Purging the Poorest: Public Housing and the Design Politics of Twice-Cleared Communities

Purging the Poorest: Public Housing and the Design Politics of Twice-Cleared Communities

by Lawrence J. Vale

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The building and management of public housing is often seen as a signal failure of American public policy, but this is a vastly oversimplified view. In Purging the Poorest, Lawrence J. Vale offers a new narrative of the seventy-five-year struggle to house the “deserving poor.”
In the 1930s, two iconic American cities, Atlanta and Chicago, demolished their slums and established some of this country’s first public housing. Six decades later, these same cities also led the way in clearing public housing itself. Vale’s groundbreaking history of these “twice-cleared” communities provides unprecedented detail about the development, decline, and redevelopment of two of America’s most famous housing projects: Chicago’s Cabrini-Green and Atlanta’s Techwood /Clark Howell Homes. Vale offers the novel concept of design politics to show how issues of architecture and urbanism are intimately bound up in thinking about policy. Drawing from extensive archival research and in-depth interviews, Vale recalibrates the larger cultural role of public housing, revalues the contributions of public housing residents, and reconsiders the role of design and designers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226012599
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/15/2013
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 19 MB
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About the Author

Lawrence J. Vale is the Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning at MIT. His many books include three prize-winning volumes: Architecture, Power, and National Identity; From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors;and Reclaiming Public Housing: A Half Century of Struggle in Three Public Neighborhoods.

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The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013The University of Chicago
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ISBN: 978-0-226-01231-5




The Cultural Roots of American Public Housing

The tempestuous subject of American public housing warrants more than a sober exercise in policy analysis. It is also far more than an occasion to muse on the power and limitations of architecture and planning, and more than the poster child for the shift from Keynesian welfare economics to neoliberal urbanism. Instead, analysis of the American experience with public housing offers a window into the priorities of a society and the workings of a polity. To probe public housing is to think through the basic structures and strictures of inequality in the United States. At base, public housing forces contentious discussions about the role and limits of the state in providing shelter to its poorest citizens.

This book explores how the struggle to house the poorest citizens has played out in parts of two emblematic American cities during the last seventy-five years. Atlanta and Chicago were pioneers in the creation of public housing during the 1930s and, seven decades later, they have also led the way in transforming or eliminating it. The approaches deployed in Atlanta and Chicago have not proceeded unchallenged. Controversial in their own cities, they are part of a larger national dialogue about how best to house extremely low-income households in equitable ways.

Although this is a book about public housing, the most stigmatized form of rental housing in the United States, it is also about homeownership and, more fundamentally, about what it means to control land. It is about purely residential communities, but it is also about Starbucks and Coca-Cola. It is about the displacements of slum clearance and urban renewal, but it is also about other powerful acts of sudden community evisceration—the burning of Atlanta and the Great Chicago Fire. It is about local politicians, developers, designers, and low-income residents, but it is also about Franklin Roosevelt, Scarface Al Capone, and Martin Luther King Jr. It is about unremarkable local events and countless community meetings, but it is also about the Olympic Games and the community-wrenching birth of the postindustrial American city.

The challenge of public housing is deeply rooted in every society. It is the challenge of how—and where—to house the least economically advantaged persons of that society. Americans call this "public housing" whereas many Europeans prefer the more inclusive term "social housing," but whatever it is called, the concept raises the question of who is responsible for this housing. When does it become the responsibility of the state? When should it be left up to the market? And when should it be the purview of civil society institutions? Moreover, since it is never just one of these groups acting alone, the lines of responsibility have never been clear.

In the United States, these struggles predate the founding of the country and go all the way back to the time of the seventeenth-century Puritans. These early Americans and their descendants viewed municipally supported housing as a kind of necessary coping mechanism, epitomized by places such as an "alms-house" or "house of industry." Here, the poor people whom I have termed "public neighbors" could be institutionalized if they lacked the economic resources, charitable benefactors, and family support networks to survive on their own in the city. Yet this tradition of housing assistance also had a more auspicious counterpart. By the nineteenth century, urban Americans sometimes viewed housing as a reward from the state for the upwardly mobile poor, most famously typified by the Homestead Act of 1862 or various forms of land pensions awarded to veterans.

Public housing inherited this dual impulse—drawing both from the housing-as-reward tradition and the housing-as-coping-mechanism one. At its core, city, state, and national officials have long treated housing assistance as a moral good, linking it to an overarching emphasis on the importance of hard work as evidence of strong personal character and responsibility. This housing-work nexus combines the power of the "house of industry" concept—the notion that the able-bodied indigent should be put to work to earn their keep—and the homesteading notion—the idea that land could be given on the condition of self-help toil to build a house on it in a timely manner. These earliest housing policies continue to resonate. It is not such a great leap from nineteenth-century homesteading to Habitat for Humanity (though the latter is not a government program). Similarly, there is ideological continuity between the nineteenth-century workhouse and the late twentieth-century introduction of a "community service" requirement for public housing recipients, often coupled with additional expectations for paid employment or participation in a "self-sufficiency" program as a condition of entry. The name of the nation's public housing reform legislation—the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998 (QHWRA)—spells out the connection explicitly.

Three Social Experiments: Reconceptualizing Public Housing History

To date, much of the history of public housing in the United States has followed a cyclical practice of displacement and neighborhood renewal, frequently directed at purging the poorest from the communities being redeveloped. Such a statement flies in the face of conventional accounts of public housing history. Most Americans think of public housing as a single, failed program (rather than as a succession of many programs, introduced with different rationales, but sharing the same name). Similarly, the usual understanding of public housing is as a program to consolidate the poorest households into federally subsidized ghettoes. Public housing, seen this way, is a concentrating of the poorest, rather than a purging of them. My argument here is that the "concentration of poverty" view of public housing, when seen as part of a broader historical sweep, is actually both a narrowly time-bound reading of planning history and an ideological anomaly. The phase of poverty concentration—widely viewed as a major policy mistake even as it was being implemented—is an interregnum between eras characterized by efforts to avoid providing federal public housing assistance to those among the marginalized poor judged least deserving, especially those who do not engage in paid work.

Most of the abundant literature on public housing falls into the category of "decline and fall" narratives, and thereby focuses on the challenges of housing the poorest. This misses the cultural power of the initial public housing impulse—centered on selectivity and moral judgment—as well as the ways that this moralist animus has been reconstituted in much of US housing policy since 1990.

These battles over the cultural place of public housing assistance resonate with arguments about the meanings of welfare reform and the so-called underclass made by Michael Katz and Herbert Gans. Urban historian Katz observes in The Undeserving Poor that "the redefinition of poverty as a moral condition accompanied the transition to capitalism and democracy in early nineteenth-century America." With poverty cast as evidence of personal failure in a land of opportunity, this justified a "mean-spirited treatment of the poor." In The War Against the Poor, urban sociologist Gans adds that Americans imported the terms "deserving poor" and "undeserving poor" from nineteenth-century England, and that these labels have persisted as a way to calibrate the perceived need for welfare largesse:

The ideology of undeservingness holds that if people were without the moral and other deficiencies that make them poor, there might be no poverty; and if the jobless were not lazy there would be virtually no unemployment. In both instances, the public monies now used to support the poor and the jobless could remain in private purses. That may be the greatest moral failing attributed to the undeserving poor.

In The Failed Welfare Revolution, sociologist Brian Steensland argues that these deeply rooted cultural practices—the "three-part distinction between the deserving, undeserving, and working poor"—served as "the basis of American social policy through the New Deal and postwar eras."

Many New Deal programs began as efforts to champion the deserving poor, including both Aid to Dependent Children ("welfare"), initially targeted to economically suffering widows, and Old Age Insurance ("social security"). Meanwhile, public housing grew from the parallel impulse to reward the working poor. It was not until the 1960s that policymakers gave greater attention to the possibility that poverty might often be the result of structural unemployment among those who faced persistent disadvantage due to age, racism, lack of education, geographical location, disability, or family circumstance. In that era, too, public housing policy followed the larger cultural practices of an expanding welfare state, and housing projects became increasingly available to poor people of all varieties.

Despite this, traditional American unease over eliding measures of neediness and evidence of worthiness continued apace. During the early 1970s, in a revealing anomaly, welfare policy reformers in the Nixon administration seriously considered a Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI) program that would have offered cash benefits to those earning below a certain minimum income per year. This program, significantly, made no distinction between inadequate income that resulted from low wages and income inadequacy that resulted from actual unemployment; it simply responded to need. Not surprisingly, even though many people of diverse political persuasions recognized the impossibility that good jobs at adequate wages could ever be available to all, the legislation failed. Steensland studied the debates over guaranteed minimum income closely and, tellingly, found that "the main obstacle to GAI legislation was the cultural distinction that Americans draw between different categories of poor people. Put most simply, Americans have long considered some types of people, based on their perceived adherence to the work ethic, to be more worthy of government assistance than others."

Instead of policies that conflated moral categories of poor people by providing benefits based on economic need alone, American legislators preferred to create new antipoverty programs that reinforced the old distinctions. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program (introduced in 1974) targeted a deserving poor cohort of the aged, blind and disabled and, Steensland argues, was "undertaken explicitly to protect them from the social stigma connoted by 'welfare.'" Similarly, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program (begun in 1975) provides tax relief strictly to those working poor in the labor force, thereby operating "in accord with existing cultural categories of worth." Arguments for or against welfare programs, however, fundamentally affect individuals and families, whereas the conceptual premise of public housing has also embraced the need to displace—and replace—entire communities.

Purging the poorest is not always an intentional community strategy, nor is it necessarily meant to be cruel. Instead, the most well-meaning of those promoting the social and spatial displacement of the least advantaged frequently rationalize it as something that will actually help the poorest by offering them new opportunities elsewhere. At the same time, they tacitly or explicitly acknowledge, it also helps the nonpoor and the remaining deserving poor to have the undeserving poor safely out of the way.

Ultimately, the equitability of the purge depends on whether those who depart their communities have done so out of something resembling a genuine choice. There are also, of course, entirely legitimate reasons for excluding some people from government subsidized housing, such as criminal behavior or other serious lease infractions. Poverty itself, however, should not be considered a crime.

Given the ways that poverty as a concept is culturally constructed, it is clear that measures of income are not sufficient to explain it. Nor do income categories enable a fine-grained definition of "the poorest" that could be consistently applied to all eras, from the Great Depression to the present. In part this ambiguity emerges because long-standing measures of the American "poverty threshold" remain flawed. The much-discredited measure developed in the early 1960s (based on three times the presumed cost of a minimum diet and updated in accordance with the consumer price index) failed to take account of changing patterns of family size and structure, including workforce participation by women and associated child-care costs; missed out on significant disparities in health-care costs, especially for the uninsured; neglected to count the effects of important government policy initiatives (which could either enhance or reduce disposable income); ignored cultural shifts that increased expectations for an acceptable standard of living; and disregarded regional cost-of-living variations, especially with regard to housing. Even after a National Research Council panel issued its Measuring Poverty report in 1995 and proposed "a new approach," and even after the Census Bureau provided another set of Supplemental Poverty Measures in 2011, the measurement of poverty has remained deeply contested.

The ongoing disputation over its measurement demonstrates again that poverty connotes far more than a deficit in material or economic well-being. Seen as a sociopolitical issue, the notion of "the poorest" becomes more of a cultural category than an economic one that can be captured by scarcity of income. Some of this is because there are other kinds of deficits that demarcate an impoverished life, including hunger, substandard housing, and lack of affordable health care. On top of those deficits, moreover, there are the psychic costs that come from being blamed for one's own poverty. In this context, income measures and poverty thresholds can only hint at the larger forces of moral judgment at work in the selection of potential beneficiaries in a system of housing assistance where assessments of neediness and assumptions about worthiness remain thoroughly conflated.

This book reconsiders the tortuous and tortured saga of public housing, viewing it as a kind of triple social experiment: (1) a twenty-five-year series of efforts to target public housing chiefly to the upwardly mobile working class between 1935 and 1960; (2) a thirty-year consolidation of the poorest into welfare housing between 1960 and 1990; and (3) a series of programs and policies since 1990 to return more of public housing to a less-poor constituency.

To be clear, I am using the term "social experiment" rather loosely here. The successive efforts to develop and alter low-income housing policy and community design have rarely been carried out in anything that resembles a structured, evaluative manner. There has been little formal testing of interventions on tenants or communities, and few policy shifts seem motivated by findings generated by researchers. Instead, public housing policymaking has proceeded and evolved in accordance with a much more informal sort of experimentation—expressed as the eagerness to try out something systematically. These public-sector experiments signal the revealed preferences of a society, and they remain subject to the shifting winds of national politics and broad trends in social cognition. As much as public housing proponents experimented with a variety of architectural forms and financial schemes, at the most basic level their experimentation concerned people: the history of public housing can be reframed as a series of highly combustible experiments to determine which of the poor it should serve.

The First Experiment: Public Housing for the Top of the "Bottom Third"

In the first experiment, conducted between the early 1930s and the late 1950s, local and federal officials, embracing the high modernist hopes of the mid-twentieth-century state, replaced slums and slum dwellers with carefully chosen communities of the upwardly mobile working class. Although liberally bathed in a rhetoric of uplift, the new public housing authorities actually invited very few slum dwellers to make the transition into the modern housing that had displaced them from their homes. Instead of a focus on uplifting individuals, the new projects instead sought to uplift whole neighborhoods. Housing policymakers substituted one entire community with another one duly cleansed of its predecessor's dilapidated buildings and problematic people.


Excerpted from PURGING THE POOREST by LAWRENCE J. VALE. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Public Housing, Design Politics, and Twice-Cleared Communities
2. Public Housing and Private Initiative: Developing Atlanta’s Techwood and Clark Howell Homes
3. Redeveloping Techwood and Clark Howell: The Purges of Progress
4. Up from Little Hell: Developing Chicago’s Frances Cabrini Homes
5. Urban Renewal and the Rise of Cabrini-Green
6. Staving Off Collapse: Mediated Violence and the Beginning of Cabrini’s End
7. Bringing the Gold Coast to the Slum: Cabrini-Green’s Redevelopment and the Litigation of Inclusion
8. Conclusion: Public Housing and the Margins of Empathy


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