Book Review- Blueprint for Disaster

So I finally got my hands on the computer again!

A couple things:

This article on Washington Post was amazing.  Amazing because of how awful the situation it describes is.  This is local government preying on poor people, Sheriff of Nottingham style.  If you have time for a long read and a need to ruin your day, I highly suggest it.

How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty

There was just so much about it that is insane, from prosecutors that act as judges in adjacent cities, to police issuing tickets for the lamest of infractions, to cities agreeing to share halves of roads so that the bounty of ticket-writing can be split up equitably.  It’s just insane.

But back to what I was going to talk about.  I’ve been researching urban issues for a while now, and a big part of what I’m interested in is housing.  I’m not an ideologue, I came to the issue with an open mind, and having learned quite a bit on it in recent years, I’m not sure that I have any more definite opinions.  But I’m keeping at it.

The book is:

Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing

By D. Bradford Hunt

Shorter- the book blew my mind

The longer:

Having read a bit about public housing lately, I’m largely on the fence about whether or not it’s a good idea.  There are many, many horror stories about “the projects”, but most of them seem to come from a handful of cases, the most notorious, and most horrific, come from the ugly cement monoliths erected by the Chicago Housing Authority.  In fact, another book I read recently, Edward Geotz New Deal Ruins put it this way- “The fact is that public housing came to ruin in Chicago.”  Chicago’s fuck-ups were so catastrophic and so high profile, that they basically soured the nation on the idea at all.

What went wrong?  I’ll spoil it for you.  According to Hunt, everything.  There’s no one culprit here, but the obvious ones make appearances- bureaucratic incompetence, political corruption, union corruption,  racism, ivory-tower social reformers, out-of-their depth administrators, real estate developers, Democrats, Republicans, flagrant spenders, excessive budget cutters, kids running amok, teenagers in gangs… it’s all here.  Even some things I wouldn’t have thought of.

I’m not going to rehash the whole book because you’ll read it if this interests you or not.  But there were a handful of things that really stuck out in my mind.

1) Too many kids.

The author brings up a point I haven’t seen anywhere else, but strikes as pretty important, even if I can’t prove that it’s right or wrong.  The big apartment buildings had way too many kids in them.  The designers wanted to make safe buildings for families, so the majority of the apartments were three to five bedrooms.  If you’ve ever spent time living in apartments this is highly unusual.  Few complexes have more than a handful of three bedrooms and I’ve never seen a private complex where that’s the majority.  Basically, children, and later, teenagers overran these buildings.  Adults were outnumbered and there were simply too many to keep an eye on.  Kids vandalized the buildings, played around in the elevators (sometimes with tragic results) and basically tore the places apart.  And then the gangs started recruiting them as they got older.

2) High rise buildings were a cost-cutting measure.

Apparently it’s cheaper to build vertically then it is to build horizontally (I suspect I knew that, but I can’t remember… huh).  And it didn’t end there.  Some of the cost-cutting involved things like not putting doors on closets and having elevators that didn’t stop at every floor.

3)  Cost-cutting measures came about because HUD set out to prove that government could build housing for less than private builders.

This to me was the most insane thing I read in the whole book, because it makes no sense at all.  Public housing was proposed partly as a means to make housing available for people who were locked out of the private market.   The private market is driven by profit motive- developers build trying to minimize costs, because they can only push so much of their cost onto consumers before consumers refuse to rent/buy.  So it makes sense to try to replicate that.  But that’s only half the issue.  Renting an apartment from a private developer mean not only are you paying for the cost of the building, you’re paying for them to make a profit.  But it’s easy to save renters money by not making a profit, which the government was trying to do.  Saving them money by building for cheaper than the private market (which is already trying to build at the lowest possible price) is hard.

How did HUD expect this to happen?  Realistically, short of doing something totally insane like saying “we got wood for this building for free because we’re the government and we can log National Parks when we feel like it” there’s not really any way of doing this.  Government mostly buys materials and labor on the open market like everyone else.  Labor it usually has to pay more for.

That part of the book drove me nuts.

At any rate, those were some of the big insights I got out of this book.   The author doesn’t appear to believe that public housing can work.  I’m not sure I agree, but I’m not sure I disagree either.  But it’s good reading for anyone who wants to know what not to do.  Or who just wants to gawk at dozens, maybe hundreds, or even thousands, of people behaving badly, stupidly and carelessly with terrible consequences for the poor and vulnerable.

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2 comments

  1. There are several books on the destruction of communities in Boston by real estate agencies and developers. The destruction, sometimes elimination, of entire neighborhoods. The West End which was demolished and everyone in it displaced. The creation of “brick towns” that have taken generations to undo. My husband lived a big chunk of his youth in one of them. It’s an enormously complicated subject. I’ll skip the long depressing article. I’m depressed enough about the world without adding more fuel to that fire. Great post. You put a lot of thought and effort into it. I’m impressed.

    1. Thanks! This is a subject that’s really interested me for the last couple years and just thought I’d share a bit on it.

      It’s sad to see some of those old neighborhoods get torn up. I think there’s a delicate balance between allowing development that will keep the things people like about the city, but not totally refusing any and all growth- something a few California cities have done. It’s tough because not everywhere has lots of space to build on, and Americans don’t seem as comfortable with density as people in other countries I’ve been to. Plus we need to find a way to make housing affordable. There are so many factors going into the subject, I could go on for hours!

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