Tricknology 101

The destruction of public housing in Atlanta and Chicago exposes capitalism’s violent logic.

“They had a lot of tricknology, AHA did. One minute it was one thing, next minute it was another,” Shirley Hightower said. The Atlanta Housing Authority had bulldozed her home several years earlier. Sitting in her daughter’s living room on the westernmost edge of Atlanta, she recalled these events with a mix of resentment and nostalgia.

Between 2007 and 2009, Hightower crusaded against the AHA in an attempt to save Bowen Homes, the public housing project where she had raised her children and lived for many years. She had hoped that the authority would redevelop the city’s projects without displacing the community. Instead, many of Hightower’s neighbors moved out into homelessness, unpredictability, and isolation. Nothing ever got built on the site of Bowen Homes. “It’s just pretty green grass.”

Tricknology is the word she used to describe how the AHA got its way. Hightower and her neighbors wanted to see an end to the stigma associated with living in public housing. They wanted the projects to become as they once were: stable family neighborhoods where “you didn’t know you were poor.” But the AHA had other plans. It had chosen to view public housing as unfixable.

In a 2009 essay called “How Neoliberalism Makes its World,” political scientist Timothy Mitchell posited that neoliberalism should be understood as a process. Through his examination of the history of a land titling program in Peru, Mitchell argued that neoliberal programs are implemented to create test-case conditions for neoliberal policies. These “natural experiments” are designed to demonstrate the validity of the political agenda already in motion.

As she told her story, Hightower was describing how neoliberalism has made its city. What happened in Atlanta entailed the same self-serving production and interpretation of certain facts about the poor that Mitchell observed in Peru. This cycle, beginning with the idea that public housing is doomed to fail and ending with its demolition, has been key to the “revitalization” of urban space over the past twenty-five years.

Throughout the eighties and nineties, images of decrepit and dangerous projects in Chicago made the case for eradicating public housing altogether. But the shift to the model of semi-private subsidized housing that is replacing the projects is deeply rooted in Atlanta. That city has become a paradigm for mixed-income redevelopment and a mass transition to vouchers.

Meanwhile, in New York, the fate of public housing has entailed neither the demolition of thousands of homes for low-income families and seniors nor the profiteering of private developers. The story of public housing in these three cities reveals much about the ongoing neoliberalization of urban space. It doesn’t just demonstrate the obvious trend in the privatization of public resources; it exposes the logic at the heart of neoliberalism.

Atlanta’s Techwood Homes

In the mid 1990s, Chicago public housing projects comprised eleven of the nation’s fifteen poorest census tracts. After years of being a bureaucratic backwater, the Chicago Housing Authority had become corrupt and incompetent.

Its executives embezzled money from the agency. Meanwhile, conditions in high-rise projects like the Henry Horner Homes and Cabrini-Green had deteriorated to such an extent that residents left en masse. Crime spiraled out of control as the city abandoned policing. Mail wasn’t delivered, garbage wasn’t picked up, and street lights weren’t fixed.

The disorder within the housing authority and escalating gang violence in the projects led the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD, which funds public housing nationwide) to take over the CHA in 1995.

At the same time, big changes were brewing in Atlanta. In 1990, that city had won its bid to host the 1996 Centennial Olympics; the predictable rush to “clean up” downtown ensued. The planned site of the games bordered the Techwood-Clark Howell projects, an epicenter of poverty and crime that stood in the way of the city’s Olympic dreams. Just as the CHA’s reputation was hitting rock bottom, Atlanta emerged as a shining beacon for the future of public housing.

When Techwood Homes, the first public housing project in the US, was completed in 1935, it transformed the racially mixed area of Techwood Flats (called a “human garbage dump” by a local real estate magnate) into a “model community.” In his recent book Purging the Poorest, Lawrence Vale points out that the families displaced from Techwood Flats were, ironically, not the ones who moved into the new public housing. The justification for public investment in slum clearance and public housing construction was that it would uplift those who lived in the debased physical and social environments of the slums. Yet the new homes were reserved for the “deserving” poor. This pattern was repeated across the country.

Early public housing projects like Techwood combined social engineering through tenant selection with site planning that facilitated the growth of an educated and organized population. Community spaces, libraries, schools, and recreational facilities were included in many projects. The success of this early public housing has been attributed by some scholars to the exclusion of “undesirable” families, including single mothers, the unemployed, and welfare recipients.

Techwood and its sister project, Clark Howell Homes, kept up these exclusionary practices until the 1960s, when the Kennedy administration mandated integration of public housing. Increased affordable homeownership opportunities for whites in the suburbs also pushed the AHA to accept a more diverse group of tenants. The Nixon administration deeply cut funding for public housing and imposed a moratorium on new construction, even though many of these new residents required greater rent subsidies.

By the 1980s, Techwood was a dystopia. The recession had left many unemployed, and the community, very poor and African-American, was further destabilized as a result of predatory gang activity and the crack epidemic.

When Atlanta won the 1996 Olympic bid, the city’s elites saw a delightful opportunity to get rid of Techwood. Conveniently, the federal government had also launched a new program called HOPE VI to fund mixed-income redevelopment initiatives. These were marketed as beneficial to both public housing tenants and to cities. HOPE VI grants financed demolition of traditional public housing and provided start-up funds to leverage outside investments for new communities, in which public housing residents would be the minority.

Though Atlanta wasn’t the first to try this approach  — Boston and Chicago piloted early attempts at transforming projects into mixed-income housing  — its efforts were certainly the most visible. In preparation for the Olympics, Atlanta’s business leaders and the politicians they financed championed the notion that public housing needed to be torn down. In their place, private developers would build new homes. The units in these new complexes were partially reserved for market-rate renters and buyers.

In keeping with the national political ethos of the eighties and nineties, private ownership and management were sold as the panacea for failed government housing programs. Advocates of redevelopment also argued that “concentrated poverty,” not decades of government mismanagement and disinvestment, was to blame for lamentable conditions in places like Techwood. If only the poor could be housed next to more stable, better off individuals, their lives would be improved.

Deconcentrating Poverty

Since the late 1980s, observers have blamed the conditions of American ghettos on concentrated poverty. Policymakers have disagreed on solutions. Revitalize and de-ghettoize existing communities or depopulate the ghetto and disperse the poor to new living environments? Copious research on the subject has been produced since William Julius Wilson first introduced the concept of concentrated poverty in his 1987 book The Truly Disadvantaged.

The notion that poor black neighborhoods are inherently bad for the people living in them has played into the hands of those who wish to seize the land on which these neighborhoods stand. Apparently independent and apolitical research findings by organizations like the Urban Institute point to persistent, intergenerational social and psychological problems in such neighborhoods. These findings in turn support the claims that eliminating enclaves of housing for the very poor would benefit the residents of those enclaves, regardless of where they end up.

As for the land, whatever isn’t immediately useful to private interests ends up being cleared. Better some pretty green grass than a ghetto. Nowhere has this pattern been more clearly observable than in public housing neighborhoods.

Neoliberalism is not simply a prescriptive pro-market, anti-state orientation. It is a manufactured reality within which such an orientation becomes inevitable. To manufacture the neoliberal reality, it is necessary to establish a baseline of truths, such as “public housing is doomed to fail.” Sometimes history and reality speak to the contrary. The neoliberal gambit is to make sure this contradiction is irrelevant.

High-rise projects are virtually nonexistent outside of a dozen or so large East Coast and Midwest cities. This hasn’t stopped critics from generalizing arguments against high-rises to all public housing, regardless of size. Sometimes criticism of architecture and design fail. Techwood, for example, was masterfully planned and built to last, unlike the cheap construction of later projects. In such cases, concentrated-poverty arguments are always on deck.

By the 1990s, the dismal reputation of public housing high-rises had grown to such monstrous proportions that it overshadowed the reality on the ground: not all projects were in dire straits. But the idea of pervasive and irrevocable dysfunction in the system was the first necessary component of an agenda to eradicate public housing. The case of public housing in New York is the glaring contradiction that makes this agenda abundantly clear.

The Case of NYCHA

New York City has always had the most public housing high-rises in the United States. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) houses over 400,000 residents. That amounts to 10 percent of all public housing residents in the country living in 2,600 well-managed buildings, some higher than 25 floors. Despite the fact that this makes well-functioning high-rise projects the rule rather than the exception in America, New York has been routinely dismissed by both public housing critics and sympathizers as too “different” to emulate.

Even under conservative mayoral administrations, NYCHA’s remedy for problems in its projects has been to change management practices, not to demolish homes. As in other cities, public housing in New York began as a program targeting the “deserving poor.” It started to serve an increasing number of welfare recipients only in the 1960s. Gang activity, drug use, and vandalism increased in the decades that followed. The housing stock aged. But in New York, this was accompanied by a scaled increase in maintenance and the intensification of security measures, including tenant patrols. NYCHA projects never became Chicago-style vertical ghettos because the Authority remained invested in them.

Since the 1990s, NYCHA has been faced with relentless funding cuts. The savings achieved by the government have been passed on as costs to residents. A recent report by the Community Service Society shows that the agency has lost over $2 billion in federal operating and capital funds over the last decade alone.

At the same time, the city and state have completely cut their operating contributions. NYCHA is currently experiencing a severe maintenance backlog, and much of its housing stock is in need of capital repairs. The agency’s coping strategies have themselves been limited by neoliberalization on the local, state, and federal levels. Defunding presented NYCHA with two options: continue to house mostly welfare recipients, whose rent revenues are insufficient to subsidize the cost of operations, or privilege higher-income households that generate more revenue.

Given these strictures, NYCHA decided to orient itself toward higher-income tenants, as it had in its infancy. The effects of this choice can be seen in a recent New York Times series about a homeless family living in appalling conditions in a shelter in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene. Across the street at the Walt Whitman Houses, average monthly rent hovers around $450. For the shelter residents, the projects represent a higher-class poverty.

Despite this policy of exclusion, it is worth noting that NYCHA has survived because of its commitment to maintaining public housing, even when that housing was home to the poorest New Yorkers. As Nicholas Bloom chronicles in his 2009 book Public Housing that Worked, an enormous amount of labor and money was expended over the years for maintenance and community services.

Only a competent and politically independent housing authority could adequately and consistently provide this support to its residents. NYCHA achieved this while directly managing almost all of its housing stock — a practice long abandoned in favor of private management everywhere else. It employs over 13,500 well-paid and unionized staff, almost a third of whom live in the projects.

And yet, NYCHA is hardly studied. There is no talk of the “New York model” in policy circles or among politicians. And why would there be? New York’s narrative is blatantly contradictory to the story of public housing that failed. That failure is a foundation myth for the neoliberalizing American metropolis.

Liquidating the Projects

As Vale recounts in Purging the Poorest, the redevelopment of Atlanta’s Techwood Homes began with a multi-year planning process. It was characterized by the manipulation and co-option of resident leadership. For years, no information was provided on how many demolished apartments would be replaced or where residents would end up. Nevertheless, every household was led to believe that it individually stood to gain from the transformation.

The redevelopment of the country’s first public housing project into a New Urbanist mixed-income community called Centennial Place was completed in 1996. Fewer than 7 percent of its original inhabitants made it back to the new apartments. The transformation generated an estimated $1 billion in investments in the surrounding area.

The new neighborhood is composed mostly of young, unmarried whites, and some public-housing families with children who made it through the developer’s screening gauntlet. One Techwood building was preserved for its historical significance, but to this day it remains shuttered. The developer has had no use for it.

Under the leadership of Renee Glover, a former corporate finance attorney, the Atlanta Housing Authority scrupulously managed its image and reputation, outsourcing its public relations work to a pricey private communications firm. The firm buffered the authority from criticism and oversaw its dizzying ascent into national consciousness as an agency that was doing things right. But the AHA did not stop at aggressive PR. The transformation of Techwood also had to be assessed as a scientific “experiment,” the results of which would be conducive to its expansion.

To carry out this assessment, the AHA hired Georgia Tech economist Thomas D. Boston, a man with no previous experience studying public housing communities. Boston was generously compensated and extolled the housing authority’s programs in his review. His report elicited intense scrutiny from other scholars and from HUD. But it was sufficiently convincing for those already interested in reproducing the Atlanta model.

The second wave of Atlanta’s public-housing demolitions began in 2007, and the AHA continued to thwart resident resistance and misinform the public. Vocal tenant leaders were evicted on technicalities or were among the first to be moved out.

The AHA also used surveys to manipulate the desired picture of residents’ opinions. They distributed questionnaires that read: As a resident in an Atlanta Housing Authority community, I wish to share my opinion regarding AHA’s plans to demolish our community. There were three yes-or-no questions to answer: I want to move; I want a Housing Choice Voucher; I support AHA’s Quality of Life Initiative. The authority reported that 96 percent of residents saw the demolition of their homes as an opportunity.

By 2011, Atlanta — more than 10 percent of whose population once lived in public housing — had become the first city in America to liquidate all of its projects.

The Great Transformation

Atlanta’s strategy of eliminating public housing and dispersing large groups of low-income African-Americans became known as the Atlanta model. News of its success resonated strongly in Chicago. In 2000, the city embarked on its own grandiose makeover of public housing called the Plan for Transformation.

Slated for completion in 2010, the Plan called for the elimination of the city’s high-rise projects in favor of mixed-income developments. The viable low-rise projects were supposed to be rehabbed. In total, the $1.6 billion program promised to deliver 25,000 new or rehabbed units, though it has actually entailed the net loss of over 18,000 units. Fourteen years after it began, the Plan is still incomplete.

Unlike the Atlanta Housing Authority, the CHA did not spend exorbitant sums on managing its image, nor did it benefit from steady leadership. For years, it faced virulent criticism from the press, tenant organizations, and advocacy groups, as well as numerous lawsuits over its handling of the transformation. Chicago’s public policy mandarins and liberal technocrats also grew impatient with the authority. They saw the CHA’s inconsistency as a threat to the elimination of public housing. Civil rights attorney Alexander Polikoff, who had successfully sued the CHA over its racial segregation practices in the late sixties, called for a heartier embrace of the Atlanta model.

In a 2009 report on the Plan for Transformation released by Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, Polikoff argued that the CHA needed to learn from Renee Glover. He gushed over her eloquent arguments against rehabilitating public housing and glossed over the massive community disruptions resulting from HOPE VI redevelopments. Polikoff added in a footnote:

The critics have their facts right, but do not paint the full picture, which would include depicting the intergenerational poverty of which Glover speaks so tellingly, and asking whether mixed-income communities would last if all original residents returned. The issue is not what percentage of original residents return to replacement mixed-income communities, but whether life prospects for original residents — and those of their children and grandchildren — are improved as a consequence of their enforced relocation.

In other words, for Polikoff and his colleagues, any scenario in which the projects were demolished was a win. The AHA’s program to liquidate public housing is seen as an experiment, a bold new idea. Its results are inevitably interpreted as the validation of a redevelopment hypothesis. No other hypotheses were tested, and no actual experiment took place, because retaining public housing was never an option.

Those observers who start with the belief that nothing could be worse than public housing call its destruction “improved life prospects.” We come full circle. The model can be replicated elsewhere because it is deemed a success. With the launch of several new privatization initiatives by HUD in the last two years, the future of public housing nationwide is bound to the Atlanta course.

False Choices

Outside of New York City, our country has largely abandoned public housing. What was once a public asset has been drained of its value, disassembled, and redistributed into private hands. For this to happen, a wide consensus had to emerge that public housing couldn’t be fixed. We had to believe that problems in public housing were inevitable because there is something naturally wrong with poor people living together. We had to believe Renee Glover.

Residents’ resistance has been eroded by time, precarious personal circumstances, and the consistent message that the projects would be leveled eventually, no matter what. Their solidarity splintered when plans that would ultimately disenfranchise and disband their communities were sold as individual benefits and choices. The real transition for most former public housing residents has been from permanent housing in convenient neighborhoods to Section 8 vouchers on the fringes of the city. They have gone from vertical ghettos to horizontal ones.

These “Housing Choice Vouchers” are not a long-term affordable housing strategy for any US city. There are never enough to go around, and families frequently lose them due to minor infractions. They do not guarantee safe, decent, affordable housing for generations to come. I once heard someone say “You could take them to Hawai’i!”

But even though vouchers are appealing for their theoretical flexibility, they usually entail an endless lateral movement. “Everybody I know who’s on Section 8, they continuously move,” a former Chicago public housing resident recently told me. If public housing promised solid units where poor families could find their footing, vouchers propose nothing more than a ludicrous magic carpet ride.

Eliminating public housing in our cities has required everyone’s tacit agreement to a set of baseline truths about people of little means. “Concentrated poverty” and its associated ills have proven to be useful constructs for those in power. Since the eighties, an agenda that suited the needs of capital has been marketed as good for the poor. It helped that they had already suffered through years of disenfranchisement and abhorrent living conditions in the projects.

While their housing options have actually dwindled, they have been offered endless “choices.” Strangely, in Atlanta, Chicago, and elsewhere, public housing residents have “chosen” their way out of their homes, neighborhoods, and social networks, away from transportation, jobs, doctors, grocery stores, schools, and relatives. They have “chosen” their way into low-income neighborhoods on the margins of these cities, into exhausting commutes and feuding gang territories. How did it all happen? Tricknology.