public housing and the
federal government

Last year in Newark, a large crowd gathered to see four 13 story housing projects demolished. Many dignitaries and politicians were in attendance along with former residents and neighbors. All were there to lend support to the event. “This is the end of an American dream that failed,” said the Mayor of Newark. “(These buildings) should not have been built in the first place,” said a public housing advocate. “They should blow up all the buildings. It was like you were homeless-there -- everyone cramped on top of each other,” said a former resident. They were not disappointed. Soon after 9 AM the explosives were ignited and the buildings fell in on themselves, forming a huge pile of rubble. It was a scene that would repeat itself in fifteen other cities in the past year. The demolition of public housing has oddly come to symbolize renewed effort to solve the housing crisis for the poor.

The history of housing policy shows how ideas of collective action have changed. The innovative housing solutions of the late 1950’s are now seen as unwise and a complete failure. The early acclaim for housing projects has now changed to applause for their demolition. More significantly, the cause of collective action to solve the housing crisis has become much less defined, less important in the public consciousness. The story of public housing in this century is how our belief in powerful yet simplistic symbols disregarded the complex concerns of daily life.

Early Government Efforts

There has always been a need for housing for the poor. Although private interests have been responsible for the bulk of housing construction, most of what the market supplies is single family housing. Culturally and economically, it is the form of housing most Americans desire. The single family home is also the largest investment a family can make, requiring high initial down payments and indebtedness lasting for decades. The resources required for an investment this large are not available to low income families. They do not have the savings or established credit histories to enter the market. Consequently, Federal efforts to construct housing was initially meant to provide a ‘safety net’ for disadvantaged groups - insuring affordable shelter was always available.

The first federally funded projects were worker cottages near military installations during World War I. Overcrowding and price gouging caused by wartime turmoil created a chaotic housing market in many industrial cities. By constructing housing, government stabilized rents for wartime laborers to maintain a productive work force. Government intervention, therefore, met a temporary but critical collective need.

The low-income housing crisis became more acute during the Depression. The New Deal reforms enacted to steady the economy and boost production included the first official programs to manipulate housing demand and supply. One program focused on insuring deposit and mortgages to increase bank loans. Backed by government treasuries, the Federal Housing Administration reduced the risks threatening investment, making it more affordable to construct and buy homes.

The other federal program was legislation directed to stem the growth of urban tenements by expanding the supply of modern housing. The US Housing Act of 1937 funded local ‘housing authorities’ to plan, construct and administer new housing projects. “Decent, safe and sanitary” housing was now considered a right. Relieving the overcrowding, and improving the sanitation and health of low-income communities was the main goal of the program. Shelter was available to elderly, handicapped, laborers, newlyweds and other low-income families unable to find it on the private market. The migration of hundreds of thousands of blacks from the South to Northern cities also increased the need for public housing, although limited segregated facilities were created just for them. Nevertheless, the commitment of public money to build housing was still seen by a majority of Americans as an acceptable and a correct response to critical needs.

During World War II, resources were diverted to the war effort, delaying any new housing construction. By war’s end, however, the desperate need for low-income housing would become worse with the return of thousands of veterans. With industrial efficiency at an all time high, political leaders began to see the possibilities of channeling the expanded capacity into the largest government-backed housing effort ever attempted. Revisions to the Housing Act in 1949 called for “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.” It was a program calculated to provide 800,000 new housing units by 1955. Housing expansion became a symbol of newly established American economic capabilities and willpower - power only the Federal government with all its resources could provide.

Postwar Expansion

The Housing Act of 1949 expanded on early efforts of slum eradication by introducing large-scale urban renewal techniques to achieve its goals. The highest and most difficult costs in any development project are land acquisition and demolition. The amounts of money available through Federal programs for these costs were substantial. Entire neighborhoods were leveled because it was cheaper for the government to work on a large scale. Eminent domain powers enabled the government to quickly and easily assemble entire city blocks for a single project. Exemptions from zoning and land use regulations meant new street and utility infrastructure could be planned without regard to the existing context. With land cleared and ready for construction, private developers and housing authorities were then brought in to construct new housing, often with additional Federal aid.

What was built on those cleared sites was the result converging social, economic and political forces embodied in a bold new architectural form. The change from existing city fabric was startling. Before the war, housing projects were mostly 2-3 story houses, similar to other private developments of the time. Though intended for low income residents, these early efforts at public housing were not necessarily low in construction costs. The social reform movements of the early 20th century had instead stressed healthier living conditions for the poor - garden apartments, parks and indoor utilities.

After World War II, Federal regulations for housing design were changed to emphasize low cost construction. The economic savings that accrued could then be passed on in lower rents to the new residents. Efforts to develop cheaper construction methods and building technologies became the primary goals. Since Federal funding also meant Federal control of design, whoever was to come up with the least cost means of building new housing would be able to see their model spread quickly across the entire nation.

The winners were American architects and engineers influenced by European Modernist theories of the 1930’s. The work of the French architect Le Corbusier and the Germans Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer found much support amongst the US architectural community. This new aesthetic favored function over the formalist notions of decoration and style. It suited the new techniques of mass production and machine technology sweeping Europe and America in the 1920’s and 30’s. The elevator, electric light and reinforced concrete construction inspired ‘tower in the park’ schemes that were seen as the savior of the crowded and decrepit historic city.

The craze hit American designers just as they were gearing up for the postwar expansion. The bold new image of Modernism fit right into the pragmatic needs of American housing policy. Not only were these new high-rises the perfect architectural symbol of a new order, but the cost efficiencies of multi-floor concrete slab construction dovetailed with the Federal aims to provide the most housing for the lowest cost. The 800,000 unit target, once seen as impossible, did not seem as farfetched. The ingenious adaptation of high rise construction to public housing needs meant the solution to the housing crisis was at hand.

Deterioration and Abandonment

As the public housing construction program got into high gear, other Federal efforts were enabling thousands of middle class families to migrate from the central cities to the burgeoning suburbs. Government backed mortgage guarantee programs and property tax exemptions gave thousands of returning veterans and other working class families the chance to finally own their own home. The availability of cheap suburban land and growth of the interstate highway system, allowed the private sector to develop new housing with a vengeance. Soon Levitttowns, two car garages and the cul-de sac became watchwords of the largest single family housing boom in American history.

The most lasting effect of suburban expansion, however, would prove to be the loss of the stable middle class tax base on cities. While restrictive covenants and broker discrimination denied minority and poor populations entry into suburban growth, poverty became more concentrated in the abandoned cities. In public housing, Federal regulations passed in 1950 removed screening and eviction procedures turning the old stable mix of low-income families into a more poverty stricken and desperate one. The projects became ‘housing of last resort.’ The slums of the old city had returned in the form of new high-rise slums.

Critics claimed the anonymous and alienating nature of the projects dehumanized its residents. Oscar Newman noted of huge increases in crime attributed to the high rise living in New York’s Van Dyke Houses. Jane Jacobs wrote of the loss of social ties and neighborhood identity in the new urban vision. In addition, the shoddy construction and lax maintenance of many of the buildings began to physically reflect the social ills they contained. By 1969, even HUD secretary George Romney concluded that “public housing built on the basis of sheer functionalism . . . had the greatest vandalism and least interest among occupants in maintaining the building.”. When riots broke out in many cities in the late 60’s, many public housing residents were protesting the inhumane and desperate conditions they lived in. Americans, however, were not as accommodating as they were after World War II. Public interest in housing reform was on the decline. Racial discrimination, drugs, crime were not just the result of poverty, but directly associated with public housing as a whole. The failure of public housing became clear when St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe housing project was abandoned then demolished in 1976 - less than 20 years after it was built.

Shifts in Policy During the 1970’s and 1980>

By the 1970’s, not only had the conditions in many urban public housin projects become desperate, but widespread mismanagement of housing programs at the Federal and local levels were rampant. Born during the Great Society age, the Department of Housing and Urban Development quickly became a visible symbol of public largesse and wasteful spending. Significant changes in HUD’s mission were initiated during the Carter Administration to improve its image. Housing construction and management were minimized and the use of community block grants and rent supplements increased. These tenant-based means of assistance seemed more effective in achieving affordable housing. The changes reflected a growing consensus towards a decreased Federal role in the direct administration of new housing construction.

By the 1980’s, the Reagan Administration, facing a surging Federal deficit, severely cut programs directed to urban aid and development. As a result, states and localities became more active in using financial incentives to spur redevelopment, mostly through tax subsidies and bond issues. The new administration also reduced expectations as to what government could do about providing affordable housing. The rising crime rate and unabated drug trade frightened many into thinking no amount of rehabilitation or new construction in the projects would help. Seeking to rid government of this liability, conservatives proposed self- management councils and sales of housing units to residents. These proposals stressed the responsible behavior induced by ownership was the best way to bring back public housing.. Pointing to the sorry state of public housing in the 1980’s, conservatives indicated the liberal agenda of continued spending on housing projects had failed. Welfare, teenage pregnancy, immigration and violent crime were all attributed to conditions in the projects. Politicians neither had the will nor the power to change the conditions, but were able to use them to gain support for their own agendas.

Housing Policy and HUD in the 1990’s

With the Republican landslide in Congress of 1994, the housing policies first recommended during the Reagan years have made a reappearance. As part of the larger political landscape, the need for government involvement in housing construction is now seen as wasteful and more efficiently done by the private sector.

In response, HUD has drafted an agency ‘reinvention blueprint’ envisioning a more market oriented structure to its mission. The plan calls for budget and program reductions, use of tenant assistance as the primary means of providing aid, and most importantly, a greater role for non-profit organizations in the construction of housing projects and the provision of social services. Recognizing budget cuts are more likely than additional funds, Cisneros’s reinvention blueprint advocates the transfer of management to the local public housing authorities. One of the.most important regulation changes HUD is seeking is the elimination of the “one for one” rule which stipulates the construction of one new housing unit for every unit demolished. HUD efforts to clear away abandoned projects hinges on this regulation’s successful repeal.

Choice of housing in the form of tenant based assistance is the operative concept now driving housing policy. Vouchers that increase a recipient’s ability to pay rent is now separate from the particular project or building they live in. These ‘portable benefits’ can be used in public or private housing. Not only do vouchers give public housing residents a chance to escape the confines of the projects, but it also reinforces free market mechanisms of supply and demand. As more residents are ‘vouchered out’ of the projects, housing authorities can rehabilitate and restore existing units, possibly returning them to the market at higher rents.

The most radical result of vouchers, therefore, is actually an old one - the return of mixed income neighborhoods in public housing developments. The concentration of the poor in public housing needs to be changed, HUD backers say, because economic diversity increases opportunity and decreases social distress. By dispersing public housing clients into the larger city, housing authorities can include more stable income groups. This mix would increase pride in the environment and establish community roots. It is a social vision underlying all new efforts in housing today.

Current Debate

Housing advocates warn against the quick move to vouchers and demolition. With an estimated 5.1 million people whose incomes fall below 50% of the median income, there is still a great need for affordable housing. As new public housing construction declines from a high of 34,000 units built in 1965 to only 4,000 today, it is hard to see the reduced federal role and non-profits solving the housing crisis in the near future.

As the numbers of units built using public funds is decreasing, the impact of deferred maintenance continues to take its toll on the existing housing projects across the country. Units deemed inhabitable are being welded shut and left to decay. In many projects, entire buildings are empty, awaiting politicians to debate their fate. The large amounts of money needed to rehabilitate and upgrade these “non-viable” units is unlikely to come in today’s political climate. Demolition of these towers is the only option left. In all, 15,000 units of public housing will have been exploded into dust by the end of the year.

For the majority of residents who live in public housing, government has provided needed assistance. Over 1 million families now live in homes built and mananged by government programs. Nearly 4 million more are subsidized through partnerships with non-profits, vouchers and other forms of assistance. Public housing has filled a critical need. Yet, the problems of high-rise projects were so symbolic and so identifiable, that all of public housing suffered. Perhaps the dream of solving the housing crisis was too powerful a symbol. In our zeal to solve the problem, we used shortcuts and symbolic messages to achieve the goals. In the end, we overlooked the reasons why we needed to build housing in the first place. Now humbled, we are still looking for solutions, but more in keeping with what is really needed.

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december 1999