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The Political History of Public Housing in Chicago

In the first year of the CHA’s existence, nearly one third of Chicago families - 180,180 families - lived in substandard housing.1  Substandard conditions consisted of inadequate amenities such as poor plumbing, heating, electricity, ventilation, and/or over-crowding.  Before building public housing, the Authority went to great lengths to establish the inadequacy of the housing market for the poorest Chicagoans.  The CHA hoped to convince the federal government that it needed subsidies to provide thousands of the city’s working poor with access to affordable housing while simultaneously eliminating blighted areas, which lowered property values and detracted from the city’s image.

For the CHA, the problem with housing in Chicago was the slums.  In an early report to the mayor, administrators noted, “As taxpayers we all share the benefits of slum clearance and the elimination of areas detrimental to the health, morals, and safety of a large portion of the population.”2

Slums were certainly not a new problem in Chicago, or other urban areas for that matter, but intervention by the federal government to redevelop them was new to Americans in the 1930s.  As with many New Deal programs, the public was simultaneously insistent upon, and resistant to, the expansion of the federal government.

Given the historical context of an expanding government, and an ambivalent, suffering populace, what potential foci might students choose for a research project on the political history of public housing in Chicago?  Keep in mind the following underlying questions:  What were the USHA/CHA’s goals?  How successful were they in meeting those goals?

Establishing precedents

As mentioned, federal public housing was unmarked territory when the PWA established units in urban areas all over the nation in 1933.  Leon Keyserling’s article “Legal Aspects of Public Housing” gives excellent background on the constitutional justification for federal public housing.  Various factions debated the appropriate approach, philosophy and logistical framework for housing projects.  Gail Radford wrote an invaluable book on the creation of public housing in the United States that evaluated the development of the 1937 Housing Act.  In her influential work, Radford chronicles the fate of two pro-federal housing factions: the modern urban planners and the progressive slum reformers.

A key difference between the “reformer” and “planner” factions was the role of private enterprise in redeveloping the slums.  While both factions advocated elimination of blighted areas and federal initiative in housing the poor, “planners” sought construction of low rent property on vacant land to compete directly with slumlords, and subsequently force them to make repairs to their property.  “Reformers” sought a more active government to assure the redevelopment of slums.  Despite their differences, both groups faced resistance and hostility from real estate interests.

Among the questions we might pose are:

  • How did the influence of “reformers” and “planners” contribute to the creation of the USHA?
  • How might housing have been different if planners had more strongly influenced policy creation?

Resistance to Public Housing

Although most Americans agreed that affordable housing was a problem facing the United States during the Great Depression, not everyone agreed with federal intervention in what had previously been a private enterprise.  Real estate interests objected to direct competition by the government, as federal subsidies allowed local housing authorities (such as the CHA) to provide standard housing at below market prices.

The CHA was faced with the challenge of appeasing pro-public housing factions and private enterprise. 

The CHA and federally-funded housing authorities in other cities made concessions to private real estate interests, including explicit compromises on site selection and rent costs.  In the end, the CHA expended a considerable amount of energy placating real estate interests.3  Property value in the slums and surrounding areas was so devalued that slum land made for an excellent investment opportunity for those willing to redevelop it.  Private interests resisted government ownership and redevelopment of areas that had potential for profitable investment.  When public housing agencies sought sites on vacant land, particularly in more affluent areas, communities and real estate investors complained that overall property values in the area would fall.

The CHA and other urban housing authorities took pain-staking care to place rents at a level that assured affordability only of those in the bottom tier of the socioeconomic hierarchy, so as not to draw tenants who could afford the higher rents of the private sector housing market.

When investigating the relationship between public and private solutions to the housing crisis, one might consider the following questions:

  • How did public housing advocates work to provide adequate housing for the poor without alienating private real estate interests?
  • How might public housing advocates have approached the housing crisis if they met no resistance from real estate interests?
  • How did federal housing programs compare to other New Deal programs? 
  • In the debate over public versus private housing, which issues took prominence?
  • How did the early debate between public and private housing interests affect the future of public housing policy?

Service fees in lieu of municipal taxes

In response to urbanization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, municipal governments provided new services of all types, particularly those aimed at ensuring public safety, sanitation, and extension of modern amenities, such as transit and electric lighting.  Prior to federal public housing, property taxes paid by home owners and landlords usually funded such services.  With the federal government resistant to paying local governments for services rendered in public housing complexes, real estate entrepreneurs and the CHA battled over who should foot the bill for the services.

As federally-funded property, the CHA negotiated with the city of Chicago for tax-exempt status, and agreed to pay a standardized service fee to light public spaces, assure police and fire service, and remove waste.  As with most public housing issues, there were factions formed in support of, and opposition to, the service fee plan.

Newspaper articles and CHA documents are excellent sources on the debate over service fees. The City of Chicago exempted the CHA from property taxes because it said that the agency improved the city by eliminating slums and guaranteeing standard housing for the working poor.

When considering this issue, one might ask the following questions:

  • In their efforts to justify paying service fees instead of property taxes, the CHA pointed out that the taxes (which were assessed as a percentage of the value of the property) paid by slumlords on the previously dilapidated buildings was less than the negotiated service fees.  Real estate interests insisted that it was still unfair, as the fees were far less than the taxes that would be assessed on the improved property.  What are the merits and weaknesses of each side’s argument?
  • Given what you know about the expansion of government during the New Deal, was the CHA’s tax exemption consistent with the concept of greater federal authority?

Writing the History of Controversy

Regardless of the topic, some of the most compelling histories are written about the conflict between organizations, factions, or individuals who hoped to influence society.  Students writing histories of public housing in Chicago might find a focus on controversy a compelling approach to their research.  Examples of competing factions in the political field are:

  • Modern Housing Planners and Progressive Slum Reformers
    • On how best to develop federal public housing
    • Public Housing Advocates and Private Real Estate Entrepreneurs
      • On who should provide housing for the poor
      • City of Chicago Municipal Services and The Chicago Housing Authority
        • On how to fund the services needed in new public housing

        These are just a few examples of conflicting parties.  Do you have any ideas of others?

        Sources:

        The Chicago Public Library’s Harold Washington Center has dozens of  documents relating to the development of the CHA in its Municipal Records Collection, and the Center for New Deal Studies at Roosevelt University has several government reports chronicling the federal government’s development of  a plan to address the housing question.  See Bibliography.


        Notes:

        1. Chicago Housing Authority, “Report to the Mayor,” 1940, Chicago Public Library, Harold Washington Center, Municipal Records Collection, p. 8.

        2. Chicago Housing Authority, “Report to the Mayor,” 1941, Chicago Public Library, Harold Washington Center, Municipal Records Collection, p. 2.

        3. D. Bradford Hunt, “What Went Wrong with Public Housing in Chicago?  A History of the Chicago Housing Authority, 1933-1982” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkley, 2000), p. 7.