A New Look at the New Deal’s Legacy of Public Housing

A New Look at the New Deal’s Legacy of Public Housing


With public housing racially isolated, other policies — some misguided but well intentioned, others indefensible — exacerbated the dysfunction. Austen notes that long waiting lists for relatively few units left poor applicants without other options for safe lodging. Compassionate officials addressed the predicament by lowering the income cutoff to qualify for public housing. The Chicago Housing Authority then made space for the poor by evicting working-class families for whom the projects were initially designed. The authority’s executive director told them, “Be proud to move out, so that a lower-income family can have the advantage that you have had.” Public housing’s opponents also demanded the evictions, insisting that those able to afford private accommodations should be barred from public support.

As Austen observes, the policy created a disincentive to marry, because a husband’s wages might render a family ineligible to remain in its home. The result was the segregation of projects by race and by income, concentrating fatherless young men who not only had little access to legitimate employment but lacked working-class role models who knew how to search for it. In the early 1950s, the median income of Chicago’s public housing residents was nearly two-thirds of the citywide average. By 1970, it was barely one-third.

Initially, Cabrini-Green hired residents as maintenance workers. But perversely, when income cutoffs were lowered, holding such jobs made tenants ineligible to remain. With residents themselves no longer responsible for maintenance, projects deteriorated. And with projects now filled with the politically powerless, and with revenue from rent payments falling, government slashed maintenance budgets and turned high rises into slums. In 1977, Cabrini-Green had 19 maintenance workers; two years later, there were six. Nearly half its units were unoccupied because of insufficient staff. Yet for most who remained in the projects, conditions were still superior to those in the overcrowded dwellings from which they had come.

Meanwhile, industry departed the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, leaving young men with few lawful ways to earn a living. The efforts of public officials to provide job training and transportation that might have mitigated their plights were minimal and episodic.

Austen supplements his account of these policy failures with interviews with former Cabrini-Green residents. They are mostly community leaders, but their stories can’t skirt the drug dealing, gang wars and homicides that dominated Cabrini-Green’s public image. The police response ranged from rare attempts at community monitoring (difficult, at best, when officers had to roam 19 stories) to unprovoked brutality and even torture — a reflection of law enforcement’s general contempt for the civil rights of law-abiding residents, as well as a fundamental lack of concern for their safety. Chicago’s police superintendent acknowledged that his officers walked a “very fine line between maintaining order and becoming oppressive.”

“High-Risers” concludes by recounting the resolve of Chicago elites, in the last decade or so, to reclaim the Cabrini-Green property, so close to downtown, for condo owners and their upscale services. Gentrification was only slightly hindered by the residents’ reluctance to vacate their apartments, out of the well-founded fear that the alternatives might be no better. The project’s reputation as a violent wasteland made this resistance easy for civic leaders to overcome.

The last of Cabrini-Green’s 15 towers was demolished in 2011. In their place, Chicago subsidized middle-class residences, with a promise that 40 percent of units would be reserved as public housing for the project’s former occupants. But that pledge was abandoned, as was one to relocate tenants to decent housing elsewhere. Most of the African-Americans who called Cabrini-Green home are now in less adequate (and frequently just as dangerous) homes in new, still segregated neighborhoods.

The alternatives Paul Douglas faced — either segregated housing or none at all — were not the only possibilities. We as a society could have dispersed low-income families across less dense public projects throughout metropolitan areas. We could have preserved diversity of income and race; many working-class white families, especially returning war veterans, needed apartments in the 1950s and would have preferred heterogenous housing developments to living with their in-laws. Many employed white veterans did initially live in public housing, only to abandon it for single-family homes in racially restricted suburbs, thanks to attractive federal mortgage terms.

In an otherwise nuanced book, Austen labels the social workers and officials who vowed to clear slums and house the poor as “do-gooders.” Implicit in his scorn is a hindsight appreciation that, for the poor to thrive, their communities must include working- and even middle-class families. The urbanist Jane Jacobs knew as much, but her “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” was published in 1961, after evictions of working-class public housing residents were already well underway. Until the sociologist William Julius Wilson published “The Truly Disadvantaged,” in 1987, few comprehended the terrible consequences of cleansing urban neighborhoods of the stably employed. In 2018, Ben Austen has illustrated these repercussions; we can now better consider remedies by contemplating the lessons “High-Risers” offers.



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