Politics & Policy

Leave Cabrini-Green-style Public Housing in the Past

Aerial view of the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago, Ill., in 1999. (Library of Congress/via Wikimedia)
Vouchers are a far superior alternative.

The United States is currently in the middle of one of the most substantial and widespread declines in violent crime ever seen, with the violent crime rate having fallen more than half since 1991. The phenomenon has been called “utterly mysterious” and has spawned soul searching about what has happened and how it can be sustained.

For now, one prevalent opinion is that the decline has come about because of a “virtuous cycle” in which many small reforms, such as improved policing and community engagement, ultimately begat bigger changes in behavior. The most recent issue of The New Yorker takes this stance in a long article by Adam Gopnik, entitled “The Great Crime Decline,” that reviews NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s book Uneasy Peace. Gopnik explores a number of factors that may have contributed to the increasing safety of major urban areas and concludes that “the story of the crime decline is about the wisdom of single steps and small sanities.”

One of those small-but-virtuous factors that goes unmentioned in Gopnik’s piece is the move away from high-density public housing.

This omission is reflected in Ben Austen’s New York magazine paean to Cabrini-Green, an enormous high-rise housing project in Chicago that was once home to 20,000 residents. “The Towers Came Down, and With Them the Promise of Public Housing” makes the case that, by not building enough public housing to replace the units lost when Cabrini-Green and similar structures were demolished, the U.S. has been undermining FDR’s pledge to “provide enough for those who have too little.” “Developments like Cabrini-Green did in fact need to be made safer and more livable, and maybe even torn down,” he writes. “But the public had an obligation as well to ensure that those who lived there didn’t lose out when the high-rises were replaced.”

Austen believes this promise can be resuscitated by galvanizing the political will necessary to build more public housing, perhaps including new high-rises: “Affordable-housing advocates are by no means pushing for a return to large public-housing high-rise developments, but some have noted that a few towers mixed in here and there with the luxury condos wouldn’t stand out.”

But Austen’s reasoning undermines his conclusion. By his own account, Chicago offers more low-income housing options today, mostly through Section 8 vouchers, than were offered in the Cabrini-Green era. This is in part because providing vouchers for private housing can be cheaper than building and maintaining residences. And while Austen goes to great lengths to depict the dangers facing families who moved out of Cabrini-Green to new neighborhoods where they had no support systems, he rarely mentions the problems of public housing itself or the reasons Cabrini-Green was nationally known.

Cabrini-Green was infamous because “residents were afraid to use a nearby park because of frequent sniper fire coming from the [high-rises],” because parents living there sent their children to live in other states to avoid gangs, and because “drug dealers form thickets in the lobbies so deep that it resembles a crowded market.” Killings of innocent children shocked the country. In the functionally un-policeable high-rises, gang violence flourished. Indeed, as the Cabrini-Green towers came down, violent crime fell by 60 percent in the area immediately surrounding it. Research on the impact of Chicago moving away from high-density public housing like Cabrini-Green indicates that it had a statistically significant impact in lowering the city’s crime rate.

And this is precisely what makes Austen’s article of particular relevance to Gopnik’s. While Austen skims over the problems of high-density public housing — and indeed entertains the possibility of building more — Gopnik’s piece can at times seem like a victory lap over urban crime. “The urban crime wave is over,” he writes at one point, predicting the next wave of crime will be smaller. But these reforms and their consequences have been hard-won, and there is no certainty that they will be lasting. Chicago’s erratic murder rate has proven as much. Each small part of the virtuous cycle must be maintained.

Ultimately, we cannot will ourselves into utopia: Public-housing projects will be perpetually undercapitalized.

And then there is a second problem with Austen’s prescription: the simple economics behind expanding public-housing projects. Austen cites a $50 billion backlog in repairs to existing public housing; he calls for increased public investment to fix it. But it is not clear how the political incentives have changed to ensure that this same problem will not simply recur time and time again. Ultimately, we cannot will ourselves into utopia: Public-housing projects will be perpetually undercapitalized for the simple reasons that (a) profit incentives do not exist to maintain them and (b) the political will to maintain them often goes missing as well. Private vouchers and steps to increase private housing supply, not building more public housing — let alone more high-density housing — are the best way to align incentives and to provide low-income families better lives.

Cabrini-Green’s destruction didn’t break the promise of public housing. High-density public housing projects themselves broke the promise of public housing. As crime falls in major urban areas because of a “virtuous cycle,” policymakers would be wise to continue focusing on market-based housing reforms that can restore that promise.

Alex Entz — Alex Entz is a Public Interest Fellow in Washington, D.C.

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