Nicholas Dagen Bloom: The Perilous Politics of Housing Poor People

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By Nicholas Dagen Bloom

The rolling disaster of America’s urban poverty housing programs is evident in the packed homeless shelters, tent encampments, high rent burdens, lead poisoning, frequent evictions, and public housing disinvestment featured widely in American newspapers, books, and television shows. The differences in housing conditions that once separated big American cities (such as New York from Los Angeles) are much less important than they were a decade or two past.

To shore up their urban base, the Democratic presidential candidates even made quick visits to public housing developments in New York City, an acknowledgement of a new urban housing crisis in both the quantity and quality of housing. The candidates showed genuine concern, looked earnestly at the damage caused by decades of federal disinvestment, and reminded voters of their generous housing platforms.

Both candidates know that it won’t be easy. Liberals with national ambitions and power who support housing programs have wrestled with the issue of housing poor people for decades. They want to help, but they understand that most Americans distrust direct federal housing programs for the poor. And housing the poor, on its own merits, comes with many liabilities.

President Franklin Roosevelt, under intense pressure from his New York base, may have created the first permanent public housing multifamily program in the United States (the Housing Act of 1937) for the third of the population that was “ill housed”, but he also believed most “families should have individual homes . . . however modest.” His public housing program, attacked by conservatives as “creeping socialism,” thus remained comparatively small and stingy. Roosevelt’s Federal Housing Administration proved, in time, nationally popular as it made single-family homes more affordable, operated in an indirect manner on the housing market (mortgage insurance), left private builders and owners almost entirely to their own devices (redlining), and focused almost exclusively on the lower/middle class rather than the urban poor. The success of the FHA in helping build suburbia in the 1940s and 1950s undermined the mass support for public housing because most of the middle-class got their dream homes.

Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry Truman, made public housing a national priority in the context of a temporary postwar housing shortage, winning the Housing Act of 1949 that called for 800,000 public housing units. Yet the Korean War emergency, which slashed public housing subsides dramatically, stretched those targets out over a decade. As the postwar housing shortage eased in the 1950s, as private builders created miles of affordably priced suburban single-family homes, it was primarily in big cities where residual support for public housing remained, often for purposes related more to commercial redevelopment than humanitarianism.

Even many dedicated liberals wavered in their faith as the public housing towers rose in the 1950s and 1960s. Liberal Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller (R-NY), in an address to the NAACP in 1962, admitted that subsidized housing “has been building up social and economic problems even more serious that the problems it was expected to solve” including racial and social segregation. And while Rockefeller himself remained committed to big government housing programs, building more housing than any New York Governor then or since, subsidized housing figured very little in his national appeal. Most of his state housing programs, even for the poor, also relied on public/private partnerships.

By the 1960s, the “projects” had taken on their full range of negative connotations even though in cities like New York they provided a necessary form of permanent low-cost housing for the urban poor and working class (and still do today). Most American politicians of both political parties ran from programs like public housing, substituting a complicated mix of subsidies for private interests in the low-income housing field.

Many of these new public/private programs proved, in many respects, quite successful. Richard Nixon ended new public housing in 1973 and introduced vouchers (Section 8) in private housing to de-concentrate poverty concentration. Ronald Reagan slashed direct housing programs but signed off on the new Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) which gave tax breaks to corporations who invested in new affordable housing serving income levels generally higher than public housing. The 1990s and Bill Clinton will best be remembered for the Hope VI program which paid for the knocking down and redeveloping public housing as privately run, mixed-income communities.

Even the meltdown of the private housing market during subprime financial crisis in 2007 did not lead to a new era of direct government housing despite the fact the poor, or those just above the poverty line, were far more likely to be victims of predatory schemes and evictions. Presidents Bush and Obama secured trillions to stabilize the big private or semi-private players in housing market (the FHA, Freddie Mac, Citibank, Bank of America, etc.) so that the private market could continue as the primary housing provider for all American households.

Americans on the whole today thus remain well served by the private housing market, but the poor, and those living in expensive cities in particular, face a bleak housing future in the privatized affordable housing system.

Hillary Clinton, now the presumptive Democratic nominee and the only liberal likely running this fall, has endorsed a mix of portable Section 8 vouchers, additional tax credits for affordable housing, home ownership subsidies, and renovation of urban housing. These notable initiatives share in a well-worn path of minimizing direct federal involvement. And tested programs like these are likely to improve the lives of many poor people, particularly those lucky enough to use these programs to find housing in higher-income neighborhoods. But American politicians, even liberals, have yet to face the hard truth that to do right by the poor may take a lot more than more subsidies of private interests.

There is a large and growing population in and around cities that needs permanent, basic housing as a prerequisite to getting their lives in order. Existing large-scale low-cost government run housing for the poor such as public housing (or supportive housing with social services on site) is complicated to manage, a public relations quagmire, and often very expensive to build right and preserve. Yet we are already paying embarrassing amount to house the homeless and poor in “temporary” institutional settings such jails, hospitals, and shelters. Preserving what public housing is left (such as the 178,000 units of public housing in New York) and building more decent, very low-cost housing remains a standing invitation for federal officials—should they accept the responsibility.

BloomLasnerNicholas Dagen Bloom is associate professor of social science and director of the Urban Administration program at New York Institute of Technology. His books include Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century. His most recent book is from Princeton University Press is Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City.

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