The Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis is generally considered a stunning example of public housing gone wrong. The above photograph of its demolition in 1972 is a now-iconic image of the end of public housing. From 1972 to 2006, cities across the country tore down project after project. (New York City is unique in that NYCHA housing still stands, as the New York Times discussed a couple weeks ago.)
But when Pruitt-Igoe first opened, it was paradise. Filmmaker Chad Fredrichs tells the story of what happened to this famous project in St. Louis in his documentary, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History.” After a successful run at the East Village Cinema and at IFC, the film announced that it will be returning to New York to the Municipal Art Society and the Anthology Film Archives. We strongly encourage all of our readers to go see this movie. Here are some things about The Pruitt-Igoe Myth that really resonated with the work that we do at The Surreal Estate:
- Use of grassroots story-telling techniques to describe the experience of living at Pruitt-Igoe: Some of the most impactful scenes in the Pruitt-Igoe Myth are interviews with former tenants of the project. In one such interview, we were shocked to discover that families were torn apart as a direct result of a social policy that required all male recipients of public housing be employed. Former tenants of the project recounted how their fathers and uncles would choose to leave the state rather than stay with the family, specifically to secure safe shelter for their children. In figures, this is reflected as a profound number of single-mothers living in Pruitt-Igoe. This goes to show that there is often more to reality than statistics can show. With this in mind, we are encouraged to keep visiting buildings, talking with tenants, and learning the whole story from them.
- The Problem with Over-Leveraging: Typically we understand over-leveraging to mean that building income does not cover mortgage payments. If we step back to understand over-leveraging more loosely as Income < Operating, Pruitt-Igoe was, in effect, over-leveraged. Though governments at federal, state and local levels provided funds to build the project, no money was set aside to maintain the massive buildings. Public Housing rental income did not nearly cover operating costs for the project. The model here is certainly different than the model of speculation and inflated lending that we have been fighting in New York City. However, the film eloquently illustrates how tenants suffer, through no fault of their own, when building owners (in this case, the government) do not develop responsible, long-term financial plans for buildings. We will continue to fight for sound underwriting and careful financial planning in affordable housing.
- Tenant organizing is important: Every day we are inspired by the resiliency of tenants who continue to fight despite compromising living situations. Chad Fredrichs tells the story of tenants who, faced with quickly deteriorating conditions at Pruitt-Igoe, organized the thirty-three eleven story buildings into a tenants association and conducted a rent strike against their landlord, in this case the City of St. Louis. Tenants will always stand up for their rights: for safety and security, humane living conditions, and affordable rents.
Learn more about the film at www.pruitt-igoe.com