July 6th, 2008

blue mime

A little bit older, a little bit wiser?

I'm turning 32 in 35 minutes.

Celebration will begin Wednesday evening at the A's versus Mariners game and continue afterward with karaoke at Julie's Supper Club on Folsom Street between 7th and 8th. (heliocide is tending bar.)

In the mean time, here are a couple of articles about the deterioration and destruction of public housing in two American cities, Memphis and Chicago. Both are interesting but flawed in a few ways.

The first (sent to me by heliocide and whittles) centers on the explosion of crime in cities where projects have been torn down and their residents sent off with housing vouchers to other parts of their cities. It takes three pages for the author to address rootshock and even then the real motivation for tearing down public housing (dollar signs in the eyes of mayors and other politicians who dream of attracting well-off people back to urban centers) is barely addressed in lieu of some misguided, paternalistic attempt to break the cycle of poverty without addressing the real causes--which aren't the projects. They are but a symptom.

American Murder Mystery: Why is crime rising in so many American cities? The answer implicates one of the most celebrated antipoverty programs of recent decades.
If replacing housing projects with vouchers had achieved its main goal—infusing the poor with middle-class habits—then higher crime rates might be a price worth paying. But today, social scientists looking back on the whole grand experiment are apt to use words like baffling and disappointing. A large federal-government study conducted over the past decade—a follow-up to the highly positive, highly publicized Gautreaux study of 1991—produced results that were “puzzling,” said Susan Popkin of the Urban Institute. In this study, volunteers were also moved into low-poverty neighborhoods, although they didn’t move nearly as far as the Gautreaux families. Women reported lower levels of obesity and depression. But they were no more likely to find jobs. The schools were not much better, and children were no more likely to stay in them. Girls were less likely to engage in risky behaviors, and they reported feeling more secure in their new neighborhoods. But boys were as likely to do drugs and act out, and more likely to get arrested for property crimes. The best Popkin can say is: “It has not lived up to its promise. It has not lifted people out of poverty, it has not made them self-sufficient, and it has left a lot of people behind.”


Not every project was like Cabrini-Green. Dixie Homes was a complex of two- and three-story brick buildings on grassy plots. It was, by all accounts, claustrophobic, sometimes badly maintained, and occasionally violent. But to its residents, it was, above all, a community. Every former resident I spoke to mentioned one thing: the annual Easter-egg hunt. Demonizing the high-rises has blinded some city officials to what was good and necessary about the projects, and what they ultimately have to find a way to replace: the sense of belonging, the informal economy, the easy access to social services. And for better or worse, the fact that the police had the address.
The second (from antietam) goes after Barack Obama's record on public housing. My main issue here is that he's being singled out for doing what all of our mayors (and state legislators and HUD) have been doing for decades and continue to do now: 1) tear down low-income public housing and replace it with "mixed-income" housing that the vast majority of those who live in the projects cannot afford and 2) allow public housing to deteriorate by privatizing the building, management, and maintenance of public housing. While I have no problem with calling Obama to account for his complicity in what is happening in Chicago, I feel like The Globe is missing an opportunity to cover the broader issue--New York City stopped funding its own housing authority in 2003, and the majority of maintenance workers have been laid off. The buildings are being allowed to rot in an effort to get their tenants out. It was Guilliani who said that if you can't afford to pay New York taxes, you should leave the city. He surely felt the same way about New York rents.

Grim proving ground for Obama's housing policy: The candidate endorsed subsidies for private entrepreneurs to build low-income units. But, while he garnered support from developers, many projects in his former district have fallen into disrepair.
Chicago's plans drew critics from the start. They asked why the government should pay developers to perform a basic public service - one successfully performed by governments in other cities. And they noted that privately managed projects had a history of deteriorating because guaranteed government rent subsidies left companies with little incentive to spend money on maintenance.

Most of all, they alleged that Chicago was interested primarily in redeveloping projects close to the Loop, the downtown area that was seeing a surge of private development activity, shunting poor families to neighborhoods farther from the city center. Only about one in three residents was able to return to the redeveloped projects.

"They are rapidly displacing poor people, and these companies are profiting from this displacement," said Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle of Southside Together Organizing for Power, a community group that seeks to help tenants stay in the same neighborhoods.

"The same exact people who ran these places into the ground," the private companies paid to build and manage the city's affordable housing, "now are profiting by redeveloping them."

Barack Obama was among the many Chicago residents who shared Daley's conviction that private companies would make better landlords than the Chicago Housing Authority.