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White flight, red lining, block busting and panic peddling

Chicago’s poor make plain the social responsibilities of the architecture industry

First published in the AR in October 1977

This article examines the living conditions that are available in Chicago to the poor. The poor are those people who are attracted to the great cities and become known as the ‘bottom strata of the socio-economic ladder’. Planners’ euphemisms cannot disguise the facts. To any visitor to the city of Chicago the social problems are all too plain. Large areas of the city are deadly, dangerous and difficult to live in. But the problem is much more than a matter of housing – it is an economic problem. Chicago has more than enough buildings, but not enough good housing and not enough jobs in the right places. The poor in Chicago – and 87 per cent of the people who live in public housing are on welfare – need a good reason for getting up in the morning. The AR asked Nory Miller, an editor of the Chicago-based magazine ‘Inland Architect’, to give the local picture however depressing it might be. She makes it plain that the quality of life for the poor must improve before there can be any real hope for the Great American Cities.

One visits Chicago to see those legendary milestones of architecture – The Rookery, Auditorium, Crown Hall – and to discover if there is a certain something special about practising architecture in Chicago that continues today. But Chicago is also a city where people live, work, go to school, eat at restaurants, walk the streets – as best they can. It is a physical situation; also a social, economic and political one. It suffers from all the ills that plague the Eastern and Midwestern Great American Cities – worse off than Boston, but better by far than Detroit where the taxicabs have found it necessary to be bullet proof. But the editors urged me to be specific. Statistics, they emphasised, will do a great deal more than a lot of words. Talk about the great housing issue, they said. ‘What is the proportion of the city’s population that is technically homeless?’ So that is where to start. How many are homeless? A couple dozen derelicts and a handful of teenage runaways. Homelessness is not the problem. What is the problem is what kind of housing the poor have available to them and – more important – what kind of lives. What is also the problem is what that means, not only for the poor, but for the future of the Great American Cities.

What has happened is that America’s second generation cities have become repositories for the poor, non-white bottom strata of its socio-economic ladder. The white middle and upper classes have been moving to the suburbs since World War II, followed in the last decade or two by a goodly proportion of retail and industry. For instance, although Cook County (where Chicago is) is the number one county in the country in manufacturing activity, Chicago’s share of this has dropped dramatically. In 1950, 80 per cent of the jobs in its metropolitan area were in Chicago. Twenty years later this had dropped to 52 per cent. In January 1977 there were 15.3 million vacant square feet of industrial space in the city, up 50 per cent from only five months before. Thus, the trend is not only continuing, it is accelerating rapidly. The suburbs offer cheap land for the new one-storey horizontally organised factory processes, lower taxes and better public services – not to mention freedom from hold-ups. The irony is that the labourers are still back in the city, such that the morning and evening bumper-to-bumper commutes are now a two-way affair. Also, with jobs as well as homes in the outskirts, suburb-to-suburb commutes have become commonplace. Retail stores have also followed the middle class out to the suburbs, generally arranged in large shopping centres surrounded by asphalt. While Chicago’s retail sales growth has managed to just inch over the rate of inflation, the suburb stores have boomed. The suburbs which are really mushrooming today are not the ones near town within easy reach of the advantages of the city but suburbs 1½ to 2 hours away that are attracting enough stores and jobs to be almost satellite cities. To complicate matters, the past decade has witnessed a new demographic pattern, the move to the Sunbelt. Sunbelt is a term that has come to mean the rim of states along the South and West of the US that not only avoid winter but often the high taxes, unions, big land costs and declining worker productivity that are typical of the East and Midwest. Far less perceptible, but increasingly significant, is another pattern – people moving from big cities back to small towns. Even after decades of abandoning the towns and farms, Americans still hold the dream of their agrarian past, though they have had to move to the cities for jobs as agriculture became agribusiness with machines working for conglomerates.

What is left in the big cities? Chicago, for instance, has a metropolitan population of 7 million people. Only 3.1 million live within city bounds. Those 3.1 million are 20 per cent poorer than their suburban counterparts. One in five is supported by government dole (twice as many as only ten years ago). The city is not just poorer, it contains the bulk of the hard-core poor. In the suburbs, only one in 45 receives welfare. Just under half of the city’s population is white, 40 per cent are black, 10 per cent Latino and 3 per cent Oriental and others. The white population has been moving out steadily since the war, but sped up rapidly after the devastating riots following the Rev Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. Only 4 per cent of the people who have moved to the suburbs are not Caucasian. The segregation of blacks does not stop at containing them largely within city borders but restricts them within certain neighbourhoods as well, restricts them in huge South and West Side ghettos. In a country not noted for an outstretched hand to the people it once enslaved, Chicago is its most segregated city. It is generally the South that is thought of in terms of segregation, but since the landmark court cases and laws of the 1950s and 1960s, the South has become the most integrated, because there blacks and whites always lived contiguously. In the North, blacks were rarely turned away from restaurants but they had always been turned away from housing in white neighbourhoods. So it is the North where schools are still segregated, because neighbourhoods are. In Chicago, it goes further than housing. When blacks started enjoying the shops and movies downtown, whites stopped patronizing them – either substituting North Michigan Avenue, an elegant boulevard for those who could afford it, or staying near home. Forty-two per cent of Chicago’s public school students come from families below the government’s definition of poverty (eg $5469 per year for a family of four). Seventy-five per cent of those students are black or Latino. Chicago and the Great American Cities are being turned into enclaves for the poor and black and Latino. That the city is being sucked dry of its middle class population, its jobs and its tax base and has been continually since World War II is no accident. Nor is it strictly a result of natural laws. It has been, knowingly or not, the direct result of government policy. The federal government has poured billions into the construction of highways, sewers and insured mortgages that have made it possible for urbanites to become suburbanites. In addition it has given homeowners tax breaks that renters do not have, making it cheaper to buy a house in the ’burbs than to rent in a walk-up in the city. In 1971, for instance, homeowners saved $5.7 billion in income tax. Meanwhile as thousands of black families poured intoChicago and other industrial centres from the South to find work, real estate dealers and financial institutions found ways to use the federal government and people’s fears to full advantage. Owning property that was rapidly deteriorating into an irreversible slum was not a disaster economically to the owner but rather, given tax depreciation laws, a distinctly profitable operation and the faster the better.


This map gives an indication of where the rich and poor are in Chicago. The very rich and very poor are surprisingly close and the in-betweens seem to have spread out to the edges.

In Chicago, perhaps more than any other city, this deterioration has been followed by systematic deliberate fires in slum areas. A total of at least seven square miles have been burnt out. What the police know for sure is that these fires are the result of deliberate arson. What is common speculation is that the absentee landlords hire teenagers to set the fires to get the last scrap out of their Slum properties’ insurance. On the other hand, taking a perfectly stable neighbourhood turning it from white middle class to black middle class and then letting it disintegrate was even more profitable. Real estate dealers armed with bank loans scared whites into believing that the neighbourhood was turning black and property values would decline. Perhaps they have sold one house to a black family to substantiate what has become known as ‘panic peddling’ and ‘block busting’. The whites sell at depressed prices, the blacks – for whom housing choices in a discriminating world are limited – pay inflated prices. The real estate dealer makes a tidy profit.

In Chicago, block busting was so visible during the 1960s that one can literally name the month a given parish ‘went black’. A neighbourhood that is ‘changing’ or ‘changed’ is no longer considered a good mortgage or loan risk by financial institutions. They do what is called ‘redlining’ - actually drawing red lines around such neighbourhoods on a map. Presumably, they would have refused Howard Hughes a mortgage in a redlined neighbourhood despite his personal financial solidity. The banks claim that if the mortgagee defaults, they are left with insufficiently saleable collateral. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because as people cannot get loans to fix up their property and mortgages to buy houses, the neighbourhoods do indeed decline. Ironically, the money that the bank is refusing to loan is mostly the money deposited by people in that redlined neighbourhood. Instead of their money being used to stabilise their own homes, it is being lent to speculators in the suburb. The federal government, by the way, is insuring these financial institutions, regulating them and, until quite recently, not uttering of protest.

But this is all demographics and real estate. What about housing the poor? Basically the poor have had two choices - to live in housing left behind by the less poor (called the trickle-down effect) or to live in government-provided housing. The government has been in the housing business since the Great Depression when people were actually homeless. The Works Progress Administration – one of Roosevelt’s New Deal programmes – built 51 demonstration projects across the country, three in Chicago. These were operated by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), formed in 1937, with their own rent payments. The federal government was besieged with complaints that it was competing with private industry, so in 1937 it switched signals. Now the federal government were to offer tax-exempt bonds which would be used to pay private contractors to build public housing. During the war years again, the US found itself with insufficient housing stock in industrial centres like Chicago and the government again moved in to help. Thus far, public housing had been intended to add more housing to the market and to give people the temporary help they needed to move up and out. Basically, it was working. But after the war, things began to change. The people in the public housing began to be more and more the hard-core poor with no upward mobility in sight even for the next generation. By 1950, 27 per cent of the families were on welfare. By 1968, 60 per cent were. By 1975, 87 per cent. More and more, the families were black, blacks who had come to the golden land of the North for jobs and a chance to better themselves and discovered worse treatment in some ways than they had left behind. By 1955, the projects (and that is what their inhabitants call them) were two-thirds black. By 1969, 99 per cent. As well, the housing itself changed. Public housing had been built like other housing – three and four-storey brick buildings with grassy courts in the thirties, row houses during the war. After the war, they were also built like private buildings but private builders were now building high-rise apartment towers. By 1948, Chicago had built its first high-rise project. Between 1957 and 1968, 15,591 units were built, all but 700 in high-rises.

There was one big difference. Private high-rises were occupied by young singles, newlyweds and retired couples. Public high-rises were occupied by families, large families. Robert Taylor Homes, the largest housing project in the world, is 90 per cent women and children. Its average family has 5.8 people. There were objections at the time, but the high-rise enthusiasts beat them back with arguments that high-rises cost less and leave more room on the ground for children to play. Neither argument holds up. The crime differential between low and high Chicago Housing Authority buildings may have to do with population as well as architecture but it is eye-opening. In buildings under five storeys, the percentage of occupants with a criminal or anti-social record is 4.1 per cent. In taller buildings, it is 28.4 per cent.


Close by Cabrini Green this mural is in a black neighbourhood and is an elaborately armed social comment

The poor have registered their architectural votes quite clearly. Waiting lists for low-rise projects are arm length while the tall buildings have so many vacancies some floors have been boarded up. Cabrini Green in 1975 was one-fourth empty. Along with building clean, sanitary housing for the impoverished, the government wanted to clear away the rotted remains of slum housing. Chicago did its first urban renewal in 1946, tearing down housing to be replaced by a hospital addition. There was a court case challenging the city for not replacing the housing with other housing but the city won.

In 1949, the feds started backing urban renewal – removal? – in a big way. The city would use its powers of eminent domain (the right to take property as long as it gave fair market price whether or not the owner wished to sell) and with federal help would sell it to a private developer for a good deal less than it paid. In this manner, slums became luxury apartment houses, government buildings, office towers. As the population of Chicago was declining, this did not create a housing shortage. It did dislocate a lot of families who then had to move somewhere which then disrupted other communities. It also filled in its path perfectly stable non-slum communities because the law said only 20 per cent of the housing had to be deteriorated in order to qualify for urban renewal. In Chicago, the most violent example was the creation of the University of Illinois’ Circle Campus, which destroyed – after much protest – both an Italian and a Greek neighbourhood.

By 1968, it was pretty clear that a lot of the old ideas weren’t working. While the government had eliminated some terrible slums and provided sound and sanitary housing for the very poor, it had not helped those at the bottom of the ladder take a step upward. In fact, by isolating and impacting them into regulated enclaves, it may well have prevented the natural processes of upward mobility. A similar argument might be made about the effect of reservation life on American Indians. In any case, by 1968, the federal government prohibited putting families higher than three floors up in a public building. Another problem had also arisen – rents had stopped covering operating costs, another gap the federal government was called upon to fill. It was Nixon’s Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 that revealed his new approach to housing. With this Act the government moved out of the construction business and into the rent subsidies for individuals business. It replaced what had been help to moderate income families (through low-interest mortgages to developers) and what had been help in low-income families (through public housing at rents like $50 per month for a two-bedroom apartment-about one-sixth market cost) with housing assistance payments directly to people. The government agreed to make up the difference between 25 per cent of a family’s income and the cost of private housing-within bounds. The law encouraged economic mix in buildings.

Anyone with an income up to 80 per cent of the country’s median income was eligible. It encouraged new construction by making 20-year subsidy commitments. There were however, a few problems. Not nearly enough money was budgeted to cover those defined as eligible. The only new construction encouraged was housing for the elderly. The risks remained too great for family housing which came to a virtual standstill as it waited for private developers to take the government’s bait.

Housing for poor families in Chicago, however, had come to a standstill in 1969 because of a woman named Dorothy Gautreaux. In 1966, she and five others accused CHA in court of violating a federal anti-discrimination law by putting almost an public housing in black ghetto areas. Purposeful segregation had been a touchy issues for decades, but no one had brought it into court before.


There are acres of dilapidated housing like this throughout the south and west sides of the city

In the 1930s, it was official stated federal policy to maintain segregated neighbourhoods. In 1946, with a black man as board chairman, CHA began to integrate public housing. The mayor imposed a 10 per cent black quota which was about the percentage of the city that was black at the time. Ironically, it was reform mayor Martin Kennelley who undid this gesture. The city council was never too fond of CHA because they didn’t dispense jobs on a patronage basis (to those who worked for the party at election time) and was adamantly against integration. The power brokers induced the Illinois legislature to give the council approval over all public housing sites in Chicago as of 1948. There were fights between CHA and city council for months. The feds refused to intervene. The black board chairman resigned. Finally 13 sites were picked, eight in the ghettos, and of the five outside, two were never built and two were mere extensions of existing projects. Racial disturbances in 1953 again brought the matter into focus when CHA integrated the last of the remaining segregated projects. Three years of sporadic violence ensued. CHA head Elizabeth Wood – a woman whose idealism and compassion were unchallenged – was dismissed in the cross-fire for publicly backing integration. As the city’s population changed, the question became no longer whether black people were to be let into white projects but whether black projects were to be let near white people. In 1969, Judge Richard Austin found the Chicago Housing Authority guilty of discrimination. He ordered that the next 700 units of public housing be built in white areas and 75 per cent of future public housing.

He later revoked city council’s right to approve sites. However, when the case was enlarged to include the total metropolitan area, Austin ruled it out of order. Appeals all the way to the US Supreme Court resulted in 1976 (six years after Ms Gautreaux herself had died) in what has become known as the Gautreaux decision. The Supreme Court voted 8 to 0 that a federal court could order the government to spread public housing throughout metropolitan areas as a way of insuring integration.

Since the 1969 Austin decision, not surprisingly, only 66 units of public housing have been completed in Chicago with 51 under construction, despite ample funding, moratorium or no. Though Chicago is almost half black, that population is woefully under-represented in city government. Meanwhile, the white neighbourhoods hold sway. Chicago’s biggest success in public housing has been sheltering the elderly for whom high-rise living is apparently acceptable. Less successful have been the government’s attempts at generating moderate-income housing. There have been various federal and state programmes for the past two decades to induce developers to build or rehabilitate both single-family and multi-family housing charging lower than market rates. Some programmes made mortgage money available cheaply, some insured private mortgages. The federal programmes are considered disasters, with histories of graft, corruption and predictable incompetence. In Chicago alone, 36.4 per cent of these projects (both multi-family and single family) have been in default or foreclosed for nonpayment. As of May 1977, Chicago had 2462 homes in foreclosure. The cost, by the way, of the particular financial underpinnings chosen by the government to encourage moderate-income housing turn out to be quite a bit more expensive than simply building the stuff in the first place, even without all the scandals and defaults. The programme has frequently and defensibly been called welfare for builders and financial institutions rather than for the near poor. The state programme – Illinois Housing Development Authority – begun in 1967 was more conservative and more successful, but due to political clashes has not yet been refunded.

In 1968, the federal government attempted a different kind of urban solution with its federally insured, privately developed new town programme. Combining – as most American governmental ventures – the worst of capitalism and socialism, the new town project has been a total wash-out with all but one or two of the fifteen declaring bankruptcy before they’d scarcely begun. More recently private interests in Chicago have started the first phase of a new town in town (Dearborn Green) but it is unclear whether it will ever grow beyond a few streets and it is all too clear that housing prices will be affordable only by the middle and upper classes despite intentions to entice working-class families back into town. The question remains, what is and can be done now about decent housing for all and the future of Chicago and the Great American Cities? What can be done in terms of government to acknowledge the actual interdependence of cities and suburbs? What can be done to stabilise neighbourhoods within the city and curtail white flight? What can be done about the deteriorated housing stock within the city and the failed but still existent public housing? And what, in fact, can be or will be done federally about the real question which is not housing but poverty aided and abetted by discrimination.


A few blocks away from the Hyde Park area once-splendid houses are now in total disrepair because the neighbourhood has one down and been abandoned

The financially unavoidable but politically unpopular cause of metropolitan government is still far away for Chicago. The idea that the energy shortage will make everyone move back into the city is trounced by the trend of jobs moving to the suburbs. If city and suburbs form one tax base and all take their share of the poor, however, the possibility of ‘escape’ is dissolved.

The Gautreaux decision goes a long way toward commanding scattering public housing. Yet the court (dominated by conservative Nixon appointees) left a big loophole. It said suburbs could still regulate their own zoning despite its effect. For example, one wealthy Chicago suburb requires three acres of land per home. No government will pay the requisite costs to put poor people there. An Illinois regional planning body tried to use its advisory powers last year to encourage a Chicago suburb to accept low-income housing as a trade-off for its recommendation on an application for federal highways funds. The responding outrage threatens the very existence of that organisation but it points out the possibility of using not just housing but all federal subsidies as blackmail for accepting a fair share of the region’s poor. Another prime candidate for blackmail in Chicago is the water from Lake Michigan, much of which Chicago controls and which most suburbs need to survive. Meanwhile, private organisations like the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities are slowly moving the black middle class into neighbourhoods and suburbs that, left alone, would violate the open housing laws with the active co-operation of the real estate industry. Within the city, a number of things have begun to happen to curb what is palled white flight. A coalition of neighbourhood groups across the country, begun in Chicago by a smart, determined woman named Gale Cincotta, has lobbied Chicago, Illinois and the federal government into passing laws requiring financial institutions to disclose where their money comes from and where it invested. Aimed at, at least, exposing redlining, the lobbyists used tactics like wrapping red crepe paper around bank presidents’ homes to make their point. Further federal laws requiring these Institutions to reinvest some of their deposits in the neighbourhoods where the depositors live are under consideration. A good deal of credence could be given to the position that cities make illogical governmental entites and should be replaced by strong metropolitan umbrellas over small suburban and neighbourhood governments with strong local control of commumty services.

Chicago, like other American cities, is also experiencing a return of some of its upper middle class. They move into rundown neighbourhoods and fix up Victorian and other fine houses into showplaces. There is no ‘reversal’ of the exodus from the city but it appears to be slowing down, a statistic which is related as well to the outmigration from the North in general. The population decline means there is no technical shortage of housing in Chicago but not all existent housing is in spiffy condition. The latest city figures estimate over a million units in Chicago of which 6.4 per cent are vacant, 10.9 per cent are dilapidated, 14.5 per cent are deteriorated and in need of serious maintenance, 13.9 per cent in need of minor maintenance and 60.7 per cent are sound. Getting a definition of what exactly constitutes substandard or dilapidated is nigh on impossible but it has something to do with more than one person per room, lack of plumbing, caving in roofs and such like. At the moment, there are a million public and private housing rehabilitation programmes, non which is adequately financed. There is the federal Neighbourhood Housing Services making mortgages available in four marginal Chicago neighbourhoods and 29 cities across the country. There are local, federal and private programmes to fix up an sell the foreclosed .government-sponsored housing or to give them away or a anyone who will fix them up. There are demolition of unsafe buildings programmes and bank-sponsored high-risk loan pools.

There is even a free architectural service rehab partially sponsored by the local AIA. While new public housing in Chicago has been at a virtual standstill, there is still the question of what to do with the $563 million worth of buildings already in existence.


Lake Meadows is a moderate income housing scheme built with the help of federal mortgages. It was supposed to be integrated but is 80 per cent black. An attempt to revitalise the south side

CHA is Chicago’s biggest landlord with 43,000 units and 140,000 tenants (4½ per cent of the city). The last decade has seen many ‘modernisation’ programmes, some of which translate into special security programmes for Cabrini Green and Taylor Homes. They seem to be working in that the vacancy rates have dropped, although that could just as well reflect the current recession. In St Louis, the city went so far as to demolish its biggest high-rise public housing disaster – Pruitt-Igoe – no such plans have been announced in Chicago. President Carter has recently suggested funds for a renewed public housing programme with a total of over $2 million for Chicago. As the units would have to be built in white neighbourhoods, it is not clear whether CHA will apply. Whatever the effect locally, it indicates a big change from the Nixon-Ford policy which made money and programmes far more available to the working and middle lasses than to the poor. The lessons of the past decades clearly indicate that such money would either have to go into scattered, low-rise, small units spread throughout whole regions or to adequately funded rent assistance programmes coupled with vigorous open housing enforcement. In addition, the lessons indicate that a firm control on private real estate and financial institutions either by regulation or taking the profit out of exploitation through tax reform may be in order.

Ultimately, the real question is how to create an ‘up and out’ pattern in the lives of the poor. If the post-war era proves anything, it is that shelter is an insufficient catalyst. It is a question of some urgency not only to the egalitarians among us but to anyone with a shred of de Tocqueville’s enlightened self-interest. To have created and to maintain a large, impacted, easily distinguishable subgroup with little or nothing to lose is folly at the best. Homelessness, as was mentioned, is not the problem.

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