If there’s one program conservatives and even most liberals see as indicative of a government disaster, it’s public housing. There’s a kernel of truth there because a lot of public housing projects did turn out badly, with endemic poverty, crime, and a lack of maintenance to rapid dilapidation and a reputation as the worst place in the country to be. But there were reasons for this and not at all surprisingly, race and racism are at the core–public housing was intended by its planners as being a housing solution for stable working families who could pay rent. But the combination of the 1950s housing boom and white flight combined with desegregating a lot of public housing to leave the developments with entirely black populations who did not have the money to pay rent. Thus everyone was paying nothing or very little. Neither federal or state governments had anticipated this situation and thus there was no budget for maintenance. And once the populations in those were black, racism got in the way of policy changes that might make these livable places. Black crime was pathologized as opposed to understood as part of a systemic problem the government helped create. And thus public housing is horrible. This is the story of the outstanding documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, about public housing in St. Louis, which I very highly recommend.
Even as sharp a commenter on the American scene as David Simon primarily sees public housing as disastrous, both in The Wire and in the new show on Yonkers, Show Me a Hero, although I have only read about the latter so could be wrong. But there’s a lot more complexity here. A lot of public housing works really well, as Alana Semuels writes:
In some small cities, though, public housing has worked and continues to work. That includes Austin, the site of one of the first public-housing complexes in the nation, which still stands today. The Housing Authority of the City of Austin has been recognized as a “High Performer” by HUD for 15 years in a row, and, rather than depending on the federal government for help, it has embarked on a few entrepreneurial programs to raise money.
“We’ve certainly been more aggressive and achieved more than most,” Michael Gerber, the president of the housing authority, told me.
Its nonprofit subsidiary, the Austin Affordable Housing Corporation, owns a commercial property, Eastland Plaza, which it rents out to tenants to make money for the organization, and AAHC also runs well-kept, affordable-housing complexes that feature tennis courts and pools. It’s also launched a community land trust, which it hopes to expand in the future.
“We’ve been fortunate because we’ve developed additional affordable-housing resources that generate revenue, and we’ve been able to use that to plug holes,” Gerber said.
Other properties the housing authority has acquired have been turned into hubs for after-school and mentoring programs and for community development, he told me.
Of course, with just 1,838 public housing units, Austin has a much easier time running a public-housing agency than a city like Chicago (around 18,000 units) or New York (some 180,000 units).
By and large, smaller agencies across the country have been more successful at providing good public housing for residents than giant city agencies have, Goetz says. The example of Austin and other cities such as Cambridge, Massachusetts; Portland, Oregon; and St. Paul, Minnesota; indicate that public housing didn’t have to fail. And perhaps with some tweaking—dividing big public-housing authorities into smaller, regional ones, or spending more money on housing for the poor in good neighborhoods—it doesn’t have to fail in the future, either.
I don’t have anything particularly useful to say about these specific smaller cities except they are all primarily white, although all have African-American populations. But when a larger city kept its public housing white and segregated, that was another way to keep it financially sustainable. Take Boston, where Black Mass has made it look like Whitey Bulger came from horrible circumstances because he lived in public housing as a child. But that’s not an accurate depiction of this housing, as Jake Blumgart writes.
When “Black Mass” viewers hear about the Bulgers’ and Connolly’s upbringing in public housing — which is repeatedly emphasized throughout the movie — they probably envision a rough, rundown, poverty-stricken warren of crumbling high rises. But the Bulgers were not raised in a neighborhood haunted by extreme poverty and gang violence. Old Harbor Village did not at all accord with the stereotypical image of a housing project, at least when he lived there. Instead it was the crown jewel of the Boston Housing Authority’s housing stock: stable, extremely safe and segregated by income and race. (It was entirely white until the 1990s.)
In the years since Whitey Bulger’s youth, the fate of the public housing complex where he grew up traced the arc of the program overall. From robustly funded and segregated worker housing to increasing concentrations of the very poor, often people of color, and correspondingly decreased political support and funding — culminating in an existential crisis for the program today.
After the war public housing in South Boston remained both segregated and selective. By 1962 many majority African-American complexes in other parts of the city had tenant bases far poorer, with rates of extreme poverty and unemployment that were four to five times higher than those of Old Colony and Old Harbor Village (changed to Mary Ellen McCormack Houses in honor of the Congressman’s mother).
These imbalances were the result of activist agitation for the prioritization of the poorest, reflecting similar debates in cities throughout the country. This fight resulted in more stable families with employment leaving, driving down rents collected, and turning the suddenly underfunded projects into islands of desperate poverty. But the Boston Housing Authority only allowed that process, at first, in majority African-American complexes. In 1964 neither Old Colony or Mary McCormack had a single non-white tenant, according to a report by the Advisory Committee on Minority Housing, which asserted that they still provided “model living conditions,” while majority African-American complexes were “little better than the slums these projects replaced.”
It is true that conditions even in this still-segregated white development did start declining during the 1970s after deindustrialization decimated the job base for everyone in south Boston and the same funding problems as black public housing developments appeared.
But the idea that public housing absolutely can’t work is ridiculous. Public housing certainly can work–if it is properly funded and if that funding does not become dependent upon the racial makeup of the residents. Proper funding and avoiding racism are two things the United States is not good at, so maybe it is a pipe dream, but public housing should still be part of the conversation in housing and urban policy. After all, the privatization of all city housing is just forcing poor people out. A successful city means class and racial diversity. The government should have a huge interest in promoting that. Public housing is ultimately probably a necessary part of that picture. It has to be done better but it can be done better.