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.

Authors Matthew Gordon Lasner and Nicholas Dagen Bloom on the urban housing crisis

The Great Housing Squeeze

by Matthew Gordon Lasner and Nicholas Dagen Bloom

Affordable Housing in NY 2

4.16. Bell Park Gardens, Queens, ca 1949, courtesy Joe Lapal.

As American cities, especially along the coasts, have become centers of global wealth the high cost of housing has become an urgent problem. From Boston to the Bay Area and the South Bronx to Santa Monica, rents and sales prices are up. In New York City, housing inequality has become Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top priority, while in San Francisco several initiatives designed to cool the housing market appeared on this year’s ballots. In Los Angeles families now spend a record share of income on housing: an average of nearly 49% for renters and 40% for homeowners with mortgages. What caused this crisis and what, if anything, can be done about it?

Affordability problems in housing are deep-seated. The market has never housed most Americans well, especially in urban centers. As millions flooded into cities in the nineteenth century, two neighborhood archetypes quickly emerged: the Gold Coast and the slum. As early as the Civil War, observers worried that there were few decent options for working and middle-class families. By the 1920s critics like Lewis Mumford complained that what options there were unsuitable. Those who could afford to pioneered a third alternative: the suburb. Families who could not afford ownership or the commute, moved to row houses and steam-heated apartments in outer sections of cities.

The Great Depression, when millions lost their homes, prompted bold action. Since the 1910s East Coast reformers had argued that nothing short of government subsidies could improve living conditions for working families: tax breaks and low-interest loans for building rental housing, and long-term mortgages with low down payments for homeowners. With American resistance to government intervention at its nadir, President Roosevelt introduced these programs as part of the New Deal.

The impact was dramatic. Cities that wished received money to raze tenements and build public housing. Loans were made to non-profits for middle-income apartments. Most famously, the Federal Housing Administration guaranteed mortgages for modest single-family houses meeting certain social and physical requirements including, most egregiously, that they be racially segregated. Coupled with a robust postwar economy and progressive federal income taxes, the quality of housing for nearly all Americans rose substantially.

But commitment to government aid in housing was tenuous. Even many moderates questioned the value of public action, especially when it was seen, incorrectly, as chiefly benefiting poor people of color. This misconception was sustained by the fact that most beneficiaries, who in reality were middle-class and white, received housing aid that was largely invisible, through mortgage insurance and tax deductions for property taxes and interest payments.

As a result, directly subsidized housing became stigmatized, especially when it was highly visible, as in Modernist high-rises, whether public housing or middle-income complexes, like New York’s Co-op City. Los Angeles cancelled its public housing program entirely in 1953. Nationally, public housing, along with several middle-income programs, ended in the 1970s amid a deep recession and a racist backlash against spending on poverty programs. In an era of urban disinvestment and population loss, few alarms were raised.

Today, however, many U.S. cities have seen a reversal of fortunes. Surging immigration, new lifestyles, and the growth of specialized service industries like media, tech, and finance have meant an influx of people and money. Developers have responded with new construction. But intensifying market pressure at a time of growing income inequality has meant that much of this housing is out of reach of working and middle-class families, while competition for existing homes is pushing re-sale prices and rents to record highs, leading to displacement.

Affordable Housing in NY 5

5.25. Twin Parks NW, Bronx, 1973, courtesy Lo-Yi Chan.

Cities have responded creatively. Working in partnership with developers and non-profits, and with begrudging support from Washington — chiefly in the form of tax credits for private construction of low-income apartments — over the past 25 years builders have created more than 1.5 million affordable units in cities and suburbs. But subsidies are shallow and expire as quickly as after 15 years. And because programs are allocated to states on a per capita basis rather than by need, high-cost cities like receive insufficient support. Few programs benefit middle-class households.

Even though the federal government spends $46 billion a year on housing subsidies, many cities have been overwhelmed by the buoyant market. This is perhaps most evident in rising “rent burdens”: the percentage of income both tenants and mortgage holders spend on housing. But it is also apparent in unprecedented homeless populations (nearly 45,000 in Los Angeles County and 60,000 in New York City) and, at least in New York, the hundreds of applications made for each subsidized apartment that we manage to build, and in the long waiting lists for public housing, vouchers, and popular middle-income developments.

Worse yet, we see it in the proliferation of modern-day tenement slums. Hundreds of thousands — mostly uncounted — now live in illegally sub-divided houses and apartments in New York’s outer boroughs and in places like Fairfax County, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C., unprotected by tenancy laws and basic occupancy and fire codes.

Some might argue that families unable to make market rents should simply move: to cheaper suburbs like the Poconos or L.A.’s Inland Empire, or out of expensive regions entirely. Millions have. But many already face daunting commutes, particularly those who do not own cars. And often the best opportunities for upward mobility including good jobs, schools, and social services remain in expensive markets. Meanwhile, cities need diverse populations: bankers and businessmen, but also bakers and bartenders, teachers and artists.

To address these problems, we must renew our commitment to government aid for both low- and middle-income housing. The federal government spent untold billions during the foreclosure crisis bailing out the mortgage industry. It gives away $195 billion a year in income-tax deductions to homeowners — mainly, studies show, higher-income ones — despite the fact that this money has not been proven to boost rates of ownership. Cities would be better served if this windfall were used to stabilize neighborhoods through proven programs that create affordable housing. Urban change may be inexorable but as a society we have the power to manage it. What we need now is the dedicated political will to do so.

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. Matthew Gordon Lasner is assistant professor of urban studies and planning at Hunter College, City University of New York. He is the author of High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century.

Presenting the new video trailer for AFFORDABLE HOUSING IN NEW YORK

New York City, as expensive as it is progressive, has long had the need for high-quality affordable housing. Affordable Housing in New York, edited by Nicholas Dagen Bloom and Matthew Gordon Lasner, is a richly illustrated, dynamic portrait of an evolving city and the pioneering efforts to make it livable for lower and middle income residents. The book and its photos by David Schalliol was subject of this fabulous New York Times feature this past Sunday. We’re excited to offer you a peek inside, here:

 

Richard Ocejo on what bars tell us about gentrification in downtown Manhattan

The idea of bars as windows for understanding how cities change over time is an important claim in my new book, Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City. I studied the growth and impacts of nightlife scenes in the downtown Manhattan areas of the East Village, Lower East Side, and Bowery for four years, and in that time came to know a lot of bars quite well. I cover a lot of history in the book, and show how intertwined bars and nightlife have been with key changes and events in these neighborhoods.

Each of the following bars represents a different era in the history of downtown Manhattan, covering the mid-nineteenth century to today. I refer to each directly or indirectly in the book. Anyone interested in learning more about where these neighborhoods have been and what they are like now could use this list to guide them.

1) McSorley’s Old Ale House, 15 East 7th Street, New York, NY

Having opened in 1McSorley854 (or so they claim), the oldest bar in continuous operation in New York City (or so they claim) was immortalized by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker for staunchly adhering to tradition—in 1940. The praise is no different today in tourists’ guidebooks: sawdust floors, assorted tsotchkes with inch-thick dust, stoic servers, and only two drink choices (ale, light or dark) make McSorley’s an “authentic” example of old New York. It opened at a time when working-class Irish immigrants lived in what is now the East Village. It became a simple neighborhood bar, and today McSorley’s lends downtown a historic authenticity from the distant past with a mix of regulars and visitors from around the world.

2) Milano’s Bar, 51 East Houston Street, New York, NY

The last of the “Bowery bars,” I heavily feature Milano’s, where I began my research, in a chapter on the history of the notorious Bowery, New York City’s former Skid Row. The bar opened in 1924, at a time when Little Italy was a vibrant ethnic enclave, and not the Italian-themed tourist attraction it is today. Over the decades homeless men from the nearby Bowery and its flophouses populated the bar. It was one of many dozens of such establishments downtown, until reinvestment in the area starting in the 1980s led to their decline. By the time I started studying it, in 2004, Milano’s had a mix of homeless men, regulars in their 30s-50s who moved to the area when it started gentrifying, and young newcomers in their 20s interested in checking out an authentic New York “dive bar.” Grittier than McSorley’s, Milano’s survives because of this balanced clientele, and because of a preservationist owner who did not want to see it changed or closed.

3) Blue and Gold Tavern, 79 East 7th Street, New York, NY

Another downtowBlue and Goldn “dive bar,” Blue and Gold has a different history from Milano’s. It opened in the 1960s for the neighborhood’s incoming Ukrainian population (the name refers to the national flag). When I spoke with owners who opened bars at the start of gentrification, they said the only bars open at the time were Ukrainian or Puerto Rican, and their owners mostly kept to themselves and their own communities. These and a few other post-war groups (such as Chinese) represent the last wave of immigrants to move to downtown neighborhoods. As the Ukrainian population has faded, Blue and Gold remains a neighborhood bar for some, and a remarkably cheap throwback for visiting revelers.

4) 2A, 25 Avenue A, New York, NY

While not very creatively-named (it is located at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue A), 2A signified downtown’s gentrification in the 1980s. Bars like 2A were new places that accommodated the area’s new residents, such as artists, musicians, and students, as both patrons and bartenders. Taking advantage of low rents and inexpensive startup costs, these bars drew in these newcomers who were in need of local hangouts, and tried to exclude the neighborhood’s seedier elements, such as drug addicts and the homeless. The bars that succeeded, like 2A, remain in business today. With two floors and large windows overlooking a highly changed street, 2A still accommodates creative pursuits with regular DJs, film nights, and comedy shows.

5) Continental, 25 3rd Avenue, New York, NY

Among the many arts scenes and activities that thrived in downtown Manhattan, punk rock left one of the largest impressions in popular culture. Most famously, the club CBGB spawned such world-famous acts as the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and Blondie. Many of these artists lived, worked, and performed downtown. Continental opened in 1991 as another small venue that catered to alternative music genres. It became best known for housing hardcore rock bands. By 2006, with advanced gentrification in effect, neither small clubs for up-and-coming talent in non-mainstream genres nor young musicians honing their sound could afford to exist in downtown Manhattan. The owner changed formats from rock club to a dive-themed bar, with fake wood paneling and ridiculously low-priced drink deals ($10 for 5 shots of any liquor). Continental is now a destination for visiting revelers and college students looking for a cheap start to their night, a cheap end to their night, or simply a cheap night out.

6) Death & Co., 433 East 6th Street, New York, NY

Finally, we comeDeath & Co to an example of the latest wave of bars that have opened in downtown Manhattan and helped make it a new upscale destination. Unlike the owners of 2A and Continental, people who wanted to open a bar downtown in the 2000s must deal with high rents, more intense competition, and a need stand out among the rest. These owners, however, are less likely to live in the neighborhood, more likely to have access to investment capital, and more likely to have grand ideas and concepts for their bars. Opened in 2007, Death & Co. is a specialized cocktail bar and part of a renaissance of classic cocktails that have swept through downtown and across the city. The backbar is well-curated, the drinks are well-crafted (and pricey), and the experience is designed to be uniquely separate from the history of the neighborhood. They succeed in attracting downtown’s latest wave of hip, young, and increasingly wealthy residents and visitors in search of stylish consumption.


This is a guest post by Richard Ocejo, assistant professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY.

bookjacket

Upscaling Downtown
From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City
Richard E. Ocejo

Book trailer for Atlas of Cities edited by Paul Knox


Princeton University Press senior designer Jason Alejandro created this book trailer for Atlas of Cities edited by Paul Knox. (The catchy song in the background is the aptly named “Weekend in the City” by Silent Partner.)

8-7 Atlas of Cities Atlas of Cities
Edited by Paul Knox

 

In the News: Ghaziani Goes Global with ‘There Goes the Gayborhood?’

8-6 AminGayborhoods. Rising Rents. De-Gaying. ‘Straightening.’

What does it all mean?

Princeton University Press author and associate professor of Sociology Amin Ghaziani has dedicated his life’s work to defining these terms and to bringing the study of sexuality to the forefront of sociology. Naturally, the intent of his latest book, There Goes the Gayborhood? is no different.

In many respects, the book is an ode to the enclaves which have historically acted as havens of support, providing community and allowing those with common sociopolitical goals to coalesce in their quest for equality, meanwhile striking rich friendships and developing culturally vibrant and economically robust neighborhoods.

Throughout the book, Ghaziani analyzes deep demographic data looking for trends of same-sex and straight households moving in and out of traditionally gay neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Castro district, Chicago’s Boystown, and New York’s Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen neighborhoods. His findings show that gay neighborhoods are becoming decidedly less “gay”—the number of gay men who live in gay neighborhoods has declined eight per cent while the number of lesbians has dropped 13 per cent in the last 10 years. He also found that other areas of the country are becoming more diverse with same-sex reported households in 93% of the counties in America.

The amount of media attention to Ghaziani’s book, and particularly to his unique sociological diagnosis of this issue, has been nearly as overwhelming as his findings. Mainstream media outlets like Time Magazine,  Yahoo! News, Chicago NPR’s “Morning Shift,” Huffington Post’s “Gay Voices” and Huffington Post: Live, and the Chicago Tribune, among others, have responded accordingly to the radical realization of “straightening.” Salon has also paid due diligence to the dilemma, asking, “[A]s demographics shift, is it a sign of acceptance of a community – or the dilution of it? Is it possible, as the New York Times so damningly put it, that “gay neighborhoods face the prospect of becoming passe?””


“Gay neighborhoods have been crucial to the struggle for freedom, and have produced globally important contributions, from politics to poetry to music and fashion,” Ghaziani says. “[I]t is critical that we continue to find meaningful ways to preserve these culturally important spaces.”


Fortunately, Ghaziani’s own commentary in the Advocate rejects the claim that ‘gayborhoods’ are growing increasingly obsolete, no longer a necessary comfort to the gay community. He says that, “[t]here is a fine line between acceptance and the closet, just as there is between integration into the mainstream and the cultural loss of what makes gay people unique.” Although LGBT individuals have become “incorporated into the societal mainstream,” there’s no reason to dismiss such an integral and distinctive feature of the gay community.

And that’s not all the coverage. Not even close. The book has received recognition from French and German news outlets as well, in addition to an array of exclusively gay media sites like Pink News (Europe’s largest gay news service), Towleroad, and Joe.My.God, and we’re sure that the buck won’t stop there.

Even with this blitz of interest, though, it’s important to bear in mind the essence of Ghaziani’s argument: he is fundamentally fighting for these communities and seeking ways to preserve them without naively denying the realities of urban change. All neighborhoods change, of course, and gayborhoods are no exception. But they are evolving in unique ways as the long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.

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Amin Ghaziani is the author of:

TGTG There Goes the Gayborhood? by Amin Ghaziani
Hardcover | 2014 | $35.00 / £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691158792 | 360 pp. | 6 x 9 | 5 halftones. 2 line illus. 15 tables. 6 maps.| eBook | ISBN: 9781400850174 | Reviews Table of Contents  Introduction[PDF]