Miriam Axel-Lute: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your family, how you ended up in this field and what drew you to housing and planning?
Chester Hartman: I’m by profession in education and self-identify [as an] urban planner. I went to planning school right out of college. I majored in dramatic languages and literature but had no intention of going on in that area. So, I went to graduate school at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which had a master’s program, which was terrible, so I moved over to the Ph.D. program, which was in a different graduate school, Arts and Sciences.
[I] taught for several years in the Graduate School of Design planning department. Planning is obviously a very broad field in terms of what it covers. Housing was not my sole interest, but my major interest. I’d gotten very involved in the West End project in Boston, [a] major urban renewal project that Herb Gans wrote about. It was the area around Mass General [Hospital] in downtown Boston.
… I stayed there for several years and did my dissertation around the people who lived in this very solid neighborhood, largely Italian-American, fairly heavy Jewish population.
When the area was torn down under the urban renewal program under Ed Logue to put up high-rise luxury housing, people moved. Some tried to move as little as possible in terms of distance, but most of them actually moved to the suburbs, and in some cases moved totally out of the Boston area. I was very involved in that whole process, and emotionally moved by the interviews, the answers they gave to what their neighborhood meant to them in terms of social relationships, in terms of spatial identity, in terms of the actual housing they had. It was mainly four- and five-story tenements. Almost all were renters. But nonetheless people had great stability until urban renewal created instability.
Axel-Lute: What sort of things do you draw from that experience, looking at the displacement and gentrification that’s going on today?
Residential stability is very important for family life, for neighborhood life, for personal satisfaction. We’ve got to create laws and practices and policies that don’t create instability and don’t create unforeseen moves for people. And that has to do with all kinds of urban programs now, and rural programs, as well.
Axel-Lute: You wrote an article for us in 2006 on the right to housing. Are we any closer to securing one in this country?
I don’t think so. … There are legal rights that protect people against certain illegal actions, but people still can be displaced against their best interests and against their will. We still need to work toward a right to housing, and hopefully at some point we will have such a right.
Axel-Lute: I don’t know if you’ve seen Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted. He studied the low-end private rental market in great detail, particularly the phenomenon of eviction. He ends the book making a call for expanding the housing choice voucher program to everyone who is eligible for it. How far would that get us toward a universal right to housing in this country?
It’s obviously going to cost a lot of money. Vouchers are not inexpensive, particularly for low-income people. Do we have federal, state, and local governments that are willing to back this with sufficient funds? That’s going to take some political organizing.
Axel-Lute: Desmond does say that according to his research, there’s enough over-charging happening with housing vouchers in the lower cost areas that the savings from using small area market rents could actually go a long way toward extending vouchers to everyone who qualifies.
That’ll be interesting to see if that’s true. I would hope so, but I’m somewhat skeptical.
Harold Simon: If it is true, it’s not only an opportunity to get something for folks who need it, but also an opportunity to put people on the spot because so much of the argument is, “Well, we don’t have the money.” Well, OK, here’s the money. Now what?
Yes, that’s a good point.
Axel-Lute: I was looking up your contributions to Shelterforce and found our review of your book, Radical Urban Planning. What would you say is the state of urban planning today? How has the renewed interest in urban living and public transit, and then the suburbanization of poverty, been re-shaping the field? How should they be?
Well, it’s interesting. It’s a complex, quite diverse field. As you likely know, I was involved in starting and running Planners Network, which was an attempt to identify and organize the left of the planning field. But it’s certainly not the dominant part of urban planning, and I’m still not very impressed with most of the planning programs that universities [have]. Very few planning programs are even vaguely progressive. UCLA, to some extent, Columbia, one or two others, but certainly not my old program at Harvard.
Axel-Lute: What are those programs not doing that they should be doing?
I don’t think they’re taking race and poverty into consideration in the essential way that planning ought to be doing. That’s such a central part of urban life and urban planning, the fact that we have far more poverty and far more racism than should be acceptable in the 21st century United States. We certainly have the resources and the will to handle those issues, but we’re not doing that.
Simon: Why is that?
I think white America is not willing to acknowledge the extent to which there is still racism, particularly what we refer to as structural racism. Maybe they’re willing to just agree with and try to end individual instances of racism, but structural racism, the way the education system, the health system, the housing system, immigration system, criminal justice system, the way all of that has built-in racial disparities is something that we need far more attention paid to.
Simon: That requires a level of honest introspection that I think is very difficult for most people.
Yes. I think most people don’t want to acknowledge the fact that there is a racist bias in … their own lives, their professional lives, their personal lives. We all like to think we’re much better than we really are.
Simon: Do you think that’s why the planning schools are blind to it, or is it for other reasons?
It’s hard for me to pinpoint. In some cases planning schools are in the wrong place in the university. I don’t think planning should be a part of a design school. It should be more public policy or politics. That would tend to give it more heft in terms of the influence of people from sociology, or political science, or history or philosophy.
Simon: Are any schools doing that?
Not to my knowledge.
Axel-Lute: How about within the community development field?
Community development is better. There aren’t that many specific [academic] programs in community development, to my knowledge. And certainly the Civil Rights movement has had some influence there, far more than it’s had in the planning field.
Axel-Lute: What inspired you to found the Poverty and Race Research Action Council?
Well, [there] wasn’t really a specific organization that was dealing with the relationship between poverty and race [and] research and advocacy and I thought there was a real need to bring all of that together. And I think we’ve been reasonably successful. We have a person who succeeded me as the executive director, Phil Tegeler, doing a very good job. Our board chair, John Charles Boger, is the dean of the law school down at UNC Chapel Hill [and] had a long background with the Legal Defense Fund. And we have a wonderful Social Science Advisory Board, which consists of people from different areas, both geographically and substantively, who’ve been very helpful in guiding us and advising us.
And our publication, Poverty and Race, goes out quite widely to people, the relevant people in the field.
Axel-Lute: One of the ongoing conversations that has to do with both poverty and race in the community development field is the focus on homeownership. In your urban planning book, you challenged this focus on homeownership as a driving value in public policy. How have the events of the past decade influenced or supported your perception of this? And how do we talk about not over-emphasizing ownership without supporting right-wing narratives of what happened in the crisis?
I still think ownership was, in its various versions—not just straight single-family home ownership, but cooperative and various forms of ownership—important to develop so people have commitment, stability. And I think we’re expanding the importance of homeownership in the context of this broader, more expansive, more inclusive view of it. So, [I] still think it’s very important, but not in the narrow sense of just owning your single family home.
Axel-Lute: Another thing that’s been long in coming is the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulations. What do you think of how they turned out? And are they going to make a difference over the long haul?
HUD as an entity depends very much on who’s in leadership and that person’s politics, and clearly that relates to whose administration is in power at the time. I’m a big Obama fan, and I think HUD has done pretty well under him. So, I’m hoping there’ll be kind of a continuous tradition of progressive thoughts about housing and urban development, [and] not only thoughts but activities, regulations, support, financial support.
Axel-Lute: How about the field of community development? We have thousands of CDCs and hundreds of CDFIs, and they often come under fire from quite a few directions. Where do you think it’s going? Where should it be going?
I’m hoping there’ll be more of them, more community based with a lot of involvement [from] people in the community, good leadership but also a very democratic participatory process. I think as long as we keep pushing in that direction, trying to expand progressive policies and activities to more and more such entities, it will have increasing importance for all of us.
Axel-Lute: You moved from executive director to research director at PRRAC, which is not necessarily a common direction to go. What was it like stepping into that position after you’d been the boss?
I thought it was a good idea to pass on leadership to new people. I still keep fairly involved, but I think all organizations ought to think about not having leadership stultified and ossified, but bring new people in to do the leadership. I wanted to continue to have some title, but to be more appropriate to what I do there and what I want to do there. And I didn’t any longer have, or need to have, the responsibility for raising our budget [or] administering a staff.
Axel-Lute: So, what’s next for you?
Well, it’s hard to know. We’ve been leading a two-city life, D.C. and San Francisco … and we want to end that. It’s exhausting. Having two houses gets a little expensive. So, we’re very likely going to make San Francisco our full-time home.
And I want to continue writing. … I’ve done a lot of letters to the editor in my life, been quite reasonably successful in having them published, and not only in daily papers—the Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe—but in … The Nation, other publications, and in some academic publications.
I would like to put together a collection of the ones I think were most interesting, most effective, probably surround each piece that I select [with] a short contextual piece of writing about what was going on that led me to write that letter and led the publication to want to print it. And maybe something at the beginning in the way of how-to instructions so people who would like to write, or should be writing letters to the editors, [know] how to do it most effectively.
So, that’s the major writing thing I have in mind at the moment. And I’m going to stay on the board of various organizations that I’m on now, and do occasional consulting gigs when they’re relevant to PRRAC-type work.
Simon: Give us two or three pieces of advice on how to write good letters.
Keep it short. Keep it interesting. Keep it personal, and identify yourself, who you are, [and] why you’re writing it. If you can throw in some cleverness or humor, do that. I would have to go back and look at it more [to] find out … why I thought some were effective, some were printed, and what effect, if any, they had. There’s always a tendency to be more self-important than one should be, as if somehow these letters mattered.
Simon: In the last 40 years, you’ve seen a lot of change, some of it great, some of it terrible, in race relations, in urban planning, in the [life of] cities. What do you think are one or two things you want to mention that gave you hope, that maybe even surprised you that it was possible?
Well, I think the instances of individual racism are really regarded as unacceptable. I think that’s a very important development. As I said, structural racism is more complex, because people don’t recognize it, don’t want to recognize it. It’s harder to do something about inherent racism in who gets what kind of schooling, who gets what kind of healthcare, how immigration policy is handled, whatever. A lot more work needs to be done in that area… But at least we can claim progress.
Simon: What about what depresses you?
The state of the world. There’s much too much violence, [it’s] still a dangerous place to be. People still accept the fact of violence as a legitimate way of responding.
Simon: As our readers read your interview, what would you tell them to do the next day to make the world better?
Get involved, really spend a good chunk of your time, both as an activist and on issues that are important to you, reading relevant things, going to relevant events, being more than just a spectator.