The Future of Public Housing, Lessons from England

Managing the Money Side: Financial Management for Community-Based Housing Organizations

The Institute for Community Economics’ newest book on financial management for community-based housing development organizations is like the best software-powerful, easy to use, and inexpensive.

Of all the aspects of developing affordable housing, from organizing the community to navigating the bureaucracy, perhaps none is as intimidating or as vital as having control of your finances. But necessary precursors to control are knowledge-of where the dollars are coming from and where they are going-and organization-being able to match income with expenses for the tasks undertaken.

For many organizations, especially young and growing groups that are involved with multiple projects and concerned with the long-term viability of these projects, inability to manage money is the reason they falter or fail.

Yet until now there have been very few simply and clearly written books on this subject that specifically involve the needs of CBOs. ICE’s Managing the Money Side joins these books, but brings to the table an imaginative way of illustrating such potentially deadly topics as “Rental Management Fund Budgets.” By creating two typical CBOs, one that’s successfully managing its finances, and another that isn’t, the reader learns by peeking at each group’s books for three years.

Author Kirby White guides the reader with clear definitions and careful explanations of each part of the accounting and budgeting process. Information boxes throughout the book add extra depth and detail to these explanations.

Managing the Money Side is  well-conceived and well-accomplished. While the book uses examples of organizations involved with community land trusts, it is applicable to any CBO involved in housing. This is a must have book for any group committed to the long term.

The 136-page paperback is available to nonprofits for $35. ICE, 57 School Street, Springfield, MA 01105-1331. 413-746-8660.

Order these and other books through Shelterforce’s Online Bookstore.

Tenants’ Rights

Are you a tenant in California? Then get this book.

Using simple and direct language the authors, attorneys Myron Moskovitz and Ralph Warner, guide you through all the federal, state, and local laws that affect tenants. You’ll learn your responsibilities and those of your landlord; you’ll learn all about leases and other types of agreements; you’ll learn about rent-control, evictions, housing discrimination, and virtually everything else needed to insure that your rights are protected.

Should those rights be in danger and you have to go to court, Moskovitz and Warner take you through the process, provide all the necessary court forms, and help you prepare a successful case.

There’s even a brief chapter on tenant organizing with sections on how to start a tenant’s organization, how to learn important information about your landlord (code violations, taxes due, etc.), and a description of actions your group can take (petitions, picketing, rent strikes, and so on).

Tenants Rights’ comes from Nolo Press, the pioneer publisher of legal self-help books. It is available for $18.95 at bookstores or from the publisher: Nolo Press, 950 Parker Street, Berkeley, CA 94710. 800-992-6656.

Order these and other books through Shelterforce’s Online Bookstore.

The Future Of Public Housing: Lessons From England

The Eclipse of Council Housing by Ian Cole and Robert Furbey. 1994.  London and New York: Routledge. 256 pages. ll.99 pounds (paper)

Reviewed by W. Dennis Keating

In the face of last November’s Republican Congressional victory and calls for HUD’s abolition, HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros has proposed a radical reorganization of the department and its programs in the plan, Reinventing HUD. Presented to Congress in mid-March, the plan would phase out conventional public housing after a transitional period, with the local public housing authorities deregulated and eventually privatized (except for distressed projects beyond repair, which would be demolished). Public housing tenants would be provided with vouchers, to be used either in remaining public housing units or the private market.

Cisneros’ blueprint for public housing went far beyond the proposals of former HUD Secretary and archconservative Jack Kemp, who pushed for resident management and, where feasible, conversion of public housing to resident ownership. The latter policy was modeled after the “Right to Buy” program developed by Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s British government after her election in 1979.

As the future and very survival of public housing in the United States is debated, lessons can be learned from the British experience under Conservative rule for the past 16 years. Housing Policy academics Ian Cole and Robert Furbey review the origins of what the British call “council housing” and analyze its transformation under Thatcherism in The Eclipse of Council Housing. The roots of council housing lie in post-World War I legislation in 1919 to provide temporary housing for war veterans (“homes for heroes”). This followed the introduction of rent control in 1915 after rent strikes by war workers protesting housing shortages and exorbitant rents. Similar to early public housing in the U.S., council housing was not limited to the very poor, was generally desirable in quality, and did not suffer from stigmatization as housing of last resort.

By 1981, one-third of the British population lived in council housing (compared to only 2.4 percent of Americans who then lived in public-owned housing). While a majority (57 percent) of Britons then owned their own homes, almost two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans were homeowners in 1981. The conservative Thatcher government immediately launched an attack on council housing by mandating that local housing authorities give tenants a right to buy their flats at deep discounts below fair market value. Reflecting a desire for home ownership, the quality of much of council housing and the incomes of the residents, tenants purchased almost one million units by 1992. By 1988, the rate of homeownership in the United Kingdom had risen to 64 percent, while the percentage of those living in council housing had dropped to 28 percent.

In addition to selling council housing through voluntary purchase by tenants, the Thatcher government sought to further reduce, if not entirely eliminate, council housing by virtually ending new construction by local authorities and promoting the transfer of existing projects from local authorities (part of local governments) to private housing associations. The conservative ideology behind these policies was that the welfare state failed to allow individual choice and to provide adequate services. Thatcher began a crusade to roll back the British welfare state. Council housing proved more vulnerable to these charges than the public health and education systems (both universal benefits) also being challenged by conservatives.

The result of Thatcher’s policies, carried on by her successor John Major, has been to “residualise” the remaining stock of council housing, increasingly occupied by poorer tenants facing higher rents and often declining services. Conservatives have, as has Cisneros, proposed the substitution of cash supplements to replace the publicly-owned and managed units.

Cole and Furbey argue that, contrary to Conservative creed, council housing has not been  a failure or unpopular with its tenants. They point to surveys showing the satisfaction of most tenants. Conservative reforms have also increased resident participation in management. Nevertheless, Cole and Furbey fear for the future of council housing. Under conservative rule, the shrinking stock may indeed become housing of last resort for special needs populations (e.g., the elderly and the homeless). If that happens, council housing may begin to resemble the current condition of public housing in the U.S..

Defenders of U.S. public housing face an even more difficult challenge, because of its stigmatized image (exacerbated by violence and drugs), extremely poor population, often deteriorated condition (at least in many ghettos), and lack of political support. Despite a small scale HUD demonstration on home ownership for public housing tenants commissioned by Kemp, there is little likelihood of its large scale sale to tenants because of their poverty and the massive costs of repairs required as a precondition to sale.

Without an effective national campaign against the privatization of U.S. public housing through the voucher system proposed by HUD, its transformation seems likely. Perhaps, as in England, privatization may lead to the operation of at least some U.S. public housing by nonprofits, similar to the housing associations that have taken over council housing. But unless public housing authorities can compete successfully against private landlords, much of the publicly-owned housing stock in the U.S. may be lost. In the U.K., attempts to organize council housing tenants to oppose Thatcher’s privatization policies failed. In an increasingly conservative national political climate in the U.S., the example of England under conservative government bodes ill for a federal public housing program born 60 years ago in the Great Depression.

Dennis Keating
Dennis Keating is an emeritus professor in the Department of Urban Studies at Cleveland State University. He has written widely on housing, neighborhood development, and urban planning. His 2016 history of Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood was published by the History Press. He is a member of the board of Future Heights and its Planning and Development Committee in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

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