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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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Editor's note: This column appeared in a similar form on the Capital Fax blog.

Once upon a time, Chicago's enormous public housing complexes were cited as symbols of everything that was wrong with so-called Great Society liberalism. Crippled by high crime rates, rife with gang warfare and unemployment, public housing as implemented in the '60s and '70s had clearly failed by the 1990s. But there wasn't political will for real solutions to the problem. And what alderman was willing to swallow the political poison of "mixed income housing, evenly distributed"?

The more cynical observers pointed out that the huge, high-density complexes like the Robert Taylor homes, Cabrini-Green/Marshall Field Gardens, Altgeld Gardens and the rest were too useful as "vote banks" for bossist politicians to ever break them up for a more humane and practical system of public housing. And the public housing residents, aware of their potential political power, were reasonably well organized as a voting bloc, paradoxically giving the political establishment another incentive to leave public housing as it was.

The federally pushed Plan for Transformation, of course, changed those calculi. Status quo no longer being an option, the great decentralization began.

Now, the Chicago Reporter tells us, those once politically active public housing members are dropping out of the political system. Given that there is a generally recognized need for public housing (and, in any case, it is a reality), this can be a cause for alarm: whenever political bosses make decisions for a constituency, rather than with them, you'll probably end up with something deformed.

How are public housing residents falling out of the political system? Let the Reporter tell you:

[N]early eight years after the Chicago Housing Authority embarked upon its $1.6 billion "Plan for Transformation," public housing's political base has been all but erased, according to a Reporter analysis of voter registration at nearly two dozen CHA family developments.

In November 2000, there were more than 22,000 people registered to vote in the developments analyzed by the Reporter. By September 2007, less than 37 percent — about 7,800 — were still registered to vote in Cook County, compared with 57 percent of voters citywide, according to the Reporter's analysis.

So, is breaking up the "vote banks" a good thing or a bad thing? Clearly, the Reporter story raises a good point: "public housing" has a constituency who, if not politically empowered, are highly at risk for abuse or exploitation. And yet, we surely cannot view the breaking up these de facto ghettos as bad because (somewhat) powerful voting blocs were eliminated. Particularly when you consider that decentralization of public housing appears to be the most reasonable solution to the ghettoization of public housing residents.

The problem the Reporter is pointing out seems to be that residents are not re-registering to vote when they move somewhere else (if they were able to find housing elsewhere at all). But even if they had remained registered to vote, their semi-random dispersal across wards would have the same impact: lack of centralization in one political administrative unit (ward, in this case) would have erased their ability to influence politicians generally, and to cultivate legislative "champions" in particular.

The failure in this instance seems to be that the CHA's service providers have not done a good job of following up and making sure people are registered to vote when they move; but beyond registering people, the CHA cannot (and should not) take a role in politicizing residents. That is the work of organizers. But no matter how well organized they become, it is a fact that without physical centers, public housing residents can never hope to recapture whatever political power as a voting bloc they once had.

The Plan for Transformation, like Renaissance 2010, presents a challenge for the Left, because of the disconnect between the principles and their application. Public affordable housing is a key element in allowing for the resurgence of a self-sufficient working class. Spreading public housing across different communities to normalize access to city services and other resources (like education) is certainly good. But the problems have arisen out of the implementation of this general idea. Transition services have flopped; building of new publicly owned units has been far outpaced by their destruction. Conditions for returning to public housing have been overly restrictive and have simply pushed people into vile tenement housing, often in neighborhoods similar to the ones they just left. One study found that the vast majority of public housing residents are ending up in neighborhoods just as segregated as the one they left.

Decentralization, in other words, has turned into decimation, and the unraveling of a once-significant political bloc will only turn decimation into obliteration.

But who wants to be the one to advocate for a policy of re-ghettoization? We may accept that public housing is good policy, and the Left does accept this, but if those who benefit directly from it are unable (or unwilling) to effectively defend it as a policy and an institution, how long does it have before it is also shredded by the thousand cuts of privatization?

Which is really to ask, how long before another affordable housing crisis rocks the city and seriously disrupts its race and class relations?

From the Reporter story:

"The influence of poor people has already diminished significantly compared with the '60s and ... the interests of the middle class are much more catered to," Fischer said. "The Plan for Transformation, with the elimination of these concentrated voters, probably made the situation even more that way."

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Josh / January 23, 2008 9:29 AM

Public housing has been 'shredded' by devolution and privitization since the Reagan era. I think the story of public housing's change is seen better through a lens of classism and racism rather than purely politics. Chicago has experienced a net loss of 14,000 units of public housing as part of the Plan for Transformation since many were vacant (often because of lack of maintenance) at the beginning of the plan and are not required to be rebuilt.

Also, I would say that we are still in a crisis point for affordable housing. The subprime lending/foreclosure epidemic is the latest evidence.

So when was the last time the public housing voting block swung an election with it's power? Harold Washington? Sure, it was a dense, grouping potential voters, but like any base it needs to be organized to wield power. And if the residents actually were organized well, they probably would have fought the Plan better and not been screwed over like they have been.

ricardo / February 4, 2008 8:36 AM

the interview shown on QandA ,i can assure you was short sided and full of holes. if you want the real truth contact me i am a former resident from an error concerning robert taylor homes that appears to be totally deleted. that indian book writer is a liar and lacks the knowledge to tell our story if you want a real story call me 773-874-0572...he needs to do a report on his own ancestry and not try to capitolize on the traumatic end to a forgotten people contact me soon....Real Resident


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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