Beyond the Box
While at least a great deal of the motivation behind public housing in the United States has probably been good, the results have often fallen very short of good, or even adequate. Stalinesque is one of the more accurate terms that could be applied to far too much of the public housing that has been built in the United States, especially since the middle of the last century, when much of the push for public housing came about. In no small part because of the many problems that plagued so many public housing projects from the very beginning, government support for public housing has waned over the decades. This paper examines some of the possible paths forward that might be taken for supporters of public housing, public housing that genuinely meets the needs of the entire community in which it resides.
The history of public housing in the United States is a series of missteps. Examining them in brief suggests how the future of public housing might be brighter both for the residents of the housing and for the entire community. The fact that public housing has an effect beyond the residents of the projects is something that has not been sufficiently considered in general in the history of public housing, a point that shall be elaborated below.
The need for an entire new chapter to be written for public housing in the United States can be summarized by the following paragraph, describing just two incidents that occurred in one public housing “warehouse” in Chicago:
In 1992, a Cabrini resident hiding in a vacant 10th-floor apartment shot and killed 7-year-old Dantrell Davis as he walked to school holding his mother’s hand. Five years later, a 9-year-old girl known as Girl X was found raped, choked, poisoned and left in a stairwell with gang graffiti scribbled on her body. (Hawkins, 2010)
These events were particularly awful. But from the 1970s on, terrible things were happening on a regular basis to the residents of public housing projects across the United States. It would take decades of degraded lives and scorched hope for public officials and community activists to begin to make headway on what a more humane version of public housing might look like.
History of Public Housing
The history of public housing in America (which parallels the history of public housing in most Western nations) has very modest beginnings. At the end of the 19th century, local and federal governments began to develop and enforce building standards. While such building standards applied to all structures, effectively they were only important for the poor. The wealthy had the means and power to ensure that their houses were well-constructed.
The poor, on the other hand, needed the power of the government to help them have access to housing that was minimally safe. The fact that public housing begins with a consideration of safety is certainly appropriate: Safety is the essential first step. However, for the most part, public housing in the United States never moved beyond this point, never pushed past the point when safety was not simply the first but in fact the only criterion for housing for the poor and therefore generally widely stigmatized.
The first major push for substantial public investment and oversight for housing for the poor came about in the 1930s as a response to the dire conditions of the Great Depression. New agencies — at first, the Public Works Administration and then the U.S. Housing Authority — oversaw public housing projects. The stated purpose of such agencies was to provide housing for urban residents who could not afford to find shelter on their own (public housing in the United States has always been concentrated in the inner city with no roots whatsoever being put down in rural areas). However, the real purpose of the agencies, at least as far as they carried out their mission, was more focused on clearing out slums. (This overview of the history of public housing is taken from Jackson’s  description of the suburbanization of American society and the effect that these centrifugal exodus has had on a range of aspects of urban life.)
New housing was sometimes built in previous slums, but sometimes the land was converted to other purposes, such as middle-class housing. The directive to clear out the slums was generally not so much an attempt to provide a space in an urban neighborhood that could be rebuilt in a place they would allow for housing for poor people to live in safety with some additional resources set aside to allow for a certain grace.
Rather, those residents who lived on the borders of public housing projects were highly critical of the effect of such housing on their own property values and the more intangible qualities of their neighborhoods that they valued and that they felt were being destroyed by living next to poor people. Not that such complaints were usually expressed so openly, but this was the clear and repeated subtext at least: Poor people make poor neighbors. What allowed some of the largest housing projects to endure through the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century was that they were located in areas of cities that were not adjacent to residential neighborhoods of middle-class families.
In many ways, the housing projects that endured (generally in large cities such as New York and Chicago, and Los Angeles to a lesser extent) can be seen as being analogous to the land that was given to Native Americans to serve as their reservations. The land set aside for reservations was the land that no one else wanted for any other purpose; the land that was set aside for public housing and that endured as public housing was land that simply had no value for anyone else.
Public housing has also seen rapid deterioration in almost every state as a result of several other political dynamics. The first of these is that the power of the urban poor has been declining for decades. Of course, being poor, the power of the residents of public housing was always proportionately less than that of wealthier residents. However, residents of poor urban neighborhoods (including but not limited to residents of public housing) had more political power when there were more of them: Numbers matter in a democracy, even if they (all too probably) matter less than money. As more and more urban poor have left the cities, moving to distant suburbs that offer safer housing and better schools, even if these are accompanied by killer commutes and fewer economic opportunities, their power has waned.
Another an even more important political dynamic that has lead to the deterioration of public housing over the past several decades is the growing conservatism that has defined American domestic policy for much of this time. President Reagan’s demonizing of welfare mothers that he accused of (or at least characterized as) driving Cadillacs while cheating the honest working American was one of the most dramatic but hardly the only powerful demonstrations of the ways in which the federal government has during Republican (and even during Democratic) administrations turned away from helping poorer Americans.
Public housing projects have, moreover, been continuously subject to the depredations of state and local governments. While most funding for public housing has come from the federal government, the administration of this funding and all of the significant decisions about public housing (including where projects should be located, the number of units in each project, etc.) are under that control of local officials. These officials are highly susceptible from pressure by local residents who in typical NIMBY fashion do not want public housing in their neighborhoods. Their objections are generally focused on the kind of high-rise, very dense housing that is seen as the stereotype of public housing. Indeed, a great deal of public housing projects in the United States do conform to this design, although there are always been low-rise public housing projects as well.
But even when the housing projects that have drawn disapproval from other residents have been low-rise and relatively less ugly than the worst of the high-rise monstrosities, the push to tear them down has tended to preclude sufficient new units being built to replace housing that is bulldozed:
Although the program has enabled city governments to clear up poorly utilized lands and spur new public housing development, critics have charged that HOPE VI has paved the way for rapid demolition without building new units. As of 2003, HUD had approved about 135,000 units for demolition. This far surpasses the original goal proposed by the Commission, leading critics to charge that HOPE VI and other development initiatives offer municipalities an easy way to tear down low-income units without adequately replacing them. (Venkatesh & Celimli, 2004)
The HOPE VI program is one of the possible future faces of public housing. This program along with other similar programs that have shown some promise in recent years will be examined in the next section.
Scattering the Projects
By the 1990s, stakeholders in the public housing discussion had decided that the way to save public housing was to dismantle the core tenet that had defined public housing projects for several generations. While project housing projects had always been designed to be highly dense living spaces, usually relying on high-rise buildings and often housing far more individuals than had originally been planned for. The new model of public housing would be to “scatter” housing for the poor throughout established neighborhoods. This would be accomplished by the federal government getting out of the business of direct funding and construction of housing projects and instead providing vouchers for individuals to use towards renting housing in established middle-class neighborhoods.
The HOPE IV project was centered on this idea of “scattering”:
The ostensible motive was to end the isolation of tenants from the wider city. The supposed barriers were twofold. One, public housing tenants were deleteriously affected by living in areas of concentrated poverty, where schools were in poor shape, the local economy was sputtering and crime and gang activity were entrenched. With public housing labeled a failure, it seemed reasonable to send families to the private market with a rent subsidy — the Housing Choice Voucher. And two, public housing families were held back by their neighbors who, according to conventional wisdom, were dependent on welfare, had numerous social problems, lacked a mainstream work ethic and were a bad influence on one another. The prevailing idea was that, with vouchers, tenants could separate off from one another and meet new, employed, law-abiding neighbors. (Venkatesh & Celimli, 2004)
So far this concept of “scattering” or integrating public housing into established neighborhoods has met with some very limited success, as detailed below:
Those CHA families who have managed to move to the private market have had varying experiences. Conservatively, based on our research, about 20 to 25% boast dramatic improvements in their living situation. This is not insignificant, but it certainly is not stellar, given that since 1995, over 80% of tenants have moved to areas with at least a 30% minority population and greater than 24% poverty. This is a violation of the CHA’s own relocation objective of preventing further segregation and poverty concentrationâ€¦. In theory the voucher units undergo an extensive inspection process so that families do not face conditions similar to the projects that they leave behind. [In the new homes] slum landlords make quick-and-dirty repairs, and the units are never rehabbed properly. (Venkatesh & Celimli, 2004)
The question then becomes how to improve on the basic idea of integrating public housing into communities with established communities and a range of incomes and ethnicities.
Several issues need to be addressed to improve the process. The first is to install greater government supervision. Capitalism certainly has its place, but not in an unfettered form. The performance of landowners in the process so far has shown that this is not a process that can be handed over to the private sector. This is one way in which the Obama stimulus money can be used. Providing help to poor residents as they move into new neighborhoods would provide key job opportunities to individuals interested in public service.
One of the great flaws of the stimulus package so far is that it has not produced as many jobs as it might have. One of the primary differences between this stimulus and the kind of public spending and support that the Obama Administration has overseen and the great public works projects of the New Deal is that there has not been an emphasis on the creation of jobs in a wide array of employment sectors. There has been nothing comparable to the employment of writers and artists and other creative and professional individuals that existed during the 1930s, for example. Surely there are appropriate professionals now out of work — from architects to civil engineers to landscape designers — that could be called upon to help ensure that public housing could be built or renovated to meet reasonable standards.
The current system of vouchers is inherently flawed because landlords and property managers have a personal profit motive in putting as little work into property as possible. There is no incentive for them — or very little incentive — to improve the property beyond the bare minimum. The residents who are moving in are so used to substandard housing that they may not even be aware of the ways in which they are being cheated. And even if they are aware of the flaws in their new housing (flaws that may be initially obscured but that are likely to come to the surface very quickly) they may not have the political capital to make changes.
Another key connection to the New Deal comes quickly to mind when considering possible futures for public housing that meets legitimate community needs: The need for increased public housing is linked to the need for increased infrastructure. While some of the current stimulus funds have been used for infrastructure projects, the scale of infrastructure investment and improvement has not been comparable to the programs that were funded and supported to the new deal.
An extensive study of the history, present, and potential future of public housing recently completed by Columbia University makes this point, arguing that by linking new public housing projects to other investments in the shared public space, it may be able to create a new narrative about public housing. This is essential: For while innovations in architecture and building materials will no doubt be an important part of future public housing projects, the most important change that can and must be made is in the perception of the place of public housing in the larger society.
The term [public housing] is barely heard in public today, except in reference to historical policies and the buildings they produced, many of which now face demolition. In the United States, when discussing future policies and practices, you are more likely to hear terms like “affordable housing” or “mixed-income housing.” Among other things, this shift in terminology reflects a gradual shift in cultural meaning, where the “public” aspects of public housing have come to signify dependence or subordination, while responsibility for the basics of human habitation has fallen mainly on the markets.
But “public” can and ought to carry a positive meaning. It can mean the kind of responsibility that government traditionally upholds on behalf of its citizens. It can also refer to all of those others without whom any individual could scarcely prosper, regardless of personal ability or resources. And, at another level, it can refer to the realms in which collective responsibilities are discussed and debated, as in the expression the “public sphere.” (A New Conversation, Buell Center, 2009)
In addition to linking the future of public housing to future investments in other aspects of public infrastructure (from repairing roads and bridges to investing in a more efficient, truly national electric grid), the Columbia University report emphasizes another key connection, that between the way in which public housing must be conceived and created and the recent housing crash.
Owning one’s own private home is an essential part of the American Dream and has been at least since the GI bills after World War II gave thousands of families the means to own a home that they would never have been to afford before. However, that key aspect — a home that a family can afford — has become lost in recent years as a bubble in the real estate market lead people to borrow against the rising value of their homes, a value that would suddenly plummet, leaving hundreds of thousands of individuals “upside down” on their homes, owing more than the house was worth.
One of the consequences of this sudden devaluation of so many American homes was that many neighborhoods, many in the suburbs, became devastated. These suburban neighborhoods, whose residents would once have conceived of themselves as fundamentally different from the residents of public housing projects, have by fleeing their homes created areas of blight that now rival the inner cities that they would most certainly have spurned.
These neighborhoods are now in need of renewal that is as dramatic as the public housing projects that so many see as the worst types of neighborhoods. It should be noted that in comparing the problems faced by hundreds of suburban neighborhoods across the nation are now drastic there is no equivalence being suggested in terms of the quality of life faced by residents of public housing projects and suburbs. What is being posited instead is that there is more than one kind of neighborhood that must now be reconsidered, reconceived, and rebuilt.
While primarily affecting individual homeowners, the recent subprime mortgage and foreclosure crisis has triggered questions regarding the number of Americans living in housing beyond their means. Patterns and concentrations of foreclosure underscore the need for new public housing construction or adaptive reuse across the country to provide a viable alternative for those who cannot afford to own or rent at market rates.
The large number of foreclosed homes reveals a great deal about the values that have shaped them, as government has now stepped in as a lender-of-last-resort to rescue the symbolic individuality and self-sufficiency of the single-family house. Such landscapes offer both challenges and opportunities.
One commonly proposed strategy is to reclaim these homes themselves for use as public housing or other civic amenity. Therefore, the policy and design problems posed by the financial crisis are not merely those of coping with its worst short-term effects. They require long-term planning that would avoid a repetition. This can mean reinventing the formulas by which ownership is financed; but it can also mean reinventing the houses and apartments themselves and the policies behind them.” (A New Conversation, Buell Center, 2009)
This is a radical new vision of what public housing could be. There has been a great deal of discussion within urban planning communities about the importance of “infill” in urban areas, which generally refers to knocking down urban buildings too compromised for renovation and building new structures in these sites. These buildings are often new houses, but almost never houses for poorer residents.
However, suburban infill as described above offers a real possibility for the future of public housing. It offers some of the benefits of the scattered housing approach, although given the fact that some suburban neighborhoods have been turned into near ghost towns by the housing crisis that simply moving in poorer families would create new “ghettoes” of public housing. This could be avoided by creating neighborhoods of mixed income, providing housing for middle-class families who do not have the resources to become homeowners at the current time and poorer families who have never considered the possibility of home-ownership to be feasible.
â€¦reconsidering the future of public housing in the United States means reconsidering the symbolic and practical values attached to renting and other forms of tenancy. It also means reconsidering the meanings of ownership, both public and private, as they apply to the individual house, the collective dwelling, and the surrounding lawns, roads, and other spaces. And it means rethinking, at all scales, the relationship between mobility and belonging. (A New Conversation, Buell Center, 2009)
Public housing is a necessary part of the future of the United States, because a democracy provides for its vulnerable citizens. But in order to provide such protection for the vulnerable among us, the story that each one of us has about the very idea of home must change.
Buell Center. (2009). A New Conversation. Retrieved from http://www.gsapp.org/buell/publichousing/_pdf/BUELL-PubHous.pdf.
Hawkins, K. (2010). Chicago shuttes infamous public housing project. Retrieved from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40450463/.
Jackson, K. (1987). Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Venkatesh, S. & Celimli, I. Tearing Down the Community. Retrieved from www.nhi.org/online/issues/138/chicago.html.
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