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The public housing crisis has made me a wiser anarchist.

 

All over the country, amid great fanfare, highrises are being imploded. Statesmen stand on gaily decorated podiums claiming victory over decades of bad policy. Some residents join them on the podium and in their applause while others look nostalgically at the rubble they called home.

In every instance, public housing residents are "involved" in the planning that leads up to demolition. In fact, there is an industry of consultants (highly) paid to "involve" them in planning initiatives. Public housing residents meet for months on end with architects, planners and other experts to evaluate the condition of their homes and the prospect for an alternative future. Usually they get snacks; sometimes they get stipends; and always they're warmly praised for their contribution and commitment to the community.

Per the rules of community process, there are regular meetings (once a week), plenty of information (rehab costs, demographics), healthy give and take, and some mutual responsibilities. And in the end, some portion of the residents will agree that demolition and limited new construction is the best end.

But just because there's some level of agreement, is there necessarily consensus? In order to have consensus, members of a group must freely and fully participate. In order to freely and fully participate, each member must be able to work under the following assumptions:

· I know that the deliberations are genuine and that the conclusion has not been predetermined.
· I know that when I speak, my view will affect the outcome of deliberations.
· I know that my one voice will not prevail absolutely, but that no plan of action will go forward over my strenuous, heartfelt objections.
· And I know that the group is committed to continuing discussion until there is consensus (if not 100% agreement) about the final plan.

 

Public housing residents cannot work under these assurances. The outcome of their deliberations is already determined-the housing must be drastically reduced, if not eliminated. Congress has decided, mainstream america has decided, the planners and architects have usually decided. The only funds available are targeted to dismantling public housing and replacing it with only a fraction of the original units. Residents don't have the option to pick among several alternative scenarios, they are simply being asked to rubber stamp a foregone conclusion. Their voices will have minimal (typically symbolic) impact on the outcomes and their strenuous heartfelt objections will be overlooked. The government is giving people cookies and hawaiian punch and asking them to plan for their own elimination.

I don't intend here to tackle the issue of whether buildings should be demolished. In fact, I won't argue that buildings shouldn't come down. Many many public housing units in chicago are horrible, dangerous and unfit for people. Nor will I argue that the government should eliminate the housing of last resort for thousands of families.

My purpose very briefly is to respond, from an anarchist perspective, to those people (liberals and conservatives alike) who blame public housing residents for not participating in greater numbers, for not being consistent in their attendance at planning meetings, and for often disowning the plan they ostensibly created.

Critics should not expect people to buy into a plan they did not freely create. The trappings of group process-meetings, information, opinion surveys-cannot replace true participation. Resident involvement is more a sop to liberal guilt than an effort at real community process.

I don't have a solution. The government shut out (no money, no flexibility) combined with a thirty year history of neglect and rational apathy on the part of residents is a deadly combination.

--Eileen


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