What went wrong with public housing in Chicago? A history of the Robert Taylor homes
Hunt, D Bradford
The largest concentration of public housing in America stands in a four-mile procession along Chicago’s State Street, south of the city’s central business district. Each project (five in all) grows successively more intimidating and imposing in scale, climaxing with the massive Robert Taylor Homes – 28 identical, 16-story high-rises, containing over 4,400 apartments. Named after the Chicago Housing Authority’s first African American chairman, the Robert Taylor Homes opened in 1962 as the largest single public housing project in the country, housing 27,000 people when fully occupied, more than 20,000 of them children, and nearly all of them African American.1
In 1965, three years after the project’s opening, the Chicago Daily News ran a six-part series describing conditions that horrified readers. Taylor residents, the series explained, faced a daily nightmare of broken elevators, erratic heat, excessive vandalism, and unsettling violence.2 By 1975, Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) budget crises, deepening maintenance woes, and escalating violence had driven out those with alternatives. That year, the CHA reported that one in eight units was vacant and 92% of Taylor’s families relied upon government assistance. Taylor had become a national symbol of public housing failure. In 1996, CHA initiated plans to tear down the entire complex; as of the summer of 2000, ten of Taylor’s 28 buildings had met the wrecking ball.3
What went wrong with the Robert Taylor Homes? How did a well-intentioned effort to house low-income families in a positive new environment instead produce the bleak, prison-like, demeaning warehouses for only the very poorest of black Chicagoans? Previous scholars have pointed to a formidable list of anti-public housing antagonists to explain the program’s failure in most cities. Racist white local politicians interfered with site decisions, forcing segregated “second ghetto” locations.4 Real estate interests blocked quality construction and limited eligibility, ensuring public housing’s second-class status.5 And modernist architects imposed untested design theories, creating dysfunctional, hideous, high-rises.6 The overriding conclusion of previous analysts is that public housing was basically a sound program that fell victim to forces beyond its control.
Recently opened archives of the Chicago Housing Authority provide new material for evaluating the policies that led to the construction of the Robert Taylor Homes, as well as the conditions that led to its ultimate failure.7 These archives point to explanations beyond external opposition and instead reveal internal policy weaknesses in the public housing program. Progressive administrators before and after World War II, motivated by an unassailably sincere desire to improve Chicago’s housing conditions, planned to tear down large swaths of the city deemed “slums” and rebuild with large-scale, high-density, often high-rise housing exclusively for lowincome families. By the mid-1950s, administrators in Chicago recognized some of the problems created by this approach, namely the use of elevator buildings for families with small children. But bureaucratic squabbling and obsession with cost in the late 1950s blocked the CHA’s efforts to reform its designs and build low-rise buildings. Importantly, the CHA proceeded reluctantly with high-rise designs when it began construction of Taylor in 1959. Once built, the CHA struggled to manage its sprawling project, as high youth densities, inadequate services, and maintenance failures created a demoralizing environment for tenants and staff alike. Decline came rapidly between 1967 and 1974, and Taylor spiraled downward into the city’s most visible public shame.
To unravel the demise of the Robert Taylor Homes, four key policy areas are analyzed: site selection, design, tenant selection, and management. Each policy area involves a critical question in Taylor’s history. First, why was Taylor built in its segregated, black belt location? Second, why were high-rises used? Third, how did the project come to concentrate high percentages of poor, female-headed families? Finally, why did the CHA fail to provide adequate services and properly maintain Taylor?
The Robert Taylor Homes is located firmly within the boundaries of Chicago’s pre-1950 south side “black belt” ghetto where African Americans since the turn of the century had been confined by residential segregation. The project covers 95 acres on a long but narrow site stretching two miles from 39th Street down to Garfield Boulevard (55th Street) and sandwiched between State Street and the Illinois Central Railroad four blocks to the west. Directly to the north lie the high-rises of the CHA’s Stateway Gardens complex, completed in 1958, five years before Taylor. To the east and south, Chicago’s black South Side expands for miles. On its western border, rail lines and the Dan Ryan Expressway whisk commuters past the long procession of Taylor’s high-rises.
The selection of this elongated ghetto site was not one decision, but instead the product of several in 1956. The choice came five years after a series of highly public battles between the liberal leaders of the Chicago Housing Authority and reactionary City Council Aldermen over the location of the first round of post-war public housing. These clashes have been well analyzed by Arnold Hirsch in his path breaking book, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940– 1960 (1983). The city’s aldermen, responding to the violent, racist opposition of Chicago whites to integration, blocked the CHA’s proposed sites on vacant land in outlying white areas. Instead, the Council in 1950 approved only sites in the black belt, thereby “making the second ghetto” on top of the first one. By the time Taylor’s site was chosen in a second round of selection in 1956, the City Council, Hirsch concludes, had thoroughly “domesticated” the CHA and used it to strengthen rather than weaken residential segregation.8
Hirsch’s story focuses primarily on the City Council’s rejection of outlying vacant land sites sought by the CHA’s progressive leadership, but he downplays the CHA’s stated post-war slum clearance intentions. From its founding in 1937, the CHA’s primary mission centered on clearing and rebuilding the city’s slums with large-scale public housing projects. Progressive housing reformers, including CHA Executive Director Elizabeth Wood (1937-1954) and CHA Chairman Robert Taylor (1943-1950), viewed most of Chicago’s 19th century neighborhoods as disorganized, disease-ridden, delinquency– prone areas that should be replaced with new environments of modem apartment complexes in park-like settings. Further, they understood the particularly difficult plight of African Americans, who had endured decades of overt discrimination, overcrowding, and generally poor housing conditions. In response, the CHA and the city marked off large swaths of the central city, including the entire black belt and some white ethnic neighborhoods as slum replacements.9
Included on planners’ maps was the eventual site of the Robert Taylor Homes, which had been known for years as the “Federal Street Slum” (after the street one block west of State).10 As early as 1940, the area’s Alderman, Earl Dickerson, suggested the site to city officials for clearance and redevelopment.11 City engineers soon after marked the neighborhood as the route for a superhighway, and until 1956, the Dan Ryan Expressway was planned to run right through the neighborhood and just east of the Illinois Central Tracks.12 Housing conditions in the area were among the city’s worst, with the 1950 census finding “no private bath or dilapidation” at rates ranging from 80% to 46% among the five census tracts involved. Most of the buildings in the area consisted of two- and three-flat apartment buildings, three-quarters of which had been built before 1900. Roughly a third of the units were overcrowded by 1950 standards.13 Any effort to rid Chicago of its worst housing conditions would necessarily involve a clearing of the Federal Street Slum.
The CHA revealed its post-war slum clearance intentions in its 1949 plan for a massive expansion of public housing. The plan envisioned the building of 40,000 units of public housing in just six years, a quadrupling of the size of the CHA. Because of the city’s severe housing shortage, Wood divided the plan into 25,000 units on slum sites and 15,000 units on vacant land. The vacant land units, she argued, were necessary to help quickly relocate residents so the primary mission of clearance and rebuilding could proceed in a timely fashion. But the plan amounted to a vast remaking of the black belt. Even if only half of the 25,000 units intended for slum areas were placed in black neighborhoods (where the bulk of dilapidated housing conditions existed), the task involved building roughly eight more projects the size of the 1,660-unit Ida B. Wells Homes, then the CHA’s largest, covering 12 city blocks. Moreover, Wood envisioned the 40,000 total units in six years as only a start; the CHA estimated the city’s need “at a bare minimum” to be 87,000 units.4 Had it been unobstructed in its plans, the CHA would arguably have built more high-density public housing within the old black belt than exists today. However, political battles, bureaucratic delays, and relocation difficulties prevented the completion of the CHA’s post-war plans. Even with the opening of Taylor in 1962, post-war slum site construction amounted to just 14,800 units – well below Wood’s goal of 25,000 – though nearly all of these were in black neighborhoods. In all, the CHA built less than 20,000 units of family public housing apartments after the war.
A further element of the CHA’s site selection intentions shows another concept that, in easy hindsight, can be viewed as flawed. Elizabeth Wood and her planners argued for large-scale projects amounting to hundreds if not thousands of units and disliked smaller, scattered developments. “Planning must be bold and comprehensive – or it is useless and wasted,” she wrote in 1945. “If it is not bold, the result will be a series of small projects, islands in a wilderness of slums…”15 She proposed “extensions” to existing projects as a way to “protect” these smaller developments from surrounding slums.16 For instance, on the north side, the CHA selected the initial Cabrini Homes site in 1939, and then proposed additions in 1949 and 1953. The resulting Cabrini-Green complex totaled 3,600 units. Similarly, the CHA expanded the original Jane Addams Homes (1938) into another 3,650-unit complex through four additions.17 The 4,400-units Taylor complex, while larger than these previous conglomerations, was not a gross aberration in size by CHA standards. The choice to build large-scale developments proved to be problematic, as it helped concentrate, isolate, and stigmatize public housing residents, with the distinction between the “project” and the rest of the neighborhood clear and unmistakable.
But Elizabeth Wood did not select the site for the Robert Taylor Homes. After fighting courageously but in vain in 1950 for a portion of public housing on vacant land sites in white areas, Wood faced an unfriendly City Council unwilling to approve any new sites – black or white – for more public housing. She turned her efforts toward integrating several all-white projects, but after a year of white rioting over the introduction of a handful of African Americans to the Trumbull Park Homes on the south side, the Mayor and the CHA Commissioners engineered Wood’s ouster in 1954.(18) Ironically, Wood’s firing cleared the way for a public housing program to resume. Her successor, former General William B. Kean, repaired relations with the City Council in late 1954 and proceeded to select new sites for an additional 6,800 units as a step towards reaching Wood’s 40,000-unit goal.19
In February 1956, Kean proposed two sites in the Federal Street slum as the core of the future Taylor Homes. The sites lay between 43rd and 51st Streets, separated only by an industrial site that would be purchased by the Park District for park space, and together they could hold 2,500 units at moderate densities.20 But the two sites were soon expanded with new additions. During City Council proceedings in March, Alderman William Harvey, representing the Taylor area, added a third tract to the north along State Street, while subtracting a different CHA site proposed elsewhere in his ward that was sought by urban renewal interests.21 Harvey, a protege of Congressman William Dawson, had not been denied the aldermanic veto power over sites offered to white Council members; he had removed one site proposed by Kean in 1955 after hearing objections from middle-class blacks. Had he desired, he might have been able to reject the Taylor site, but he did not. Harvey and Chicago’s other black aldermen in the mid1950s embraced public housing as a positive redevelopment of their overcrowded and dilapidated black belt neighborhoods.22 Harvey told the Chicago American, “I favor the two projects proposed. And they’re just a drop in the bucket of what’s needed.”23
Harvey’s addition created a mammoth site for more than 3,000 units stretching from Pershing Road (39th) down to 51st Street along Federal and State Streets. But the site grew still further in July when Kean asked the City Council to extend the Taylor site four additional blocks south to 54th Street, adding another 1,000 units to the project.24
The addition came after the loss of a different site due to the rerouting of the future Dan Ryan expressway to accommodate the Taylor site. Kean desperately needed to find room for the 6,800 units granted by Washington in 1955 and 1956. Without more sites, the CHA would have to forfeit millions in federal dollars. With vacant white areas closed off by City Council action, Kean returned to the Federal Street Slum to find available space. The Taylor site, now projected at roughly 4,000 units, stretched fifteen blocks down south State Street and had become the largest public housing site in America.
Voices against the CHA’s 1955 and 1956 black belt sites, including the massive Taylor site, were few. In Washington, federal officials remained unwilling to intervene on local site selection matters. However, in the spring of 1956, senior PHA administrator and longtime New Dealer Warren Vinton admitted that sites had grown too big. “We now believe it is better to have smaller projects,” he told local housing authorities. He explained that “a very large public housing project of say 1,500 to 2,000 families” would form a neighborhood consisting of “wholly under-privileged families, rather than a healthy, democratic admixture of families of different economic levels.”25 But Vinton was merely suggesting – not directing – and the PHA never formally objected to Taylor’s size. In Chicago, liberal public housing supporters retreated from view after Wood’s firing, and only the business– dominated Metropolitan Planning and Housing Council objected to Taylor’s location, fearing the density of public housing along State Street would threaten nearby urban renewal projects. The Chicago Defender expressed muted concern that CHA officials “were substituting expediency for the exercise of sound planning judgment” and were “taking the path of least resistance” in selecting sites.26
In many respects, the Defender’s criticism hit the mark. The loss of other sites led Kean and Harvey to expand Taylor without reflecting on the density of public housing along State Street. Kean clearly had hoped for additional sites elsewhere, but the CHA felt a strong need to take full advantage of available federal dollars to tear down slums and improve the city’s housing conditions. The Taylor site, patched together haphazardly in 1956 but consisting of areas with severe slums, represented a logical continuation of the CHA’s long-term clearance and rebuilding mission.
Even more than its segregated black belt location, the design of the Robert Taylor Homes has received justifiable opprobrium from critics. The 28 identical high-rises create an oppressively monotonous project of monstrous proportions. The design problems of public housing have been blamed largely on architects’ allegiance to post-war modernist theories.27 But modernism’s role in public housing’s shape and aesthetic has been exaggerated. Federal obsession with costs and not architectural fads explain Taylor’s disastrous design. CHA and federal records reveal a four-year feud between Chicago and Washington officials over the cost and shape of public housing. Surprisingly and tragically, CHA officials understood the drawbacks of high-rises and sought to use low-rise designs for projects built after 1955, including Taylor. But federal officials rejected the CHA’s plans as too expensive and in 1959 forced the use of highrise shapes which today haunts Chicago.
Since the start of the public housing program in 1937, federal officials had kept a close eye on construction costs. The 1937 Housing Act included a statutory cost limit per unit – exclusive of land costs in response to perceived excesses in previous federal efforts. But the U.S. Housing Authority’s first director, Nathan Straus (the public housers’ choice to head the agency), deliberately wrote agency rules to insure that costs stayed well below the legally mandated limits.28 After the war, PHA Commissioner John Taylor Egan – a Truman appointee, architect, and public housing advocate – continued the concern with costs and imposed restrictive new standards which shrank room sizes and increased density. He rejected plans in several cities that exceeded arbitrary per-unit costs, including the cost of slum clearance.29 Local officials accused Egan of operating with a “fear psychosis,” but he functioned in a fragile political climate, as ideological opposition in Congress continued to threaten the program’s existence.30 Egan’s successor, Charles Slusser, a former Mayor of Akron, realtor, and lukewarm public housing supporter, set a total cost limit of $17,000 per unit in 1957, including land costs – a level roughly on a par with the purchase price of new single-family housing built in suburban areas.31 Significantly, Egan and Slusser’s concern with total per-unit costs was not required by law, which excluded land costs from statutory cost limits. But the potentially damaging comparison with private sector housing drove federal policy.
As a result of these policies, the CHA in the 1950s had little choice but to build high-density elevator buildings. Higher densities could reduce total per-unit costs by diluting land acquisition and slum clearance expenses across a greater number of units. Further, the marginal cost of each additional floor of a high-rise building was relatively low. Even without these restrictions, the CHA’s leadership in the early 1950s was attracted to high-rise forms. Influenced by French architect Le Corbusier’s “City in the Park” ideas, with apartment towers surrounded by open space, Elizabeth Wood voluntarily “experimented,” in her words, with elevator buildings for a set of projects funded with city and state money (and thus exempt from federal regulation).32 But in 1951, under criticism from friend and public houser Catherine Bauer, she admitted her unease with the handful of recently completed CHA high rises. “I wish we had had enough experiences with high-rise buildings so that I could make any kind of a judgment.”33
By 1955 CHA administrators had sufficient experience to recognize the livability problems associated with elevator buildings. High-density living, discipline difficulties, and elevator breakdowns created major strains on both families and management. Years before Jane Jacobs and others criticized high-rises, the CHA in 1955 sought to stop building multi-story elevator buildings and instead find a way to develop low-rise, walkup buildings.34 Kean’s planners came up with a four-story “row-on-row” concept for future CHA projects. This walk-up design envisioned one layer of two-story row houses on top of an identical layer of row houses. In late 1955, the PHA approved the new approach.35 Two months later, however, the PHA changed its mind, objecting to inefficiencies in the row-on-row concept.36 Following two years of slow negotiations, the PHA relented in July 1957 and agreed to the CHA proposal, provided that the CHA could meet the $17,000 cost ceiling.37 But by this time construction costs had risen, and the CHA knew it could not build its design on slum land within $17,000. The PHA held firm and told the CHA to redesign its projects. After further debate and delay, the CHA capitulated in February 1959, having no choice but to increase density and use high-rise designs in order to meet the PHA’s cost demands.38
But the argument between Chicago and Washington continued through 1959. When the CHA sent federal officials its new high– rise plans in April, the PHA again labeled the plans extravagant. They argued that the CHA’s open-air gallery design, providing outdoor access to apartments, forced expensive engineering. Instead, federal officials insisted on high rises designed around a central enclosed (indoor) hallway. After more negotiations, the CHA again persuaded the PHA to back off and allow it to proceed with bids. However, bids opened in early July exceeded the PHA’s $17,000 limit.39
As frustrations mounted, CHA Executive Director Alvin Rose (1957-1968) asked for Mayor Richard J. Daley’s help. Daley had been kept informed of the CHA’s embarrassing delays, as sites had been cleared but left empty while awaiting federal design approval. In February 1958, he traveled to Washington to lobby, unsuccessfully, for the CHA’s low-rise proposal. When the PHA continued to cause grief for the CHA in 1959, Daley used his next appearance before Congress in July to publicly criticize the federal agency. After blasting the PHA’s “time-consuming practices” and its about-face on the row-on-row design, Daley explained how the CHA wanted to avoid the use of high-rise designs but had been stymied by bureaucracy. He told the Senators, “We have constant harassment and difference of opinion on architectural plans in the desire to try to improve what is now public housing, in the desire to make it not only high risers [sic] but also walkup and row houses.” Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois praised Daley and suggested that the PHA was going so far as to force the CHA into building high-rises.”
PHA officials privately seethed at Daley’s criticisms, and in response they submitted to Congress a cost comparison between plans for two high-rise projects: New York’s latest development and Chicago’s Washington Park Homes, one of the six projects at issue. The comparison showed the CHA’s plans to be significantly more expensive than New York’s. After adjusting for various factors in each city, CHA costs amounted to $21,135 per unit compared to only $16,915 in New York.41 Land costs could not account for these differences; Chicago’s per unit land costs were similar to New York’s. The PHA pointed to “exorbitant design concepts,” while a CHA committee blamed PHA regulations for inflated bids from the few firms willing to make an offer. Both sides agreed that inefficient labor practices in Chicago added to costs.42 Remarkably, the PHA also agreed with the CHA’s conclusion that large low-income families were best served in row houses. Tragically, the PHA explained to Congress that “this cannot be done on expensive slum sites within approvable cost limits.”43 The only way out of the high-rise problem was either for Washington to accept high costs or for Chicago to find cheaper, vacant land. The first was unacceptable to the Eisenhower administration; the second anathema to Chicago politicians unwilling to elicit a white backlash.
A further factor contributing to high costs for the CHA’s designs was its decision to build a high proportion of large apartments with three, four, and five bedrooms. Substituting smaller one– bedroom apartments for the larger ones could have lowered costs per unit. But families with many children presented the most difficult housing problems; the private market offered few affordable, standard apartments to such families. Elizabeth Wood recognized this problem in the early 1950s, as large families faced the longest waits but the greatest needs. During Kean’s tenure the trend worsened; meanwhile, the CHA struggled to fill its existing one-bedroom units.44 As a result, the CHA’s plans called for 79% of units at Taylor to have three or more bedrooms. By contrast, older projects like Ida B. Wells (1941) had only 11% of its units with three bedrooms, and even at Cabrini Extension (1958), a high-rise project planned by Wood, the equivalent figure was only 40%.(45) Unwilling to build smaller apartments it would struggle to rent, the CHA continued to hold out for large apartments, despite the added cost.
Following the Senate hearings and Daley’s public criticism, PHA head Slusser invited the Mayor and the CHA’s board to Washington to settle the controversy. The Chicago delegates entered the September 3, 1959, meeting still hoping to convince the PHA to accept higher costs so that the four-story, row-on-row design might be used. But Slusser would not budge, and only agreed that the PHA would refrain from meddling in CHA’s design choices so long as the CHA would find a way to produce plans whose bids came in at less than $17,000 per unit. Faced with PHA recalcitrance, the CHA again reluctantly surrendered and now had no choice but to build highrises at six future projects, amounting to nearly 10,000 units, including 4,400 units for Taylor.46 In February 1960, the CHA presented federal officials with a slightly modified version of its earlier gallery high-rise design, a plan CHA miraculously projected to cost $16,905 per unit.47 The PHA gave its approval, bids came in under $17,000, and construction of a string of disastrous projects began in 1960.11
The high-rise design of the Robert Taylor Homes was not purely a product of modernist architecture theories, and the design cannot be blamed entirely on Mayor Daley’s desire to “warehouse” the poor. Instead, Chicago’s insistence on using expensive black belt slum sites and the PHA’s shortsighted political concern with costs led to the use of high-rises. Daley did nothing to challenge public housing’s black belt locations, nor did he provide leadership that might have opened up vacant land sites in white areas for more low-rise, row house projects. But his efforts on behalf of low-rise alternatives for Chicago’s slum clearance projects have gone unnoticed. Tragically, Daley, the CHA, and the PHA all understood that low-rise rowhouses were far superior for large families with children.
When the Robert Taylor Homes opened in the fall of 1962, the CHA had little doubt that its residents would be entirely African American. The project’s location in the black belt meant that few low-income whites would move in; nor did the CHA encourage them, having largely given up attempts to sustain integration at other projects in the mid-1950s.(49) But the intense concentration of poverty that characterized Taylor residents by the mid-1970s was not a planned or intended outcome. How the project slid from “lowincome housing” in the 1960s to “housing of last resort” by the late 1970s is a complex and previously under-studied story. The decline can be attributed in part to CHA’s internal weaknesses, but external economic and market changes played a larger role in undermining the possibility of sustaining a viable working-class community.
Importantly, the initial tenants of Taylor were predominantly working-class, two-parent families with low but not impoverished incomes. In 1963, two parents headed roughly two-thirds of Taylor’s families. Roughly half were working-class and received no government benefits, while a third relied on the federal government’s primary welfare program, Aid to Dependent Children (ADC). The remainder received other forms of federal aid, including Old Age Assistance, Social Security, and Veterans benefits. With a median income of $12,700 (in 1984 dollars), Taylor residents earned about half as much as the average Chicago resident in 1963. These conditions, however, gave way in the late 1960s, as the chart illustrates.50 Taylor’s tenant base underwent a dramatic decline in socioeconomic status in a mere seven years. Between 1967 and 1974, the percentage of working-class families fell from 50% to 10%, while reliance on ADC shot up from 36% to 83%. The mass exodus of twoparent, working-class families and their replacement with non-working, female-headed families caused the bulk of the change, though an unknown portion of existing residents shifted from work to welfare status. With the loss of working-class wages and with the failure of welfare benefits to keep pace with inflation in the 1970s, average incomes at Taylor plunged after 1969. The CHA was not alone in experiencing these trends, though in Chicago they occurred more rapidly and with greater severity than in other cities.51
Several previous explanations for the nationwide decline in public housing tenant incomes do not appear to apply to the case of Taylor or the CHA in general.52 First, income limits on eligibility originally put in place at the insistence of real estate interests to ensure low-income occupancy – did not have the effect of blocking large numbers of higher income families who wanted admission. Despite increases in the income limits in 1968, few working-class or middle-income families applied.53 Second, the “Brooke Amendment” of 1969 – federal legislation mandating tenants pay no more than 25% (later 30%) of their income towards rent – did not immediately have a negative impact on tenants. The CHA charged working-class families a modified “flat” rent so that working-class families did not get hit with a rent increase with each wage raise.54
If these policies had little effect, screening policies did factor into the CHA’s tenant woes. Since its earliest days, the CHA screened out and rejected families for “general undesirability,” poor housekeeping, criminal records, and poor rent-paying ability, though single mothers reliant on welfare were not rejected on that status alone. Data on screening is hard to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests a drop in standards, beginning in the 1960s. Part of the drop was caused by the sheer number of applications to be processed. Between 1961 and 1963, the CHA filled over 9,000 new apartments; annual turnover required reviewing an additional three to four thousand applications. The Chicago Daily News reported that the CHA in 1963 had rushed to fill the last three buildings at Taylor without proper screening. These last buildings, set in a narrow U-shape and known to residents as “The Hole,” experienced some of the project’s worst violence.56 Beyond the bureaucratic challenge involved in screening, a string of court decisions beginning in 1967, followed by new HUD regulations, significantly constricted the power of local housing authorities to reject or remove tenants.57 The new rules required administrative hearings in all such cases. As a result, managers grew increasingly reluctant to challenge admission or to evict.58
Still, screening problems cannot account for the dramatic plunge in tenant fortunes. Larger economic and market forces beyond the CHA’s control played far more substantial roles in the socioeconomic decline of Taylor’s tenants. First, employment opportunities for African Americans diminished in the early 1970s, as unionized jobs in Chicago’s stockyards and steel mills disappeared.59 Second, welfare reforms in the late 1960s ended abuses by state bureaucrats but greatly expanded the ADC rolls.60 Third, CHA budget problems in the early 1970s, triggered in part by the decline in tenant incomes, created maintenance shortfalls in areas such as plumbing and elevator maintenance, significantly undermining quality of life, particularly in the high rises. Fourth, and most important, the housing shortage that had plagued African Americans in the 1950s and early 1960s largely eased, allowing the working-class new housing options. The entire Chicago housing market experienced rapid filtering during the 1960s, as working-class blacks moved into neighborhoods vacated by whites fleeing to outlying areas. In the ghetto, where most public housing projects were located, wholesale abandonment became a primary concern.61 In the 1940s and 1950s, the CHA could count on a steady stream of working-class black applicants, who faced pervasive shortages, overcrowding, and discrimination in the private market. But with these barriers eased (though far from entirely lifted) in the 1960s, the working-class soon lost interest in the CHA’s least desirable projects, namely its dense high-rise buildings. While low-rise projects still had long waiting lists, families with options refused offers of apartments at Taylor.62 Seeking to reduce vacancies and increase rental revenue, the CHA by the early 1970s filled its undesirable high-rises with those most desperate for housing, the vast majority of whom were female-headed families reliant on ADC.
One other element of Taylor’s demographics contributed greatly to the exodus of working-class families and to the quality of life problems at the project. The decision in the 1950s to include a high proportion of large apartments created a community with a youth population unlike any other in the city. The average city of Chicago census tract in 1960 had 2.3 adults for every minor under age 21. Even the lowest ratio for any tract without public housing was 1.2 adults per minor. But at Taylor, with 4,500 units covering five census tracts, the ratio came to 0.37.(63) That is, there were nearly three children for every adult in the project. In most neighborhoods, large families could be balanced by retired couples, unmarried adults, and small families. But in public housing, the concentration of youth with inadequate numbers of adults invited vandalism and gang activity, an endemic problem at Taylor within only a few years of its opening.64
The Robert Taylor Homes’ disadvantages in its slum location, its high-rise design, and its concentration of impoverished children might have been overcome or ameliorated by careful management and a commitment to high quality social services. But the CHA had neither the administrative capacity nor the funds to sustain control over its largest project. Management problems plagued Taylor almost from its opening in 1962. Its sheer size and concentration of impoverished children strained the project’s facilities, tenants, and staff. By the 1970s, chronic budget crises compounded problems, triggering deferred maintenance, inadequate services, and sometimes destructive responses from shortchanged tenants. Taylor entered a downward spiral from which it never recovered.
Several management problems resulted directly from poor engineering, particularly in essential components such as heating systems and elevators. At Taylor, the project’s heating system typified the daily management problems facing the CHA. To cut costs, CHA planners selected a heating system untried in public housing that used water at 400 degrees kept in a liquid state by 400 pounds of pressure per square inch. During construction, two workers were killed when a pipe exploded. The volatile system failed frequently, resulting in loss of heat to residents during winter months. In 1974, after four years of discussion, the heating plant was scrapped entirely and replaced with a more conventional system at a cost of $14 million.65
Equally serious were dangerous and broken elevators. Taylor’s gallery design left elevator shafts relatively exposed to harsh Chicago winters, and breakdowns routinely crippled buildings. In 1963, the death of three children in a fire was blamed on a faulty elevator that forced firemen to walk up 14 flights.66 By 1967, the CHA admitted to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that its tenants had made numerous complaints about breakdowns and “unsanitary and unsightly conditions” in elevators, but the CHA offered no realistic solution to the problem.67 In the late 1970s, audits discovered that Otis and Westinghouse elevator maintenance repair crews had performed substandard work, padded work orders, and systematically defrauded the CHA while leaving elevators out of service for extended periods. The CHA lacked staff qualified to supervise its elevator contract, leaving it at the mercy of private mechanics while residents suffered.68
Vandalism and more serious crimes proved a constant problem as gangs overwhelmed Taylor’s private security force of 40 men within a few years of opening. In 1966, the CHA began discussions with the Chicago Police Department on the feasibility of assigning officers to patrol permanently its three most dangerous developments: Taylor, Cabrini-Green, and the Henry Horner Homes. The police department recommended 160 officers at an annual cost of $1.4 million. But the CHA’s appeal for federal assistance netted only enough money for 76 officers, who could be efficiently assigned only to Cabrini and Horner. Taylor was left with its ineffective 40-man security force, and security continued as a major concern.69 By the late 1960s, inadequate police protection led to increasing incidences of burglary, rape, and murder, and press reports fueled the image of a project out of control.70 In 1966, the CHA proposed fencing in Taylor’s open-air galleries after youths threw objects from galleries to crowded playgrounds, resulting in numerous injuries and several deaths. The CHA completed the task in the early 1970s, giving an unsettling “prison” appearance to Taylor’s exterior.71
The CHA’s efforts to provide social services to tenants proved pathetically and tragically insufficient. In a 1964 letter asking for federal permission to build more playgrounds at Taylor, the CHA reported that “children lined up seven and eight deep just waiting to use a piece of play equipment [and] . . . upwards of 2,000 children may be cramped into one or two relatively small play areas.”72 The CHA leased apartments to numerous social agencies to provide services, but the level of activity never matched demand, as most programs were set up on an “experimental” basis.73 When the Chicago Public Library opened a single “Reading and Study Center” in a converted Taylor apartment in early 1969, residents quickly overwhelmed the facility, but only one additional apartment was added. A neighborhood settlement organization, the Firman House, launched an ambitious pre-school program with War on Poverty funds in 1965 for 425 pre-schoolers, but several thousand Taylor children were eligible.74
If the CHA could not cope with the extent of Taylor’s problems, other city agencies aggravated the situation. The Chicago School Board, headed by Daley ally Benjamin Willis, willfully underestimated the number of children that would be brought to neighborhood schools when Taylor opened, resulting in immediate overcrowding. The CHA notified the school system in early 1960 that it expected Taylor to add 10,583 elementary school children to the area in 1963. The School Board planned three new schools, but acknowledged that even with 35 children per room, only 7,765 students could be accommodated. When confronted in early 1962 with this discrepancy, school board staff claimed that the CHA had overestimated the number of students, that 40 students could be placed in each classroom, and that trailers (known derisively as Willis Wagons) could be set up in any event.75 The CHA solved the immediate crisis in 1962 by leasing the school board 56 first floor apartments for conversion to classrooms, a “temporary” solution that lasted ten years.76
By 1969 – six years after its opening – Taylor faced enormous problems with heat, security, services, schools, and occupancy. The rise of budget problems in the 1970s dashed any hope of using new resources to reverse these negative trends. The CHA’s budget woes had been understood for some time; as early as 1946, the federal government had warned that the CHA had the highest labor costs in the country, in large measure due to union jurisdictional rules which created major labor inefficiencies. Craft foremen required that a pipe fitter as well as an electrician be called to disconnect a range and a refrigerator before a painter could repaint an apartment. Neither Elizabeth Wood nor her successors were able to tame union control over maintenance at the CHA, and the authority continued to have the least efficient workforce well into the 1980s.(77)
High maintenance costs were particularly problematic because under the federal 1937 and 1949 Housing Acts, local housing authorities were expected to use tenant rents to cover all annual operating expenses, including maintenance, repairs, utilities, and management expenses. Until the late 1960s, this system worked well for most housing authorities, with many rebating an operating “profit” back to Washington each year. But at the CHA, signs of fiscal problems began to emerge in the late 1950s due to its high costs. In 1958, the CHA was already running a deficit at several projects, and only by continually opening new ones (like Taylor, which had low initial maintenance costs and ran a $1.9 million surplus in 1964) could it balance its overall budget. Once new construction of large projects ended in 1964, maintenance, utility, and management costs continued to rise. The CHA ran its first deficit in 1966, but massive shortfalls began in the early 1970s.(78)
But the CHA’s problems in the 1970s ran deeper than its budget, as poor leadership at the top contributed to weaknesses down the line. From 1964 to 1982, Chairman Charles Swibel – appointed by Daley to the board in 1956 at the young age of 29 – ran the CHA as a small fiefdom. He concentrated power in the Chairman’s office and used his position to establish himself as city power broker. While Swibel was careful not to profit directly from the CHA, he indirectly used his influence to benefit from city urban renewal deals, to form profitable relationships with Chicago banks, and to ensure labor peace through consistent raises and little reform.79 Swibel’s long tenure had a deeply corrosive impact on the CHA and ultimately the Robert Taylor Homes. His leadership offered little recognition of the problems facing the authority. Nor did he have much patience for the increasingly militant tenant voices that expressed outrage at the CHA’s management. Finally, he lacked an understanding of the progressive mission of public housing as an effort to uplift low-income families. Instead, the CHA grew increasingly defensive, insular, and ossified. During Elizabeth Wood’s tenure, the CHA staff consisted of highly educated, committed liberals. But under Swibel, promotions at senior levels were made from within, almost entirely on the basis of seniority and loyalty to the Chairman.80 By the mid 1970s, the CHA functioned like other City of Chicago bureaucracies: slowly, inefficiently, and in its own best interests.
As budget problems grew, the CHA and other local housing authorities turned to the federal government for additional aid, and Congress provided new subsidies in 1968 and 1969 in a series of programs aimed at improving conditions in public housing. The CHA quickly grew dependent on these new subsidies – from 1969 to 1972, HUD’s contribution to the CHA’s budget grew from 5% to 50%.(81) Still, the CHA struggled to spend all of its federal dollars effectively; HUD “Modernization” funds earmarked for physical upgrades at Taylor went unspent for years because the CHA lacked the administrative capacity to carry out needed rehabilitation. With the energy crises of the 1970s, the CHA plunged deeper into budget chaos, needing advances on future year subsidies to make ends meet.82 A 1981 study painted the CHA’s bureaucracy as overwhelmed by the magnitude of its problems and incapable of addressing its crises in any systematic way. With the budget situation out of control, the Reagan administration demanded and (after protracted delay) won Swibel’s removal. But HUD achieved only modest reforms and failed to seriously shake up CHA’s bureaucracy.83 Meanwhile, the Robert Taylor Homes continued to suffer in a downward spiral.84
With a litany of maintenance and management problems at Taylor almost from its opening, the project’s subsequent decline is hardly surprising. Efforts at reform and the infusion of new funds were swallowed by a CHA bureaucracy capable of resisting change but only marginally focused on the quality of life in its projects. Still, the task of creating a viable community among a large, concentrated, impoverished population was one that required far more than new housing. The delivery of social services, police protection, and physical maintenance never came close to meeting needs. Without strong leadership, management capacity, and sufficient resources, Taylor collapsed as a viable community well before the wrecking ball began its literal destruction.
The policies which led to the unfortunate demise of the Robert Taylor Homes have been presented by previous historians as the result of forces resisting liberal change – namely racist political and real estate interests – as well as from the misguided theories of modernist architecture. These forces undoubtedly influenced policy makers, but the assumptions and implementation of the program also deserve scrutiny. Well-intentioned, progressive administrators in Chicago intended from the start to tear down dilapidated neighborhoods and re-house low-income former slum dwellers in large– scale, often high-rise, projects. Even if Chicago’s City Council had not blocked vacant land sites, the CHA planned to rebuild ghetto areas like the Federal Street Slum into new public housing. The concentration of intense poverty, while not intended, was difficult to avoid once market filtration made public housing less attractive to the working-class. Maintenance problems, apparent almost from the start, stemmed from the project’s size, scale, and demographics. Finally, ineffective leadership at the CHA and indifferent political leadership in City Hall failed to provide sufficient services or security, insuring second-class citizenship for Taylor’s residents.
The current plan to demolish Taylor acknowledges the monumental failure of the public housing model as conceived in the 1950s. Sprawling high-rise projects housing exclusively poor families with many children amounted to a tragic, terrible mistake. Today’s “New Urbanist” planners have learned these lessons and use projects like Taylor as a foil for their small-scale, mixed-use, mixedincome communities now sprouting in urban areas. “New Urbanism” has its roots in the critique of public housing begun by Jane Jacobs in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs celebrated the diversity and complexity of the fragile working-class urban neighborhoods labeled as “slums” by planners. She advocated rehabilitation, not clearance. Provocative and controversial in her time, Jacobs’ basic ideas today permeate progressive thinking. Replacing Taylor with a “New Urbanist” neighborhood will not be easy, and will require the concerted efforts of the city to ensure that former residents are treated fairly. While government at all levels must continue and, indeed, increase its efforts at addressing the housing needs of the poor, the Robert Taylor Homes experience makes perfectly clear that what should constrain government involvement is not the nobleness of its intentions but its effectiveness in achieving them.
1 Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), Annual Statistical Report, 1963, Chicago Public Library, Municipal Reference Collection.
2 Chicago Daily News, six-part series authored by M.W. Newman, April 10 – April 16, 1965.
3 CHA, Annual Statistical Report, 1975; CHA, “Community Developments,” newsletter, Fall 1998, Chicago Public Library, Municipal Reference Collection.
4 Arnold Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
5 Leonard Freedman, Public Housing: The Politics of Poverty (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969); Rachel Bratt, Rebuilding a Low-Income Housing Policy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989).
6 Oscar Newman, Defensible Space: Crime Prevention through Urban Design (New York: Macmillan, 1972). Tom Wolfe, From Our House to Bauhaus, 1981; Katharine Bristol, “The Myth of Pruitt Igoe,” Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 44:3, May 1991. Bristol defends architects from criticism and blames federal cost limits for high-rises.
7 The Chicago Housing Authority opened what remains of its “Central Office File” to the author in 1998. These files will be referred to in the notes by various descriptions, including “CHA Development files,” “CHA Subject files,” and “CHA Legal files.” As of the Summer of 2000, the CHA was in discussions with interested parties to relinquish its historical material to a Chicago area archive. Thanks to CHA staff members Patricia McArthur-Harris, Angela Ryan, Lisa Schneider, and CHA Chairperson Sharon Gist-Gilliam for their foresight and interest in preserving the CHA’s records.
8 Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, p. 245.
9 See CHA Annual Reports,1941, 1945, 1947-1949; CHA, “Cabrini: Portrait of a Slum,” 1951; Chicago Plan Commission, “Ten Square Miles of Chicago,” June 17, 1948, all at the Chicago Public Library, Municipal Reference Collection.
10 Olivia Mahoney, “The Past and the Promise,” Chicago History, Spring 1995, p. 38. 11 Chicago City Council, Journal of Proceedings, December 3, 1940, p. 3607.
12 The Dan Ryan Expressway, often viewed as a barrier designed specifically to “contain” Taylor residents, was in fact first proposed to run through the federal street slum in 1940, well before the CHA suggested the site. Further, the black belt’s boundary had already spilled west of this route by 1947, when the City Council gave its final approval for this route. See City of Chicago, “Comprehensive Superhighway System, General Plan,” 1940 and 1947, Chicago Public Library, Municipal Reference Collection. See also Chicago Tribune, February 24, 1956; “Development Program, IL 2-37,” June 27, 1956, CHA Development files, IL 2-37.
13 U.S. Census, 1950, Statistics for Census Tracts, Chicago and Adjacent Area, Table 3. The five census tracts involved in the site for the Robert Taylor Homes are: 573, 574, 578, 579, and 600. Four of the five census tracts involved in the Robert Taylor Homes Site were among the 100 census tracts (out of 921 in Chicago) in 1950 with the most dilapidated conditions.
14 CHA, “Application for Reservation of Urban Low-Rent Public Housing and for a Preliminary Loan,” August 12,1947, CHA Development files, IL 2-7. In 1945, the CHA produced a similar application that was approved by the Mayor and the City Council. Left unstated in the application is Wood’s desire to use public housing to help integrate the city. See Martin Meyerson and Edward Banfield, Politics, Planning, and the Public Interest: The Case of Public Housing in Chicago (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1955).
15 Elizabeth Wood, “Realities of Urban Redevelopment,” Journal of Housing, January 1946.
16 Wood to Alderman George D. Kells, November 7, 1945, CHA-City Council Correspondence folder, CHA Subject files; Wood, “Realities of Urban Redevelopment.” 17 CHA, Monthly Report, September, 1949, Chicago Public Library, Municipal Reference Collection; CHA, Official Minutes, October 24, 1959; CHA, Official Minutes, Resolution 54-CHA-218, August 9,1954. The CHA’s Official Minutes are in a separate collection, housed at its downtown headquarters, 626 W. Jackson Boulevard, Chicago, IL.
18 Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, pp. 234-238.
19 CHA, Official Minutes, Resolution 54-CHA-258, September 27, 1954; City Council, Journal of Proceedings, November 4, 1954, p. 8386; CHA, Official Minutes, September 12,1955; Undated memo, “Site Ordinance of May 12, 1955,” and Minutes
of Chicago City Council Housing Committee meeting, May 5, 1955, both in CHA “Gautreaux” files.
20 CHA, Official Minutes, Resolution 56-CHA-12, February 15, 1956; Chicago City Council, Journal of Proceedings, May 9, 1956. Mayor Daley, elected in April 1955, appeared to play little role in Kean’s site lists for 1955 and 1956. Instead, Aldermanic power determined the selection or rejection of sites. Kean proposed numerous sites in white neighborhoods, but the City Council rejected nearly all of them. See Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, pp. 240-241, and folder “Site Selection,” in CHA Legal files. 21 City Council, Planning and Housing Committee, Minutes, March 22,1956, Office of the City Clerk, City of Chicago; Chicago Tribune, March 10, 1956; Southtown Economist, March 11, 1956.
22 Several authors have suggested that Dawson and black belt Aldermen shared the desire of white politicians to contain black residents in order to protect their own electoral turfs. See Milton Rakove, Don’t Make No Waves, Don’t Back No Losers (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1975), pp. 256-281; Paul Kleppner, Chicago Divided, Making of a Black Mayor (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1985), p. 45; Bill Gleason, Daley of Chicago (NY, Simon and Schuster, 1970), pp. 97-101; and Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (New York: Knopf, 1991), p. 75. The evidence for this conclusion is mainly anecdotal. However, agreeing to slum clearance – whether in public housing or urban renewal – brought immediate and identifiable political risks, as existing residents faced eviction and displacement several years before rebuilding began. See Roger Biles, Richard J. Daley: Politics, Race, and the Governance of Chicago (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois Press, 1995), p. 91.
23 Chicago American, February 20, 1956; Chicago Tribune, March 10, 1956. On black aldermanic politics, see William Grimshaw, Bitter Fruit: Black Politics and the Chicago Machine, 1931-1991 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 108-112.
24 Chicago Sun Times, July 11, 1957.
25 PHA Deputy Commissioner Warren Vinton, “The Low-Rent Public Housing Program,” in a presentation to the Housing and Home Finance Administration, June 5, 1956, Box 1, Warren Vinton Papers, Cornell University Manuscripts and University Archives.
26 Chicago American, March 2, 1956; Chicago Defender, May 14, 1956.
27 The best work on the architectural history of public housing is Richard Plunz, A History of Housing in New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990). For Chicago, see Devereux Bowly, Jr., The Poorhouse: Subsidized Housing in Chicago (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979).
28 Gail Radford, Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 192. Timothy L. McDonnell, The Wagner Housing Act: A Case Study of the Legislative Process (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1957), pp. 326-331. Straus’s own book clearly spells out his intentions. Nathan Straus, The Seven Myths of Public Housing (New York: Knopf, 1944), chapter 6: “Myth 4: Public Housing is Costly and Extravagant.” On Straus, see also Roger Biles, “Nathan Straus and the Failure of U.S. Public Housing, 1937-1942,” The Historian, Vol. 53:1, Fall 1990, p. 40.
29 “Address by John Taylor Egan, Commissioner, Public Housing Administration, at
the 17th Annual Conference of the National Association of Housing Officials, Detroit, Michigan, October 16-19,1950,” Miscellaneous Records of the Liaison Division, Box 10, Record Group 196, National Archives II. On Egan’s rejection of other projects, see Gilbert Rodier to John Taylor Egan, January 7, 1953, Correspondence of the Commissioner of Public Housing, Box 5, Record Group 196, National Archives II.
30 On Egan’s fears, see: National Association of Housing Officials (NAHO), Local Authority Letter Number 85, July 27, 1950, “Minutes of Federal-Local Relations Committee Meeting, July 7, 1950,” and NAHO, Local Authority Letter Number 88, October 9, 1950, “The Cost Situation and PHA Policies,” both in “Miscellaneous Publications,” Box 2, Record Group 196, National Archives II. The new design regulations are summarized in: Public Housing Administration, “Low Rent Public Housing: Planning, Design, and Construction for Economy,” December, 1950, Catherine Bauer Wurster Papers, Carton 31, folder 7, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. 31 Robert M. Fisher, Twenty Years of Public Housing (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), p. 150; CHA Counsel Kathryn Kula to CHA Executive Director Alvin Rose, January 30, 1958, CHA Legal files, PHA Development Dispute folder.
32 CHA Executive Director Elizabeth Wood to Alderman George D. Kells, September 21, 1945, CHA-City Council correspondence folder, CHA Subject files. 33 Wood to Catherine Bauer, January 17, 1952, Catherine Bauer Wurster papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
34 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961).
35 CHA, Annual Report, 1955; CHA to Public Housing Administration Commissioner Charles Slusser, February 5, 1959, CHA Development files, IL 2-37. 36 CHA, Annual Report, 1955; CHA to Slusser, February 5,1959, CHA Development files, IL 2-37. The correspondence between CHA and PHA is also included in the appendix to Congressional hearings entitled “President’s Message Disapproving S. 57,” Hearings before the Senate Banking Committee, 86th Congress, July 1959, pp. 604-612.
37 PHA Administrator Hugo Schwartz to CHA, September 5, 1957, CHA Development files, IL 2-37.
38 CHA to Slusser, February 5, 1959, CHA Development files, IL 2-37.
39 “Mayor Daley’s Charges Before the Sparkman Committee,” internal memo, September 1, 1959, in “Historical Publications,” Box 5, Record Group 196, National Archives II.
40 “President’s Message Disapproving S. 57,” p. 329.
41 “Comparison on bids received on Project IL 2-34, Chicago with Project NY 5-34, New York,” June 11, 1958, in “Historical Publications,” Box 5, Record Group 196, National Archives II. Construction cost indexes indicated that general costs in Chicago were 17.8% lower in Chicago than New York. Therefore, the PHA comparison underestimated the cost differential between the two cities.
42 “Report of the Special Committee to the Commissioners of the Chicago Housing Authority on the Subject of Project Illinois 2-34,” August 3, 1959, in “PHA Development Dispute” folder, CHA Legal files.
43 “President’s Message Disapproving S. 57,” p. 604. Importantly, the CHA’s
project costs did not exceed the statutory cost limits in the 1949 Housing Act (which excluded land). The problem was with the PHA’s administrative limit.
44 CHA, Annual Reports, 1953, 1955; CHA, Monthly Report, April 1955. 45 CHA, Annual Statistical Report, 1964.
46 Slusser to CHA, September 4, 1959, CHA Development file, IL 2-37.
47 CHA, “Development program for IL 2-37, Revision IV,” February 1960, CHA Development Files, IL 2-37
48 Due to economies of scale, the contractor built the 28 identical towers of the Robert Taylor Homes for only $15,950 per unit. CHA Director of Development J.W. Hasskarl to PHA Regional Director William Bergeron, August 21, 1964, CHA Development files, IL 2-37.
49 Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, pp. 238-239.
50 Chart 1 is based on CHA’s Annual Statistical Reports from 1948 – 1984 (except 1950). Most of these reports are available at the Chicago Public Library, Municipal Reference Collection. Since 1984, only scattered reports survive, including 1991 and 1998.
51 Little comparative research has been done on tenant characteristics in other cities, so this conclusion is necessarily tentative. However, most observers agree that by the late 1970s, family public housing projects in large cities, with the possible exception of New York City, were plagued by high percentages of welfare families. See National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing, The Final Report of the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1992).
52 For a concise summary of previous explanations, see Rachel Bratt, Rebuilding A Low-Income Housing Policy, chapter 3.
53 The CHA substantially increased its income limits in 1968, ranging from $6,000 for a family of four ($17,240 in 1984 dollars) to $8,400 for a family of eight ($24,137 in 1984 dollars). After 1957, CHA admissions policies gave priority to wage-earning families, but few applied for the CHA’s high-rise projects like the Robert Taylor Homes.
54 See CHA, Annual Statistical Report, 1964-1984, for CHA rental charges and income limits. In 1981, the Reagan HUD forced the CHA to abandon its modified “flat” rent system and charge all tenants 30% of income. This meant a massive rent increase for the handful of working-class tenants remaining in public housing. See Mayor Jane Byrne to HUD Secretary Samuel R. Pierce, Jr., June 15, 1981, Better Government Association files, Box 133, Chicago Historical Society.
55 The CHA began accepting families relying on public assistance in 1941. Of course, some families were admitted and later applied for assistance. See CHA, Monthly Report, July 1942, and CHA, Annual Report, 1940. Elizabeth Wood and her successors William Kean and Alvin Rose expressed concern with keeping the number of ADC families in any one project to a manageable level. From 1947 through 1967, the percentage of welfare families in all CHA projects remained fairly steady, hovering around 25% throughout the period. In 1951, the percentage of families on “public assistance” was 27% while the percentage of working families (receiving no benefits) was 60%. In 1967, the percentage on Aid to Dependent Children was 23% while working families amounted to 52%. The two years are not entirely comparable; the 1947 definition of “public assistance” included a small (but unknown) portion of Old Age Assistance, Assistance to the Blind, and General Relief recipients.
Still, the general conclusion can be made that the percentage of welfare families did not dramatically increase until after 1967.
56 Chicago Daily News, April 10, 1965; Lemann, The Promised Land, pp. 106-107.
57 Jim Fuerst and Roy Petty, “Public Housing in the Courts, Pyrrhic Victories for the Poor,” The Urban Lawyer (Summer 1977).
58 Interview with Daisy Brumfield and Muriel Chadwick by Jim Fuerst, no date (early 1990s). Transcript in author’s possession.
59 Gregory D. Squires, Larry Bennett, Kathleen McCourt, and Philip Nyden, Chicago: Race, Class, and the Response to Urban Decline (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), chapter 2; William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), chapter 2.
60 James Patterson, America’s Struggle Against Poverty, 1900-1994 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), pp. 157-170.
61 Filtration in the Chicago housing market in the 1960s has not been well analyzed, but basic census data on population and housing in the decade indicates dramatic flux in black neighborhoods. The exodus of the black middle-class and workingclass from the black belt is described as a significant contribution to the relative impoverishment of these areas in Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged, pp. 55-56. For an opposing view on the positive impact of market filtration, see Michael Stone, Shelter Poverty (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), especially chapter 4.
62 Data on CHA’s applicant pool over time is minimal; however, discussion appears in scattered places. See CHA Monthly Report, July 1, 1950; Chicago Daily News, February 8, 1975; CHA Executive Director Gus Master to HUD Regional Director John Waner, April 28, 1976, CHA Development files, IL 2-37.
63 CHA, Annual Statistical Report, 1963; U.S. Census for Chicago, 1960.
64 Chicago Daily News, April 10, 1965; Lemann, The Promised Land, pp. 225-228.
65 CHA Executive Director Harry Schneider to Waner, February 14, 1974; Schneider to Bergeron, October 8, 1965; CHA Counsel Kathryn Kula to PHA Administrator Albert F. Muench, November 3, 1965; CHA Deputy Executive Director C.E. Humphrey to Bergeron, September 17, 1963, all in CHA Development files, IL 2-37. The only previous heating system of Taylor’s size had been built at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
66 CHA project manager Robert Murphy, “Report on Fire at 5201 Federal Street on Saturday, September 14,1963,” September 16,1963, CHA Development Files, IL 2-37. 67 CHA Director of Management Harry Schneider to Bergeron, November 6, 1967, CHA Development Files, IL 2-37.
68 Chicago Daily News, May 10, 1972; Paul McGrath, “Shafted: Housing project elevators are deathtraps,” Chicago Magazine, October 1980, pp. 23-26; Al Lanier to file, “Re: Status of Things as of July 8, 1980,” July 8, 1980, Better Government Association Files, Box 134, Folder “CHA Notes,” Chicago Historical Society; Jack Doppelt to file, “Interviews with Virgil Cross, CHA Chief of Central Maintenance,” July 31, 1980, BGA, Box 134, Folder: “CHA Interviews and Statements, 1978-1980,” CHS; Interview with former CHA Deputy Comptroller Eric Ellison by the author, September 24,1999. 69 CHA Executive Director Alvin Rose to Bergeron, December 23, 1966, CHA Development files, IL 2-37; CHA Official Minutes, August 11, 1966 and January 12,1967.
70 Chicago Daily News series, April 10-16, 1965; Chicago Defender, October 19, 1966; Chicago Daily News, March 25, 1968;
71 Schneider to Bergeron, November 15,1966, CHA Development files, IL 2-22; G.W Lebsock to Waner, April 19, 1972, CHA Development files, IL 2-37; CHA Director of Management Gus Master to CHA tenant Miss Carolyn Lennear, August 30, 1968, in Managers Reports, Robert Taylor Homes, CHA Subject files.
72 Schneider to Bergeron, August 25, 1964, CHA Development files, IL 2-37.
73 The Illinois Humane Society requested one apartment to set up an office to “assist Children who are having trouble making a good school adjustment,” and the Chicago Board of Health requested another apartment, offering to set up a family planning center. November 20, 1964, and March 9, 1965, Schneider to Bergeron, CHA Development files, IL 2-37.
74 Master to Bergeron, July 29, 1969, Rose to Bergeron, November 4, 1964, CHA Development files, IL 2-37. In 1962, CHA estimated that 6,700 Taylor residents would be pre-kindergarten age. Rose to Bergeron, February 8, 1962, CHA Development files, IL 2-37.
75 Noel Naisbitt to Bergeron, January 21, 1962, CHA Development files, IL 2-37.
76 CHA, Official Minutes, Resolution 62-CHA-56, April 11, 1962; CHA, Official Minutes. June 8, 1972.
77 Federal Public Housing Authority, “Report on the Operations of the Chicago Housing Authority, June, 1946,” HUD Library, Washington, D.C.; Public Housing Administration, “Management Review, Chicago Housing Authority,” January, 1958, Chicago Public Library, Municipal Reference Collection; Institute for Community Design Analysis, “Report and Analysis of the Chicago Housing Authority and Implementation of Recommended Changes,” March 21, 1982, CHA Subject Files.
78 PHA, “Management Review, CHA,” January 1958; data from CHA Statements of Income and Expenses, 1960-1977, CHA Subject files.
79 See Scott Pound and Edward Jacobs investigative series on the CHA and CHA Chairman Charles Swibel, Chicago Sun Times, July 20 – 31, 1975.
80 Interview with Jim Fuerst by the author, March 19, 1998; interview with former CHA Comptroller Boyd L. Gillilan by the author, August 27, 1998; Institute for Community Design Analysis, “Report and Analysis of the CHA and Implementation of Recommended Changes,” March 21, 1982.
81 Data from CHA, Statements of Income and Expenses, 1960-1977, CHA Subject files. 82 Interview with former CHA Comptroller Charles McCall by the author, August 3, 1999.
83 Chicago Sun Times, February 6, 1975; Institute for Community Design Analysis, “Report and Analysis of the Chicago Housing Authority and Implementation of Recommended Changes,” March 21, 1982, CHA Subject files.
84 For descriptions of life in Taylor in the 1980s and 1990s, see Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, “American Project: An Historical-Ethnography of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Chicago, Department of Sociology, June 1997.
D. Bradford Hunt completed his Ph.D. in history from the University of California at Berkeley in December, 2000. His dissertation is entitled “What Went Wrong With Public Housing in Chicago? A History of the Chicago Housing Authority, 1933-1982.” He is currently a Research Associate for the Encyclopedia of Chicago History and an Instructor in History at Roosevelt University.
Copyright Illinois State Historical Society Spring 2001
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