Hoping for Housing: HOPE VI’s Ambivalent Legacy

Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes before HOPE VI
Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes after HOPE VI

A brief news summary in a June 2001 edition of the satirical newspaper The Onion delivered the story of a fictional 34 year old Accenture finance manager who decried the gentrification of his once “authentic” neighborhood. “See that big Barnes and Nobles on the corner? You better believe that wasn’t there back in 1998,” he said. “This whole place is turning into Yuppieville. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a couple in matching Ralph Lauren baseball caps walking a black lab.” The report concluded by noting that the same financial worker, Mr. Smales, then continued taking his “golden lab for a walk.” (1)

Though played for laughs by The Onion, gentrification has become an issue surrounded by debate and contention. It has both detractors and supporters. Across the nation, since the early 1990s cities have witnessed a revitalization of their urban cores, however, this influx of development has created complex problems affecting various markets and actors. Often portrayed as an almost reverse form of “white flight,” gentrification exists as a far more complex process, but one that seems to afflict communities of color more than any other. Moreover, federal housing policies of the past three decades have facilitated increased commercial development of urban areas in what are often termed transitional neighborhoods. Perhaps the most prominent housing innovation of the past two decades remains the HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) legislation passed in 1992.

The emergence of HOPE VI as a viable federal housing policy resulted from the neoliberal economic shift of the past thirty years. In The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism (2007), Jason Hackworth summarizes the effect on municipalities: “For city leaders, good government came to mean how well they ‘function like the corporate community.’” (2) Thus, this tendency toward neoliberal ideals results in fewer public subsidies and regulation. Public services become privatized, while business/real estate development interests are promoted. Public housing and other “artifacts” of Keynesian economics experience marginalization, as the local state becomes a facilitator of business and real estate, rather than an active player.

Take Chicago. In 1989, the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing was created by Congress. It found that nearly 86,000 units of the 1.3 millions public housing units were “severely distressed” (3). Chicago accounted for somewhere between 12,000 -15,000 of the 86,000. Even worse, it was determined that 50 percent of Chicago’s public housing fell under the distressed category. (4) Many Chicagoans viewed the Chicago Housing Authority dimly. Residents of the Henry Horner homes on the city’s West Side sued the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) arguing the housing agency had allowed properties to purposely decay in order to drive out residents making its removal and redevelopment easier. The federal government shared this perspective as it took over management of agency in 1996.

Though HOPE VI evolved every year of its existence, from the beginning it hoped to demolish the most intractable public housing while deconcentrating poor populations that had been clustered in urban areas (often due to segregationist housing policies). Under HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros it went from “an initiative focused on reconstruction and resident improvement to one animated by broader goals of economic integration and poverty de-concentration.” (5) HOPE VI sought to build mixed income developments while promoting design and planning schemes associated with “new urbanism.”

HOPE VI, along with the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA, 1977), the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC, 1986), and Local Initiatives Corporation (LISC, 1981), represented the continuing shift toward public-private partnerships and the belief in market forces. Funding was provided for the both construction of “hard units” and “relocation services” for displaced residents. LISC, LITHC, and CRA all factored into funding for HOPE VI projects. In addition, HOPE VI granted housing authorities greater authority in choosing residents and managing their redevelopment. In an attempt to avoid the concentration of the poor, housing authorities no longer had to give preferences to the lowest income tenants. Such provisions were included also to encourage mixed income communities, making the affordable housing more attractive to private market residents. Additionally, the passage of the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act (QHWRA) in 1998, “mandated” community service requirements on residents, implemented stricter “screening processes” of tenants, and enabled public housing authorities to evict residents for “a wide variety of reasons”. Public housing authorities, placed the power and responsibility of enforcing the new mandates with the “newly installed” private managers. Combined with increased competition with higher income families, the chances of public housing residents returning to the newly constructed mixed income units appeared unlikely. (6)

Still, even if a public housing tenant passes the above criteria, the wait between the demolition of the standing units and construction of new mixed income developments often takes years. This raises the negative possibility of resident displacement. Unfortunately, on a national level, this scenario dominates reports. Nearly half of all displaced tenants will never return to their former neighborhoods. In New York, The Daily Gotham documented similar problems in Brownsville, Brooklyn noting that for nearly a decade, the HOPE VI Brownsville redevelopment endured long delays and bureaucratic snafus that prevented the re-housing of many former residents:

So now, it’s almost ten years later. Many of the tenants are scattered over all the five boroughs of New York City. Others have left for parts unknown, and others still, have gone far off to cities and towns we know. A few have even gone on to the world beyond; where gravesites keep the open secrets of their anger towards the city for not expediting this project sooner.

In Chicago, many of those who received housing vouchers or section 8 funding for housing on the private market reported difficulty in accessing services. Moreover, those individuals and families who had spent their lives in public housing struggled with attaining and retaining housing in the private sector. A 2002 report found that “poor African Americans using federal housing vouchers to rent apartments are getting doors slammed in their faces.” (7) These results only confirm similar conclusions drawn several years earlier by Alexander Von Hoffman. Von Hoffman noted that efforts to relocate section 8 and former public housing residents in middle income suburbs proved ineffective. Attempts to place residents in these suburbs under the Gautreaux ruling (Chicago) and later the Moving to Opportunity program (national), failed to improve income or job opportunities for the “new suburbanites.” Moreover, for all the evils of inner city public housing, residents formed support networks for child-care, transportation, and sociability; their suburban environs lacked these very necessities. Employment proved no easier as transportation issues, low wages, and even competition with higher income, better educated suburban workers combined to limit opportunity. (8)

One of the more striking aspects of Hoffman’s conclusions remains the persistent privileging of suburban environments as inherently better. More generally the continued emphasis on environmental factors in determining human development served as central reason given for redevelopment efforts. For example, Gwendolyn Wright’s classic Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America (1981) discusses how reformers and others repeatedly associated social ills with housing architecture ignoring the wider, more complex problems that caused such difficulties. This tendency stretches from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth, most frequently seen in discourses around public housing and “inhumane” apartment towers. Not until the 1960s with the publication of various works by Jane Jacobs, David Riesman, Lewis Mumford and others do cities begin to experience some positive associations with urban housing.

Instead, housing reformers of the late 20th century continued to believe much like nineteenth century social workers and others, that the middle class could and should model the proper behaviors for their lower income counterparts. Paul Boyer’s Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (1978) illustrates this dynamic. From the Sunday schools of the early nineteenth century, where the middle and upper classes organized and educated their economic inferiors, to the 1890s and early 1900s, where “home visits” and settlement homes were expected to inculcate middle class values into the masses, the importance of modeling and interclass interaction remained essential aspects to correcting the “urban moral order”. Proponents of HOPE VI housing repeatedly invoked similar ideas, suggesting that mixed income housing, would not only deconcentrate poverty, but also enable cross class connections that would improve the lives of the working poor and lower middle classes.

Many continue to question the idea of creating mixed income communities. As noted, one traditional argument for mixed income developments has been that it creates relationships across income levels, providing role modeling for lower income residents. A more pragmatic argument is that often middle and upper income communities have access to better city services from education to transportation than do poor or economically distressed areas. In response to the former argument, research has shown that any relationships that develop between lower and upper income residents are often superficial. (9) A 2008 Atlantic article demonstrated this very difficulty as reporter Hannah Rosin accompanied HOPE VI evaluator Laura Harris to a housing cook off at one of the local mixed income developments outside Memphis. Harris, who was conducting a survey, struggled with the obvious lack of tenant interaction. Rosin described an uncomfortable bbq scene, where black residents, mostly single mothers stood “awkwardly on the edges” away from the white residents, many of whom were young couples with children. Survey questions such as “Do you lack health insurance? Have you ever not had enough money to buy medication,” resulted in bewildered white responses as one attendee commented, “This is so sad. Does anyone ever answer ‘yes’ to these questions?” The cross race/cross class connections appear rather thin. Of course, builders seemed pleased as he looked over the community asking Harris, “‘Isn’t this great?'” “‘Are you kidding me,” she confided to Rosin, “They’re all sitting 20 feet away from each other!’”

In a 2004 editorial, Columbia sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh (American Project) pointed out that the HOPE VI strategy has been failing on three counts. First, according to Venkatesh, “private market residents” wanted out because schools had not improved “fast enough.” Nor had the city “fulfilled its promise to tear down remaining project high-rises” or solved the “public safety” issue. (10) The Urban Institute noted that even by 2004 demolitions had proceeded at a rate slower than expected. Second, too much had been expected of developers. Developers build housing. They are not as one Vice-President at NYC’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) noted in an interview, “in the business of social engineering.” Venkatesh agreed “Both developers and housing authorities should be charged only with building and managing housing. Let established supportive service agencies deal with the human issues. If we confuse the roles, we may end up alienating developers from affordable housing construction altogether.” Third, since federal funding has diminished, many developers have specific agreements within the existing contracts that should times “turn tough” they may convert units to market rates. “This is unfair to the poor families who supported the CHA’s transformation plan,” Venkatesh lamented. “Public housing reform shouldn’t be an easy way to give private developers public lands.” (11)

Since the plan depends so deeply on private developers and housing agencies, local conditions vary. The Chicago Housing Agency’s (CHA) institutional history could be charitably described as checkered. Placed under HUD management in 1996, expectations regarding the CHA’s success in relocation efforts probably should have been measured. In its defense, many residents have moved into communities that feature lower rates of poverty. Of course, poverty rates in distressed public housing ran so high that achieving an improvement is not necessarily a sign of great progress. (12) The Urban Institute noted that the CHA spent more on relocation services than any other housing agency, yet CHA efforts “have been troubled because of organizational challenges and relocation outcomes have been mixed.” (13) Relocation in Chicago, under the CHA’s Plan of Transformation has been bedeviled by problems. While HOPE VI funding appropriations are “highly political” notes Michael Skrebutenas, a Columbia professor and former Connecticut and New York housing official, it did eliminate some of the most “intractable” housing problems that laid beyond the reach of housing authorities. He cautioned however, “you can’t use it as a sledgehammer to blow everything up.” (14) With no one-to-one replacement, HOPE VI develops affordable housing at the expense of public housing. [Author’s note: initially, HOPE VI did require one to one replacement but later eliminated this requirement.]

Historically, relocation is not something Chicago development has done well. In the mid-1940s, two Chicago businessmen floated a plan to develop the Loop business district. At the time, business leaders feared a collapsing financial district as they “envisaged a postwar building boom on the city’s periphery, the flight of the middle class, and the insulation of State Street from its ‘normal market.’” (15) They devised a plan through a “private reform group” known as the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council (MHPC) that reestablished development “based on private profit and public power.” (16) Their model became widely observed and formed the basis for the federal Housing Act of 1949. Like the above policies, the MHPC convinced the legislature to create a public agency called the Chicago Land Clearance Commission for the specific purpose of “[obtaining] the land (through purchase or condemnation), [clearing] the land at its own expense, and [making] it available to developers at a fraction of its original costs.” Interestingly, since the below market sale was justified as a “one time subsidy”, the idea of selling the land cheaply was seen as better than giving recurring tax exemption (which is exactly what today’s LIHTC does).

Arnold Hirsch in his Making of the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 notes that the lack of concern for relocation of the residents around the redevelopment area became apparent when the Chicago Land Clearance Commission kept “no records of its relocation efforts,” an issue that later threatened to prevent future federal housing appropriations. It changed the mission of “Chicago’s public housing program [to little more than an] appendage to the redevelopment program.” (17) Public housing became dominated by redevelopment plans, since such plans utilized public housing as a relocation tool for unwanted populations. It remains unclear whether or not HOPE VI policies result in similar ends, but in some cities only 5% of the original public housing population has been able to move into the newly constructed mixed house units.

Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that researchers have found that the apparent liabilities of HOPE VI legislation are not confined to Chicago. The aforementioned Atlantic article “American Murder Mystery” documented the unintended consequences of HOPE VI. While crime in many cities declined as projects were demolished, the inner ring suburbs and those slightly further out experienced the opposite. In cities like Memphis and other mid-size metropolises, poverty reconcentrated itself in these outlying suburbs, resulting in spiking crime rates and unprepared police forces. This proves especially true in urban areas with tight housing markets such as Washington D.C., where crime has bulged into outlying suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.

Such results stand in stark contrast to the promises of HOPE VI supporters. The discourse assigned to HOPE VI and to a lesser extent QHWRA established a narrative that such innovations were unavoidable but yet “progressive” since they suggested the legislation acted to empower residents. The wide scale displacement that unfolded in many of the HOPE VI projects were disguised by this narrative, a narrative that found proponents in the media, among housing officials, planners, and even “housing scholars.” Only one year after the publication of Hackworth’s book, the Atlantic’s Rosin came to similar conclusions. “What began as an ‘I Have a Dream’ social crusade has turned into an urban-redevelopment project,” she observed. “Cities fell so hard for the idea of a new, spiffed-up, gentrified downtown that this vision came to crowd out other goals.” Additionally, though most scholars agree that the urban renewal efforts of the 1950s and 1960s penalized many urban populations, Hackworth suggests that current developments may be even worse. For Hackworth, gentrification is not “politically neutral” but rather a conscious expression of neoliberal forces. Simiarly, Peter Marcuse and Ronald van Kempen (Globalizing Cities: A New Spatial Order? and Of States and Cities, among others) have pointed out, the inner city proved a key sight for such interventions as manifestations of Keynesian planning could be replaced enthusiastically with mixed income units or business friendly empowerment zones.

If gentrification previously featured individuals with a real stake in local communities (Hackworth calls them “risk taking owner occupiers” who hoped to rehabilitate brownstones for their own use as well), today these processes unfold under the supervision of “globally linked corporate brokerage firms.” (19) Consolidation of real estate firms, trusts, mortgage brokers and similar actors result in a narrower industry. In the past, owner occupiers began the process of gentrification on a small scale individual basis, today corporate leadership has replaced these individuals. As Hackworth argues, this has meant “firms are increasingly the first to invest and redevelop property for more affluent users.” (20) Local resistance evaporated as unions shrunk, activism grew more fragmented, and federal redistribution withered away. National urban policy further encouraged these developments as did the belief in municipal entreprenuerialism. Organizations that observers might expect to serve local activists like Community Development Corporations (CDC’s) found themselves in the odd position of both representing neighborhood concerns while remaining dependent on state based aid and approval. More militant forms of activism found themselves forced out by rising prices or co-opted in some way.

The real tragedy in all this remains the fact that nearly two decades into what many thought the most innovative public housing plan, its results prove elusive. A recent issue of Housing Study Debate featured nothing but articles on HOPE VI housing efforts in Chicago. Aforementioned housing expert Susan Popkin reflected on HOPE VI’s success for those able to receive vouchers. Popkin noted research suggests these famiies now live in better housing and safer neighborhoods, experience improved mental health, while children exhibit fewer behavioral problems.. However, Popkin also expressed real concern, as many of these same families endured “economic hardship” that threatened their gains. Moreover, “troubled families” appeared to be no better off than before HOPE VI’s enactment. Ultimately, few experts from Rhonda Williams (The Politics of Public Housing) to Popkin would claim HOPE VI a success, yet no one seems sure if it has failed either.


1) The Onion, “Resident of Three Years Decries Gentrification of Neighborhood” 20 June 2001.

2) Hackworth, Jason, The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism, 10.

3) Popkin, Susan et al, “A Decade of Hope VI: Research Findings and Policy Challenges,” Urban Institute, May 2004, 7-8.

4) Chicago Sun Times, “Lane, U.S. Panel Back Plan to Aid Public Housing,” 11 August 1992.

5) Popkin, “A Decade of Hope VI,” 14.

6) Hackworth, The Neoliberal City, 49.

7) Chicago Sun-Times, “Landlords Won’t Give Poor Blacks, Latinos, a Chance,” 18 April 2002.

8) Von Hoffman, Alexander, “High Ambitions: The Past and Future of Low Income Housing,” Housing Policy Debate, Volume 7, Issue 8, 1996

9) Popkin, “A Decade of Hope VI.”

10) Chicago Sun Times, “Mixed Income Housing Still Needs Work Here,” 14 February 2004.

11) Chicago Sun Times, “Mixed Income Housing Still Needs Work Here,” 14 February 2004.

12) Popkin, “A Decade of Hope VI,” 9 – 25.

13) Popkin, “A Decade of Hope VI,” 30.

14) Mike Skrebutenas, interview with author, 4 April 2007.

15) Hirsch, Arnold R., Making of the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960, 100.

16) Hirsch, Making of the Second Ghetto, 102.

17) Hirsch, Making of the Second Ghetto, 105.

18) Hackworth, The Neoliberal City, 138.

19) Hackworth, The Neoliberal City, 122.

20) Hackworth, The Neoliberal City, 120.

21) Popkin, Susan, “A Glass Half Empty? New Evidence from a HOPE VI Panel Study,” Housing Policy Debates, Volume 20 Issue 1, 2010.