The Public Housing Tragedy

We recommend to our readers that they take a look at a New York Times article Bleak Housing which is a book review of HIGH-RISERS, by Richard Rothstein, appearing in the New York Times Book Section of April 15, 2018, at p. 21. It’s the story of the construction, decline and eventual fall — figuratively and literally — of the Chicago Cabrini-Green public housing project, a massive 20-story apartment building that with time became such a hellhole that it had to be demolished.

We have only read the NY Times book review, but that strikes us as enough. There is ample material there to support the conclusion that the Cabrini-Green project was a cautionary tale of the tragedy that results when good intentions meet unintended side effects, and an illustration of why government projects fail so often. It brings to mind Brendan Behan’s cynical line that “I cannot conceive of a human condition so wretched that the appearance of a policeman couldn’t make worse.” Substitute the word “government functionaries” for “policeman” and you got it, although the police have a good excuse because they are called upon to make split second decisions under often dangerous circumstances, while the city housing functionaries can take their time and benefit from the views of expert advisers.

It seems that in the public housing disaster exemplified by the downfall of Cabrini-Green, for every new idea intended to improve things, there was a counter-idea suggesting a rejection of the first idea and the substitution for it of another one whose features undid all the good that the first idea was intended to bring about, and then some.

And of course, much of the public housing disaster was brought about by the unfortunate behavior of the intended beneficiaries of those public projects. That, however is another sad story that we can’t very well get into here without prolonging this post excessively.

But if you have an interest in American urban affairs, do read that book, or at least the Times’ book review of it. Sad but informative.