by Paul Abowd
Detroit broke ground on the nation’s first public housing for Black people in 1935. With New Deal money and the Roosevelts’ blessing, housing officials chose a chunk of Paradise Valley–a densely-packed, Black east side neighborhood for the Brewster projects.
But before anyone moved in, five families refused to move out, and sued to stay. Their plea got little sympathy from Michigan’s Supreme Court which ruled, in 1938: “We have to eliminate housing centers which are unsanitary and detrimental to the health, morals, and the safety of the community.”
Flash forward fifty-four years to 1992. A collection of academics, private sector housing consultants, non-profit housing advocates, and legislators presented a national study on “distressed public housing” to Congress.
The study described in passive voice the downfall of public housing: “Families [are] living in physical conditions that have deteriorated to a degree that renders the housing dangerous to the health and safety of residents.” The rationale for building public housing became the rationale for taking it apart.
The Brewster Projects expanded through the 1940s with the addition of row houses and high-rise towers called the Frederick Douglass Homes, which opened in 1951.
The two neighborhoods came to be known as Brewster-Douglass, and housed thousands of people. By 1986, the city was proposing plans for demolition, and in 1990, tore down the original Brewster Homes for redevelopment–but not before a fight with housing groups and residents.
Today, four of the original six Douglass towers remain on the downtown skyline, windowless and seemingly vacant. You can’t miss them driving into the city on I-75, but you see right through them. They’ve faded into the city’s subconscious, another part of the daily commute.
The city closed Douglass in 2008, moving hundreds of residents from its 684 units to other projects. Some residents got Section 8 vouchers to find public housing anywhere in the country. As the city removed the glass windows from the towers, the community at Douglass was scattered. But it was no accident.
Housing officials built Brewster-Douglass to replace a “slum,” and then let it become one, says Betty Milton, who moved into Douglass in 1958, and was relocated to the Brewster redevelopment in 2001.
The elevators in the Douglass towers didn’t work for years. Milton says scrappers were getting at the copper pipes in vacant units while she lived there. “They [housing officials] weren’t making repairs, they weren’t doing nothing to protect the buildings,” says Milton.
At its capacity, the Douglass projects were home to thousands of people. Now a community of about 40 squatters remains—many of them longtime residents—watching Hollywood swoop through to film scenes for Terminator inside the towers. They trade rumors about what their neighborhood might become.
“I want to demolish it and sell it–entice a big box store,” says Detroit Housing Commissioner Eugene Jones. “If you work down here and live in the suburbs, it would be nice to pick something up on your way out.” With the money from the Douglass sale, Jones says he wants to buy up units of public housing in other areas of the city as part of a restocking effort he’s led since taking the job.
The Douglass towers sit at the intersection of downtown’s two stadiums and Greektown Casino, and within earshot of I-75 traffic and Eastern Market produce trucks. Jones is waiting for the values to rise to justify the cost of clearing the buildings—which would run around $6 million, twice the current value of the land. “It is prime real estate,” says Todd Shaw, author of Now is the Time!, a 2009 book on housing rights organizing in Detroit. “They’ve tried to relocate residents for years.”
At the Housing Commission, Jones says the Brewster-Douglass projects hadn’t been fully-occupied since the early 1980s. But this vacancy was not of natural causes. In response to a federal Housing and Urban Development department audit in 1987, Shaw writes that Detroit housing officials “conceded that the 52 percent vacancy rate at Brewster-Douglass was part of a deliberate plan to slate units and buildings for demolition, consolidation, or sale on the private market” without HUD approval.
The buildings stand in the way of the next phase of the city’s redevelopment plan aimed at connecting the downtown to Wayne State’s gentrifying “Midtown” neighborhood. Right in the middle, the towers pose questions which may soon be erased by demolition. Could they be restored for housing? Where did all the people go? Do the towers sit in judgment of the public housing experiment?
Pretty Good Old Days
Long before the stadiums, the casinos, and the big-box service economy, the projects meant something completely different. Seven hundred and one Black families moved into Brewster Homes in 1938.
The new structures were solid: families were given paint every few years to coat the walls. New residents planted the grass outside their homes. The American dream/myth of mobility found a center of gravity in the projects, where some Black families used subsidized housing to work up to home -ownership. Richard Thomas’ family arrived in 1940 to a bustling community. “It was incredible here, like a little city,” says Thomas, whose family was one of the first residents at Brewster. “The projects were an oasis [of privilege] given the quality of life in surrounding areas.”
The projects represented a victory for labor, pro-housing, and civil rights forces at the outset of a long war with right-wing, corporate factions in the city. The battles were over space (as they are today)—who could live where, and what gods “urban renewal” would serve. The liberal UAW advocated a plan to ensure that “slums” were replaced with higher quality, affordable housing. The right could rely on the city’s angry white mobs as shock troops in an attempt to clear “blight” and replace it with monuments of commerce for white consumption.
But Brewster-Douglass remained part of a legal segregation policy that prohibited Black families from living elsewhere. The high-rise towers expanded the projects, but not nearly fast enough to accommodate need. “An increasing population of Black people were stacked up on top of one another to keep them from moving out into white neighborhoods,” says Thomas, a retired professor of urban history. The projects were legally segregated until a 1955 US Court of Appeals judge ruled “separate but equal has no place” in Detroit’s public housing policy.
De Facto Segregation
Detroit’s housing projects remained segregated, prompting the NAACP to file charges against the Housing Commission in 1957. The Commission fired back, claiming that “there have been no applications from a white applicant for admission” to Brewster Douglass. As for Black admission to predominantly white projects like the West Side’s Herman Gardens, the Commission claimed they had to take more upwardly mobile applicants—many of whom just happened to be white. “We cannot afford to accept tenants in the lower rent ranges…without jeopardizing our solvency.” Class discrimination, after all, was legal.
At the federal level, money for housing was drying up. Congress began to disinvest from the infrastructure they’d championed only a decade prior. Repair lists stacked up and cities scrambled to manage crumbling facilities without adequate money. In Detroit, jobs and capital began to flee in the 50s. In 1974, Richard Nixon declared a moratorium on federal housing construction.Caught up in these swirling social forces, Brewster-Douglass no longer held open a window of opportunity to working class families. Instead, says Thomas, it became “a holding cell for the Black underclass.”
The residents of public housing, meanwhile, ran out of money, too. Tenants felt the squeeze of rising rents, and launched a rent strike in 1968 at Brewster-Douglass and across the city to keep public housing affordable. Between 1970 and 1990, working class and poor residents at Brewster-Douglass got hit hard. Their average yearly income dropped from $10,755 to $5,629. By 1990, 80.7 percent of the neighborhood was living below the census-defined poverty line. Occupancy rates dropped from 96 percent to 36 percent, according to Census data.
In 1981, families with incomes below 10 percent of the average area income made up 2.5 percent of the nation’s total public housing population. By the time Reagan and Bush I were done, that number had risen to 20 percent of public housing residents.
The dust of 80s class war never settled. Through the haze of austerity, public housing officials in cities from San Francisco to Boston looked out on a crumbling infrastructure that housed an increasingly desperate community, and realized they didn’t have the means to keep going.
Detroit let their list of maintenance requests grow to 8,000. According to Shaw, activists caught wind of an undisclosed plan to demolish the original Brewster Homes and replace them with a new development of 250 townhomes in 1986. The redevelopment project would only replace 13 percent of the units.
A coalition of welfare rights groups, homeless unions, churches, and housing rights groups led protests of the city’s redevelopment plans. They sat in Mayor Coleman Young’s office, occupied vacant units inside Brewster-Douglass, and chained themselves to construction fences. Still, plans went ahead in 1990.
The Brewster redevelopment signaled a new era of public housing nationwide marked by privatization and de-densification. The process of redevelopment tore the connective tissue of communities. Residents were shuffled around, losing their neighbors and their neighborhood–or were lost in the shuffle altogether.
A federal redevelopment program called HOPE VI began in 1992, granting funds to cities to replace old projects with new housing to host families with a mixture of incomes, ostensibly to keep the working poor from being ghettoized. The private sector gained an expanded role as investors, builders, and site managers.
With HOPE VI funds, cities have demolished 95,200 units nationally of the old public housing stock, and replaced them with 107,800 new or renovated units. However, only 56,800 of them have been made available to the lowest-income households. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, since 1995, 165,000 units of public housing nationwide have been lost.
Three major housing projects—Douglass, Herman Gardens, and Jeffries—have closed in Detroit over the last 14 years. The Detroit Housing Commission came under federal monitorship in 2008—when Jones was hired. He is leading three major redevelopment projects throughout the city, and boasts that Detroit is home to more housing starts than anywhere in Metro Detroit, thanks to DHC developments. He’s shooting to add 2,000 new affordable units by 2013. Five thousand people are currently on waiting lists for public housing in Detroit, he says.
Because the city’s new large-scale developments will be mixed-income, additional housing for low-income families remains a concern. Housing Commission documents show that its public-private developments at the old Jeffries Housing Project, now dubbed Woodbridge Estates, created 337 new rental units. Only 126 units were reserved for the lowest-income group. The Charles Terrace redevelopment, to be named Emerald Springs, will create 75 units—42 will be for low-income families. At the old Jeffries East projects, sewers are installed for the new Corner Stone Estates, where 138 of the 180 rental units will be low-income.
At Douglass, Jones remains open to bids, which have been low. When the neighborhood closed in 2008, Jones says the land was worth $9 million, three times what is worth today. He would not mind hosting another part of Mike Illitch’s sports stadium empire, or a Wal-Mart, but he says renovation for its original use–housing–is not on the table.
There’s no romanticizing the segregation era in which public housing was built, nor the flawed management of public housing in subsequent decades.
The Douglass towers, and the national ruins of the post-war public housing boom, are being used to dismiss the very idea of public housing a social good. But the sad state of the projects, just like the sad state of our public schools, are a result of conscious choices to disinvest from them.
Shaw says the inadequacy of public housing, combined with the collapse of the private housing market creates an especially precarious situation for working people. All bets are off on the American promise of mobility, to which public housing lent a foundation. “It’s a double whammy,” he says. “The safety net of public housing is getting yanked away right when there are few guarantees that home ownership is a sure thing.”