Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What if we built a Project ...

... and nobody came?

Or A brief History of Public Housing, from My Perspective.

In the Beginning.

Public Housing didn't really start until the New Deal and was at least partly to provide work for out of work Architects, Engineers and construction tradesmen.

Here is a pretty good overview of the social policy aspects of New Deal housing.

Like most things in our society, the idea had many constituents for many reasons.

Some people saw public housing a better replacement for the substandard tenements in big cities. A wholesome place for low income workers to live.

Some people expected that as those families worked and raised their children that, true to the American ideal, the family or at least the children would move up and on to better lives.

Sometimes things are said for the benefit of one constituency, which aren't exactly false, but not exactly true either.

I don't think anyone back then expected Public Housing to become a separate society or that generations of families would live there.

The Second Wave

In the Fifties the government, flush with income from "temporary" war taxes, looked around and started a number of major programs like the Interstate Highway System and Urban renewal, (called Slum Clearance in earlier, less rhetorically evolved times). One of the major components of these programs were new Housing Projects, often built to new and largely untested theories of design.

The social impact of these developments was not well understood, nor was the impact of changes in our society brought about by WWII and continuing after the war. It soon became apparent that all was not well. New housing models were desperately needed for what came to be called the "Urban Crisis".

Later Developments

Scattered Site.

Scattered Site housing started in the mid sixties as an alternate to the concentration of the poor, vulnerable and dysfunctional in traditional projects, which was becoming apparent by then. As far as I can tell they continued into the 70's, and probably into the 80's. I think Johnson's War on Poverty was his idea of carrying the social ideas of the New Deal farther

The idea was that by integrating public housing into healthy neighborhoods the stigma of public housing/assistance could be reduced and the neighborhoods would be able to better absorb and deal with the dysfunctional elements.

It turned out Housing Authorities were not good neighbors plus they suffered from institutional issues dealing with their tenants. There were a lot of problems with maintaining the units.

Sections 8.

In the 70's the effort shifted to Section 8 projects where landlords essentially built projects and collected rent from HUD. The problem here is that tenants have few options and are still trapped. The landlords interest is to minimize the cost of operation in stead of maintenance, so there is an adversarial relationship between tenants, landlord and the Housing Authority. This was largely a reaction to the bureaucratic inertia and high cost of the established housing agencies. Really it was just privatizing the projects. I always though it ironic or prophetic that the military slang for a mental discharge was Section 8.


In the mid 90's voucher programs began. They are still rent support, but are more directly connected to the tenants. There is still a problem in that HUD has a lot of qualifications for the landlords and many landlords are leery of getting involved. Too many subsidized tenants can lead to problems and there is little social support for the tenants. I'm not too familiar with these programs, although I favor a rent subsidy which had fewer landlord qualifications and attached more responsibility to tenants to find their own housing, essentially "mainstreaming" them.

Mixed Income Developments

This lead in turn to Mixed Income Developments were, for a variety of incentives, commercial developers agree to include a certain number of subsidized tenants in the development. The hope is that with market rate subsidies and a limited but guaranteed number of potentially problematic tenants, landlords will have an incentive to maintain their property in order to attract the market rate tenants needed for their projects to financially successful.

If you read my posts around the blogosphere, some of this will seem familiar. It's also from memory so it might not be right.

1 comment:

Mitraillette said...

Excellent post. Unfortunately there are people out there who will justify any means to gain their end on this issue, and they prefer to, conveniently, ignore history.