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Abstract

In the early 2000s, Chicago emerged as an archetypal city in the broader movement to remake public housing. Chicago’s Plan for Transformation committed upwards of $1.5 billion to demolish high-rise buildings, rehabilitate a portion of existing stock, and create 12 new mixed-income developments on the footprint of public housing sites. Policy incentives—such as financing for capital development, long-term rental subsidies, and public land transfers—aimed to encourage public-private partnerships. During the 2008 economic crisis and its aftermath, however, the promised transformation proved financially difficult—if not impossible in certain geographic areas—to complete at the scale intended. That shift in the economic context, along with subsequent political responses, thoroughly altered the policy strategy. To date few empirical investigations have analyzed how these changes restructured the very nature of public housing reforms, and what this restructuring means for policies that require market intervention for the provision of public goods. This dissertation performs just that empirical analysis. Privatizing Chicago examines the city’s public housing reforms as an example of “actually existing” (Brenner & Theodore, 2002) neoliberal urbanism and explains how specific political actors, processes, and institutions altered market-based policies intended to reshape urban poor neighborhoods. Viewing Chicago as a neoliberal city requires both recognizing its political landscape as one where the primary aim of municipal government is to promote an entrepreneurial agenda that positions the economic success of the city above all other interests, as well as viewing the potential for progressive movements to contest this agenda. Prior to this study, Chicago’s reforms had not been examined across time or geographic areas using critiques of neoliberal urbanism, nor through qualitative methods. This study fills that gap and uses the case of Chicago to improve the empirical understanding of neoliberal urbanism more generally. The study accomplishes this through a case study of Chicago’s public housing reforms between 2000 to 2016. It shows how government officials, real estate developers, bankers, lawyers, planners, grassroots activists, and others pursued policy strategies favorable to their interests over a 16-year period—a time marked by the economic recession. My methodological approach is a theory-driven form of ethnography, and my analysis draws from 61 in-depth interviews, field observations over 22 months, archival research of over 500 documents, and the analysis of financial data. This approach brought to light the multiple and contradictory visions at work within the neoliberal framework: competing ideas of the proper partnerships between the public and private sectors, shifting authority among local and national government agencies, and struggles for community redevelopment on the land where high-rises once stood. In probing these conflicts and contradictions, I argue that the overall effect of the reforms was to burnish Chicago’s status as a “global city,” but it also contributed to land appropriation, capital accumulation, and the displacement of thousands of low-income African-American residents. The cycle of government intervention into market failure will continue as long as the role of the state remains dominated by an agenda of capital expansion, rather than of equitable urban development that ensures a place for low-income, predominately racial minority communities to live. Theoretical contributions related to neoliberal urbanism align around four themes: (a) political agency and resistance; (b) privatization and financialization; (c) local state control, federal devolution, and global processes; and (d) the relevance of race. A set of policy implications drives towards recommendations regarding affordable housing policy, democratic governance arrangements, collective action focused on social justice, and market-based policy strategies.

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