The Rise and Fall of American Public Housing

Of all that came out of the mid-20th-century liberal consensus, perhaps nothing ended up so reviled as public housing. Bedeviled by hyper-segregation, urban decline, de-industrialization, and other social ills, government-funded affordable housing in large cities of the United States suffered from decades of bad press. By the 1990s, its failure was so broadly assumed that most of America cheered on the Clinton administration when it demolished huge swathes of the nation’s public housing.

Ben Austen’s new book and or Good Times. The truth is a mix. You have to get people to talk more, to learn that it could be family members that shot at [them].

Then there’s the feedback loop of how the storytelling about a place affected the reality of it. I write about this moment in 1970 where these two cops are killed, and everyone is writing about Cabrini-Green as this hellish place. Some people who live there are then like, “Man, I’m getting the f— out of here.” A third of the population leaves in a couple months, and then it’s suddenly, wildly vacant. Streets and Sanitation refuses to go there to pick up trash. Everyone in the city is reading about this terrible place, so people on the waiting list don’t want to move to Cabrini-Green. So the reality is shaped by the media, and it really does become worse.

How did you find the people who form the heart of your story?

I started this in 2011, when the last high rise in Cabrini-Green was coming down, as a magazine feature for Harper’s. I met many of the people then while doing that reporting. In the course of interviewing all these people, there are the four people I talk to the most in the book. They are people who both ended up trusting me enough to do many, many interviews, and who are good storytellers who all fought for their home.

Almost everyone I spoke with, you could find a moment where they were interviewed by someone else. Something would always come up because reporters were always around Cabrini-Green. It showed the way the outside world was always observing Cabrini-Green and picturing it, and residents were always reacting to those images.

The social and political history of public housing has been told before. What new ground does your book break?

[My work is] compared a lot to Alex Kotlowitz’s book [There Are No Children Here], which is first-hand reporting about two brothers in the Henry Horner Homes. His book, [set] in the 1990s, is more that Jacob Riis moment: here’s how the other half lives, this terrible injustice happening in the city.

Now, I’m telling it from a different vantage point. Yes, there was this great ill of concentrated poverty that we needed to get rid of. But we still have that in the city. We still have concentrated poverty and social isolation, it’s just the city doesn’t own the land anymore. Now it’s less visible, there is less collective outrage, and there is less advocacy by the people who are suffering it.

A resident watches as movers hired by the housing authority remove a resident’s belongings from the last high-rise at Cabrini-Green in 2010. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

I hope my book tells that broader story, that sad irony that the same reason we tore down public housing was the reason to build it in the first place.

In Evicted, Matthew Desmond argued that a lot of attention has been focused on public housing, but most poor people live unassisted in market-rate housing. Why do you think the story of public housing should be better known, even if it isn’t that relevant to the lives of most poor people?

I think of public housing as the idea of us collectively as a country, the state, grappling with this issue of need, [with] the huge demand and lack of supply of affordable, decent, low-income housing.

Public housing’s fate still shows powerfully and painfully the evisceration of the idea of the state doing anything. So we are left with the people in Milwaukee in Matt Desmond’s book. Those aren’t people seeking public housing, and when they do, the waitlist is endless. Two hundred and eighty thousand families in Chicago applied for a lottery to get on the waitlist for a [Chicago Housing Authority] unit. That’s one in four of all renter households. That’s crazy, and it shows what the need is.

Public housing helps us think about possible solutions. It doesn’t have to be towers, but what does that experience mean for Section 8 housing, smaller developments, or mixed-income housing? It’s part of thinking about the basic idea of providing a decent home for everybody, which shouldn’t be so radical.

One thing I wrestle with, that I don’t think people on the left wrestle with enough, is that public housing is the story of the public sector doing a bad job of delivering goods and services. Pruitt-Igoe is only open for 18 years before they are tearing it down because it’s such a mess. We talk about these housing authorities that weren’t managing their properties, and now you have New York City, which is in this mess of $18 billion of unmet repairs.

That example is directly linked to the failure of the federal government to adequately fund the public housing capital program.

But we are the federal government. How can we make the case for these federal and state programs when they are all f—ed up? If the federal government didn’t do it, how can we be asking for more federal or state programs?

Not that the private sector is going to do it. We know from experience the opposite is true, that the market cannot dig that deeply because there is no profit in it. [Desmond’s] book is such a painful example of that. Or the foreclosure crisis. But we can’t just say, “Let’s do public housing again,” or “Let’s do something bigger.” How do you do it better?