After the Projects

By 2050, the United Nations estimates that 86% of the developed world’s population will live in urban areas. Currently, low wage, full-time employment fails to provide adequate income to affordably rent market-rate housing in almost any large American city, yet only one in four renters receives a housing subsidy. Further reinforcing structural challenges for the poor, more than a quarter of low-income American renters spend more than half of their household wages on housing costs. Intensifying urbanization and concentration of the population around high cost of living urban economic hubs; gentrification; and the persistent underfunding and dismantling of our nation’s urban public housing beg the question: with access to social and economic opportunities, where and how should the poorest Americans be housed?

Lawrence Vale’s After the Projects: Public Housing Redevelopment and the Governance of the Poorest Americans (Oxford University Press), delves into the historically-rooted cultural complexity of housing and urban development policy to reveal the urgency of low-income housing insecurity in the United States. Vale, MIT’s Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning, draws upon more than two decades of research and action-oriented work to map the networks of political, economic, and cultural factors that inform how particular neighborhoods enact or resist redevelopment efforts. Vale examines how aligned collections of critical players (or “stars”) come together to form “governance constellations” that shape what sorts of policies can be implemented at the local level. These constellations orient themselves around one of four basic types of polestar locations: the public sector (“Publica Major”), the private sector (“The Big Developer”), the non-profit sector (“Nonprofitus”), and the community sector (“Plebs”). Particular constellations, forged over the course of a long political history, shape—and have been shaped by-- local attitudes towards community empowerment. In turn, these help explain widely divergent decisions about how much low-income public housing will be advocated or tolerated in any particular urban neighborhood. Public housing practices differ markedly from city to city and, collectively, reveal a great deal about American attitudes about poverty and how the poorest should be governed. After the Projects is a first-ever look at the range of outcomes from the U.S. federal government’s HOPE VI program for public housing transformation. By providing nuanced accounts of four very different ways of implementing this same national initiative--in New Orleans, Boston, Tucson, and San Francisco-- Vale offers insights to the challenges and successes forged by developers, policymakers, advocates, and activists attempting to address American housing policy, welfare reforms and urban development.

Q1. After the Projects completes an informal quartet of books you have written about the history, design, and politics of public housing (following From the Puritans to the Projects; Reclaiming Public Housing; and Purging the Poorest). What initially drew you to the study of public housing and what continues to drive your passion for the subject?

Vale: I grew up near the Cabrini-Green public housing development in Chicago and was told to avoid that place. So, naturally, as an adult I was drawn to it. My family lived in an 11th-floor apartment but it was in a safe and well-managed building, so I knew that high-rise architecture could not be the source of Cabrini’s stigma. Instead, I found myself pulled further back into history, seeking to understand the complex origins of racial and class tension, not just in Chicago but elsewhere. Building design is inextricably intertwined with political designs-- decisions about who is welcome where. Early promoters of public housing regarded it as a kind of reward for upwardly-mobile barely-poor households. Rather than a place to consolidate a city’s poorest residents, it was instead seen as a way to purge the poorest denizens from neighborhoods judged to be slums, and to replace them with a more morally deserving kind of citizen. By the 1960s, after white working-class families stopped applying because other public policies granted such households financially attractive options elsewhere, public housing devolved into an extension of the welfare state, a kind of ‘housing of last resort’ that it was never intended to be. And, then, with the advent of the HOPE VI program in the 1990s, many city leaders saw an opportunity to try to forcibly return public housing back to its original reward model as a haven for the “best” of the poor—those with stable work and stable families. At the same time, some people in some places successfully advocated for less discriminatory and more inclusionary practices. I continue to find these neighborhood-based contestations fascinating. So that’s why I’ve spent so long trying to understand the social and moral complexity of this particular subject. The deeply fraught American experience with public housing provides windows into power relations, racial and gender discrimination, and community organizing. It reveals the possibilities—and limitations—of architecture and urban planning. Public housing invites critical reflection about loaded policy terms like “entitlements” and “self-sufficiency.” It asks us to reconsider the boundaries between public and private and to ponder the manufactured tensions between rooted communities and the hubris of those who think they always know what is best for others. And at a more visceral level it is about the difference between respect and disrespect.

Q2. Would a shift of the governance of redevelopment – who is allowed to stay, who is excluded – away from paternalistic models, and into community-led efforts produce more equitable results? If so, what levers do we have to help this shift?

Vale: The most encouraging thing I have found is that past community-led efforts don’t necessarily remain in the past. Memories are long-lasting, especially memories of past injustices. The cities that now boast the strongest roles for community-based nonprofits and empowered tenants got that way because a previous generation pushed back against the past excesses of urban renewal residential displacement. Once given voice, those kinds of institutions—things like not-for-profit housing developers, service agencies, legal aid bureaus, and resident councils—can help forge the kind of collective norm-setting that makes for a well-governed community. Public housing tenants would be the first to say that certain disruptive households should never be allowed back into their community following its redevelopment. But such residents also make clear that their former neighbors should not be denied the right to return simply because they have a poor credit score.

Q3. In After the Projects, you demonstrate how the historical context - specifically a region’s experience with urban renewal and acts of resistance/activism - shape how they respond to the opportunities and challenges presented by HOPE VI. For future public sector interventions in lives at the social and economic margins in the U.S., what legacies do you envision in the HOPE VI communities?

Vale: Just as a backlash against the excesses of urban renewal helped create some more positive incarnations of HOPE VI redevelopment efforts, I see signs of a backlash against the excesses of HOPE VI. This happened first with the Obama-era “Choice Neighborhoods” Initiative, which required that communities replace lost public housing units on a one-for-one basis—a clear rebuke to the HOPE VI practices that so frequently entailed large-scale displacement. Other newer policies, such as the Rental Assistance Demonstration (known by its RAD acronym), leverage private sector funding for extensive rehabilitation or replacement of public housing, while also mandating that existing tenants be able to remain. Finally, there has been some initial progress in funding a national Housing Trust Fund that could, if expanded, provide billions from outside of the HUD budget to expand the kind of housing construction that serves the lowest income families. While I think there will be protracted community resentments and tensions stemming from many HOPE VI redevelopment initiatives, I am optimistic that other new initiatives will eventually prevail. Call it my own Hope number seven!

Members of the DUSP community know Vale’s reputation as an expert of clever puns, adroitly woven into discussions, panels, teaching, and conversations to remind us all – no matter how serious or difficult a topic we are tackling – that an occasional smile and a laugh are important elements for any creative purpose. When we had a chance to sit down with Vale for this interview, we could not resist a fourth question about his famous wit.

Q4. Whimsical, witty, yet apropos section titles that are prototypical of your humor are frequent in After the Projects. How do balance levity with the gravity of these academic subjects and do you have any recommendations for aspiring academics?

Vale: Humor is about more than just not taking oneself too seriously. It’s about developing a less predictable and more engaged dialogue with another person. Good writing must attract and retain good readers, and injecting humor into serious topics must do so without flippancy or hint of disrespect. If I write about displacement during public housing redevelopment as a matter of “out of site, out of mind” it is not meant to diminish the impact of being denied a promised return to a new home; it is meant to underscore that reality in a pithier way. I want to engage in wordplay only if it thickens the accuracy, rather than distracts.

Words exist not just to argue with but to play with. Tucson built a public housing project called “La Reforma”—how could one not use this as an entree into discussion of reforms? Similarly, one could write a droning chapter title about “Resident Experiences and Management Practices in Redeveloped Housing” or more actively label the same material “inhabiting and inhibiting.” The trick is to avoid the drone without prompting the groan. In San Francisco, an irrepressible mayor exhibits the “Will of Willie Brown;” in New Orleans, it was not just that Walmart landed on top of and adjacent to public housing, it was about “supersizing retail while shrinking public housing.”

In my work, I have frequently been drawn to rather dark subjects, so seeking out and speaking out moments of humor, or at least irony, seems especially urgent. In addition to spending 25 years writing about the struggles of public housing, I did a dissertation and first book about the limits of civil defense planning in the face of nuclear attack, and co-edited another volume about the complexity of recovery from disaster (The Resilient City). And I wrote a book about the architectural and urbanistic overreach of insecure national governments building new capital cities (Architecture, Power, and National Identity). But I am not interested merely in calling out powerful people behaving badly. There are all too many scholars that I call negatologists; I like to think of myself as an optimist—but a critical one. I am a critical optimist because I frequently find myself asking questions like: How do we do difficult things well? And who is the best ‘we’ to do that?


Image credits: Protests against River Garden Management by Annemarie Gray, via After the Projects; Orchard Park, Boston MA (1993); Orchard Gardens, Lawrence Vale; Cabrini-Green public housing complex by William Brubaker via Wikimedia Commons and University of Illinois at Chicago, Library, Special Collections Department; additional photos courtesy of Lawrence Vale and Takeo Kuwabara.