Hijacking Public Housing: A Review of New Deal Ruins

Case Western Reserve University
Published March 16, 2015
Overview 

Rhonda Y. Williams reviews Edward G. Goetz's New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice, and Public Housing Policy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).

Review

New Deal Ruins book cover.

The image on the front cover of New Deal Ruins reverberates prophetically. In March 1972, after only two decades of occupancy, the first of Pruitt-Igoe's thirty-three public housing towers came tumbling down in St. Louis, Missouri. Looming over heaps of wires, steel, and concrete slabs, other hollowed out high-rise buildings awaited similar destruction. Overlooked as a place where low-income black people made a living for themselves and their families, Pruitt-Igoe was instead regarded as dangerous, impoverished, and ultimately beyond saving.

Over forty years later, this perception reigned not only in the case of Pruitt-Igoe, but also inflected the reception and treatment of other public housing complexes in cities across the country.1 Today, public housing has become a trenchant symbol of failure. By the late 1970s, low-income black people who resided disproportionately in public housing were often perceived as problem tenants. And the vision of public housing (at least by some housing reformers) as an affordable option for the worthy poor was replaced by caustic images of obsolete incubators of anomie that drained cities of their worth. This inexact narrative has been so dominant that the view of public housing as disastrous, and therefore in need of extensive demolition, has prevailed as an almost unassailable and foregone conclusion.

In New Deal Ruins, political scientist Edward G. Goetz treats public housing differently. He tells a more complicated story: one that encompasses competing narratives of place, interests of the public and private sectors, and conceptions of space undergirded by shifting ideological, moral, and political economies. More specifically, Goetz examines public housing reforms since the 1990s and assesses their impact on people and cities. He begins by exposing how a "discourse of disaster" has legitimated the demolition and disposition of public housing as a primary, if not requisite, strategy for private sector urban reinvestment and vitality. Goetz explains how this approach has emerged as the new "urban planning orthodoxy." This orthodoxy ultimately reveals a trend toward market-driven "reforms" and belies "the reality … that in most places [public housing] worked—and still does work" (2).

Pruitt-Igoe demolition, April 22, 1972. US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Pruitt-Igoe demolition, April 22, 1972. US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

To bolster his claim, Goetz refers to a 1992 report commissioned by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that maintained that 94 percent of public housing units were not severely distressed. Unfortunately, the discourse of disaster, fed by "popular press accounts of the worst public housing in our largest cities," such as Chicago, better served neoliberal policy agendas that privileged the market and increased privatization (2). As a result, despite the commission's recommendations that called for investment in existing public housing and the one-to-one replacement of demolished units, HUD policies ultimately helped rid cities of public housing complexes. In the process, HUD began to relinquish oversight, management, and financial controls to the market and private entrepreneurs. It was in this political context that the promise of the HOPE VI program, which focused on building mixed-income housing, became one of the signal tools in HUD's arsenal to demolish and dispose of over one-quarter million public housing units.2

By the end of the twentieth century, public housing as state-owned residences increasingly devolved into urban ruins. Simultaneously, racial and economic landscapes were reconfigured. As local housing authorities demolished public housing, primarily black residents found themselves experiencing a late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century version of "Negro removal."3 "Urban renewal," writes Goetz, "displaced an estimated one million people from the time of its enactment in 1949 to 1965… So, too, the development of the interstate highway system, as it carved its way through central cities, tended to disrupt largely black areas, displacing families and disrupting communities" (112). In the wake of massive demolition of public housing, tenants initiated efforts to preserve decades of memories. In Chicago, for example, longtime residents Deverra Beverly and Beatrice Jones, who feared their presence would be forever erased, supported the establishment of the National Public Housing Museum. According to Goetz, both women wanted their children and grandchildren to know public housing "existed as a community" (2).

One of the numerous contributions of Goetz's New Deal Ruins is its examination of the shifting political economy and federal and local government practices that led to the transformation of public housing as a physical place and as a state program. By the 1990s, the narrative of disaster and the rise of neoliberal governance had contributed to not only the dismantling of local public housing programs, but also to exposing an equally parallel hostility to the welfare state. Goetz argues, this "radical remaking of public housing" marked by a turn to market-driven policies heralded "an important watershed moment in American domestic policy" (ix). To be sure, public housing is not the only publicly funded institution to be impacted by the trend toward privatization. The growth of privately managed charter schools, privatized prisons, and low-income housing (and school) voucher programs serve as other examples.4 While reigning ideology holds that the unfettered private market is better positioned to address social inequality, it has not necessarily lessened the government's financier role. Instead, public tax dollars subsidize private sector urban redevelopment efforts. This holds true not only for housing, but also for schools and prisons.

The relationship between post-recession 1990's economic pressures to stimulate private-sector development and efforts to de-concentrate poverty in inner cities is critical to this story of neo-liberalizing the public housing program. Goetz mobilizes the tales of three cities, Chicago, Atlanta, and New Orleans, to illustrate the intersection of these competing pressures. In all three cities, public housing targeted for demolition or disposal occupied or bordered valuable downtown property. "Race and gentrification pressures," observes Goetz, "are important in determining the aggressiveness with which cities pursue the transformation of public housing" (49). Recapturing valuable property for private development not only gained a quick hearing among many local officials, but regularly took precedence over residents' demands for the right to remain in, return to, as well as improve the living conditions in their housing complexes or neighborhoods.5

Aerial view of Clark Howell Homes, center, Techwood Homes, left, Georgia Institute of Technology, bottom. Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1940. Photocopy of photograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, HABS GA,61-ATLA,63--2.
Aerial view of Clark Howell Homes, center, Techwood Homes, left, Georgia Institute of Technology, bottom. Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1940. Photocopy of photograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, HABS GA,61-ATLA,63--2.
View of playground behind Building X, from west facing east, Techwood Homes. Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1940. Photocopy of Photograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, HABS GA,61-ATLA,60--16.
View of playground behind Building X, from west facing east, Techwood Homes. Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1940. Photocopy of Photograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, HABS GA,61-ATLA,60--16.
West front elevation, Techwood Homes, Building No. 2. Atlanta, Georgia, June 1993. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, HABS GA,61-ATLA,60D--1.
West front elevation, Techwood Homes, Building No. 2. Atlanta, Georgia, June 1993. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, HABS GA,61-ATLA,60D--1.

These locally driven agendas document that public housing was not without its problems. Programs suffered from "mismanagement, underfunding, poor design, and civic neglect" (1). New Deal Ruins reminds—or informs—us that tenants were well aware of and attentive to these problems. They also knew that some public housing complexes did not provide safe environments to raise children, leading many to form tenants' groups and protest against housing and city officials. Despite recent scholarship, their experiences and protestations remain largely unsung and undervalued as critical components of the public housing story.6 There is a lesson here: We must understand how the power of public memory and narrative disparately shapes and exposes our understanding of people, spaces, and policies. To be sure, even explicitly revealed narratives (like campaign promises or, more aptly, policy rationales) can still cover up intentions, fail to capture multiple agendas, or conceal dynamics of power. A key argument in New Deal Ruins is that the narrative of improving the lives of residents and de-concentrating poverty often camouflages privatization and development schemes.

By the dawn of the twenty-first century, urban transformation agendas across the country did not provide enhanced resources to tenants while they still lived in public housing. "The irony of the Chicago case," writes Goetz, "is that the considerable achievements in coordinating city services were realized in public housing communities only after their demolition. For most of its history, public housing in Chicago was not a priority for public officials" (88). What had become a priority by the end of the twentieth century was inner-city revitalization in the form of gentrification. In Chicago, this approach led to the overwhelming elimination of public housing and the removal of low-income black people from areas of new investment. Atlanta public housing shared a similar fate once officials decided to build the Olympic village across from Techwood Homes. Completed in 1935 as the nation's first public housing complex and later nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, Techwood Homes followed "a classic pattern of de facto demolition" (102). With the housing authority failing to fill vacancies and using its depleted tenant rolls as justification, the city demolished Techwood Homes in 1993. Similarly, redevelopment pressures in New Orleans hastened the decline of public housing, which had become 100 percent black by 2005 (98). The Iberville Homes sat on appreciating land near the French Quarter and Louisiana State University's planned biomedical and hospital complex. For business leaders, Iberville's "elimination" represented "the centerpiece" of "responsible redevelopment." Its demolition also marked the end of an era: "a complete shift away from traditional public housing in the city" (97). Goetz's attention to the demise of these New Deal-era public housing programs reveals how the politics of location, shaped by historical racial and class-based inequalities, become reinforced in the present.

Local histories, inflected by what Dolores Hayden terms "the power of place," also shaped the political process that led to displacement and redevelopment.7 In Chicago, historic racially-discriminatory siting policies and decades of mismanagement helped to create the conditions in which the late twentieth-century Plan for Transformation emerged. In Atlanta, new political leadership at the municipal level—including a new mayor, Bill Campbell, who appointed Renee Glover, a former corporate finance attorney, CEO of the housing authority in 1993—sidelined the previous mayor's initial commitment to rehabilitate and renovate public housing. Demolition became the strategy, one that expanded exponentially when Atlanta secured the Olympics (103). In New Orleans, local officials took advantage of the man-made disaster that accompanied Hurricane Katrina to advance an agenda guided, in part, by the federal government's new predilection to privatize public housing (93). The hurricane and its temporary displacement of public housing tenants—all of them black—provided an opportunity for local officials to demolish complexes and racially and economically remake urban space.

St. Thomas Street: the before photo. View shows street view prior to the demolition that cleared the area for the St. Thomas Housing Project. New Orleans, Louisiana, circa 1939. Photograph by US Housing Authority. National Archives and Records Administration, 196086.
St. Thomas Street: the before photo. View shows street view prior to the demolition that cleared the area for the St. Thomas Housing Project. New Orleans, Louisiana, circa 1939. Photograph by US Housing Authority. National Archives and Records Administration, 196086.
St. Thomas Street: the after photo. View shows completed St. Thomas Housing Project, circa 1940–1941. Photograph by US Housing Authority. National Archives and Records Administration, 196087.
St. Thomas Street: the after photo. View shows completed St. Thomas Housing Project, circa 1940–1941. Photograph by US Housing Authority. National Archives and Records Administration, 196087.

Proponents of alleviating spatially concentrated poverty also supported the move toward government backing of private-sector redevelopment initiatives. For instance, civil rights attorney Alexander Polikoff described HOPE VI mixed-income developments as "a hopeful and important step in the direction of de-concentrating poverty."8 Yet, as Goetz poignantly maintains, de-concentrating poverty is not the same as altering the economic conditions of low-income residents. Across the country, where the de-concentration of poverty occurred, it was not necessarily because poor people were no longer poor. The new orthodoxy of urban planning helped to relocate poverty and to continue a longstanding racial practice—displacing primarily black people for the sake of broader development agendas that rarely benefited them in substantive, sustained, or collective ways.

Moreover, according to Goetz, race unquestionably played a significant role in determining which complexes met their demise and which were left standing. "In city after city," the complexes torn down "have had significantly higher percentages of African American residents than those left standing in the same cities" (112). This was not simply because a disproportionate percentage of black people lived in public housing, or because public housing existed disproportionately in minority neighborhoods. Instead, New Deal Ruins documents this inequality, arguing forthrightly, "In cities where public housing is most associated with black tenants, it is most likely to be demolished " (178-179, italics added).

Goetz's multi-layered analysis of housing policy and redevelopment explicitly examines black removal from urban spaces and the perpetuation of racialized poverty. In these ways, Goetz does not fail—as discourses of disaster often do—to present public housing residents as real people. Despite the challenges inherent to their spaces and places of living, residents nevertheless experienced personal hardships and joys, made families and memories, engaged in activism, and expressed their viewpoints—including their differing opinions on the fate of their subsidized residences. This was true in Baltimore and cities across the country where implosion became the policy of choice.

For my book, The Politics of Public Housing, I remember interviewing two tenant activists in Lexington Terrace, one of four family high-rise public housing complexes slated for demolition in the inner city of Baltimore in the 1990s. Lorraine Ledbetter expressed hope that the implosion of Lexington Terrace would benefit residents. Barbara "Bobbie" McKinney, however, vociferously disagreed. McKinney believed that residents were merely viewed as obstacles in the path of redevelopment, not potential beneficiaries. Reading New Deal Ruins, I recalled the day that I sat in Bobbie's apartment and she shared her fear and anger that the support networks and sense of community forged by tenants—even amid the dangers they had to navigate—would be destroyed and never replaced.9 Such laments about displacement, similarly expressed by public housing residents in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, and elsewhere, exemplify what Mindy Fullilove has described as "root shock."10

In the late 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, public housing residents protested privatization, demolition, and displacement. Their protests also had local parlances—not surprisingly, given the immediate political contexts they confronted. In Chicago, tenants formed the Coalition to Protect Public Housing (CPPH) to organize demonstrations, prevent evictions, challenge de facto demolition policies, and fight for one-for-one replacement of public housing units. In New Orleans, residents unsuccessfully waged a two-year resistance campaign to prevent closure of their complexes. There, the state played a role in the residents' eventual defeat: SWAT forcibly evicted protesting tenants, and HUD threatened to withdraw promised housing vouchers if the city council gave into tenants' demands (95). In Atlanta, tenants in specific complexes sued for improved relocation initiatives, and in response to the Atlanta Housing Authority's wholesale demolition agenda, which included senior buildings, the resident advisory board filed a civil rights complaint evoking the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (107). In all three of these cities (and many others), resident activists felt shunted to the side to advance the interests of business and political elites.

Fair Development Campaign protest of Harbor Point development, Baltimore, Maryland, July 17, 2013. Photograph by Flickr user United Workers (CC BY 2.0).
Fair Development Campaign protest of Harbor Point development, Baltimore, Maryland, July 17, 2013. Photograph by Flickr user United Workers (CC BY 2.0).

While reasonably arguing that the experiences of those forcibly removed "defy easy generalizations, either positive or negative" (127), Goetz maintains that the "demolition of public housing has for the most part not produced significant or consistent benefits for the very low income families displaced" (150). Ultimately, he concludes that public housing policy, which claims to improve the conditions of low-income people, has been "hijacked to serve a development agenda that had a different set of objectives, objectives focused on the dispersal of low-income residents, the elimination of public housing communities, and the facilitation of private-sector reinvestment in urban areas that had been in that respect neglected for decades" (181). The cautionary message is clear: Place-based, private (or public) redevelopment, even in the name of improving low-income residents' conditions, will not automatically or necessarily benefit them. When it comes to public housing redevelopment, in particular, success must be measured in one signal way: "The record…in delivering benefits to the original residents is a critical context for any summary judgment of transformation policy since 1990" (175). On this score, the record fails.

New Deal Ruins concludes with general recommendations for ending policies that extend racial and economic injustices. Goetz argues that preserving a state-owned, managed, and supported public housing program does not mean maintaining ineptness, mismanagement, or un-defensible low-income apartments. Demolition and disposition can no longer serve as the unthinking solution. Governments should support programs for those who want to stay and those who want to move, replace each unit demolished, and, overall, expand affordable residential options. "False choices," egregiously made on the backs of the nation's poor people, particularly African Americans, must not rule the new day.

About the Author

Rhonda Y. Williams is an associate professor of history and founder and director of the Social Justice Institute at Case Western Reserve University. She is the author of Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century (New York: Routledge, 2015). Her book The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles Against Urban Inequality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) won the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award from the Association of Black Women Historians. Williams is also co-editor of Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement: Freedom's Bittersweet Song (New York: Routledge University Press, 2002); Women, Transnationalism and Human Rights, a special issue of Radical History Review 101 (Spring 2008); and editor of a new book series Justice, Power, and Politics with University of North Carolina Press.

  • 1. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, directed by Chad Freidrichs (Columbia, MO: Unicorn Stencil Documentary Films, 2011).
  • 2. This is ironic given that the public housing program was established, in part, because the private sector could not meet the needs of the lowest income tenants—either in quantity or affordability of rental units. This has not changed. Even as HUD approved the demolition and disposition of public housing apartments, the waiting lists for public housing units were in the hundreds of thousands. Moreover, the HUD report on "Worst Case Housing Needs"—sent to Congress in 2010, the same year HUD approved the demolition and disposition of an additional 285,000 apartments—identified 6 million people in dire need. This was an 18 percent increase in just one decade. In this context, as Goetz writes: "The dismantling of public housing makes little sense as housing policy" (177).
  • 3. "Negro removal" was a phrase used to describe the disproportionate displacement of black people from neighborhoods targeted for urban renewal.
  • 4. For instance, see Pauline Lipman, New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City (New York: Routledge, 2011); Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools (New York: Knopf, 2013). On prisons, see Michele Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2012); Rhonda Y. Williams, "'We Refuse!': Privatization, Housing, and Human Rights," in Freedom Now! Struggles for the Human Right to Housing in L.A. and Beyond, eds. Christina Heatherton and Jordan T. Camp (Los Angeles: Freedom Now Books, 2012).
  • 5. Contemporary "Right to the City" movements seek to counteract such displacement and the demise of affordable, safe, and adequate public housing. See, for instance, David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (New York: Verso, 2012) and the New York-based, national Right to the City Alliance that emerged in 2007 as a housing and urban justice movement.
  • 6. See, for instance, Roberta M. Feldman and Susan Stall, The Dignity of Resistance: Women Residents' Activism in Chicago Public Housing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); J. S. Fuerst and D. Bradford Hunt, When Public Housing Was Paradise: Building Community in Chicago (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005); Lisa Levenstein, A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); and Rhonda Y. Williams, The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles against Urban Inequality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • 7. Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995). Hayden discusses place as "one of the trickiest words in the English language" that "carries the resonance of homestead, location, and open space in the city as well as a position in a social hierarchy" (16). Hayden further discusses how deep examinations of place reveal contested terrains and the production of space—both of which reveal perceptions and values, historical contexts, and political economy.
  • 8. Goetz, 5. Also see, Rhonda Y. Williams, "Race, Dismantling the "'Ghetto,'" and "Housing Mobility: Considering the Polikoff Proposal," Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy 1, no. 1 (Summer 2006), http://www.law.northwestern.edu/journals/njlsp/v1/n1/4/.
  • 9. Goetz, 128. Also see, Rhonda Williams, The Politics of Public Housing; "'I'm a Keeper of Information': History-Telling and Voice," Oral History Review 28, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2001): 41–63.
  • 10. Mindy T. Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do about It (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005).
doi:10.18737/M7D882
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