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When social housing was paradise

An interesting look at the Chicago housing projects during the 1950-70s by Joy Connelly

The communities created by the Chicago Housing Authority were all, by current wisdom, destined to fail. The new-built estates were large and isolated – Regent Park-style low-rises punctuated with high-rise towers. They were overwhelmingly black communities, drawn from the tenements on Chicago’s South Side and migrants from the southern US. They were not mixed-income communities either. The CHA selected families – one third of them women-led — exclusively from the bottom third of the income scale.

An incubator for leadership

Yet Fuerst credits public housing for creating Chicago’s black middle class, providing an “incubator for leadership” for African Americans. Account after account describes the children of stockyard workers and unemployed widows who are now lawyers, teachers, business leaders, police officers and senior public officials.

What made Chicago Housing Authority a launching pad to success?  The tenants’ stories are filled with praise for the clean, well-managed buildings and grounds, where prizes were given for the best gardens. They spoke about housing managers who knew everyone’s name, encouraged local initiatives, and found jobs for teenagers. They spoke about the schools, churches, clubs, sports teams, and womens’ associations that were integral to the community’s strength.  And they talked about the community itself, where everyone would look out for local children, and did not hesitate to pick up the phone if they spotted trouble.

Paradise lost

Today, public housing in Chicago and elsewhere is seen as anything but paradise. What went wrong?

The answers offered by the CHA’s former residents and staff will induce squirms in Toronto’s right- and left-wing readers alike.  Here they are:

Abandoning tenant screening.

In CHA’s early days, preference was given to applicants with the lowest incomes in the worst housing conditions. But only those prepared to pay their rent, keep their homes clean, and supervise their children were accepted.

Once in the housing, the management strictly enforced standards, and so did other tenants. As one tenant recalled, “We kids cleaned those halls. And if somebody messed up our hall, we were quick to tell them, ‘Get that paper off that floor. Don’t you do that on my stairs, cause I got to clean it Saturday.’”

By the 1970s, federal rules forced CHA to give preference to the poorest of the poor, with no other screening. Today, tenants and former tenants quoted in the book say that “destructive and dangerous” tenants – anywhere from 10 – 30 per cent of tenants – need to be evicted to allow a return to healthy community life. Draconian as this move is, they argue it would be less disruptive than Chicago’s current practice of evicting all tenants to demolish entire buildings.

One Comment

  1. Bert Lang says:

    The projects are still incubators for leadership: its where gang leaders learn their trade. I think that with the rise of fundamentalist conservative politics and fiscal cutbacks the focus of public housing has changed from being a sincere effort to help the less fortunate to an effort to keep the forgotten ones out of sight and out of mind. But what our leaders fail to comprehend is the comparative cost of a few security guards (one per floor if necessary) to the cost of endless trials and incarceration.
    The idea that all the poor need is a pair of bootstraps with which to pull themselves up fails to address the historical, social and mental health issues that cause poverty.

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