I’m in Seattle now, but need to say one last thing (for now) about the omni-scandal that is Chicago housing. It gets worse the more I learn. The usual excuse for neglecting, carving up and privatising public/council housing is ‘Sorry, but there’s no alternative. We haven’t got any money’. This is a contrived argument handed down by politicians that attempts to wash away ideological purpose with crocodile tears. Nonetheless, at the local level it’s often the case that municipal landlords, starved of funding for decades, have run out of fight, ideas and cash so take what they think will be the line of least resistance. It transpires that Chicago’s Public Housing Authority (CPHA), while allowing whole neighbourhoods to crumble, is sitting on a bank balance of $400 million! They have actually been incentivised by the Federal government to keep public housing empty, one of them the same place (Altgeld Gardens) where Barak Obama used to be a tenant organiser. While thousands of people suffer homelessness and displacement, CPHA is clearly being fattened up for a corporate takeover that will finish the job of destroying the city’s public housing, while no doubt greatly enriching the people calling the shots.
I’ve travelled ‘from sea to shining sea’ now and the housing story doesn’t get any better. During the early part of the Depression, camps for the workless and homeless were set up, called ‘Hoovervilles’ after the President of the time. If you’ve read Steinbeck, you know the kind of thing. Today I’ve seen an Obamaville. Tucked in besides several main roads, on a patch of land from a J G Ballard novel, I stumbled upon ‘Nckelsville’, effectively a shanty town/informal settlement/squatter camp for some of the many people squeezed out of the city by Seattle’s booming housing market. I was shown around by the brilliant, resourceful, caring people who run the place as a co-operative where they can make a temporary home as refugees from soaring rents, mental illness, or domestic violence. About 40 people live at Nickelsville, nearly all of them in full or part-time work. They pay off their ‘rent’ by sharing security and cleaning duties. There are several similar camps around Seattle. This is not part of an occupy-type movement of political protest, this is practical, financial necessity. As one resident said, ‘It’s either this or leave Seattle for who knows what or where’.
The person who told me that used to work for Microsoft which, along with Amazon, Starbucks and Boeing, is based in Seattle, making it not only the fastest growing big city in the USA, but one of the wealthiest on earth, in the richest nation on earth. But for the last two days the front page of the local paper has been about the critical shortage of affordable homes and the reflation of a speculative housing investment bubble. It probably now goes without saying that Seattle’s public housing authority is pursuing privatisation variants of the kind I’ve described on the previous stages of my trip. At Yesler Terrace, in a real estate hot spot, they’re tearing down the first ethnically integrated public housing project in the country, to replace it with the ubiquitous bogus ‘mixed income’ development. This is where the grapes or wrath are stored!