At some developments, where the public housing units were leased out but the market rate units were not all sold before the recession, Vale says there is “a tense community where many of the market rate people feel they have been misled about the intended mix of people, and many of the ex-Cabrini residents are chafing at the rules and restrictions of the private management company.”

Just as Vale warned his audience about repeating the historical pattern of purging the poorest from their neighborhoods, Hunt cautioned that resolving affordable housing issues would not entail a “one-size-fits-all model.”

Hunt believes that it is imperative that government be involved in resolving affordable housing issues but that “to do it intelligently and to do it effectively is going to require a really creative, broad range of policies, not necessarily just throw a lot of money at it.” But, unfortunately, he says, “nobody talks about housing anymore. It’s certainly not on the federal agenda today except in the context of foreclosures and things like that. Affordable housing is not, and that’s a big disappointment.”

Furthermore, Hunt said, the Plan for Transformation, despite all its delays and shortcomings is ultimately a short-sighted project. “The Chicago Housing Authority seems to be content with ‘alright we’re going to build what we promised and then we’re done.’ I don’t see the next 50 year vision for how we’re going to build communities, develop communities, and handle affordable housing issues.”

Avenues of Hope

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Lawrence Vale signs books after his talk (Maya Dukmasova)

Despite the gloomy prospects for displaced public housing residents in Chicago and the thousands more who are struggling to find affordable housing here, both authors saw glimmers of hope elsewhere in America.

“While Chicago has been a disaster, there are cities we can look at like New York which has built large numbers of social housing, publicly owned, publicly managed housing, and has done fairly well,” said Hunt.

Citing successful public housing transformation scenarios in Boston, Tucson, and San Francisco, Vale explained that finding the answer to pressing affordable housing questions in America is partially about how we approach the question.

“Is the question that we should be asking: ‘How can the number of low-income households that we need to accommodate be kept to a minimum so that the development is going to be financially appealing to the developers and private investors?’ Or couldn’t we ask the question in just the opposite way: ‘What’s the maximum amount of equitably-screened, very low-income households that can be accommodated in a mixed-income development while still ensuring a safe and stable community?'”

Only time will tell whether the CHA’s Plan for Transformation will be another blueprint for disaster or morph into a design politics more suited to addressing the needs of the poorest in Chicago.


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