High-Rise Hellholes

In the category of good intentions gone awry, it is hard to beat the American
public housing program.

Public housing was born in the 1930s when liberal pressure groups helped start
a quintessential New Deal program that was intended not just to help the poor but
to put the construction industry back to work. After a couple of decades of
fairly smooth sailing, however, delinquency and social problems began to appear
among residents in the housing projects. By the 1980s, conditions had gone from
bad to worse, and public housing had become synonymous with the social
pathologies of the underclass.

Today public housing faces an uncertain future, and it behooves us to try to
understand what went wrong. Two recent books from Harvard University Press are
vital to the task. American Project by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh is a history
of Chicago's notorious Robert Taylor Homes; From the Puritans to the
Projects
by Lawrence J. Vale is the saga of public housing in the city of
Boston. These works describe how this once promising program fell so low and
offer cautionary lessons for progressives who want to devise successful social
policies.

When it opened in November 1962, Robert Taylor Homes was the world's largest
public housing project. The complex extended more than two miles along State
Street on Chicago's South Side and comprised 28 buildings, 16 stories each,
containing almost 4,300 apartments in all. By 1965 it was home to 27,000 souls,
20,000 of them children and young people, and it already had gained a local
reputation as a dangerous and forbidding place. Twenty years later, Robert Taylor
Homes, along with another Chicago high-rise project, Cabrini-Green, had become a
national symbol of urban squalor.

In American Project, Venkatesh probes beyond the headlines about Robert
Taylor Homes--the shootings, murders, accidental deaths, and police sweeps--and
shows us how its residents used whatever resources were at hand to adjust to
adverse circumstances. The brilliance of the author's approach is that he listens
sympathetically to the people who lived and worked in this massive public housing
development, yet he remains scrupulously objective.

In the beginning, officials in the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), as well as
the tenants, had high hopes that Robert Taylor Homes would succeed. Soon,
however, the CHA staff was overwhelmed by the challenge of maintaining an
enormous but poorly planned physical plant. The elevators, for example, broke
down constantly. When the elevators stopped between floors, passengers were
forced to climb out, and once a child fell down the elevator shaft. In another
incident, three children died when a broken elevator prevented firemen from
reaching the 14th floor in time.

Changes in the tenant population, Venkatesh shows, contributed to the
deterioration of life at the project. Early on, about half the households
received some form of assistance; but two-thirds of the households were
two-parent families, and CHA staff and tenants worked together to screen
prospective tenants. By 1970 the admission committees no longer met, and the CHA
was accepting more of the unemployed and more female-headed families. Up to 70
percent of the tenants were on welfare, and half of the school-age youth had
dropped out. Men lived at Robert Taylor Homes, but usually surreptitiously to
avoid welfare and CHA officials.

Even though they were poor, tenants showed an entrepreneurial spirit. Some ran
small businesses such as food preparation, car repairs, and hair dressing. Others
sold drugs or operated an apartment bordello. Almost all transactions were
illicit, run under-the-counter to avoid the income penalties imposed by the
housing authority and the welfare office.

In the face of an uncooperative police force and a generally indifferent CHA
bureaucracy, Robert Taylor residents developed a system based on payoffs to
organize life in the projects. In each of the buildings, tenant leaders were
elected or appointed. Acting like old-time political bosses, the leaders used
personal contacts to provide services to tenants. They might be called on to get
the CHA to fix broken plumbing, to bring in the police to investigate a
burglary, or, more often, to send men to administer justice to wrongdoers such as
wife beaters. Using their standing with the CHA as a threat, the tenant leaders
regulated the business enterprises, including restricting drug dealing and
prostitution to particular times and places. To compensate for their services,
the tenant leaders took payments--in kind, when cash was in short supply--from
the project's entrepreneurs and even CHA managers. The system was not, by
middle-class standards, pretty. But in a fashion, it worked.

Things fell apart, however, when elder gang leaders decided to turn the youth
gangs--which previously had mainly attacked one another--into drug-dealing
operations. The gangs commandeered lobbies, stairwells, and apartments,
intimidating all whom they encountered. Rival gangs clashed over market shares,
and shoot-outs and casualties became common. Noncombatant residents were afraid
to leave their apartments. Not content to deal drugs, gang members took over the
tenant leaders' payoff system, beating up entrepreneurs who did not cough up
extra "taxes."

The city police and housing authority made matters worse by refusing to enter
Robert Taylor Homes except to conduct massive raids of buildings and grounds. The
sweeps were largely ineffectual, since the gangs, which maintained constant
surveillance, were tipped off beforehand. Tenants grew angry that their
apartments were searched and innocent bystanders arrested but no one would make
needed repairs to the homes.

Robert Taylor Homes careened toward destruction. Isolated by the authorities
and powerless to fight the gangs, the tenant leaders could only watch with
disgust and frustration. Residents deserted the premises, and the CHA moved
sluggishly to fill vacancies. Only the most desperate--young, destitute single
mothers--took apartments. By 1992 only 12,300 people lived in Robert Taylor Homes
legally, and of these an incredible 95 percent were unemployed and dependent on
welfare. The city authorities gave up. When Congress appropriated billions for
demolition of public housing, Chicago signed up to raze Robert Taylor Homes and
its other high-rise housing projects.

Lawrence Vale's study From the Puritans to the Projects reveals that the
decline of public housing was well under way by the time housing projects like
Robert Taylor Homes were built. In his history of housing and poverty in Boston,
Vale shows that the public housing program was intended to be something quite
different from what it became.

Most important, public housing originally was not meant for the very poor. The
Boston Housing Authority (BHA) set stringent standards for admission to Boston's
first public housing project, Old Harbor Village, a handsome apartment and row
house complex that the federal government built under an experimental program in
1938. Tenants were to have permanent employment. Not even those holding jobs with
the Works Progress Administration were allowed to live in the housing project,
and welfare recipients were discouraged from applying. As a result, the residents
of Old Harbor Village were on average better educated, more frequently employed,
and able to pay higher rents than their neighbors in predominantly Irish,
working-class South Boston. The BHA built its own housing projects in the late
1930s and early 1940s and again chose tenants from the high end of the low-income
category. The residents of Boston's early public housing were, in Vale's words,
"barely poor."

There were reasons for public housing authorities to be selective. As the
program was constituted, the federal government helped pay to acquire land and
build the projects, but rents were supposed to defray the costs of maintaining
and managing the properties. Housing agencies therefore needed solvent tenants.
Furthermore, the founders of the public housing movement, such as Edith Elmer
Wood and Catherine Bauer, wanted to exclude "problem families"--alcoholics, drug
addicts, criminals, the hopelessly indigent--until the program was solidly
established. They knew that such families were unstable and difficult to help,
and that their presence would stigmatize public housing. Early public housing
agencies in Chicago, Boston, and elsewhere prohibited the entry of all but a few
problem families.

Economic conditions, Vale points out, enabled public housing officials to cull
the most stable and best-paid low-income tenants. During the Depression,
middle-class workers were submerged in the low-income category. (This was
especially true of African Americans.) In addition, inexpensive housing was in
short supply and great demand. With more than 10,000 applicants for Old Harbor
Village's 1,016 dwellings, the Boston Housing Authority's acceptance rate was
lower than that of Harvard College. Public housing officials in Boston and other
American cities were able to admit skilled and clerical workers and even a few
professionals.

Not surprisingly, tenants in these years were model citizens who organized
themselves into a wide array of volunteer organizations and took pride in
maintaining clean and attractive buildings and grounds in the projects. The chief
problem was that aspiring tenants tended to prosper, earning more than the rules
allowed and forcing reluctant officials to evict them.

The numbers of such tenants increased during and immediately after World War
II, when the government required housing authorities to accommodate defense
workers and veterans. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, tight housing markets,
created by the return of the GIs, made public housing a bargain and preserved the
ability of housing authorities to be selective in their admissions. As a result,
Vale observes, tenants in these years were typically two-parent, one-earner
families. In these conditions, public housing worked.

Then came the long decline. Vale charts the descent in Boston. In 1955 a
series of articles in the Christian Science Monitor announced that Boston's
public housing was recently afflicted with vandalism, delinquency, murder, and
assaults on children. The projects were home to a "new kind of tenant," the
reporters explained: Welfare families made up an average of 13 percent of public
housing households, and the proportion of broken families in some projects was as
high as 30 percent.

Five years later, a settlement house report regretted the loss of upwardly
mobile families and "residents who have assumed leadership responsibilities." By
1960, well before the large expansion of welfare payments, almost half of the
households in Boston's public housing projects received income from programs such
as the Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Old Age Assistance. Elizabeth
Wood, the nationally known former director of the Chicago Housing Authority,
criticized Boston's public housing officials for not doing enough to combat the
impression of public housing as an institution for people "who can't take care of
themselves."

Across the nation, liberals grew disillusioned. In her 1957 article "The
Dreary Deadlock of Public Housing," Catherine Bauer criticized the program she
had helped create. "Once upon a time," another supporter of public housing was
quoted as saying, "we thought that if we could only get our problem families out
of those dreadful slums, then papa would stop taking dope, mama would stop
chasing around, and Junior would stop carrying a knife. Well, we've got them in a
nice new apartment and modern kitchens and a recreation center. And they're the
same bunch of bastards they always were." Beating a fast retreat, Washington
policy makers began to emphasize public housing for the elderly.

Over the next 40 years, it only got worse. As liberals in Congress and federal
officials attempted to assist the poor, their efforts undermined the housing
system further. They loosened restrictions for admission to public housing. In
1968 Congress passed an amendment, named after Senator Edward Brooke of
Massachusetts, that required housing authorities to charge no more than 25 (later
raised to 30) percent of a household's income. This protected the very-low-income
people from being replaced but at the same time further lowered the rental
revenues. As housing authorities teetered on the brink of insolvency, Congress
was forced to provide operating subsidies. The indifference and incompetence of
the ossifying local and federal housing bureaucracies only accelerated the
downward spiral.

By the 1970s, public housing was recognized as a disaster. The high-rise
projects were the most notorious (although they were not the only public housing
developments to be plagued by crime, vandalism, and deterioration). The
Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis was the first to gain national notoriety,
especially after government officials, with much fanfare, blew it up.

Documenting the ways family public housing hasn't worked is easier than
understanding the cause of its many afflictions. Some writers--notably Oscar
Newman, in his 1972 book Defensible Space--blame the design of the
buildings for the demise of public housing. True, some projects were poorly
designed for family living and security. The site of Robert Taylor Homes, near
railroad tracks and expressways, was a terrible place to put children. Yet, as
Venkatesh makes clear, Robert Taylor in its early years functioned pretty much as
it was intended. And housing professionals have long noted that in New York City,
where demand for apartments is high, the public housing authority has been able
to keep employed tenants and maintain the public housing stock.

Critics often blame racism for public housing's troubles. Vale, for example,
shows that African Americans suffered discrimination and unfair treatment in
Boston's public housing, and others have demonstrated similar injustices in other
cities. After examining the CHA's records, however, Venkatesh concluded that
Chicago's legendary racial problems did not bring about the downfall of Robert
Taylor Homes. Even in Boston, Vale's evidence reveals, the number of welfare
families in public housing first rose during the 1950s when the overwhelming
proportion of the households was white. Twenty years later, some of the housing
projects in black neighborhoods were perhaps more dangerous and miserable than
those in white neighborhoods, but not by much. Whites still occupied South
Boston's Old Colony development during the 1970s and 1980s, but the project's
alcoholism, drugs, murderous gangsters, and female-headed households--vividly
depicted in Michael Patrick MacDonald's memoir All Souls--put it on a par
with the worst black-occupied public housing.

The works under review here make clear that public housing declined primarily
because authorities lowered their standards for admission to the projects. The
officials did so not because they wanted to, but because they no longer had the
luxury of picking and choosing among low-income families. As housing authorities
were forced to rent to people who considered public housing a last resort,
functioning apartment complexes were transformed into slums with which city
agencies were unprepared and unwilling to cope.

The underlying reason that public housing lost its original clientele--which
neither of these two books explores--was the geographic and social mobility of
the urban working and middle classes. Beginning in the 1950s, a boom in suburban
living drew working and middle-class whites out of the old neighborhoods and gave
the growing number of African Americans a much wider choice of places to live. By
the 1970s, upwardly mobile middle- and working-class blacks also abandoned the
inner city in droves, leaving behind those whom William Julius Wilson calls "the
truly disadvantaged." Public housing became the domain of those who, for one
reason or another, were unable to escape.

What lessons can we draw?

The federal government has for most of the last decade been carrying out a
$3-billion program (Hope VI) for demolishing the most troubled public housing
projects and reconstructing them as mixed-income developments. New laws have
raised the income limits for tenants in public housing projects and have allowed
housing authorities to bar drug users, alcoholics, and criminals. Lawrence Vale
believes that the rebuilding program will not be enough and that rental vouchers
eventually will replace public housing as the chief low-income housing program.

Most observers have finally recognized that low-income housing developments
must, like any community, contain working people to remain stable. This is one
of the chief lessons Venkatesh derives from the story of Robert Taylor Homes.
Without working people, public housing projects become either vast human-service
institutions (such as homes for unwed mothers) or, as in the case of Robert
Taylor Homes, high-rise hellholes where only the strong and the lucky survive.
Politically, the former is too expensive, and the latter is unacceptable.

Which brings us back to what the founders of the public housing program
understood. Whether in public housing, welfare reform, or education, the hard
cases in the business of social uplift require funds, commitment, and a realistic
assessment of the difficulties they entail. It is a truth too often overlooked.

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