Why Public Housing Is Viable

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Mr. Bloom, Associate Professor, New York Institute of Technology, is the author of the just-published book, Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press).

The mere mention of public housing to most Americans summons a host of negative images: welfare mothers, gun violence, drugs, and forlorn buildings. Among the general public and even many housing professionals there is near unanimity that public housing was a doomed concept that should never have existed in the first place.

Across the country public housing projects are being demolished at a record pace largely because most Americans believe that public housing has no chance of succeeding. We now live in a country with remarkably little subsidized housing—at least compared to other industrialized nations—and an almost complete reliance on the private sector for housing from luxury mansions to crowded apartments. Poor families, most of whom work for a living, spend a growing proportion of their income on housing, leaving little for the essentials of daily life, savings, and long-term self improvement. The shortage of decent affordable housing made working poor people, for instance, sitting ducks for subprime mortgages they could not afford.

So before American knocks down the rest of its public housing—and shrugs off building much of any new affordable state-sponsored housing—it might be worth considering a major exception to the disastrous tale of public housing failure in the United States. Could public housing be better managed than it is today? Could future public housing be more socially successful? In sum, could state-supported housing play a role in helping poor Americans work their way to a better life? Absolutely. After all, America’s biggest housing authority, that found in America’s biggest city, New York, still provides decent housing to over 400,000 citizens.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), while not perfect, has a great deal to teach Americans concerned with providing decent quality housing to poor people in the United States. Founded in 1934, NYCHA has maintained a level of public housing management in spite of being beset by many of the same challenges that destroyed housing projects across the country. This vast high-rise system survives today in large measure because for almost seventy five years administrators have made tough decisions that have allowed them to preserve public housing as a viable and attractive option for the working poor. The lessons in management from the history of this authority would have to be integrated in any new push for affordable housing.

New York has, for instance, dealt with and overcome growing welfare concentration. Federal policy as early as the 1930s emphasized low income tenancy to prevent competition with the private sector. This quickly created a concentrated welfare population. New York, however, fought the rules and then built its own housing projects that skirted federal regulations. Through more careful tenant selection and working family preferences NYCHA has kept its welfare numbers at a manageable level so that today only 13% of families are supported by welfare and 45% are headed by working adults. The remaining 42% of families receive social security or similar retirement/disability payments. New York maintains a far better social mix than other cities where welfare often supported more than half of all families.

New York has also taken a stronger and more consistent line against criminality. Enough disorderly tenants arrived in the 1960s to create a growing crime problem in New York; housing projects were also targeted by drug dealers as easy spots for dealing. Yet through tough policing the Authority and the NYPD have been able to hold the line. The Authority as early as the 1950s set up its own police force that patrolled the projects. The NYPD assumed these duties in the 1990s but maintains a strong force devoted to housing. On average over 20,000 arrests are made annually on the Authority’s grounds. Crime peaked a few years ago in housing projects in New York and is currently in decline. Other cities simply abandoned their good tenants to the criminals.

Vandalism, as in other cities, has also grown over the decades in New York. Unlike other housing authorities New York did not let the vandalism define the projects, but has spent billions of dollars to clean the buildings, keep up the grounds, and modernize the buildings. A staff of over 12,000 civil service employees has kept after the buildings and grounds in a fashion more commonly seen in middle-class buildings. In recent years the Authority has even implemented a centralized call center that has made it far easier for tenants to report problems and get results. NYCHA projects have their problems, and keeping up these aging buildings is a difficult business, but there is no comparison between a New York housing project and the failed towers in Chicago or St. Louis.

These are just some of the management elements that make New York such an important model for housing authorities nationally. What makes New York’s success even more remarkable is that these management factors were applied successfully in high-rise buildings. Careful tenant selection, tough policing, and daily upkeep seem like pretty basic services for housing, but they were thrown out the window elsewhere. Officials in other cities either believed public housing tenants deserved less than a decent life or were unable to muster the support necessary to turn their systems around. Many other officials turned out to be hopelessly corrupt. Believing that nothing can be done is a pretty good way to end up losing everything.

If decent public housing is simply a matter of developing better methods of tenant selection, policing and upkeep, isn’t it logical to think that America could master these elements and thus embark on a new era of affordable/public housing construction? Replicating New York’s success, however, will demand a restructuring not only of public housing management, but also how Americans think about public housing as a whole.

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Andrew D. Todd - 9/25/2008

I think you have to make a sharp distinction between construction cost and land rents. Additionally, there are "pseudo-land-rents," ie. the cost of zoning, etc. It might be quite feasible to park ten mobile homes on an acre lot, but it is also likely to be quite illegal.

Fully manufactured housing, both mobile homes and (building-code-compliant) prefab houses, are already in the same price range as automobiles, or do-it-yourself construction. The factory can easily be fitted with tools like traveling cranes, framing jigs, automated drills and saws, etc. in short, all the kinds of equipment you would find in a mass-production kit furniture factory, plus some additional tools to simplify handling heavy objects. The labor is assembly-line, and more or less unskilled. Houses are not very complicated in their construction, not compared to automobiles, and it is not too difficult to refine the manufacturing process to the point that the assembly operations do not add significantly to the cost of the raw materials and the shipping. It is an interesting question whether the manufacture of prefabricated housing will eventually migrate to Mexico, a question of whether cheaper labor outweighs greater distance from pine forests in Georgia. Now, admittedly, prefab houses of this type are of wood frame construction, and not the brick/masonry construction required by urban building codes. Still, prefab brick houses would work out to getting bigger trucks and cranes, and making greater use of prestressed concrete. If there were a market, an industry would come into being. At the other end of the scale, used mobile homes are approximately as cheap as used automobiles.

The problem is not in providing the structure, but, in essence, who is allowed to live where. The mortgage crisis seems to be most acute in those cities which which have expanding populations, but which are geographically circumscribed, with fewer directions to expand in. Southern California, for example, is effectively an island, between the sea and the mountains. Large numbers of "homeowners" came to accept that they could not expect to own their houses free and clear within twenty or thirty years, or, alternatively, to rent at a reasonable rate, without long-term obligations. They therefore accepted mortgage terms which did not involve them paying ten percent of the sale price annually, but which did involve their expecting to make what amounted to a speculator's profit when they sold out. Instead, they went bankrupt. You can no doubt comment on the geographic situation in South Florida.

At the other end of the social scale, there has been a certain amount of outright fraud, typically involving crooked realtors getting poor people to misrepresent their income and resources in order to get hundred-thousand-dollar mortgages on the kind of houses which might otherwise be abandoned for taxes, and allowed to fall down. A new form of slumlordism, in short.

I don't believe I attach very much importance to Nicholas Dagen Bloom's discoveries, precisely because they deal with New York. When a city reaches a certain critical size, it becomes impossible to drive out of it in a reasonable period of time, and people get squeezed together in a human implosion. New York is generally a bit bizarre in its housing arrangements. The New York edition of Craigslist makes amusing reading, especially the Roommates Wanted section. There are great numbers of people who are forced by economic necessity to room with strangers, and who feel terrifically uncomfortable about the process. New Yorkers are famous for hanging onto rent-controlled apartments like grim death. This attitude naturally extends itself to public housing. People who in other cities would have moved out are still there. In most cities, people sort themselves out spatially, according to perceived differences.

William Marina - 9/22/2008

While I would not quarrel with what you say about public housing in New York, there is also a crisis with respect to single family homes, in fat the epicenter of the sub-prime mess.
Habitat for Humanity, using what might be called 18th century Amish barn raising technologies has provided some homes, built by volunteers for those who qualify. This is, however, a drop in the bucket!
America was once known for its self-help, can-do attitude.
Professional builders might not like it, but the US Forest Service has developed a very simple Frame Truss technology which enables several people to "dry-in" a 1,200 sq. ft home in about a week.
Coupled with a "temporary final" from a city or country, this would enable a couple or family to move in and complete the house for about the total price of a mid-size car.
The Marina-Huerta Educ. Foundation built a community center in Guatemala recently employing this technology and using several women.
We now have a plan pending with the VA to help homeless veterans, one of the real scandals of America's wars from Vietnam to the Middle East and South Asia.
We are now redoing our web site to include that information, but a CAD and some plans are already there: www.m-hfoundation.org
Some cities are beginning to think about housing as a way to retain good teachers, firemen, etc. We believe this technology is the best way to achieve that goal in such a way that the home owner gains a tremendous incentive by having done the work themselves.