Civilization is a method of living, an attitude of respect for all men.
— Jane Addams, founder of Hull House
As a sociologist interested in visual representation, I have been photographing the sites and projects of the Chicago Housing Authority — the municipal agency that since the late 1930s has directed the planning and development of the city’s public housing. I have been focusing especially on its ongoing Plan for Transformation. Begun in 2000, the Plan is the latest of many efforts — from Hull House in the late 19th century to the New Deal reforms of the 1930s to the high-rise projects that characterized the postwar years — to provide publicly funded housing for the impoverished. But the record has been mixed at best, and over the years public perception has shifted, from viewing subsidized housing as a pathway to a better future to condemning it as an almost unmitigated failure.
The Plan for Transformation is premised on the conviction that the mid 20th-century public high-rise developments — Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor Homes, Henry Horner Homes, etc. — eventually exacerbated the problems they were intended to address. In the past decade more than 100 buildings have been demolished, and the CHA has overseen the construction of mixed-income neighborhoods which consist largely of low-rise housing and comprise both subsidized and market-rate units.
To date the Plan for Transformation’s own record is mixed. The townhouse developments that have replaced the high-rise projects have faced persistent challenges, from the crash of the overall housing market to the social tensions of integrating different socioeconomic groups. Some market-rate tenants have found it hard to overcome cultural biases, e.g., misinterpreting barbecues as drug parties. Some of the displaced public housing residents have found it difficult to meet the eligibility criteria of the mixed-income housing (e.g., screening for income level, criminal records, etc.); maintaining residency has been a struggle for some low-income tenants.
These tensions have been intensified by one of the fundamental aspects of the Plan for Transformation: the CHA is not replacing all of the units that it has torn down. As a result, the city’s poorest people continue to struggle to find housing.