2008/07/23

The betrayal of Chicago public housing

All Chicagoans should read this article, and so should anyone else interested in fundamental urban problems. Skeptics on the left and public housing tenants themselves suspected from the beginning that Daley and the Chicago Housing Authority's Plan for Transformation - which ostensibly was going to replace the concentrated poverty of highrise public housing with the harmonious integration of mixed-income walk-up developments - was actually meant to disperse the poor and seize the valuable real estate they occupied. As the progress of the Plan for Transformation makes clear, these fears were all too well-founded.

Nine years into what was supposed to be a 10-year project, the CHA has had no trouble destroying 13,000 units of housing, breaking up the tenants' communities and forcing them to move further south into neighborhoods just as bad as the ones they left. (The wait list for public housing, which was closed to new applicants in 2001, stands at 56,000.) The CHA also had no difficulty giving developers close to Daley a wide variety of sweetheart deals on the razed properties, from selling the land once occupied by Stateway Gardens for $1 to dispensing heavily subsidized building contracts and lucrative retail concessions.

What CHA has had problems with is actually building homes for the thousands of displaced public housing tenants. Only 30 percent of the planned units have been built, and half of those were completed before the plan officially started, while the CHA was under federal supervision.

These problems could have been avoided if that single success had been made the model of the whole program. Henry Horner Homes on the West Side was torn down and rebuilt in phases, so that residents could stay on site and move into the new apartments as they became available. But it was only the organizing efforts of the residents themselves and federal oversight that forced CHA to follow this model. Once CHA, whose history is shot thru with negligence and racism, again had the upper hand it gave priority to destroying public housing communities and getting tenants off the land over replacing their homes. (Incidentally, Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's close advisers and former top Daley official, has had a major hand in this housing disaster.)

If the city were serious about creating communities integrated along race and class lines, it would not only devote more attention to creating public housing than channeling profits to developers - it would require all new developments to include a real mix of affordable or public housing. The unspoken flaw in the Plan for Transformation all along has been the fact that rich people and professionals don't want to live near poor people, especially if they're black. Even if it hadn't been for the delays and cost overruns wrought by corruption and the implosion of the American property market, the CHA's new developments would have been a tough sell for Chicago's privileged. The only way to get around that would be to level the playing field by integrating the entire city instead of only pockets on the South Side.

Of course, residents of Lincoln Park or Streeterville would riot if poor people started moving in next door, and Daley isn't about to offend his most powerful constituency. But forcing Chicago's elites to permit enough affordable housing is more urgent than ever.

The rising price of gas and the transition to a low-carbon society will cause a massive movement of population back into the city in the next couple decades. This is a wonderful prospect, as America is finally on the cusp of reducing its unsustainable suburban expansion. But if market forces are left to operate freely, the cost of housing in the city - especially that near the Loop and convenient to transit - will skyrocket and force all but professionals and the rich to the outskirts of the city and the near suburbs. The movement of poor minorities into some south and west suburbs is already quite striking. If anything, the revival of the city will actually make these people's lives worse because they will be even more remote from good jobs and educational opportunities.

Of course even if the Plan for Transformation's rhetoric had been faithfully pursued, integration thru housing would remain a reformist measure, meant to mitigate the devastating effects of social inequality rather than to root it out. But as two generations of experience with the post-Brown v. Board ghetto has shown, the social deterioration caused by joblessness, lack of services, and crime thoroughly frustrates the revolutionary potential we might assume large concentrations of poverty would have. Integration seems like a good goal, but only if it is used to facilitate more effective organizing against the social structures that produce such massive inequalities in the first place.

2 comments:

민석 said...
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Limin said...

Thanks for the detailed analysis. You're right about the role of race in the prioritizing of yuppie comforts (read: white) over affordable housing (read: black). I'd just like to add that the African-American upper middle class seems to be the primary beneficiary of and moving force behind the Bronzevile gentrification, and the Plan for Transformation would truly complete the gentrified belt stretching from South Loop to Hyde Park. By the way, I recall the University of Chicago took over a couple of CPS schools in that vicinity to convert them into U of C charter schools. Now I see the pieces falling into place.