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 High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing offers a tenant’s-eye view of life in one of the most infamous public housing projects, Cabrini-Green Homes in Chicago. At its peak, the massive complex on the Near North Side of the city had 3,600 units, mostly in high- and mid-rise buildings, and 20,000 residents. All but several hundred townhouses were demolished from 1995 through 2011.
In the book, Austen weaves in Chicago history and highlights from the academic literature, but the main story is that of a community fighting to live in a system stacked against them. CityLab spoke to Austen about Cabrini-Green, what came before public housing, and how we should grapple with its flaws today. This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
You’re from Chicago, right? When do you first remember hearing about Cabrini-Green?
All my life. I grew up on the South Side, but even for a South Sider it loomed large in a way that other public housing developments didn’t. It had this aura. Everyone watched [the Cabrini-Green-set TV show] Good Times and Cooley High, a movie set in Cabrini-Green. It was in the news all the time.
It seemed different than the rest of public housing. I had friends who grew up in public housing on the South Side. As a kid, [that] didn’t seem like a super foreign, distant place. Somehow this North Side thing that was in the news all the time, talked about as this larger-than-life place—it seemed different.
That’s part of what I wanted to investigate: What is the connection between myth and reality, and how does that harden into public policy and how a place is actually experienced?
There is this image now of public housing as the worst of the worst. But the hyper-segregated neighborhoods that black Chicagoans were relegated to before were crowded and dangerous.
That was one of the great ironies of public housing when it was being demolished. The arguments for replacing it were that we were saving the people living there from death. [Those were] the exact same arguments that were used to justify building public housing in the first place.
The stock of housing from the 19th century in these areas before public housing was totally unsafe and falling apart, [like in] the Jacob Riis images from How the Other Half Lives. Public housing would be orderly, new, and fireproof, with a government official you can call to send help if anything goes wrong. These were vast improvements over the slums that they replaced.
So what explains the decline and fall of public housing? In the 1970s and after, the ills of complexes like Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green were blamed on bad architecture.
I think too much gets blamed on architecture. There were designs, like the tower in the park, that are more of a detriment than a gain. The superblock, with no through streets, does isolate public housing residents from the rest of the community. It’s harder to ensure public safety.
But that alone gets too much blame. There are so many other factors. They were built in neighborhoods that were already racially segregated. [In Chicago] that was the work of white aldermen and their constituents, who pretty much rioted when there were plans to put public housing in white neighborhoods.
[Public housing is] also something that requires a great deal of funding. Buildings require so much care. The roof needs to be repaired every nine years, the stairwells cleaned, and the appliances fixed. There was a shortage of money from the beginning, which got worse as the residents get poorer. They [paid] their rent as a percentage of their income, and as they got poorer, there was less money to do repair work.
In writing this book, I was thinking about naturalistic novels like Sister Carrie or Native Son, or Thomas Hardy’s books. There are characters who are living their lives, but then the author would also pull out at times and talk about the larger external forces that are controlling their lives and shaping them. The character’s free will is reined in by these forces that are guiding them.
That’s how I felt about the people I write about in the book, and with public housing, you literally have these national policies that are set and then shape your life. It is felt so much more acutely.
In the book, you juxtapose blaring headlines about Cabrini-Green with complex, nuanced testimony from residents. Why did the news media at the time fail to give a well-rounded perspective on their lives?
I read everything, every article written about Cabrini-Green; that was part of the job of the book. Because it became such a heavily mediated place, people are very quick to assume that you want a certain type of story. They will either immediately tell you about the dead body they saw or the first time they were shot at, or immediately say that it wasn’t like that, we were like family, we knew everybody.
It was a bipolar response of either hellish or nostalgic; either Candyman 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.
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?