(p. 21) Public housing in America was a New Deal innovation, intended not for the poor, but rather for working-class families, those who could afford to pay modest rent if the government provided them with the homes that private builders didn’t during the Depression. The Public Works Administration then built separate projects for white and black tenants.
. . .
With public housing racially isolated, other policies — some misguided but well intentioned, others indefensible — exacerbated the dysfunction. Austen notes that long waiting lists for relatively few units left poor applicants without other options for safe lodging. Compassionate officials addressed the predicament by lowering the income cutoff to qualify for public housing. The Chicago Housing Authority then made space for the poor by evicting working-class families for whom the projects were initially designed. The authority’s executive director told them, “Be proud to move out, so that a lower-income family can have the advantage that you have had.” Public housing’s opponents also demanded the evictions, insisting that those able to afford private accommodations should be barred from public support.
As Austen observes, the policy created a disincentive to marry, because a husband’s wages might render a family ineligible to remain in its home. The result was the segregation of projects by race and by income, concentrating fatherless young men who not only had little access to legitimate employment but lacked working-class role models who knew how to search for it. In the early 1950s, the median income of Chicago’s public housing residents was nearly two-thirds of the citywide average. By 1970, it was barely one-third.
Initially, Cabrini-Green hired residents as maintenance workers. But perversely, when income cutoffs were lowered, holding such jobs made tenants ineligible to remain. With residents themselves no longer responsible for maintenance, projects deteriorated. And with projects now filled with the politically powerless, and with revenue from rent payments falling, government slashed maintenance budgets and turned high rises into slums. In 1977, Cabrini-Green had 19 maintenance workers; two years later, there were six. Nearly half its units were unoccupied because of insufficient staff. Yet for most who remained in the projects, conditions were still superior to those in the overcrowded dwellings from which they had come.
. . .
In an otherwise nuanced book, Austen labels the social workers and officials who vowed to clear slums and house the poor as “do-gooders.” Implicit in his scorn is a hindsight appreciation that, for the poor to thrive, their communities must include working- and even middle-class families. The urbanist Jane Jacobs knew as much, but her “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” was published in 1961, after evictions of working-class public housing residents were already well underway. Until the sociologist William Julius Wilson published “The Truly Disadvantaged,” in 1987, few comprehended the terrible consequences of cleansing urban neighborhoods of the stably employed. In 2018, Ben Austen has illustrated these repercussions; we can now better consider remedies by contemplating the lessons “High-Risers” offers.
For the full review, see:
Richard Rothstein. “Bleak Housing.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, April 15, 2018): 21.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 13, 2018, and has the title “A New Look at the New Deal’s Legacy of Public Housing.”)
The book under review, is:
Austen, Ben. High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing. New York: Harper, 2018.