Public housing in the United States is associated with failure and misery. The very words conjure up visions of concrete tower blocks, drug-related violence and concentrated poverty. But contrary to popular belief, public housing in the U.S. has not been an utter disaster: “In most cities at most times, public housing provides a better alternative than private-sector housing in poor neighborhoods,” Edward Goetz writes in his 2013 book, New Deal Ruins.
Many of public housing’s failures can be traced to the American political and economic context, especially easy to see when compared with the success of similar policies around the world. When the U.S. government became active in the housing market in the 1930s, Congressional conservatives in alliance with the real estate industry ensured that the Wagner Public Housing Act of 1937 restricted public housing to the service of the poor living in already impoverished areas (ensuring a weak political base), tightly limited funding per unit, and gave local governments near complete control over whether to accept federal funds for housing, where to place the sites, and how to administer them.
It is the straightjackets on public housing, paired with the intense residential segregation, that so badly disadvantaged these policies in the U.S. That there is nothing inherently doomed in the concept of public housing can be seen in a variety of international cities that have implemented sweepingly ambitious public housing programs. The details vary, of course, and they seem to largely be based within small city-states, where land is at a premium, or in areas with a strong social democratic tradition. Based on those success stories, here are the basic ingredients for a successful public housing program.
Get Patronage Out of Housing Authority Staffing
Because Congress gave sweeping discretionary authority to locals, political machines controlled the staffing of the housing authorities. Thus staff and management positions were transformed into so many patronage appointments. This became an even greater problem as many housing authorities began to exclusively serve deeply impoverished and unemployed populations. Such a task is difficult even for committed public servants of a well-oiled bureaucracy. But that is most emphatically not who was running most U.S. housing authorities. Goetz notes that “public housing was the backwater of local public administration in many cities.”
Keep Funding Flowing
Even a well-run housing authority needs to be well-funded. New York City’s Housing Authority (NYCHA) — long considered one of the finest in the nation — is struggling to maintain services in the context of post-recession federal budget cuts. A recent report found more than a third of residents have serious issues with heating, leaks or major repairs.
NYCHA receives more than half of its funding from the feds, just as most American housing authorities are largely funded by the federal government. (NYCHA receives the other half of its funds from tenant rent.) Unfortunately, D.C. isn’t a reliable source of funds. In the Philadelphia area, authorities have had to cut their staff by between 15 and 50 percent in recent years.
In contrast, consider Vienna. The city’s post-WWI Socialist government built a huge system of public housing that became the norm. Today €400 million is provided annually by the national government for its maintenance, supplemented by roughly €150 million in local supports. An article in Governing notes that the city owns 25 percent of the housing stock — much of it built in the 1920s and 1930s — and is heavily involved in another 20-plus percent of the stock. The rent in Vienna, not incidentally, is roughly half that of cities like Zurich and Berlin.
Encourage Mixed-Class Tenancy
Public housing in Vienna is not restricted to low-income residents. The city-owned stock does go to lower-income people, but if a family begins making more money they are not expelled. “That in turn means there’s a sizable number of middle-income residents in city-owned housing, which is exactly the point,” Governing reports. “The buildings don’t become ghettos.”
The cross-class basis of the tenant population is no doubt a contributing factor to the generous funding: When public housing isn’t only covering the poorest, there is greater political support and more funds. There are similarly broad bases of support in, for example, Sweden where 20 percent of the population lives in municipally owned housing.
Vienna also ensures that middle-income tenants have places to live through a complex arrangement of land sales, loans and low-cost developments. Cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, where land is at a premium, also have to rely on government action to ensure middle-income people, in addition to lower-income residents, have places to live. Imagine what similar policies could achieve in super-heated housing markets like New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Build More Public Housing
As cities grow they’ll need more public housing. This is most emphatically not happening in the United States. “I don’t think anywhere in the country is building more public housing,” says Goetz. “When it is built new it is generally built as a part of demolition and redevelopment projects. Otherwise there is no funding anymore for development of public housing.”
Starting with the Clinton administration’s HOPE VI program, many old project-based public housing units were demolished and replaced with mixed-income developments that house fewer people and place cruel restrictions on low-income residents who can find a unit. Throughout this process there was no one-for-one replacement requirements, so America has been losing roughly 10,000 units a year since 1995.
Hong Kong and Singapore are not Socialist utopias by any stretch of the imagination. But they do seem to have the basic gist down: Don’t blow up your public housing stock. In the face of a growing population, Singapore has “ramped up construction of public housing.” Hong Kong’s housing secretary predicts a 60/40 split of public-to-private housing in the 470,000 new units the city needs in the next 10 years in addition to the existing 766,000 units of publicly owned rental stock.
Despite ample evidence from abroad, the long shadow of the Pruitt-Igoe myth still hangs over American housing policy. (It should be noted that even in the peak of high-rise developments, only 27 percent of units were located in superblocks.) The fact is that political-economic factors — underfunding, excessive local control, institutionalized racism — were the cause of public housing’s troubled history in America. Seen in international context, such failure clearly is not preordained.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Jake Blumgart is a contributing writer at Next City. His work also appears regularly in Al Jazeera America, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pacific Standard.