Public housing may not just be about the housing

Public housing expert Susan Popkin argues that simply replacing the units from Chicago’s public housing high-rises may not be enough:

I think it was a partial victory. It was a whole lot more successful than anybody expected at the beginning. The odds of it being an absolute failure were pretty high. In the first phases of the plan, they were really struggling to get the buildings down and get people out of them, and they had 11 buildings they had targeted to relocate people from. So people ended up moving from one bad unit in a building that was slated to come down to one that was going to come down later…

So there was a lot of hope that it would do more than just improve people’s physical circumstances. It did reduce anxiety, which is important, but it really took extra wrap-around services before we saw real improvements in people’s mental health and their employment. They’re still very poor, but they’re working more. I think that there was recognition that the people in public housing really need a lot of the services they weren’t getting.

One of your arguments is that providing housing alone is not enough.

Especially not for the kids. The biggest disappointment for me was even when we got the wrap-around services, the parents were doing better, but they were still reporting that their kids were really struggling. And when we talked to the kids, the kids were talking about fighting, feeling really rejected in their new community, doing badly in school—not all, some of them were OK—but a higher proportion than we would have wanted to see.

The physical form of public housing may have changed from high-rises to mixed-income neighborhoods and more decentralized units but some of the basic issues are still the same: are there enough units? Are these units better than substandard and not always located in poor neighborhoods? Are there services available for public housing residents? This is not to downplay the importance of decent housing – it is an overlooked essential in the United States since where you live tends to determine many life outcomes – but it is really about housing plus the community and the opportunities that are or are not available.

A related question: what is the timeline for declaring the Plan for Transformation a success or failure? I wonder if the Chicago Housing Authority and city would rather just not recognize the results of the project at all.

CHA’s Plan for Transformation didn’t transform public housing much

A new report from WBEZ suggests the Chicago’s Plan for Transformation has not met its goals:

Now, more than 17 years and $3 billion later, only 7.81 percent of the 16,846 households under the Plan For Transformation live in mixed-income communities, according to data from the CHA obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act through a joint study by WBEZ and Northwestern University’s Medill Social Justice News Nexus.

The rest of the households?

  • 20.81 percent live on a Housing Choice or Section 8 voucher
  • 15.97 percent live in traditional public housing
  • 11.99 percent were evicted
  • 9.59 percent have died

The remaining 33.82 percent are living without a government subsidy.

The Plan For Transformation is the largest remake of public housing in the nation. It has simultaneously produced new communities and tracts of vacant land, gentrification and segregation throughout the city.

Arguably, the most “successful” part of the Plan for Transformation was limiting the visibility of public housing  by demolishing high-rise buildings. But, that did little to help the public housing residents or the neighborhoods in which the high-rises were located (Cabrini-Green is an exception because it was already located near wealthier and whiter residents). All that money and effort…could it have worked out better if it (1) wasn’t managed by the CHA (which has a poor record over decades of providing public housing) or (2) wasn’t located in Chicago (the one Rust Belt city that has supposedly made it but still has serious problems including residential segregation)? Efforts elsewhere have also been mixed – leading to the thought that perhaps the federal government can’t do much in this area. This doesn’t mean that the idea of public housing is worthless but maybe that issues of race, class, and residential segregation are really difficult to overcome.

Redevelopment of Cabrini-Green continues with new mixed-income and mixed-use project

The Chicago Housing Authority announced earlier this week that a new developer has been chosen for one of the Cabrini-Green parcels:

On Tuesday, the Chicago Housing Authority‘s Board of Commissioners greenlighted El Paso, Texas-based Hunt Development Group to lead the project, which will include a mix of one- to four-bedroom apartments and condominiums at Larrabee Street and Clybourn Avenue. A 21-story residential tower will include 183 units for CHA residents, 82 units at affordable rents and 217 units at market rates. The development also includes several connected midrise buildings and low-rise town homes with 1.2 acres of public open space, according to a CHA statement…

It will collaborate with Imagine Group, a minority-owned developer, and Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, a nonprofit community development group known for its work helping to bring retail to underserved areas such as Englewood and Pullman…

The firm also has redeveloped several former public housing sites in other parts of the country, including Atlanta and El Paso. It has a division which focuses on privatizing military housing. In all, Hunt has developed more than 90 projects and 12,000 units in a mix of affordable and public housing in cities including Chicago, Dallas and Honolulu, according to a CHA statement.

The project is expected to begin in 2018, the CHA said. Developers haven’t been chosen for the other Cabrini-Green redevelopment projects, according to CHA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan.

I’m sure the retail efforts and the construction of a 21-story tower will get a lot of the attention and a certain narrative will continue: look at the good things that are coming out of a former public housing site. But, the real issue is how public housing residents do in the new units as well as those living in the affordable housing units. If this simply becomes another sector of Chicago that is providing nicer housing to middle- and upper-class residents, it is a missed opportunity.

CHA takes care of its own finances, waiting list grows

The Chicago Housing Authority doesn’t exactly have a distinguished history in serving those that need housing and that trend appears to be continuing:

While tens of thousands of families languished on a waiting list for assistance, the Chicago Housing Authority paid off practically all of its debt and overfunded its pension plan, according to a report released Friday by the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

The agency also socked away hundreds of millions of dollars in cash reserves even as its ambitious plan to replace thousands of demolished public housing units lagged years behind schedule…

By the end of 2016, the waiting list for housing assistance stood at more than 119,000 households…

Originally, the [Plan for Transformation] was supposed to be completed in 2009, but by then the CHA had delivered just 71 percent of the promised units. The goal was eventually pushed back to 2015. By the end of that year, however, more than 2,000 units still hadn’t been built, the report found. The plan is now expected to be completed by the end of this year.

As the article notes, this is an interesting contrast to many other governments and taxing bodies in Illinois that are struggling to meet their budgets and fund their pensions. But, the trade off here repeats a pattern that the CHA has followed for decades: it doesn’t actually provide enough housing for the needs of city residents.

Once the public housing high rises were torn down (such as the Cabrini-Green towers coming down several years ago), the topic of public housing has not received much attention from the media or the public. However, why don’t we hear more about the slowed Plan for Transformation? What about the growing waiting list (it is not a new problem)? Ultimately, have the efforts since the early 2000s actually improved the housing situation in Chicago or simply moved the problems around (and out of the public view)?

I know there is a lot of concern about the lack of trust the public has in government institutions. From my perspective, a lack of trust in the CHA is entirely warranted (it may never have been warranted given its checkered history) and it would take a lot to reverse this.

Updating the last few years of (private sector) history of Chicago’s public housing

By now, a number of scholars have effectively explained the problematic history of Chicago’s public housing. But, as this new piece from Curbed Chicago suggests, the most recent years have involved a lot of change. Here are some interesting tidbits from this recent history-in-the-making:

Holsten’s answer is emphatically yes. He specializes in mixed-income and affordable housing, and has developed $500 million worth of it since 1975. But building a mixed-income building is one thing. Forming an actual community across racial and class lines is another. “Our job as developers is much more than financing buildings and property management,” he says. “It’s trying to build community. That’s the hardest part.”…

One sticking point is the issue of density. Chicagoans feel burned by their past experience with high-rises. And the city has a tradition of homeownership that’s different from other very large American cities. Chicago’s famed “bungalow belt” of brickworker cottages built in the early 20th century offered waves of immigrants affordable single-family homes, and preservationists have formed a nonprofit to protect them.So the CHA’s residents would prefer a house and a porch of their own, but that desire often runs counter to the need to accommodate the thousands who have been displaced…

Between 2008 and 2012, the CHA issued about 14,000 fewer vouchers than HUD funded, building up a surplus of $432 million and earning a rebuke from HUD Secretary Julian Castro. (The CHA says its reserves have since been cut and will be spent down by the end of 2017.) A Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association investigation found that four out of 10 voucher units have been cited for building code violations in the last five years.

I am skeptical that the private sector alone can solve these housing issues. The free market tends to lead to exclusion and profit-seeking. It doesn’t provide many solutions to correcting existing inequalities, which in the United States tend to connect race, social class, and housing. See an earlier post for a number of the bad outcomes that can result from a free market approach to housing.

On the other hand, the Chicago Housing Authority has done little good. And Americans from the beginning have been ambivalent about involving government in housing. There is little chance that the government will do much more to provide housing – even as the need for affordable housing is great in many cities – because it is a difficult issue in which to find much support.

Perhaps there is a third approach: the US government props up the mortgage industry! Probably not a good long-term solution but this is what we have and it is a system that privileges homeownership.

New York City’s public housing bind

While many cities like Chicago demolished public housing high-rises with federal money, New York City did not do so to the same degree. That means there are public housing issues lurking in the near future:

But now New York City is in a bind. It didn’t have to tear down its high-rises under HOPE VI. But it also didn’t receive federal funding to improve its public housing, as HOPE VI recipients did (in the first decade of the program, the government dispersed $5 billion through HOPE VI). Now, NYCHA is left trying to figure out how to maintain decades-old buildings and reduce the number of people on the waiting list for public housing, all as federal funding for public housing continues to drop.

Popkin, with the Urban Institute, worries that this means that certain high rises in New York’s public-housing system are becoming as bad as the worst projects initially targeted in HOPE VI. Brownsville, in Brooklyn, is now the largest concentration of public housing in the country, for example. Brownsville also has the lowest median household income in New York City. In many other areas of the country, an area of one square mile of public housing would not be allowed to exist anymore. In New York, it still does, even as violence worsens and gangs take over. And the city doesn’t have the funds to change that, let alone improve other public housing buildings.

Public housing in New York City hasn’t received as much attention from scholars and the press as it has in other cities – particularly compared to Chicago. Perhaps this is because the situation was never quite as bad, whether due to lower levels of isolation (as noted in the article) or because the NYCHA was better managed than the chronically mismanaged Chicago Housing Authority. Or perhaps the urban sociologists in NYC focused on other topics. Or maybe the glittering portions of New York City are overwhelming – don’t forget the current luxury construction boom in the city.

In the long run, New York City is not immune to the same issues of inequality and a lack of affordable housing that many major cities face. If the city wants to avoid facing bigger problems down the road, it would be prudent to take action on housing now.

Over 2,000 new housing units in CHA proposal for Cabrini-Green site

Redevelopment at Cabrini-Green continues with the Chicago Housing Authority’s unveiled proposal this week for over 2,000 new housing units:

Last night, the Chicago Housing Authority formally unveiled its most recent and fully detailed proposal for the nearly 65 acres of land that once belonged the massive Cabrini-Green housing project. Earlier this year, the CHA unveiled a draft plan for the site, which sought to draw out an idea of where housing, retail and new park spaces would be located, however, last night’s meeting offered a clearer picture of how many housing units are planned for the area. The large area will be redeveloped in three phases, and will ultimately produce 2,330 to 2,830 new residences.

Currently, developers are swarming in with new retail and apartment projects, but some are arguing that the new plans don’t offer enough density. Private developers will compete to build new structures on the large parcel of land, with the first phase delivering 970-1,270 units, according to DNAinfo. The balance between market rate, affordable and public housing has not been unveiled, however the CHA could get started on the first as early as late next year.

This is valuable land as larger parcels like this, particularly on the North Side and near other desirable locations, are rare. I would imagine there will be no shortage of developers who have ideas of how lots of money can be made. Of course, this was one of the arguments of residents and critics of the plan to tear down the high-rises: was this really about providing better public housing and housing opportunities for residents or was this about opening land on the North Side for developers?