Ben Carson is about to become the guy who oversees public housing and doles out community development block grants to every urban center in America.
What does that mean for Chicago?
Y’know all the stories about CHA’s broken promises and its stunning backlogs in construction and voucher assignments?
“All the bad things you described, that’s the good old days,” says architecture critic, writer and activist Lee Bey. “We’ll look on the times when the City couldn’t build enough public housing – or wouldn’t -and we’ll get misty-eyed. I miss those days.”
And Ethan Michaeli, the author of the highly-acclaimed The Defender, Carson may have no idea what he’s in for.
“The biggest scandal with the CHA in the last few years,” he explains, “Hasn’t just been that they failed to build the mixed income communities that they promised, which were replacement housing for the high rises that they demolished. But also that the CHA has $400-million and maybe more sitting in the bank that they can’t figure out how to spend. At a time that there are homeless on the streets, that there’s a dire need for housing they cannot figure out how to spend the money. This is a complicated situation that Ben Carson is going to come into… I personally don’t think that he’s either politically or experientially, and perhaps not intellectually calibrated for this particular task.”
Michaeli guesses that, at HUD, the bureaucrats will be in charge and Carson will be a figurehead, making speeches and signing documents. “You know,” adds Bey, “I hope that’s what happens. Isn’t it funny, we’re hoping the bureaucrats take over, right?”
“This is my fear,” says Bey, “That he thinks any governmental intervention is Soviet, is communist, and is social engineering and it’s wrong, at precisely the time we need cities to be equitable places for black and brown people, and for poor white people as well. Whites tend to get left out of the equation because they don’t want to claim poverty often, but there has to be equitable places for them as well.”
Bey is adamant that HUD must play a role in providing the least-fortunate with the basics of human dignity. “You know,” he explains, “The thing that people never want to realize is that what poor people need are jobs and education. It’s as simple as that. If you have a job and you have a decent education you tend not to live in public housing.”
(That’s similar, coincidentally, to what Ben Carson told the Washington Post: “I don’t want to get rid of any safety net programs. I want to create an environment where they won’t be needed.”)
The issue, Michaeli adds, “is that we’ve never just said consistently…as a nation or as a city that quality housing is a right, just like air and water and voting and all that kind of stuff, and that if we want to be a viable country, if we want to be a viable city we can’t have people living in shacks. We do a little bit and then we fall off again, right, but just say it and put it in brick and mortar and in your heart. And just say, “Look, we’re just not going to have this.” We’re the richest country in the world; we’re not going to have it.”
HUD, our guests say, needs to continue playing a vital role in the redevelopment of critical cities like Chicago. Michaeli offers an example.
“43rd and Indiana should be thriving based on its geographic proximity to the money centers of the Midwest, right, but it’s empty. 43rd and Indiana is vacant on all four corners today, and that makes no sense unless you understand that all housing and all real estate in this country is subsidized. We subsidize it in various ways with housing, with mortgage interest deductions on our taxes, with highways that make places like Schaumberg frankly accessible to the money centers of the country. So HUD plays an essential role in that.”
We talk at some length about the CHA “Plan for Transformation” which resulted in the demolition of scores of high rise buildings and other housing.
“When the developments were demolished a lot of people thought the problem would go away,” explains Michaeli. “That was the idea, that we will demolish the problem when we demolish these buildings, because the buildings are somehow (damaging) the people.…I mean the demolition of public housing frankly was just a demolition of a resource for low income people. That’s all that it was. It was a kind of a resource, a second rate soviet style crappy resource, but it was a resource, and taking it away just took that away. That means that they have a little bit less. They also have a little bit less geographically.”
And we touch on the one remaining development, Lathrop Homes at Diversey and the Chicago River, that hasn’t yet been “redeveloped”. It remains mired in controversy despite years of planning because of a profound dispute over how much of the new housing should be “pubic housing” and how much should be “market-rate”. Michaeli says Mayor Emanuel missed a perfect opportunity to show leadership by mandating that the buildings be re-purposed.
“He could have come out there and said, Look, this is housing for veterans. This is housing for families that have been foreclosed on. This is housing you know… that he didn’t do that, in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, tells you that the race component of what Lee was talking about is what we’re dealing with here. Lathrop is maybe a diverse development in reality, but for everybody else you say public housing they think black people. They think African Americans.”
Michaeli notes that we’re now fifty years on from the Gautreaux Decree, which allowed the courts to essentially mandate many aspects of housing desegregation in Chicago. As with most other desegregation efforts, it’s been a bumpy ride. And the one thing that he believes has clearly emerged from this long struggle has been privatization.
“If you look at what actually happened with the Gautreaux Decree, the Gautreaux Decree did not obviously affect the desegregation of housing public or otherwise in Chicago and surrounding areas. What it did accomplish was steer a lot of public resources into the hands of private folks. Public housing is the harbinger of what is going to happen to the rest of this society. They are shaking us by our ankles and taking the change that falls out of our pockets. That’s essentially what’s happening.”
Bey adds that “my fear lately has been that libraries and water will be become that, and that water, some giant infrastructure guy is going to wave $3-billion at this municipality or someone and take water …”
At the end of this frank and often dark conversation, Lee Bey says it’s time to get a little more optimistic, to cast some sunshine on the subject. You’ll want to hear how it goes.
It’s a wonderful conversation with two of the most insightful observers of the Chicago scene, and we hope you’ll watch.
And by the way, Chicago Newsroom is also pretty good radio. Listen to it on your way home with SoundCloud –RIGHT HERE.
And read a full transcript of the show right HERE: cn-transcript-december-8-2016