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The History of Public Housing in the US
[And why it isn’t being saved] 
     

Andrew Webb

HIPR 701: Introduction to Historic Preservation Professor Thomas Taylor November 14, 2011

 

 

 

 

The American Dream The unwritten rule in historic preservation is, if it’s fifty years or older, it’s historic. So why is it that when lowincome housing is deemed unsuccessful, even though some projects date from the mid-century or older, the solution is to demolish everything and start over? How come with dilapidated housing projects the solution for renewal is to tear down rather than follow “the R’s” of preservation and restore or rehabilitate housing projects? Do we strive to be hypocritical? America is clearly in need of low-income housing. The hundreds of thousands of homeless people wandering the streets is evidence of that. And in today’s society, where sustainability is on an evolutionary fast track from idea to trend to law, do we truly have the freedom, or the right, to be selective in what we preserve – especially when what we

preserve, or restore or rehabilitate can benefit the masses? The main goal of preservation is simple, as quoted from the National Trust for Historic Preservation website, “When historic buildings and neighborhoods are torn down or allowed to deteriorate, a part of our past disappears forever… we lose history that helps us know who we are…”1 Historic housing projects should be preserved with the same intentions as any
                                                             
1

 About – The National Trust for Historic Preservation, http://www.preservationnation.org/about‐us/ 

 

 

other historic structure needing salvation. They have a past. They are part of the American history. They are integral to helping low-income families live better lives. People are so apt to destroy low-income housing units because there is a disconnection in judging what structures are worthy, or reputable, of preserving. Buildings have identities; labels earned from appearances, inhabitants and the activities that occur within them. People have a hard time seeing past labels. We’re taught that low-income housing projects are slums; places of violence, drugs and poverty; blemishes of American living.2 And while some housing projects are in fact places of poverty, drugs and violence, they are also people’s homes. Perhaps instead of imparting the act of demolition to “improve” crime prone, historic housing projects, efforts should be refocused to rehabilitate the social stigma associated with public housing; better building management and more intensive educational, awareness and good behavior incentive programs are ways to improve current project conditions. Some of us grow up in suburban tract homes, others in urban townhouses or apartments; similarly, a portion of the American population is born into, grows up in, or starts their
                                                             
2

 Sudhir Venkatesh, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,  2000) pg. 73 

 

 

own families in low-income housing projects. Statutes, limitations, policies and laws often save rows of historic townhouses and single-family homes all over the United States from being razed. The same should apply to historic housing projects. This paper follows the history of infamous American housing projects, citing reasons for the demise of public housing, revealing examples of what is happening to public housing today, and raising the much debated question, “Is bulldozing and rebuilding really the best option?” The Start of Public Housing The United States Housing Authority was first created in 1937 by the United States government, as a government corporation within the Department of the Interior.3 Several years later, and after being transferred through various other agencies, the USHA, together with fifteen other housing organizations became part of the National Housing Agency. The

two main objectives of the National Housing Agency centered on the clearance of slums and the creation of low-income housing. Today, the concerns of housing are overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, whose goals and priorities still include the creation low-income housing. During
                                                             
3

 Ruth Weintraub and Rosalind Tough, The Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics, Vol. 18, No. 2 (University of  Wisconsin: 1942) pg. 155 

 

 

the 1950s, 60s and 70s, HUD helped create hundreds of thousands of housing units, units being demolished today, to help satisfy the needs for low-income housing. The Inspiration of the City of Le Corbusier The architecture of failed housing projects began with the mid-century ideas of the International Congress of Modern Architects and Le Corbusier. Corbusier’s Domino House, and later his Unité d’Habitation [Figs 1 and 2] at Marseilles, became the form for most mid-century housing projects. As the International Movement gained popularity, the United States looked toward the parti of the Unité as an opportunity to create inexpensive housing for the thousands of people that couldn’t afford it. Low-income housing was built taller, creating a higher concentration of residents with smaller amounts of acquired land.

 

 

Figs 1 (left) and 2 (right). Fig 1 shows Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation from the exterior, and Fig 2 is a drawing of a typical unit within the Habitation.

Corbusier’s grandiose plans called for tall, multi-level buildings set within expansive green spaces; usable green spaces and landscapes were crucial to his [Corbusier’s] design, claiming that the growth of industrial cities resulted in the declination of the moral landscape. Initially designed as a large scale takeover project, where Corbusier wanted to demolish large tracts of Paris slums (sounds all too familiar) to create a more bountiful supply of well planned, affordable housing, his dreams for Paris were never realized, but were later executed in Marseilles as the Unité d’Habitation. Though Corbusier’s modern plans of a towering city were well received, and executed, in Europe, the US experienced

 

 

different results when implementing high-rise construction in low-income living. To begin with, there were concerns regarding the layout almost immediately. Even when housing projects had already begun construction, the American Institute of Architects voiced concerns that high-rise structures were not the appropriate arrangement for families and children to inhabit. However, in the 1950s and 60s, as major cities like Chicago, New York City and St. Louis were entangled in the modernist highrise fad, planning officials deemed the high-rise the best option [see Fig 3]. Critics claimed that a structure over seven stories would begin to isolate the tenant from the rest of the community. When one lives in an upper apartment of a high rise you begin to lose the ability to relate and interact with the environment. The opposition referred to the structures as

“isolation islands” because the buildings were unapproachable as they were often set back from the streets by grassy plazas, isolating the residents from the cultural norms of the working class. poverty. In the book Modern Architecture Since 1900, author William J. R. Curtis describes the story of the reinterpretation of the Unité as a “dreary and brutal backdrop of endless egg-crate high-rises… in which minimum functional definitions were allowed In a sense, the buildings locked their residents into

 

 

to prevail over the rich elaboration of new communal images in touch with basic human needs.”4 Curtis continues the stories of isolation, explaining that the opposition argues that “‘tall buildings’ (all tall buildings anywhere) caused ‘social isolation’, destroyed decent urban scale, were a strain for the very young and the very old, were lacking in domestic feeling, and represented the imposition of one social class on another.”5

Fig. 3 shows the “bang for your buck” behind large scale, high-rise public housing developments.

Curtis goes on to explain that some reasons why American mass housing projects were not as successful as Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation were due to focuses on high density without acknowledging crucial communal spaces and the inclusion open outdoor spaces without including landscaping, which was to then
                                                             
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 William J. R. Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900 (New York: Phaidon, 1982) pg. 459   Ibid. 

 

 

“devalue the idea of the community living in contact with nature.”6 However, design decisions are often dictated by bureaucratic concerns of cost, and less so on the social and psychological effects the designs could render on inhabitants. It was evident that as time went on, and critics continually spoke out against the demise of the high-rise housing project, “the charisma of the Unité, and of large-scale town planning, was beginning to fade.”7 HOPE VI On one end of the argument lies the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Secretary of the Interior for Historic Preservation; however on the opposite end lies another government appointed agency, the Housing for Urban Development. In the case of New Orleans, the mayor and city council partnered with HANO (Housing Authority of New Orleans) and HUD to destroy thousands of housing units.8 HUD is both responsible for both creating homes for people who need them, and inadvertently, taking homes away.

                                                             
6 7

 William J. R. Curtis, pg. 459   Ibid.   8  Richard Moe, OP/ED: Public Housing Can, Should be Rehabbed (Times‐Picayune, March 10, 2008) 

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The HOPE VI Program “serves a vital role… to transform Public Housing.”9 Under the HOPE IV Program, city officials are allowed to create, transform and destroy Public Housing Projects, both historic and non-historic. The HOPE VI Program was originally created as the Urban Revitalization Demonstration (URD) and was initially developed as a result of recommendations by the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing, whose main goal was to which was “eradicate severely distressed public housing.”10 As written on the HUD government website, specific elements of public housing transformation that have proven key under HOPE VI are: ‐ ‐ Changing the physical shape of public housing Establishing positive incentives for resident selfsufficiency and comprehensive services that empower residents Lessening concentrations of poverty by placing public housing in non-poverty neighborhoods and promoting mixedincome communities Forging partnerships with other agencies, local governments, nonprofit organizations, and private businesses to leverage support and resources11

The admirable purpose of the HOPE VI Program is to provide better living situations for people who cannot afford to do so, and the program’s goals to depart from dilapidated housing conditions is commendable; however, of the three main focuses of
                                                             
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 About HOPE VI – Public and Indian Housing,    http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/public_indian_housing/programs/ph/hope6/about  10  Ibid.  11  Ibid.    

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the HOPE VI Program (revitalization of physical conditions; management improvements; social and community services to address resident needs) emphasis is placed on “physical revitalization,” rather demolition, whereas a greater emphasis on management and community improvements could help certain housing projects to be successful and deem them worthy to be revitalized. This excerpt of information from HUD/HOPE VI website shows the balance between demolitions and revitalizations: Demolition: Using funds from FY 1996 through FY 2003, HUD awarded $395 million through 287 HOPE VI Demolition grants for the demolition of more than 57,000 severely distressed public housing units. Since the inception of the HOPE VI program, there have been a total of 262 revitalization grants awarded between FYs 1993-2010, totaling approximately $6.2 billion.12

Revitalization:

Case Study: Chicago Housing Authority Created through the Federal Housing Act of 1937, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) [Fig 4] was once efficient and well managed. The CHA was driven to create good apartments in good neighborhoods for both poor white and black Chicagoans; however, by the 1970’s, the CHA was rapidly deteriorating form

                                                             
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 http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/public_indian_housing/programs/ph/hope6/about 

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the inside out, a deterioration that grew worse through the millennium.
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Figs 4 (above) and 5 (below) show the public’s approval and disproval of the Chicago Housing Authority.

                                                             
13

 Danil Nagy, A Mandate for CHAnge (Urban Magazine, 2010) 

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A change in management in the 1960’s resulted in the initial decline of the CHA [Fig 5]. The building of isolated, monolithic concrete towers separated public housing residents with the rest of the residents of the surrounding city. Many public housing projects, like Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini Greens, became islands of crime set on the outskirts of Chicago. Susan J. Popkin, author of The Hidden War: Crime and the Tragedy of Public Housing in Chicago, pinpointed the degradation of Chicago’s public housing; “problems of Chicago’s public housing escalated in the 1970s and 1980s under new federal a policy, which forced the CHA to give preference to the poorest households as a method of social welfare.”14 According to Urban Magazine, which published an article in June of 2009 focused on the history of the CHA, Chicago’s public housing deteriorated when certain focuses caused a sharp rent increase with the working poor: While the projects were initially meant to provide jobs and housing for the working poor, these new policies decreased the rents of the poorest tenants, causing a sharp increase in the rents that working families had to pay for public housing. The subsequent flight of the working class left the CHA without a major source of funding, and rendered it unable to perform regular maintenance on the alreadydeteriorating housing stock. Lack of maintenance, combined
                                                             
14

 Susan J. Popkin, The Hidden War: Crime and the Tragedy of Public Housing in Chicago (New Brunswick: Rutgers  University Press, 2000)  

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with the projects’ isolation and vulnerable tenants, made the projects a prime location for the exploding drug trade of the 1970s and 80s. Without proper policing, urban gangs quickly appropriated many of Chicago’s public housing projects as their headquarters, catalyzing further deterioration and abandonment by anyone who could afford to get out.15

Figs 6 (left) and 7 (right) are images of the buildings of the Robert Taylor Homes community. Fig 6 is a historic photograph from when the Homes were first built; Fig 7 is a photograph taken of the Homes during demolition.

Today, most, if not all, of these large scale housing projects have been completely demolished as part of a 10-year plan implemented by the city of Chicago to change the face of public housing. As of the year 2000, three of the twenty-eight buildings compromising the Robert Taylor Homes [Figs 6 and 7] were razed. Though the Robert Taylor Homes was described as “the most infamous and troubled community”16, promises of having all demolished buildings replaced in 10 years (the 10 year mark was
                                                             
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 Danil Nagy, A Mandate for CHAnge   Sudhir Venkatesh, pg. 10 

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passed in 2010) have not been fulfilled. Many people are still in need of housing in Chicago today. The Demolition of New Orleans Housing Richard Moe, writer for the Times-Picayune, expressed his concerns of preserving public housing during the procession of demolition of New Orleans’ four largest historic public housing projects. Moe states that, “While arguments may persist over how much public housing is needed, it is clear that New Orleans is experiencing a shortage of affordable living space. Nonetheless, 4,500 units of public housing are slated to be bulldozed…”17 The reason for the destruction; they [the housing projects] stand as a symbol of failure within the realm of low-income housing. So to correct failures we completely eradicate them? Moe goes on to argue that, “Historic preservation and housing advocates have never argued that public housing should be kept as it was. We recognize that most 20th-century experiments in massive public housing were a resounding disaster.”18 So instead of taking a step back, examining the major flaws in previous designs and then changing those “disasters,” the reaction is to destroy everything, wiping away the existence of all mistakes, pretending like it never
                                                             
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 Richard Moe, OP/ED: Public Housing Can, Should be Rehabbed   Ibid.  

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happened, “as if destroying the structures themselves would eliminate the failed social and housing policies they symbolize.”19 Continuing with Moe’s argument, mistakes can be corrected without having to completely demolish everything. For example, when writing a paper, such as the one you, the reader, are currently reading, grammatical mistakes like misspelled words and misused commas are common occurrences. These occurrences require the correction of the singular word or the erasure of the stray comma, not the deletion of an entire sentence. Sustainability One of the largest problems brought on by the destruction of large scale housing projects is the current issue of sustainability [Fig 8]. The argument is simple: demolishing usable buildings is wasteful. The materials composing these materials end up in landfills, no longer viable. Historic materials will not only be trashed in landfills, but additional resources will be expended in getting those materials to a dump, causing an unnecessary destructive cycle.

                                                             
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 Richard Moe, OP/ED: Public Housing Can, Should be Rehabbed 

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Fig 8 shows the relationship of sustainability to the field of Historic Preservation. Sustainability is the result of the relationships between the economy, the environment and society.

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Bibliography About HOPE VI – Public and Indian Housing, http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/pu blic_indian_housing/programs/ph/hope6/about About – The National Trust for Historic Preservation, http://www.preservationnation.org/about-us/ Danil Nagy, A Mandate for CHAnge (Urban Magazine, 2010) Michael A. Stegman, The Fall and Rise of Public Housing (Regulation, Summer 2002) Richard Moe, OP/ED: Public Housing Can, Should be Rehabbed (Times-Picayune, March 10, 2008) Ruth Weintraub and Rosalind Tough, The Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics, Vol. 18, No. 2 (University of Wisconsin: 1942) Sudhir Venkatesh, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) Susan J. Popkin, The Hidden War: Crime and the Tragedy of Public Housing in Chicago (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000) William J. R. Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900 (New York: Phaidon, 1982)