Rats, Roaches, and Resistance: The Q&A
Q&A with historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor moderated by art historian Rebecca Zorach following our screening Rats, Roaches, and Resistance: Housing Activism at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics & Culture at the University of Chicago on April 1, 2017.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (KT): I’m writing this book, it’s called Race for Profit: Black Housing in the Urban Crisis of the 1970s, and it’s basically looking at the federal government’s promotion of single-family home ownership in black communities after the urban rebellions of the 1960s. Really, it’s a critique of public-private partnerships through the lens of housing, in particular the way that the disproportionate influence that capital has in shaping public policy. And then the problems that arise from these particular efforts, given the historic role of the real estate industry, the banking industry in creating residential segregation, which gives rise to this particular form of housing crisis.
So in the first clip, the sort-of deteriorating housing conditions in Chicago, I think, are an important—and that story is generally a national story, but my dissertation research was focused on Chicago and Detroit. But one of the things that, I think, is important that the film captures is that most of the discussions about housing—at least in a lot of what is written about it during this period—is about fair housing and the idea that, really, the main issue is about the ability of black people to move into predominantly white either suburban spaces or mostly white neighborhoods that are on the periphery of cities. And that was an issue for some people, and it was so few people that black people who chose to go that route were often called pioneers. Those who chose to, you know, take the route of going to live in mostly white neighborhoods or mostly white suburbs.
So it’s not that this was not an issue. It was an issue, but the overwhelming issues had to do with the condition of housing in black neighborhoods and places where black people were living. And so, the film clip captures that. And I think the other thing that it helps to highlight is that segregation is not—I mean, it sometimes can be banally discussed as the separation of people, but I think it’s important to understand, in that context and even today, what it does. On the one hand, it creates the conditions for black people in particular to suffer from this kind of predatory exploitation because of the inability to move freely in the housing market or in a given metropolitan area. And then, what that does is that it puts undue pressure—in this historical context, it puts undue pressure on the housing that exists.
So, for years—basically for as long as African-Americans were an urban population—so the 1920s forward, the places in northern cities where African-Americans could live were so concentrated that it means that people are doubling, tripling up in apartments, that landlords have absolutely no incentive at all to maintain properties. Because if you don’t like it, well, there’s another few hundred people who have no choice and they’ll take it.
And so, you literally have a situation of landlords—this was particularly the case in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, before the suburbs opened up and white people start to leave, which opens up more housing in black communities. But in the previous period, where landlords are taking, you know, one-flats, two-flats and turning them into rooming houses for 15 or 20 people. In Baltimore in the early 1950s, in a particular black section of Baltimore, 45,000 new apartments were created, bathrooms in people’s apartments. They were converted into, you know, small efficiencies, and they dug latrines in the back of the houses, and so that became the place where people went to the restroom. And so all, you know, to basically profit off of this kind of segregation and exclusion.
And so, the problem, of course, then, is that black neighborhoods are literally falling apart. Because it’s not only that they’re overcrowded, that landlords have no incentive at all to keep up the property—because, meanwhile, even as these conditions were deteriorating, black people are being charged more rent in these small, dilapidated, deteriorating living spaces compared to white people in, you know, habitable apartments. And so, there’s deterioration, there’s exploitation, but the way that this is then absorbed in the popular culture—and cities aren’t increasing their municipal services. So the reason why there’s rats everywhere is because the cities are not picking up the garbage, they’re not increasing garbage pick-up, they’re not increasing maintenance, even as, you know, hundreds of thousands of people continue to migrate into northern cities up until 1970.
And so, the combination of all of this is absorbed in the popular culture and in politics as, oh, black people just can’t keep up with their property. Look at their neighborhoods. What’s wrong with these people? And, you know, obviously, it has nothing to do with that. I mean, one of the—I was just talking about this in Virginia, and I gave a talk on black women, welfare, and home ownership, because in this specific program that I looked at in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, they recruited—the law was changed, basically, to recruit people on welfare into becoming home owners. And so, there’s a lot involved with it, but basically, real estate speculators bought poor, dilapidated properties in the inner city, did a very minimal rehabilitation on them, which usually just included painting them, and then sold them—recruited people out of deteriorating public housing projects who were desperate for better housing, sold them these junk houses through this federal program where the government was basically subsidizing most of the payments. The tenant—or the homeowner—only had to pay $200 down and 20% of their monthly income, and the federal government subsidized everything else.
And so, these black women were buying these terrible houses that would literally fall apart around them within the year. And so this becomes a huge scandal that the federal government is subsidizing all this terrible property. But the way that it gets explained in Congressional hearings that are called to investigate what happened to—what is happening with these programs is that, oh, these black women just don’t know how to keep a clean house. And this literally—you know, it’s the absurdity of having white Congressmen, you know, talking about black women’s housekeeping skills during the day and then going home to houses that are cleaned by black women at night.
And so, this idea of black women in particular, but black families being destructive and first wanting to get more than they actually deserve by getting houses in the first place, but then not knowing how to take care of them, you know, has become part of a permanent mythology about black housing. And so, I think, you know, in the first clip, many of those dynamics are captured. The important, you know, thing coming out of it, I think, is also, which hasn’t really been explored very much is the organizing that happens within the city. So again, most of the what we sometimes call historiography captures the struggle around housing is very legalistic, it’s very litigious, it’s about law suits and that sort of thing, and it’s mostly about trying to get out of the city through various fair housing schemes. And again, those things did happen; those things are not untrue. But what gets missed is that there’s this very intense history of tenant organizing that opens up in the late 1960s in different important cities, Chicago being a main one that is…
Do people know about the Contract Buyers League? And so, before they sued—I think it was in 1969—around the demand for defenses and eviction cases—meaning that, before their law suit, there were no defenses in Chicago that a tenant could offer as to why they had not paid rent. The question that you were asked in housing court was, Have you paid your rent or not? If you have paid your rent, then, obviously, you can stay and we don’t know why you’re in eviction court. If you haven’t, then you have to leave, and there’s no explanation that can be offered as to why you haven’t paid your rent. And so, their law suit raised that this lacked any due process, that there were reasons why people might not make a monthly rent payment.
And so what it did was that it introduced defenses into the law for tenants to withhold their rent, and these sorts of—I think, before that, New York was really sort of the main place where, in the ‘30s, those defenses were created through a struggle over tenant rights and housing rights. And over the course of the ‘60s, tenant rights became generalized, and so that’s why you began to see a mushrooming of tenant organizing, rent strikes and tenant mobilizations that hadn’t really existed before. So, I think, that’s another kind of part of the history that is, you know, really under-narrated or under-reported on that’s important in terms of sort of understanding how people—that people weren’t just sort of passive victims of this kind of exploitation and really oppression, but that people organized and fought against it, which I think is an important part of the story.
Rebecca Zorach (RZ): That was great. You answered several of my additional questions as well, so that’s great. I was wondering about the question of the legal remedies versus the direct-action remedies in the white passersby. Like, why haven’t you exhausted all your legal remedies?
KT: Why are you breathing? [Laughter] So there’s one sort of—I was thinking about the second one. I just finished a chapter in my book, it’s called “Forced Integration,” and it’s a lot about the end of redlining and how redlining comes to an end. But one of the things I was thinking about in that chapter is how redlining for public officials is, really, is not sort of seen as having anything to do with race.
It’s all about location and place, meaning that the city—or particular neighborhoods in cities—are what is being excluded, because they think that they, you know, are risky places to invest in, are, you know, places where value won’t ascend and thus is not good for real estate. So they have all of these reasons why a specific place—the city—is not good to invest in, and they avoid any mention of race at all—public officials—even though, you know, people on the ground know that part of the motivation is that they’re black people who are there, and that, really, is what this is about. That really is what redlining is about.
And it doesn’t mean that some of these urban issues are not being considered. But if you—well, I don’t know if anyone thinks about this—but the Federal Housing Administration, this federal agency that’s agency that’s created in 1934, helps to transform real estate transactions in the United States—and home ownership in particular—by the creation of mortgage insurance. So basically in the ‘30s, by 1933, 50% of all mortgages in the United States have gone into default on their way foreclosure. So banks don’t want to lend money anymore. And so, this innovative approach to real estate that is created through the federal government—mortgage insurance—is really, is about allowing the banks to lend without having to worry about foreclosures, because what it says is that if you aren’t eligible for what we would think about today as a prime loan or a conventional loan because you don’t make enough money, which is usually the reason you can’t afford a large down payment, then you can get one of these FHA loans, which might be thought of as a subprime loan and that the federal government will guarantee to the lender that if, for whatever reason, this person—if we have another Depression, you know, you don’t have to worry; you will get all of your money back. Or, on a less dramatic scale, if, you know, so-and-so individual, for whatever reason, can’t pay their mortgage, you will be repaid in full by us.
So this is what leads to the massive boom in home ownership in the 1940s and the 1950s. But one of the things that the FHA is doing is constantly sort of expanding the number of people who are eligible for home ownership. So the FHA underwriting criteria, which is used to figure out who should be eligible for loans and what type of properties should be eligible for loans is constantly changing and evolving and expanding as soon as, you know, a certain demographic or population becomes exhausted with home ownership. They’re sort of a Trojan horse for business, that they go—they take all the risk to figure out, you know, who else can we pull into the home ownership market.
And so, in that sense, often the FHA is discussed as a very conservative organization or agency because of the exclusion of the cities. But if you actually look into what the FHA is doing, the cities aren’t excluded. There’s, from the ‘40s on, a sort-of growing number of multi-family buildings that become insured; apartment buildings are becoming insured. There’s lots of property in the city that is becoming insured by the FHA. But not black people.
Black people still can’t walk into a bank and get a loan. And so, the way that you see that the problem with only looking at it as space and location and not understanding how race and the tight way that the FHA and the private institutions that are connected to it, the tightness with which they connect race and property value and risk is the… When they—you can understand how that’s happening by looking at the specific ways that black people are excluded. And so, to me, gentrification, especially in the early ‘70s, kind of fleshes some of that out, because you see that, well, it’s not just the city that’s the problem, because once you remove black people from these areas of the city, then all of a sudden that location now has value again. So maybe it wasn’t just the location that was the problem. Maybe it was the people who were in the location.
Because that’s the thing, is that black people, conversely, then carry the sort of—they carry the problem with them. And so, if you’re black and you go to the suburbs, well, all of a sudden you can’t get a loan there either. But the suburbs are the place where there is no risk, so, you know, what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that you’re black, and it’s not just the location. And so, the other issue with seeing redlining as just a location issue and not a racial issue is that it meant that the sort of… the regime around enforcement of anti-discrimination law that would be necessary to protect black renters and buyers is very relaxed. It’s not rigorous at all, because the end of redlining—meaning that the city is now open for investment—was seen as the end of the problem, and racial discrimination was seen as secondary or peripheral.
And so, you get all of these, you know, these enormous transformation in anti-discrimination law in the late—I mean, it’s happening over the course of the ‘60s. There’s the executive order from Kennedy in 1962 that bans discrimination in the buying and selling of any federally-backed property from 1962 on, not anything before that. And then you get the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which reinforces that and bans discrimination in any federal housing—so, public housing, that sort of thing—but it leaves a caveat that these laws don’t apply to the Federal Housing Administration. So they only apply to renters. And then, obviously, the 1968 Fair Housing Act. So there’s a, you know, proliferation of anti-discrimination laws, but there’s very little by way of enforcement of them. So, when the FHA is—which is really, it’s the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and fair housing is Title 8 within the Civil Rights Act…
But, so, if you’re going to have all these laws, then you actually have to have people who will enforce the law. But the FHA had 100 housing inspectors in 1969 and 1970. I mean, you need 100 people to inspect housing in a neighborhood in Brooklyn. But that was 100 people for the entire United States. And then they just kept cutting the budget over and over again. So the budget started out as $11 million for enforcement, and then, I think, by 1970, it was down to $6 million for enforcement. And so, you know, you can have as many laws as you want, but if there’s no sort of way to enforce them—or even really interest in enforcing them—then it doesn’t matter.
So one of the things that I’m thinking about is how part of the reason why it doesn’t matter to these officials is because they think that their ability to say, well, we’ve ended redlining basically lets them off the hook. And they did end redlining, and it meant that you went from the city being—it’s not the city, it’s black neighborhoods—being excluded from bank loans to being overrun with predatory credit, which, you know, was still happening within the context of a segregated metropolitan area, so that now there could be buying and selling in black neighborhoods, but black people still could not primarily—black people could not get out of the city, could not really go to the suburbs, except in, you know, some extraordinary circumstances. So it didn’t resolve the problem in that inattention to the specific ways that racial discrimination continued to maintain a dual housing market, which continued to put pressure on—deteriorating pressure, downward pressure—on the black housing market, remained unresolved.
RZ: I think we should open it up to questions from the audience.
Mirko Popadic (MP) (in audience): I’m curious in terms of—I work with the company that produced the two pieces, and the backstory about that is we utilize video as a means of activism, that is, the purpose wasn’t to make a documentary, but it was to document the event, bring it back to the community, and get more people, then, to go to the next action. And many times, news networks would totally disregard what was happening in communities, and that’s why you saw the Channel 7 Bob Petty piece, is because the pressure that we put on the station—and you heard the “Yay!” because it was a victory. You know, it was a victory in the battle for the community that we got the media involved. I won’t go into the history of that, but my question is in terms of—
KT: Can I ask you a question real quick? Were those just clips or—with the first one is—
MP: They were edited in-camera. So you could hear, it was what was called a reel-to-reel Portapak, and the recorders came about in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, when this whole notion of bringing media to the community and to artists—not necessarily filmmakers—and, you know, so the activists said this is a new tool—a new mimeograph, a new typewriter, as it were. Batteries lasted 10 minutes, the reel-to-reel tapes were 30 minutes, but they cost $100, so we really conserved in terms of how we shot in the community. And we seldom interviewed organizers; it was always the leaders, and they came from the neighborhoods. So that woman was from the neighborhood, and then when they showed the tape—it was the same machine that we played it back in the community—and then they would come and we would have tenfold people come to the next demonstration.
And the last piece, about 13th Street, touched upon arson. Chicago has a horrific history with arson. It started with the Chicago Fire in 1871, but a number of neighborhoods—primarily on the north side, in Uptown—struggled with arson because gentrification was going too slowly. And then, in 1978, a horrific number of people were killed, were murdered, because the process was too slow. And those buildings that you were talking about—you know, you had an apartment building that was subdivided a number of times, and they weren’t allowed to cook, so they had plates on—you know, just heating plates. That’s how it arose. And over one winter I recall, it was 1979, 30 people died in a fire, and the landlords knew it. They set the blaze; they set the apartment on fire.
But it’s interesting. They, with housing court, knew they had the power to do that. And that was another story that the organizers eventually coalesced all the housing courts in one day.
KT: So I don’t look at that in particular, but I do know—this guy that I know, his name is Joe Allen, wrote a book about housing in the ‘40s and a campaign around this—I can’t remember who it was, but his family was burned out in the 1940s and it became a big political movement in the city to bring the landlords to court, because there it wasn’t so much of an issue of moving people out. It was just the conditions. They were in a—it was a family of seven that were living in an illegal apartment on the top floor of a building that, because of similar conditions, went up in flames, and the father, his entire family was killed in the fire. And so, the Socialist Workers’ Party actually took up the campaign in Chicago, which then brought to light some of the conditions in black Chicago as a result of segregation and the inability for black people to move out of the Black Belt. So that book is called People Weren’t Made to Burn.
And then, but in the early ‘70s, yes, fire was the way to go in the Bronx, in Chicago, in Detroit. And part of that was connected to this transformation in housing policies at the end of the 1960s, which really incentivized getting rid of these properties in two ways. So one of the ways that I look at is—the introduction of mortgage insurance into cities meant that, all of a sudden, these dilapidated buildings, houses had value, because if you could get a mortgage appraiser and a FHA lackey on the same page with you as a real estate person, you could collude to say that, actually, this building that had been condemned is worth $20,000. The banker signs off on it; yes, this is worth $20,000. You find some poor person who’s desperate for a house who moves into it. The house falls apart within six months, they move out, the bank goes to the FHA and says this building has been foreclosed, I would like my $20,000 loan back please, thank you.
And they get that, and then the real estate agent sells the house again and does this over and over again. So, you get that as well. But there was also the introduction of insurance pools that dealt specifically with fire insurance and the lack of it in the inner city in the aftermath of the urban uprisings in the 1960s. That part of getting business and real estate invested in in the city meant that you had to have insurance. And so, most insurance companies refused to extend policies in the central city or the urban core. So, the federal government set up insurance pools to allow for landlords and business owners to be reimbursed if their property went up in flames because of a riot, or—and it wasn’t specified because of a riot, but that was the logic of creating these federal insurance policies, basically.
The idea was that this would motivate business owners to open up businesses, this would motivate further investment into the inner city. What it did motivate was landlords to burn down a bunch of buildings in the inner city in the 1970s to cash in on properties that had been used over and over and over again for years and that basically would costs tens of thousands of dollars to really rehabilitate and allow for people to move into that no one wanted to pay for, and it was cheaper just to burn it down—which, of course, then, has a deleterious impact on everything around it in the surrounding neighborhood.
And so there’s that, but there’s also the sort-of rash of housing abandonment in cities in the 1970s and into the 1980s. So Detroit, where, you know, as a result of a few of these home ownership programs—which there were different iterations of it over the course of the ‘60s… From 1970 to 1976, there were 16,000 or 17,000 foreclosures that happened as a result of fraud, corruption, collusion between the FHA, mortgage bankers, and the real estate industry in Detroit. And so, it led to this massive wave of foreclosures, which then—part of the deal with HUD and the banks, in order to try to entice them into lending in the first place was to say that, well, if the house does go into foreclosure, not only will we give you your loan back, but we’ll take the house so you don’t have to deal with it.
And so, in the conventional housing market, part of the motivation of banks not to foreclose on people is so that they don’t get a backlog of houses that a bank is not set up to sell. But if you’re not only not going to get the house back, but you get, you know, your loan and everything else back, then there’s really no incentive not to foreclose. So in Chicago, they called them fast foreclosures because banks would—if you missed a single payment, they would initiate foreclosure procedures. So this meant that HUD had a backlog of houses that had been overvalued in the first place because of crooked appraisers who said that, you know, houses worth maybe $100 were worth $20,000. So now they have a backlog of houses that they can’t actually—they can sell.
And so, it means that HUD then starts knocking the houses down, and those that don’t get knocked down become just sites for vandalism. And so, Detroit’s reputation in the 1980s of setting houses on fire—which Detroit did have this reputation in the 1980s—comes from this backlog of empty houses that were created because of, in part—in a large part—because of this housing program that has thousands of just empty, abandoned properties all over the city that attract, you know, become attractions for vandalism, including fires. So, the use of fire for nefarious purposes like insurance fraud—yeah, there’s a very deep tradition and history of that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and then just as a result of a very flawed policy, which just left houses vulnerable to vandalism, including fire, is also part of that legacy.
Audience Member #2: So I have a question about Uptown. This is, like, kind of hearsay, so I haven’t researched it, really, but I was told that after the World Wars, that a lot of refugees and immigrants came to the U.S. and settled in Uptown. And you’re talking about kind of chopping up these apartments into, you know, more apartments. Have you researched that or is that anything that’s come up in your research?
KT: No. I have no idea about that.
MP: As far as Uptown, my understanding was you have the red line—or it was called the Howard at one time—and at the end of the line, before they went into Evanston, which is the next suburb over, the soldiers couldn’t go over; they decided to stop on Howard to get beer.
And so, the neighborhood, you know, there were SROs; there wasn’t enough housing for the soldiers that were coming back. You know, it wasn’t all pearly white, as it were in Long Island, where they would get these little plots of land. Many of the soldiers coming from the inner city, black and white, were homeless. And so, they would ride the red line, the Howard, back and forth, and the north siders would stay at Howard—they wouldn’t go over because the train to Skokie would stop—and then they would stop and stay in Howard. So, Howard is the dividing line. And they decided, you know, to pay their overnight. And these homeowners would divide these incredibly huge buildings and apartment buildings that many times had six, seven rooms—would divide them up.
And that went for a long time. You know, it went for a long time. And then, the housing court—you know, a lot of the homeowners of those buildings, of those large apartment buildings were also in collusion with housing court. So it was difficult for the organizers, then, to find which court date would be for that building, because not everyone could always make the same court dates. But that was the decline of our government not being able to accommodate, as it is today.
Audience Member #3: A lot of both the conversation and the videos talk about how gentrification came from neglect and these federal funding that, as you said a couple times, was nefarious, especially with the third video, which had me meditating on the conversation to what the tactics were for activists. Like, we sort of live in a different age of gentrification right now, where, like, a block group might have great intentions and things that in the short term do help communities, but inevitably also price out the very people that they’re trying to keep in the community, sooner or later. It’s like the super-charging of this. Again, I know it’s more speculative and you’re mostly dealing with historical realities. But can you, like, kind of compare and contrast what’s happening now—again, you said Lincoln Park took 40 years.
And, again, I’m a north sider; I can talk to you more about the—with Edgewater, Rogers Park, I have experienced that. I’ve lived in the city for a decade. The story just remains, I can go back further than that with my knowledge. But now we look at things—Humboldt Park, the 606 went through; two months later, working-class homes were torn down for condos, and like that, gentrification hit. It seems like it’s a completely different animal, and for someone who’s trying to be an activist and trying to be, you know, conscious of their privilege, or just, like, of their place in the city if they’re of color, do you have any lessons that you can kind of compare and contrast?
KT: I mean, I don’t know if it’s more intense now. I mean, urban renewal was pretty intense in the rapid destruction of people—poor people and working-class people in cities across the country and its ability to just completely wipe out neighborhoods and use the lie of renewal. You know, it was renewal for some people and removal for others, as the saying goes. And so, I think that the process of “development” is just a feature of capitalism. I mean, I think that what David Harvey writes about as the so-called spatial fix in that any moment of crisis in capitalism, the quickest and easiest thing to do is development.
And so, that’s part of the context in which we understand the creation of American housing policy in the first place and especially the Federal Housing Administration in 1934. There was no sort of pretense about housing as a right or as a human right or anything like that. Housing was seen as economic stimulus, that we have all these people who are unemployed and we don’t have any particular jobs for them, so we can create jobs out of creating housing. So it was primarily seen as an economic stimulus, which is why there wasn’t actually a whole lot of housing built in the ‘30s and in the early part of the ‘40s.
The massive wave doesn’t happen until after World War II, when the soldiers come back and there is an enormous housing shortage, because the U.S. has not built any housing ever. During the early 20th century, urbanization and the massive movement of people from rural areas into the cities was not accompanied by any building of any housing because it just wasn’t seen as a priority for the State, for the federal government. And so, you know, you get some public housing. The idea for that, because of rent riots and struggle in the 1930s—but the idea that housing should be, is a human right, that if we have figured out that, as a species, you have to have shelter in order to actually reproduce yourself, then you have to ask why is there a price on it then. It’s like putting a price on health care or food or even education, for that matter.
And so, in this country, even in 1949—the 1949 Housing Act, where the U.S. comes perilously close to saying that housing should be a right, but not quite. It says that every American—we, the U.S. government has a goal of a decent home for every American. So that’s as close as we to a right. We get a goal of a decent home, that, of course, is then never actually fulfilled. But, so, I mean, the main point, though, is that when there are these moments of rebuilding or development, it’s never really in the interest or driven by the idea that housing is a right and that we have to create housing for people. It’s always driven by the interest of capital. And so, that process can be—perhaps it can be more intense or accelerated at some times versus other times, but there’s always a sort of a way that it’s viewed as this economic development for a small group of people. Like, around the real estate industry, that is always happening.
So even, you know—Like, in the film about the early ‘70s, I mean what’s interesting about that time period is that you’ve got really strong debates about where black people should be living and a rebellion in the suburbs around zoning to create all kinds of ways to keep black people out of the suburbs. But you do begin to see young, white urbanites come back into the city, and the municipal governments want that, because they want the tax revenues. So they start doing—there’s a homesteader bill that’s passed in the early 1970s where they’re selling, you know, buildings and houses in urban areas for a dollar, for a few dollars to lure young white people—urban professionals—back into the city with low-interest loans to basically rehabilitate these.
And so, and it’s always—You know, that is a way of the sort-of targeted development that, you know… Then you have these real estate, these much larger real estate moguls who get involved and who follow the young white urbanites into areas. To me, that’s a permanent kind of process in the capitalist economy, because it’s an easy way to create an economy out of that. Because housing is totally subjective. Like, you know, the price, the cost—that’s why they’re always changing the names of neighborhoods. I mean, I lived in Chicago for, like, 15 years, and there’s some—I can’t remember, there’s somewhere on the north side that has, like, a name now. You know, some stretch on Western…
MP: The whole north side is now Lincoln Park. [Laughter]
KT: They have little subsets, so now this thing that’s just along the Western corridor is like some place to be now, you know? And that’s a constant trick. And it doesn’t mean that people can’t do anything. Of course, people have to struggle around the right to be somewhere and the right to live somewhere. But I think that we have to do that with the idea of—we have to fight around particular issues. But we also have to understand that we probably need to live in a different kind of society that doesn’t put a price on housing, that understands that housing should be a human right along with food, water, and the air, all of which, you know, is having a price put on it, which means that…
You know, I gave this talk that the whole idea around market efficiency and the delivering of public services is insane. I mean, if the market is seen as a place where there are winners and losers, then what does mean with the distribution of, like, food and water and health care and housing and justice? You know, that there are winners and losers? There’s the relationship between the immediate struggles that people are involved in today and then a much larger struggle for a different kind of thing. All right, I can take a couple more of these. Maybe if I talk less…
Audience Member #4: I just want to know if you’ve done any research around Section 8 and the role that Section 8 plays in this whole housing thing. I remember at one point I worked for the Department of Human Services and I would hear the case workers say, “Well these people are always moving! These people are always moving!” And actually, I’m finishing a PhD right now, and I’m focusing on microaggressions that exist in public policy. And looking at—
KT: Look at macro. [Laughter]
Audience Member #4: They always go over your head. You know, you can miss them. But then, when I look at—you know, we’re all reading about the Section 8 super-vouchers, those are the ones that sustain all the development downtown, whereas they can’t get anybody to move in them, but you’ve got—Section 8 is paying $3,000 or $4,000 for the downtown area, but we can look at some of the families who living in Englewood that Section 8 is forcing to live in those communities, that are rat-infested, roach-infested and everything. But then, once an apartment has—because I know some folks who work for Section 8—but once an apartment becomes considered rat-infested, that family has to move. The landlord doesn’t care because once that family moves out, there’s no food or anything in there and you no longer have rats in there, because there’s nothing to eat.
So then they end up moving another family in there. Six months later, that family realizes that they have a rat infestation, so Section 8 says move. So these people are constantly moving, not because they want to—they don’t want to keep uprooting their families like that—but Section 8 says, “No, you can’t stay there.” But rather than saying, “No, this landlord can’t rent to families anymore,” because—and then the ones that are downtown, some of the families who get to stay in some of the high rises downtown just to make sure that those mortgages are paid for those owners of the condos downtown—they try to put them all on the same floor, so you keep these Section 8 people living—They’re living at 15th and Michigan, they’re all living on the same floor, so you can kind of keep them all together, “those people.” But then you’ve got some downtown that, you know, are spread out throughout that area that… No one ever seems to see the face of the super-voucher holders. So, you know, my background is also in nonprofit management.
And I heard someone say back in the late ‘90s, when I first moved into the Bronzeville area, “Poverty is lucrative.” It hit me like a ton of bricks. Because being in Bronzeville, at that time, you had the highest concentration of public housing in the nation. So it was very easy to show the demographics there. And you had every nonprofit you could think of there. And I just started paying closer attention to how policies play into this kind of stuff too, you know, and there is something called poverty is lucrative, and it’s a vicious cycle. And as I look at Section 8 and people not being to stay where they moved into and at what point do we hold Section 8 accountable? And how do we hold it accountable? Because this is the federal government.
KT: So much for my short answer. [Laughter] No, Section 8 is terrible. So, I used to be a tenant advocate. I worked for a nonprofit while I went to graduate school, and part of what we were doing was trying to keep tenants from being evicted. So, using Chicago’s very sort-of liberal tenant rights law to kind of subvert landlords. So, but one of the—And so, I actually had quite a bit of experience with Section 8 tenants, who, unfortunately, were often not covered by the full extent of these laws. And so, Section 8—I mean, Section 8 is terrible on multiple reasons, the main one being the way that vouchers and these kinds of subsidies to private landlords artificially increase the rent levels in poor and working-class neighborhoods.
So, one of the worst cases that I had was in Englewood. It was a single mother with two kids who was living in a basement apartment. And so, Section 8 was paying $2,000 a month for her to live there. So your bells should already be ringing—a basement apartment in Englewood with a single woman with two kids. And so we did an inspection of her apartment, and it was so bad that on the floor, it was carpet, and it was stapled into these wooden planks along the sides of the floor. But if you pulled it back, there was dirt, just dirt on the ground. There was no floor; there was dirt. Two thousand dollars a month.
And so, especially when you get a concentration of Section 8 tenants in a given neighborhood, like in Englewood, it begins to artificially raise the rents for everyone, because everyone is competing for these Section 8 dollars to be attracted to that. I mean, the larger issue has to do with federal dollars going to private landlords to house people, because it was conceived of as an attack on public housing and seen in the same way that the home ownership programs of the late ‘60s were conceived of as an attack on public housing. That poor people, we have to put them somewhere, we have to house them somewhere, but we don’t want to continue to have to build public housing, because the political issues with it and where will it go.
With urban renewal and the massive displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, public housing was built to put people displaced somewhere, so they would have somewhere to live. But the cost of urban land and fights with suburban areas over the placement of public housing meant that that was no longer a viable solution. And so, basically, what they decided was we’ll just give everybody vouchers, an idea that developed around the corner at what’s now the Friedman Laboratory for Evil. [Applause]
It’s a total Friedman idea, not just for schools, but in housing as well, which is to basically use public money to bring in the private sector to solve what is essentially a social and public issue. And so, you know, there shouldn’t be Section 8 or vouchers. What there should be is government-owned housing, because that is part of the issue is that if you can’t take—I mean, the issue with housing is the question of profit and money. The State will, I mean, conceivably, right—The State will fix housing that is in disrepair because there’s no incentive not to fix it, because it’s the public welfare that is the issue. But, of course, that is always a political struggle and a political fight because private interests are so deeply wound into how our state functions, especially around social questions. And so, that’s one motivation to get the private sector out of decision-making, but it’s so a part of the foundation of how our—you can’t even call it a welfare state…
Our public institutions, our public policies are conceived of as partnerships with the private sector. And that question of, well, how do you reconcile public welfare with the profiteering of the private sector? I mean, that’s what the private sector is. It is a thing that exists to make profit. And so, there’s an attempt to rationalize the right to make profit with the public’s welfare, and they don’t work together. They’re two completely contradictory, opposing ideas.
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