Social Housing and the Strong Towns Approach (Part 1)

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Mythbusting: “But Hasn’t Social Housing Proven a Miserable Failure in Practice?”

Reports of social housing’s failure have been greatly exaggerated.

Social housing around the world takes a diverse range of forms, and you can find it playing a huge role in the housing mix in many places. This includes prosperous cities with robust market economies, such as Vienna, Austria, where 62% of residents live in social housing. The city directly owns and manages over 200,000 housing units, and tightly regulates over 200,000 more, and Viennese of all incomes and walks of life live in them. Meanwhile, in Singapore, the government subsidizes the vast majority of housing construction, and most of these units are offered for sale—again, to residents across the income spectrum.

Places like Vienna and Singapore treat social housing as a broad social program serving the mainstream of society, the way we think of public hospitals or community colleges. From there, one finds a spectrum of policies, and vast differences between countries, from places where social housing serves all incomes and is a large part of the housing stock (Austria, The Netherlands, Denmark) to places where it is more limited in amount (Belgium) or more targeted towards the poor to various degrees (the UK, France).

The United States is an outlier among high-income countries. In America, we have historically treated social (“public”)  housing as a program for the poorest of the poor. And our public housing program was saddled with uniquely insurmountable barriers to success from the very beginning.

The 1937 legislation that created the federal public housing program sought to ensure that public housing would not compete with the private sector, so these complexes had rents set, by law, 20% lower than the minimum charged for “decent, safe, and sanitary” housing by private providers.

Political support was weak for something that middle- and upper-class Americans didn’t feel a stake in. Neighborhood opposition ensured that almost 100% of public housing was built in the poorest neighborhoods, and in overwhelmingly non-white ones. (Chicago’s public housing authority lost an infamous racial discrimination lawsuit over this practice.)

By the 1950s, these neighborhoods—subjected to redlining and to white and middle-class flight—were in economic freefall, with crime and unemployment spiraling. As the residents of public housing became more economically and socially isolated, these projects became intensified microcosms of their surrounding communities’ social ills. With low rental revenue, public housing authorities were unable to fund basic maintenance, and living conditions deteriorated. In the 1960s, public housing residents staged high-profile rent strikes in protest of these conditions. Those who could leave did so, deepening the despair and dysfunction in the projects they left behind.

None of this was an inevitable consequence of the public-sector nature of these projects, as the European experience shows. It was the result of the broader economic and social collapse of the communities surrounding them—a collapse brought on by the Suburban Experiment.

In the U.S., according to leading public housing scholar Ed Goetz, public housing has been a story of “quiet successes drowned out by loud failures.” Most Americans have heard of the failures: crime-ridden, hellish projects in giant, alienating compounds of high-rises, with names like Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green. Most of these were demolished by the 1990s, their residents either relocated or simply lost track of, left to fend for themselves in the housing market.

Somewhere in between failure and success lie the ongoing struggles of America’s largest public housing agencies. It won’t surprise a Strong Towns reader to know that mammoth scale, top-down decision making and bureaucracy seem to magnify management problems. Of today’s 1.2 million American public housing dwellers, 500,000 live in New York City alone, and unfortunately the NYCHA has staggering maintenance and funding problems to address, even as it is a critical source of low-income housing in America’s largest city.

As for the other 700,000? Contrary to what you’ve heard, a lot of public housing doesn’t look like some pit of despair but simply apartments like any other. A lot of the more successful programs share features: they’re in smaller cities, they consist of smaller-scale and scattered buildings rather than massive, monolithic “projects,” and they’re fairly under the radar. You might live down the street from public housing and not know it.

What is certainly true is that any effort to establish widespread new social housing in America is going to happen under the long shadow of the troubled American public housing program, in a political sense if nothing else.

Check back in tomorrow for Part 2 of this series!

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