Lessons From Social Housing Projects Past

No one can deny the importance of creating community within any group of people living together. Whether that community consists of students living in a dormitory of families on an estate the issue of how to create community is forefront for many in social housing planning.

I don’t here claim to have the answer for how to solve the issue of creating community. I do however have three examples of cautionary and laudatory tales from around the world.

(Side note the cautionary tales are all from the US. As a native of St. Louis, Missouri I have relatives who lived in the mythically disastrous Pruitt-Igeo housing project. And as a general consumer of mass media it was hard to miss the existence of other infamous projects such as Cabrini Green and The Pinks.)

In researching community building in social housing I found three main traits
1) Budget Restrictions
2) Isolation and
3) Architectural Style

Most social housing projects are limited by budget and this can have a devastating impact on their ability to maintain basic functions and meet tenants’ needs. Take for example the now infamous Chicago, Illinois housing project of Cabrini-Green and St. Louis, Missouri’s equally ill fated Pruitt-Igeo. While originally bastions of modern housing, maintenance in what tenants dubbed “poor man’s penthouses” was tied to rent payments. As jobs became scarce due to a changing economy the already tight budget for maintenance shrank to non-existence. This left buildings to literally crumble and forced residents to watch as their communities and hopes for safe housing options crumble along with them.

One social housing project that successfully met the demands of its tenants while remaining within a very limited budget is the Quinta Monroy Housing project in Iquique, Chile. In order to deliver with a budget estimated to be a third what they would actually need the architects opted to offer “half houses” to the residents. The plan focused on providing the most essential and most expensive aspects of building a house such as kitchens, bathrooms, load bearing walls, and stairs. Gaps were left in the buildings to allow families to expand the houses as their needs and ability dictated. Through this process, residents’ unique needs were not only met, but their participation in the building process gave families a sense of ownership over the area. And unlike the regimented style of most planned housing, Quinta Monroy reflects the unique and colourful personalities of the people living within it.

The second theme in the demise of many housing projects is the isolation of residents. As first seen in Pruitt-Igeo’s development the goal was to create self-contained communities to replace those demolished or deemed unliveable by government housing authorities. Of the many unintended consequences of Pruitt-Igeo, one was the refusal of middle class white families to live in relatively desegregated communities. The result being that the residents were majority African American and first and hardest hit by changes in economic opportunities. With the aforementioned maintenance to rent connection changes in economic circumstances meant and immediate downturn in the welfare of the development itself. Economic downturns also hurt commercial businesses located within the communities, causing a domino effect of negative impacts. Ironically, projects that were meant to bring an end to the social isolation of slums ended up imploding due to their own isolationism.

Since the literal downfall of Cabrini Green and Pruitt-Igeo, developers have recognised the importance of mixed income communities in creating housing solutions. Two housing projects that have done well in this regard are Quayside in Vancouver, Canada and LILAC in Leeds, UK. Both housing solutions focus on bringing together households of different incomes as equal participants in the community. Unlike the “poor-door” solutions of some major American cities these housing solutions do not treat their lower income residents like quotas to be met. All residents are seen as having unique needs and able to contribute to the community. The connection to the community gives residents the at the LILAC community a greater sense of belonging in the community, empowerment to make changes in their community, and fostered more participation in social action. By bringing people into the community instead of isolating them co-housing communities like Quayside and LILAC show that people thrive in varied communities. .

The last aspect that seems to have caused the downfall of early attempts at social housing was the idea that architecture could cure social ills. The standard high-rise model of American housing projects, as epitomised by Pruitt-Igeo, Cabrini Green, and The Pinks is recognizable to anyone who has seen any film set in a housing project almost anywhere in the world. However, soon after the creation of these three iconic building projects it became clear that architecture could not solve social ills, and in some instances, could exacerbate them. Pruitt-Igeo and Cabrini Green’s long hallways became gauntlets as opposed to welcoming walkways. The fenced communal areas of the developments became a delineation between “us” and “them” for residents of surrounding neighbourhoods.

The demise of these developments highlighted the fact that a combination of social and housing supports are needed to provide successful support to those in need.

Now many architects admit that it’s not possible to solve social issues through architecture alone. And in an effort to not make American social housing seem too, too terrible one successful social housing project has grown up almost in the shadow of the original Pruitt-Igeo site. The HOPE VI project in St Louis, Missouri works to “raze & replace distressed high-rise public housing with low-rise, mixed income private housing.”

The national project razes the standard, sterile high-rise, hospital grey buildings of 1960s and 70s housing projects with a variety of detached houses, low-rise apartments, community amenities, and commercial centres. The community centres bring the residents together for activities and action. The commercial centres provide not only for residents but for visitors from other communities. Visitors who aren’t made to feel like outsiders by fences and entrance gates.

Driving past St. Louis’ newly built neighbourhoods it’s impossible to recognize whether the developments are focused on social housing or not.

From all of these stories of we can take this. Housing is about more than building structures. It is about building communities. It is about giving people the connections they need to feel like members of society. It is about bringing people together, not fencing them off.