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Housing for poor: Reform advocates have it backwards


In 1900 Robert Hunter and the City Homes Association published their landmark Tenement Conditions in Chicago. After careful investigation Hunter and his associates described the deplorably overcrowded, unsanitary and crimeridden housing conditions of the city's poor. Calling the problem a clash between "the interests of the individual [landlord] and the needs of the community," the authors suggested reform measures to generate better housing. One possible alternative was for city condemnation of a whole block or street as a park from which a strip on each side would be sold to a private company who would erect model tenements under certain restrictions. This suggestion and others in the book stressed that redevelopment not rehabilitation was key to solving the housing crisis.

The people under scrutiny in Hunter's story were Italian, Jewish and Polish who were densely concentrated in ghettos on the city's near southwest and northwest sides. Almost a century later housing for Chicago's low-income residents (now mainly black, Hispanic and Appalachian white) remains an issue.

In late August Chicago Tribune urban affairs reporter John McCarron reexamined the housing issue in several sharply worded newspaper articles. Calling his series "Chicago on Hold: Politics of Poverty," McCarron linked the housing crisis to the overall goal of economic development. He suggested that "Chicago [was] being paralyzed by a self-serving political movement fueled by the fear of displacement and orchestrated by leaders determined to stop change in neighborhoods that need change the most."

McCarron charged that some current political and community leaders "maintain political and social control not by improving the lot of the poor but by posturing against it." In short the Tribune writer argued that aldermen like Tim Evans (4th Ward on the south side), Bill Henry (24th Ward on the west side) and Helen Shiller (46th Ward on the north side) wanted their constituents to remain poor, dependent and in place. In addition they wanted to prevent the building of new mixed-income housing that would bring in economically mobile and politically independent new residents.

With the 1989 mayoral election on the horizon McCarron's stories unleashed a storm of controversy. Evans, a leading mayoral contender, reacted angrily to McCarron's depiction of Evans' opposition to distinguished developer Ferd Kramer's proposed mixed-income housing development in his ward. The alderman said his opposition was based on his belief in community empowerment, neighborhood self-determination and minimal displacement. He also attacked the Tribune for "sneering at poor people and looking down their noses at what they call ghetto politics."

McCarron's series was an outstanding piece of journalism; actually it was a throwback to the old days of Chicago journalism when newspapers and their reporters routinely took controversial and adversarial positions on leading city issues. But he failed to emphasize one critical aspect of the housing and development issue: The city's educational and economic infrastructure is presently incapable of providing the wherewithal for its most needy citizens to take advantage of new development whether in housing or in employment. In 1900 there were manufacturing jobs readily available to help individuals and families lift themselves out of ghetto conditions. In 1988 these jobs are disappearing.

Based on this lack of education and economic infrastructure, anti-growth pols have the political and moral ammunition to defend the status quo. Recent near north, west and south side redevelopment around Chicago's Loop (called the Super

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Loop by Northwestern University urbanologist Lou Masotti) has resulted mainly in providing expensive housing for professional, yuppie types in these communities. The city faces the possibility of becoming white in its central business district, black in a ring around that core and white at its outer edges, especially in the far southwest and northwest sides.

Developers are correct when they label vacant or underutilized city land "as a potential tax base bonanza for the city treasury." They must recognize the fact, however, that a great many of Chicago's poor do not have the means to take advantage of either new housing or new jobs. Thus, the issue is not "to grow or not to grow"; the issue is "how to make it possible for a greater number of people to take advantage of growth."

Development must include housing for people with low and moderate incomes. New yuppie residents may increase the tax base when they move into the redeveloped projects in the city, but they also put incredible economic and racial pressure on the dwindling number of affordable, single-family neighborhood homes in Chicago.

In 1900 the ethnic poor's dream of a better life centered around economic and educational improvement for the entire family; once obtained, better housing would simply follow. In 1988 it is not enough to advocate a policy that merely shuffles poor people into better housing. Reform advocates have it backwards. By itself, such a policy will not end the root, historical causes of urban poverty in America: a lack of education and economic opportunity.

It must be remembered that renovation of old buildings in deteriorated neighborhoods has generally been a middle-to upper-class phenomena. When the poor become less poor they do not renovate, they escape to new neighborhoods with newer homes. For those unable to afford escape, their dreams of better housing are often pulled and punched and torn by opposing politicians and economic developiers.□

Paul M. Green is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Administration, Governors State University, and he is author of the book, Paul Green's Chicago, published by Illinois Issues.

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