Privatization in an Era of Economic Crisis: Using Market-Based Policies to Remedy Market Failures


By bhadmin February 2, 2021

Prior to the 2008 global financial crisis, Chicago’s agenda to privatize public housing had begun its ascent. As over 20,000 residents relocated, 10 mixed-income housing developments started to replace the areas where high-rise buildings once stood. In the postrecession context, however, the promised transformation proved financially difficult—if not impossible in certain geographic areas—to complete at the scale intended or with the continuum of socioeconomic diversity expected. That shift in the economic context, along with subsequent political responses, thoroughly altered the policy strategy. Sixteen years into Chicago’s public housing reforms, the former public housing sites remained underdeveloped. Chicago’s reforms provide a worthwhile case for empirical observation and theoretical extension about the nature of privatization within a city considered America’s testing ground for neoliberal urbanism. Drawing from nearly 2 years of ethnographic research, this article contributes to the literature by explaining how, in the context of extreme volatility, the mixed-income development strategy premised on market logics became untenable. When the tools and rationales for privatization no longer held up, Chicago’s reforms had to be reconstituted. It is shown that whereas the financial crisis resulted in disastrous impacts that called into question the reliance on private-sector actors and finance capital, local political actors nonetheless continued to seek new strategies dependent on the private market for the provision of affordable housing. The mixed-income strategy needs to be restructured so that it more equitably generates a mix of housing tenures, rather than subsidizing private development in gentrifying neighborhoods where market-rate populations are already attracted to move. Alternative policy options are needed, especially during inevitable periods of economic downturn and in more distressed, racially segregated neighborhoods.

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