Broken Promises: A Story of Public Housing's Decline

The stories about violent crimes were legendary. Yes, Cabrini-Green had gangs and drugs. But also, it had a community: neighbors who knew and cared for each other; extended families that looked after the kids. This explains why former residents can have such contradictory feelings when they share their stories. It also underscores why plans to ‘fix’ housing projects should have included the knowledge and experiences of residents.

In this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, Ben Austen reflects on the demolition of Cabrini-Green’s last tower, which came down a year ago (see The Last Tower: The Decline and Fall of Public Housing). Austen used the occasion to start talking with displaced and former residents as well as housing activists, city officials and planners. As he pieces together these stories into a narrative, Austen reflects on the history of public housing in this country, and how we went from a social contract where housing is a fundamental right to the raiding of public facilities and lands for private gain. The decline of Cabrini-Green tracks the decline in our nation’s resolve to provide decent affordable housing for poor and working class families. The dominant narrative of crime-ridden high rises tends to blame the residents, leaving out the impact of official neglect and the role that racial segregation played in creating pockets of high-rises, and in stigmatizing public housing residents.

Austen's storytelling touches on the willful neglect that escalated the decline of public housing facilities in every city. Underfunded and poorly maintained almost from the start, ‘tower and garden’ projects like Cabrini-Green were set up for failure. By the early 1990s, willfull neglect had resulted in physical decline. In the name of cleaning up the blight and crime, Washington promoted, and cities embraced, demolition. Washington awarded cities for demolishing towers, with the idea that they would replace them with low-density mixed income developments. Once demolition was accepted as a solution, cities had more incentives to raze than to renovate. Many areas were left to deteriorate further, so that, a few years down the road, there would seem to be no alternatives to demolition. Vacant units were left for squatters, gangs and dealers. Mold and vermin from those units spread into resident's homes.

The story of Cabrini-Green's demolition uncovers a string of broken promises. At first, they said there would be one-to-one replacements. They offered residents vouchers to rent apartments on the private market, while also allowing more landlords to opt out of Section 8 (meaning there would never be enough private rentals available). They  hyped the benefits of mixed income developments where subsidized residents would live side-by-side with residents paying full-market rates. They failed to mention that such developments would have built-in incentives to slowly push out the subsidized residents.

Was this the only way to ‘clean up’ Cabrini-Green? To save it by destroying it? The article mentions a preservation success story in Chicago’s Chinatown, where a project of seven-story buildings was renovated without displacing any residents. By making some structural improvements, including greening the spaces and opening up the designs to give residents more light and better views, this low-cost renovation positively changed both how the residents and the surrounding community saw the housing project. A similar plan was developed for parts of Cabrini-Green, but Washington insisted on wholesale demolition.

Without focusing on race directly, this story speaks volumes about the role race has played throughout the history of public housing, including where it has been located, why so much of it has been concentrated into high rises, why it started to be neglected in the mid 1950s and how residents have been stigmatized to the point where people needing housing assistance are no longer seen as being ‘deserving’ of decent housing at all.

Which brings us to the official attempt to replace concentrated high rises with lower-density mixed income developments. Race and the stigmatization of low income families distorts the experiment. There are 2 sets of rules -- restrictive and punitive for those whose housing is subsidized, so that they feel they are living in a hotel instead of a home, and open and fluid for market-rate residents who control the residents associations. Cultural insensitivity and social isolation, combined with punitive policies seem almost designed to drive out low income and poor residents, so that more units convert to full-market.

One year after the last tower came down, fewer than 400 former Cabrini-Green residents live in mixed income developments. Even former residents who had unimaginably horrible experiences at Cabrini-Green have concluded that, for local and federal officials, ‘fighting crime’ was an excuse for a land grab.

To be fair, as Austen's conversations with several local officials illustrate, many of those involved were committed to the original goal of getting all residents into good quality, low-density housing, which they believed would give residents a better quality of life. They could not have seen that, down the road, the combined forces of federal neglect and a housing market collapse would undermine their ability to rehouse residents displaced by demolition. Or that the hype around how bad Cabrini-Green was -- and the stigmatization of residents that went along with it-- had contributed to the steady erosion of our public commitment to provide housing for all. As one former official wryly noted, “In America, housing is not a fundamental right.” This is the kind of despair that rises up from the dust of the last tower.