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.

Public Housing Museum to open in Chicago in 2017

A new museum on the site of the former Jane Addams Homes is set to open next year:

You can see the towers of the Loop looming to the east, and right on the block you can see new restaurants that draw Chicago diners looking for upscale burgers and barbecue. You can gaze down the block toward Mario’s Italian Lemonade, a summertime fixture in the Little Italy neighborhood for decades. And right next door to the west, you can see the empty lot where the impressive heating plant for these projects, the Jane Addams Homes, once stood. The lot is now used for the overflow of cars that bring patrons to the restaurants.

But this, organizers say, is part of what makes the site so potent for the museum, which aims to replicate the successes of New York’s Tenement Museum, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and other “museums of conscience” the world over…

“Certainly a museum dedicated to public housing, people have questions about what does that mean,” said Brad White, associate director of Chicago’s Alphawood Foundation, which has pledged $750,000 to help start construction. “But race, income disparity, inequality are things that are actually important to the public these days.”…

Indeed, a core story, told with guidance by docents from the community, will be to trace the Addams homes from the white Jewish Medor family in the late 1930s, when the development opened, to the 1970s, when the African-American Hatch family moved out.

On the one hand, this story needs to be told, particularly since many of the larger high-rise projects are no longer standing and public housing fades from the memory of residents and the city. Additionally, it can directly address issues of race and class that have marked Chicago from the beginning and continue to influence social life.

On the other hand, how popular might such a museum be? The federal government was ambivalent about public housing to start as efforts picked up steam during the 1930s and 1940s. The city of Chicago placed the majority of the large complexes in already poor areas and practiced segregated placement of families. Both government bodies worked to remove large-scale public housing starting in the 1990s; some of the more valuable land has been redeveloped – see the former Cabrini-Green site – while little has been done with other land – such as at the Robert Taylor Homes.

I’ll be curious to see the museum itself as well as how it does.

Historian argues American public housing had successes

In a new book, a historian looks at the positive potential of American public housing:

“The story of American public housing is one of quiet successes drowned out by loud failures,” writes Ed Goetz, a professor at the University of Minnesota, in his book New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice and Public Housing Policy

But as Maddie Garrett’s experience shows, and as Goetz details in his book, public housing had—and still has—a lot of potential. It’s just that seemingly no one—not politicians, not Congress, not home builders—wants it to succeed…

In some small cities, though, public housing has worked and continues to work. That includes Austin, the site of one of the first public-housing complexes in the nation, which still stands today. The Housing Authority of the City of Austin has been recognized as a “High Performer” by HUD for 15 years in a row, and, rather than depending on the federal government for help, it has embarked on a few entrepreneurial programs to raise money…

By and large, smaller agencies across the country have been more successful at providing good public housing for residents than giant city agencies have, Goetz says. The example of Austin and other cities such as Cambridge, Massachusetts; Portland, Oregon; and St. Paul, Minnesota; indicate that public housing didn’t have to fail. And perhaps with some tweaking—dividing big public-housing authorities into smaller, regional ones, or spending more money on housing for the poor in good neighborhoods—it doesn’t have to fail in the future, either.

Much of the article summarizes some of the history of American public housing which has had vociferous opponents throughout its existence. Given this opposition – involving charges of socialism, becoming intertwined with race, criticism of poor architectural choices, to corrupt management – maybe we should be surprised that there were any successes at all.

But, the finding that smaller agencies did better might provide insights into how to limit this opposition. The scale of public housing in these cities was likely smaller. The political stakes were probably lower. These smaller cities may not have had the same legacies of residential segregation. The local governments may have been able to maintain stronger control over the public housing instead of it being lost within the big city bureaucracy. Smaller cities have smaller media contingents that can’t quite bring the same negative attention to troubled public housing choices in the same way that big city media can.

Whether lessons from this can be productively used in the future remains to be seen. Public housing still doesn’t seem to have much of a chance in major cities.

Luxury apartments with Cabrini-Green heritage

A new luxury apartment building on the location of the Cabrini-Green public housing high rises appears ready to build on the site’s heritage:

A new luxury apartment tower at 625 W. Division Street is set to open this autumn, delivering 240 new rental units and 5,500 square feet of retail space to the former Cabrini-Green area. And instead of fighting the neighborhood’s name or trying to rebrand it as something else, developer Gerding Edlen is perfectly fine with describing the area as Cabrini-Green. In a press release, a Gerding Edlen rep states that they are very well aware of what is happening in the area and want to embrace the neighborhood’s past. “With Xavier, we had an opportunity to be part of the continued story of this neighborhood,” their Director of East Coast and Midwest Acquisitions Matt Edlen says, “We are particularly conscious of this neighborhood’s rich and long standing history, and feel the project will have positive long-term impacts on the area.” In embracing the area’s history, Gerding Edlen might help other developers come to terms with and accept the Cabrini-Green name and the neighborhood’s next chapter—which is looking to be dominated by high-end rental towers.

Designed by GREC Architecture, the 18-story tower dubbed Xavier is not unlike many other luxury towers being built throughout the greater downtown area. It’ll boast many upscale amenities such as a fitness center, both an indoor and outdoor dog run area, an outdoor terrace and pool deck and a rooftop lounge space. The LEED Gold-certified tower will also include some high tech offerings like electric car charging stations, and its units will feature finishes made some sustainable materials and Nest thermostats.

Presumably, the new building will be cast as part of the rebirth of the neighborhood. New residents can be part of something new. But, how exactly do the luxury apartments fit with the legacy of the public housing project (which could be remembered by different people for their crime, lack of maintenance, a land grab by the city) or even with the Little Sicily area that preceded the high rises? (Hence the name borrowing from Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants.) Who exactly gets to decide what the new neighborhood will be called – new developers, former residents, others? Location names aren’t just geographic; they have social connotations that often do not change quickly.

Those opposed to the teardown of the high rises might see this as another instance of whitewashing history by removing public housing residents from the public eye. In a few years, perhaps Cabrini-Green will simply mean another luxury apartment neighborhood outside of Chicago’s Loop.