Public Housing Becomes the Latest Progressive Fantasy

A new generation of activists seeks to revive an old urban policy, despite its troubled history.

overhead view of the Robert Taylor homes in Chicago
Beth A. Keiser / AP

For a new generation of urban progressives, sky-high rents in New York, San Francisco, and other prosperous cities have inspired a fresh embrace of an old and seemingly discredited idea: public housing. Last week, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota put forth legislation calling for 9.5 million new public-housing units, at a cost of $800 billion over 10 years. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, has proposed repealing a federal law limiting the construction of new public-housing projects. The group Data for Progress has called for a “massive new commitment to publicly owned homes.” Advocates have not been discouraged by the fact that violence and neglect led to the demolition of previous generations of public housing. Nor by the rats, leaks, mold, and lead paint that have now brought the New York City Housing Authority, by far the nation’s largest operator of public housing, under the oversight of a federal monitor. Stoked by the Democratic Socialists of America, the Los Angeles Tenants Union, and other groups, a PHIMBY movement—“public housing in my backyard”—has emerged as an alternative to both anti-development NIMBY groups and the YIMBY groups that support new market-rate homes.

In an interview earlier this year with Los Angeles Magazine, a co-founder of the tenants’ union, Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, harked back to Catherine Bauer, the New Deal–era official who was the original intellectual leader of U.S. public housing. “The private market cannot provide adequate housing for poor and working people,” Rosenthal quoted Bauer as saying, adding that “the situation is permanent.” Skeptical of the private market, advocates such as Rosenthal show an abiding faith in the government’s ability to successfully plan, build, own, and operate housing on a grand scale.

Both the historical record and recent news suggest that this faith is misplaced. Here’s what the federally appointed monitor, Bart Schwartz, had to say earlier this year about just one of the New York public-housing properties that his team observed: “Our investigators on a routine and unannounced visit to the Polo Grounds houses discovered a large pipe cascading putrid liquid into the laundry room from the ceiling. A lone worker was trying to stem the tide with a mop. When questioned, he advised that this problem had existed for approximately two months unabated.”

To hear PHIMBY-ites talk, it’s almost as if public housing has never been tried in the United States. But it has been, mostly to disastrous effect. And the time is right, before a public-housing boomlet gains any further traction, to make clear that American public housing hasn’t just been poorly executed; it’s an idea with inherent conceptual and practical flaws. Those who suffer the most are those it’s intended to help: low-income tenants.

Of all the old ideas threatening to become new again, public housing would seem to be among the least likely. In the years after World War II, the federal government vowed to replace slums with safe, sanitary substitutes. But the sheen of that promise wore off long ago. The “projects” came to be associated—rightly—with high crime rates and physical conditions as bad as or worse than the slums they replaced. In 1991, a congressional report described much of public housing as “severely distressed”; the famous high-rise towers of Chicago and St. Louis were torn down long ago.

Meanwhile, the original premise of public housing—that the private market could not serve low-income communities properly—does not hold up under scrutiny. As early as 1907, a study by the U.S. Immigration Commission found that in low-income communities, “84 in every 100 homes were in either good or fair condition … The neglected appearance of the streets is the result of the indifference on the part of public authorities.” In 1909 the President’s Homes Commission found that even the poorest households, on average, spent just 21 percent of income on rent.

Housing for low-income communities consisted of small homes and buildings, close together—rowhouses in Philadelphia, three-decker homes in New England, walk-up apartments in New York. Rooming houses abounded. In the years since then, new housing of this nature has been zoned or otherwise regulated out of existence. But at the time, even Bauer, the public-housing advocate, acknowledged that “a strong program of (code) enforcement and rehabilitation might actually do the job of housing low-income families adequately.”

Neighborhoods were cleared to make way for public housing, and many of them contained multifamily buildings in which the owner occupied one unit and rented out the others. In 1950, housing census data for Detroit’s Black Bottom area (originally named by French explorers for the color of its topsoil), owner-presence rates ranged from 27 to 54 percent. Similar owner-presence rates could be found in those parts of Chicago and St. Louis swept away by housing authorities.

Clearing such neighborhoods for public housing—which was itself later demolished—stripped African American home and business owners of their assets, and denied them the future appreciation of land value. It is no coincidence that African American financial assets trail those of whites; black migrants arrived in northern cities as public-housing construction peaked. They were steered into institutional living in which they had no opportunity for ownership and were thus denied a path followed by previous immigrants to the cities. A major problem with public housing is that, by definition, it is publicly owned. That means that it denies poor households one of the key means of asset accumulation in America: homeownership, including ownership of two- or three-family homes, whose rental income helps fuel upward mobility.

Large-scale neighborhood-clearing schemes by public-housing authorities are unlikely to recur in today’s political environment in the United States—preventing at least one form of injustice. But this change in circumstance does raise the question of where all the new units sought by today’s public-housing advocates will be built.

There are other fantasies in play. The public-housing dream continues in its belief that public ownership can both be competent and, by forgoing profits, provide better value than private ownership does. In this construct, it is only a lack of money that has led to public housing’s decline. Indeed, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio argues that a shortage of funds has led to the degraded conditions of New York City Housing Authority buildings, in which thousands of tenants, in recent winters, have shivered in the cold and the dark.

Government can do many things well. But there is little evidence that property management is one of them. Anyone who doubts that should read Bart Schwartz’s report on the state of the New York City Housing Authority, owner of 324 housing projects and home to as many as 600,000 residents. The authority, he writes, is “bogged down in layers of bureaucracy or a ‘check the box mentality.’ Among the management challenges we see is the tendency to avoid personal responsibility and accountability … It is no surprise to find that there are many obstacles to the successful completion of projects and work orders.”

Red tape was one of the causes of the massive leak Schwartz’s investigators discovered at the Polo Grounds housing development. “Our investigator spoke with the superintendent who advised that it was necessary to build a scaffold to make any repairs because the ceiling was about 10 feet high. He said that he had taken steps to order the lumber and that, once the lumber arrived, he would call the carpenters to build the scaffold and then he would call the plumbers.” Such complications are exacerbated by the inflexibility of union contracts for housing-authority employees—contracts that a pro-labor group such as the Democratic Socialists of America, one may assume, is unlikely to try to modify.

This is the dispiriting reality of life for public housing-tenants—an institutional life in which they have no ability to improve the maintenance of their homes, other than appealing to authorities for help. This is residential life as managed by the equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

There are, in fact, other ways to organize below-market-rate housing. PHIMBY advocates generally support housing controlled by community land trusts, tenant cooperatives, and private charitable organizations. Still, developing below-market-rate housing is expensive; in California in 2016, a 100-unit affordable complex cost $425,000 per apartment to build. Because these arrangements can involve both elaborate financing mechanisms and a stroke of luck, they are difficult to replicate on a large scale. Nor do they allow for a straightforward path toward homeownership.

Yet even if public housing were easily built, well managed, and well maintained, it would pose a serious problem for the health of cities. Call it the frozen-city effect. In a healthy, dynamic city, neighborhoods and land use are constantly in flux amid the search for better uses of property. Poor neighborhoods can become gentrified—and affluent neighborhoods can become poor. But demolishing and redeveloping even the most troubled of the nation’s public-housing complexes took years of herculean effort by local and federal authorities. Once built, most public housing has remained frozen in amber for decades. It hardly matters if today’s low-rise apartments with parking lots could be reimagined as mixed-use, mixed-income, more walkable developments, or if they might be better suited for a new business looking to expand and provide jobs.

Public-housing advocates, of course, favor the idea of “permanent affordability”—but they overlook the fact that new uses for city spaces can create jobs for low-income residents as well as wealthy ones. The notion of turnover and repurposing of city land was captured by the legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs. In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jacobs made tragically clear how public housing had destroyed lively low-income communities and small businesses, spawning what she called centers of “delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness.” Today’s public-housing advocates also overlook Bauer’s later-in-life concerns (expressed in her 1957 essay “The Dreary Deadlock of Public Housing”) that public housing was characterized by cold design and poor management.

The new public-housing advocates are not urging the clearance of poor neighborhoods. They see themselves as advocates for the poor, faced with the gentrification of select city neighborhoods. But they need to learn from history. The private market once produced cheap housing and could do so again. Public housing in the United States has herded poor people into shoddy, socioeconomically isolated quarters, inhibiting their accumulation of assets and limiting their future prospects.