Tuesday, July 29, 2008

HUD's Iraq

"HUD has ended up eliminating poverty in one place while creating distressed low-income communities in others."

Sudhir Venkatesh, To Fight Poverty, Tear Down HUD, New York Times, July 25, 2008.

"Chicago's grand experiment to transform public housing is lagging nearly a decade after Mayor Richard Daley's administration turned to private developers to shape the future of housing for the city's poor."

Jason Grotto, Laurie Cohen, and Sara Olkon, Public Housing Limbo, Chicago Tribune, July 7, 2008.

I remember a few years ago hearing several cutting-edge urban developers say in awestruck tones that Chicago's public housing transformation was "breathtaking." Finally, a mayor willing to take on the big one at scale, the worst of housing deterioration and concentrated poverty. Urban developers were back in the driver's seat.

I also remember lawsuits by public housing tenants and their supporters to stop the plan or at least slow it down. Ultimately, these protesters lost, as major Chicago foundations jumped into the fray and attempted to humanize the razing of public housing. Some good work has been done.

Does this all sound a bit like Iraq? Invasion without a plan. Failed implementation. Thousands of refugees. Valuable land instead of oil. A coalition of the willing. Demolition as victory.

Sounds like it's time for a surge. There's still time. And we should acknowledge that slowed project implementation does not necessarily mean ultimate failure. But let's acknowledge that poor families have once again taken the brunt of our social experimentation.

Oddly, several of Obama's key advisors and supporters as reported in Ryan Lizza's New Yorker piece, Making It: How Chicago Made Obama, are way deep in Chicago's public housing transformation experiment. I hope they are not advising on urban policy and how to fight poverty.

1 comment:

Bob Brehm said...

There's another parallel to the invasion of Iraq - the notion that by tearing down the high rise public housing the City would be "liberating" the residents from the poverty conditions. The media - in particular the Tribune which was a major landholder in some of the areas where development was thought to be blocked by the existence of the public housing - was complicit too. They ran series after series on the plight of these poor victims of failed "social engineering", enlisting as willing coalition members those liberal academics whose studies supported the notion that living in public housing was a key determinent in predicting a lifetime of poverty, ill health, poor education, and even incarceration for the boys.

So we did them all a favor by tearing down their homes, right? Sure, rebuilding is going slower than planned, but they're better off without homes than in those monstrosities, right?

During the decade or so before the rush to tear down public housing, I was working in what was to become a designated "historic" neighborhood. Those buildings were thought to be valuable to developers and urban pioneers, so there was no push for demolition to get the poor people out of the area. Public housing was thought to be unnatactive, even though many feel some of it represented architectural and planning successes. So it was easy to get rid of. But historic greystones were a different matter, calling for a different military analogy. Remember the "neutron bomb", where you wiped out the residents but spared the buildings and infrastructure? The thought was that strategically that would make rebuilding "easier" - and hence we'd see fewer delays in that timeline bugaboo.

There's another piece of the story which I didn't see in the Tribune article. Once upon a time there was a notion in the public sector that decent, affordable housing was a right. One reflection of that was the restriction on demolishing or selling public housing units without providing one-for-one replacement. During the Clinton presidency, at the urging of Cities like Chicago and their powerful Democratic representatives, HUD modified that rule. Without that change, the wholesale demolition of public housing could not have happened, since there was no way to finance the development of new affordable units for the displaced families. Instead our public dollars went to reducing the supply of affordable housing, and subsidizing private development.