Anyone serious about making new public housing different from the old has to make sure that it doesn't look like the ugly modernist boxes everyone expects. This part of the job brought Philip Hickman, head of scattered sites for the Habitat Company, up against the Reagan-Bush Department of Housing and Urban Development.
If Hickman ever takes up a new line of work, he could turn his HUD stories into a stand-up routine. The agency controlled new public housing in two different ways. It allowed the CHA--and Habitat as its receiver--to spend only $92,000 per unit (now $101,000). But beyond that, HUD's "Modest Design and Cost Containment" regulations dictated every detail down to the shape of the foundation, the roof angle (flat), and the color of brick. An honest conservative regime simply would have imposed a dollar limit and let initiative flourish (the Clinton administration's position since January). But a government interested in making public housing hard to build, and imposing a public stigma on its occupants once built, would do what the Republicans did.
Hickman's problems began when he picked 9 (now 11) local architects from 28 applicants and asked them to design different scattered-site units: "HUD thought two architects would be plenty." His problems multiplied as the architects thought of new ways to build three- and four-bedroom apartments on small lots for not much money. Hickman and Habitat head Daniel Levin had to fly to Washington, D.C., to persuade HUD to relax its mandate for plywood siding. "I said, 'Plywood? It'll fall down in two years.' The answer: 'That's what you have modernization funds for.'"
With Hickman and Levin running interference, the architects did their own things. "We photographed the entire street and then designed our building to fit in," says Thomas Humes of Solomon Cordwell Buenz & Associates, Inc. "'Contextual architecture,' if there is such a thing--not making a statement at all." William Dring of Bauhs and Dring, Ltd., worked to make a seven-unit building "look like seven houses, not one project." Christopher Lee of Johnson & Lee, Ltd., was told he couldn't put in a bay window because the foundation walls had to be straight. "So we put the bay window on the second level."
How Hickman builds is one headache; where he builds is another. "HUD won't let us build public housing next to the el, even though some people put $300,000 townhomes there. They read us the regulations like they were from the Bible. We've even had them reject sites on streets with bus lines."
Rampant suburbanism is part of the problem, he says. "It all hinges on one or two technicians. They come in from Arlington Heights on the Northwestern train and look at these neighborhoods and say, 'Oh, this is terrible.' I say, 'Get real, this is Chicago.'"
Hickman doesn't demonize HUD; he often gets what he wants, eventually. But "every 25-foot lot for me is as hard as building a new Hancock building."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.