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How Obama and Valerie Jarrett Helped Launch Their Political Careers in an Outrageous 'Urban Renewal' Scheme

Developers and investors got rich on a project that destroyed the homes of thousands of Chicago's poorest black residents.

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If we examine more carefully the interests that Obama represents; if we look at his core financial supporters; as well as his inmost circle of advisors, we’ll see that they represent the primary activists in the demolition movement and the primary real estate beneficiaries of this transformation of public housing projects into condos and townhouses: the profitable creep of the Central Business District and elite residential neighborhoods southward; and the shifting of the pile of human misery about three miles further into the South Side and the south suburbs.

Obama’s political base comes primarily from Chicago FIRE—the finance, insurance and real estate industry. And the wealthiest families—the Pritzkers, the Crowns and the Levins. But it’s more than just Chicago FIRE. Also within Obama’s inner core of support are allies from the non-profit sector: the liberal foundations, the elite universities, the non-profit community developers and the real estate reverends who produce market rate housing with tax breaks from the city and who have been known to shout from the pulpit“ give us this day our Daley, Richard Daley bread.”

Aggregate them and what emerges is a constellation of interests around Obama that I call “Friendly FIRE.” Fire power disguised by the camouflage of community uplift; augmented by the authority of academia; greased by billions in foundation grants; and wired to conventional FIRE by the terms of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1995. And yet friendly FIRE is just as deadly as the conventional FIRE that comes from bankers and developers that we’re used to ducking from. It’s the whole condominium of interests whose advancement depends on the elimination of poor blacks from the community and their replacement by white people and—at least temporarily—by the black middle-class—who’ve gotten subprime mortgages—in a kind of redlining in reverse.

Evidence of the public-private partnerships’ failures emerged almost immediately.

The public housing included in Senator Obama's transformation plans, such as the 504 apartments in the squat brick buildings of Grove Parc Plaza, quickly fell into disrepair. Reports emerged of uninhabitable units with collapsed roofs, fire damage, mice infestations, and sewage backups. In 2006, federal inspectors graded the condition of the complex an 11 on a 100-point scale, a score so bad the buildings were demolished in 2011

A Boston Globe review found that thousands of apartments across Chicago that had been built with local, state and federal subsidies -- including several hundred in Obama's former district -- deteriorated so completely they were no longer habitable. Grove Parc, a project that was, along with several other prominent failures, developed and managed by Obama's close friends and political supporters, became a symbol of the broader failures of handing over public subsidies to FIRE cronies, private companies to build and manage affordable housing, an approach lauded by Obama as the best, sometimes only, replacement for public housing.

At the time, Jarrett was the chief executive of Habitat Co., which managed Grove Parc Plaza from 2001 until the winter of 2008 and co-managed an even larger subsidized complex in Chicago that was seized by the federal government in 2006 after city inspectors found widespread problems. Jarrett had earlier served as Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development from 1992 through 1995. When questioned by the Globe, Jarrett defended Obama's position that public-private partnerships are superior to public housing.

"Government is just not as good at owning and managing as the private sector because the incentives are not there," said Jarrett, whose company manages more than 23,000 apartments. "I would argue that someone living in a poor neighborhood that isn't 100 percent public housing is by definition better off."

 
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