Monday, February 4, 2008

Venkatesh and Kotlowitz on the decentralization of public housing

As part of their Slate dialogue (previously posted on), journalist Alex Kotlowitz and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, both of whom have spent decades doing research in Chicago projects, consider the broad implications of public housing demolition across the country. (Think of the scene early in the third season of The Wire, when Bodie and Poot watch as the politicos set dynamite to their geographic hub.)

First some background, from Venkatesh:
It is interesting to note how this movement to demolish distressed public housing began. The objective was to replace concentrated, highly segregated inner-city poverty with "mixed-income" housing in which the black poor would live with the nonblack middle class. Sounds noble enough. The problem was that there was no social science evidence that this kind of mixing was possible or even preferable. Hundreds of millions of dollars were given by HUD to mayors, with minimal oversight. All this rested on the hope that the poor would either live in newly designed mixed-income neighborhoods—or use vouchers to live among the middle class...

This massive federal initiative to alleviate poverty was done with the best of intentions: namely, to create vibrant, economically diverse neighborhoods. And nearly every tenant I ever met agreed that the conditions of the projects needed to be changed. But, in the end, the pace of demolition and relocation was too quick, there were few watchdogs looking to see that government monies were spent effectively, and the stories were never sexy enough to sustain the attention of academics and journalists. So, not surprisingly, we now hear calls of "land grabs" on the part of developers and of mayors wanting to get rid of the poor.

Now that the urban poor are out of sight, Kotlowitz wonders if they're out of mind.
The demolition of public housing will change the landscape of our cities and the lives of the poor for decades to come. I fear that Chicago and other cities will come to resemble the cities of Western Europe, where the poor—in Europe's case, mostly new immigrants—ring the city like a wreath. Truly out of sight, out of mind. What are the implications for cities? For addressing poverty? For American politics? What has happened to J.T., Ms. Bailey, and the others in your book now that their community has been leveled? I drive by that 2-mile stretch of what used to be the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens, and it takes my breath away. It's all urban prairie, a stretch of vacant land awaiting the new homes to be built. Some 50 years ago, as the city's public-housing high-rises were being constructed, a local journalist suggested, in a moment of naive hope, that squalor is going out of fashion. I fear that people drive by that 2-mile stretch of now-empty land and think the same thing.

Decentralizing poverty, Venkatesh argues, dissipates anti-poverty work:
It's hard to imagine that a family could be worse off than in the projects! But, in fact, as the poor migrate outward, they find communities that simply don't have the services to cope with the influx of needy households: There are not enough settlement houses and faith-based organizations providing food and clothing; there is minimal affordable housing; landlords tend not to have much experience with the travails of poor people; and schools can't provide remedial education or day care. Public housing was more than simply shelter for most families. It was a place in which a number of supportive services for the poor congealed. Policymakers have simply hoped that the private market would provide a similar safety net and, to date, it hasn't occurred. Look around Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, and Miami and you see a real mess.

This is the urban fringe, and as Venkatesh notes, it produces some remarkable stories: "Some of it is truly inspiring: Dorothy Battie helps a network of a dozen families stay together by reinforcing the kind of sharing they used to experience in the projects: They trade day care for free food, one family cooks while the other does the laundry… and these families may be traveling several miles to do this, where once they lived on separate floors. Even the squatters have come together by staying in touch with one another and helping one another deal with homelessness."

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