There wasn’t much talk about public housing before the election earlier this year to replace Mayor Daley in Chicago. (Frankly, there isn’t much talk about this at the federal level either.) But one journalist suggests that Mayor Daley left a “complex public housing legacy” for the new Mayor Emanuel:
Last month, as Richard M. Daley approached retirement, the Chicago Housing Authority released a first-of-its-kind report on residents who were forced to leave the high-rises. It concluded that the changes made life safer, more stable and more hopeful for thousands of families.
But while Daley was praised by some for abandoning the high-rise system, housing advocates say the changes have done little to break the grip of poverty.
“As an urban-development strategy, the transformation is an A. It gets a far poorer grade if it is approached as a strategy to help low-income populations to achieve social and economic stability in their lives,” said Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who spent 18 months living in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes as a graduate student in the early 1990s.
Some observers, like author Alex Kotlowitz, fear the disappearance of the high-rises means Chicago’s poverty has passed out of sight and out of mind.
Some of the media talk about public housing in Chicago has been positive: the once notorious high-rises, particularly those at the Robert Taylor Homes on the south side and the Cabrini-Green complex on the north side (see thoughts about the demolition of the last high-rise here, here, here, and here), are now gone. (It was a bit strange last week to ride the Brown Line north out of the Loop and not see any Cabrini-Green high-rises.) In the eyes of the media, the problems of concentrated poverty and crime have been reduced. The land can be put to other uses, particularly at Cabrini-Green as it is very valuable land between Lincoln Park and the Loop.
On the other hand, the concerns of people like Venkatesh and Kotlowitz will not go away. Simply destroying public housing high-rises does not deal with the larger issues: there are still large parts of Chicago where residents have reduced life chances compared to better-off parts of the city. In the article, new Mayor Rahm Emanuel is cited as saying that the goal of reducing the isolation of the public housing residents (the goal that was “short of ending poverty”) has been successful.
I can’t imagine the new mayor will or perhaps even can devote much time to this issue as the persistent problems of budgets, crime, jobs, and education need to be addressed. Still, it will be interesting to see how Emanuel addresses public housing moving forward.