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.

A sociologist goes to the Urban History Association meetings, Part Two

I posted several observations yesterday from my time at the Urban History Association meetings. I turn today to the three most interesting ideas or debates I heard when attending sessions and panels:

  1. On a session on public housing, the discussant made this observation: with all of these negative cases of big government involvement in public housing, perhaps we need to turn away from seeing this as the solution. The main issue is this: when the federal resources are earmarked for the poor and redevelopment, it always seems to end up in the hands of the wealthy and developers rather than with those who really need the assistance. (For another example of this that involves lots of government money but not public housing, see the book Crisis Cities about New York City after 9/11 and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.) He suggested then and in later conversation that doesn’t mean that government should be completely removed from public housing. However, more local efforts seem to allow more opportunity for success rather than a completely top-down approach.I’ve argued before that the private market can’t do much about affordable housing in the United States, let alone public housing. At the same time, I would agree that the record of the federal government regarding public housing is mediocre at best. Are there some middle-range solutions? (I’ll also acknowledge that sometimes it does seem to take the federal government to help local governments do the right thing. For example, the Chicago Housing Authority was a mess for decades and required some oversight.)
  1. On a panel on Jane Jacobs, one of the scholars highlighted her upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania as being particularly formative. While Jacobs is most associated with New York City and Toronto, she was shaped by this smaller big city, the third most populous Pennsylvania city at the time and a city that attracted a variety of residents to work in the coal mining industry. This made me think of two things: (1) Why don’t more scholars pay attention to smaller big cities that may not be as important on the global stage but still contain a large number of American residents and (2) how might Jacobs and fictional resident and booster Michael Scott of The Office get along?
  1. A later panel discussed the history of Silicon Valley. In a response to a question about the representativeness of Silicon Valley for understanding other places in the United States and around the world, at least one participant suggested the ideas, social life, and spatial dimensions of Silicon Valley were likely to spread elsewhere and become normal. Another participant pushed back, suggesting that many places have no interest in becoming like Silicon Valley or don’t have the knowledge or resources to follow such a path. Such a discussion highlights how a place devoted to creating things for the masses may be in its organization and daily life be very separate from the rest of the country.

A bonus nugget from a session: when the Illinois Tollways first opened, there were not enough customers/drivers. Thus, a marketing campaign kicked off and the commercials featured Mary MacToll. Enjoy.

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.

The difficulty in returning to public housing

Once people left public housing high-rises in Chicago so that they could be demolished, it was difficult for them to return to new (and limited) public housing units:

Despite the promises that everyone could come back, the numbers don’t add up. The decrepit, infamous Cabrini-Green had 3,600 public housing units. When the rebuilding is complete in 2019, there will be around 2,830 units. Only 30 percent are for families in public housing. Got that? Fewer than 900 units.

The screening process is the next barrier. People are kept out of the new neighborhood if a family member has a single arrest record—even if no charges were pressed. Public housing residents have to submit to mandatory drug testing every year. They can have no record of rent and utility delinquency. They cannot take in friends and relatives. New rules in the neighborhood include no smoking, no barbecuing, no loud music, no washing cars on the street…

But coming back to Cabrini was a huge disruption to her family. Her 17-year-old daughter had a misdemeanor for fighting at school. Brewster had to send her daughter to live with relatives in order to keep her lease…

Another reason most people from Cabrini haven’t come back: finances. Moving is expensive and disruptive, and poor families can’t easily absorb these hits twice when they move away from bulldozers.

And is there any surprise that some residents at Cabrini-Green fought the demolition? The alternatives to even bad public housing high-rises are often not much better. As is also noted in this article and backed up by research, vouchers only go so far as well as many former public housing residents end up in other poor neighborhoods.

It does seem that once the HOPE VI program started in the 1990s, public housing has become less and less of a public issue. Public housing has never been popular in the United States – it took quite an effort to even start a federal program – and efforts in recent decades have moved to decentralize public housing units, limit who can access benefits, and reduce funding for programs. Yet, there is still significant need in the United States for reasonably-priced housing in decent neighborhoods (for example, see the waiting list in Chicago). I would suggest the free market hasn’t done too well in this area; many builders and developers will go for more money rather than supplying needed housing, many residents don’t want cheaper housing or certain kinds of residents nearby, and local regulations including zoning laws often make it difficult to pursue affordable housing or innovative solutions.