The Poorhouse: Subsidized Housing in Chicago, 1895-1976

The Poorhouse: Subsidized Housing in Chicago, 1895-1976

The Poorhouse: Subsidized Housing in Chicago, 1895-1976

The Poorhouse: Subsidized Housing in Chicago, 1895-1976


The first major studyof subsidized housing in any American city, this history of the Chicago experience shows that decisions about the future of public housing to be made in the next few years will if not made in the context of past programs achievements and failures inevitably lead to more "poorhouses" for the indigent and elderly.

Chicago,city of big shoulders, of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, seems an ideal environment for public housing because of the city's youth among major cities and well-deserved reputation for technology, innovation, and architecture. Yet, as this seminal new work shows, Chicago's experience on the whole has been a negative one, raising serious questions about the nature of subsidized housing- about whether we should have it and, if so, in what form.

Devereux Bowly, Jr., is uniquely qualified to write this perceptive account. For Bowly, a lawyer at a community law office in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago, a native of the city, active in landmark preservation organizations, and interested in urban and architectural history, "subsidized housing is an area where my poverty law practice, interest in the history of the city and architecture all came together."

Bowly's detailed examination of subsidized housing, though specifically that of Chicago, no doubt will have implications for establishing new national policy. The achievements of Chicago, especially in architecture, slum clearance, and sound, safe, and sanitary housing for poor people, and the deeply disturbing corollary matters of unbearable costs, population losses, high and increasing default and foreclosure figures, and the large-scale abandonment of housing by owners- the phenomenon of the late 1960s and the 1970s- illuminate a national problem of staggering proportion and thus far unfathomable dilemma from which we must learn if only tosurvive, this unusually interesting book suggests.


Although untold billions of dollars have been spent in this country over the last half century on subsidized housing, it is a subject that has received too little attention. The various programs have come and gone with inadequate evaluation of their social and economic impact. In the next few years major decisions will have to be made about the direction of housing in America. Future programs can only be planned intelligently in the context of achievements and failures of past programs.

Chicago makes an ideal subject for a case study of subsidized housing. Incorporated in 1833, it is one of the youngest of the major cities, its entire development having occurred during the post- Industrial Revolution period. It has long been an innovator in the technology of building, and is unexcelled in the quality of its architectural design, yet its experience with subsidized housing has, on the whole, been a negative one. This raises serious questions as to the very nature of subsidized housing, whether or not we should have it, and if so in what form.

The basic scope of the book is limited to the City of Chicago, and to multi-family developments. The matter of subsidized single family houses is a large subject deserving of its own study. A major focus of attention here will be housing constructed by governmental agencies, or with public grants. Projects with subsidized mortgages and rents will be considered, as will housing constructed as private philanthropic endeavors.

Devereux Bowly, Jr.

Chicago, Illinois February 6, 1978 . . .

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