From the Puritans to the Projects

From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Publlic Neighbors, by Lawrence J. Vale. Howard University Press , 2000 392 pp.


Exclusionary zoning, middle class flight, housing discrimination, segregation, lack of affordable housing, poverty’s negative effects on children and families – all are familiar 21st century problems in America. They were also 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century problems. The historical retrospective From the Puritans to the Projects traces America’s 350-year ambivalence about housing the poor.

Public Neighbors and the American Dream
Since the 17th century Puritans, American communities have struggled to define their ethical, moral and jurisdictional responsibilities to “public neighbors.” Vale defines public neighbors as “those judged socioeconomically unable or unwilling to meet their communities’ standards of industry and behavior.” The term public neighbor simultaneously implies both social obligation and spatial proximity.

The “American Dream” has long said that those who work hard can own a single-family home, and so for several centuries, America has been uneasy with how to house those who can’t. For centuries Americans have exalted the importance of homeownership and distrusted the poor, promoting ownership of the single-family house as morally superior. Middle- and high-income Americans distrusted those in poverty, seeing the problem as primarily poor morals rather than poor wages.

Vale uses Boston as a example for the rest of the country. Boston’s first attempts to care for the poor arose from “Christian duty,” and the desire to maintain public order. Constrained by prejudice and inability to understand the root causes of poverty, these early efforts aimed to cure the poor of immoral living. Any government-supported efforts were limited to those deemed most “deserving.”

As the more privileged gained urban homes, frontier homesteads or suburban plots, they left behind those public neighbors judged least deserving. By the middle of the 20th century, removing the resulting slums, tenements and ghettos became the policy rather than improving housing for those living in them.

Public Housing For Whom?
Public housing was never intended for public neighbors. It was considered a neighborhood transformation strategy for most urban areas. Public housing in Boston had a similar history to public housing in other cities; it was used to reward veterans and their families, and to stimulate local construction work. Admission was a privilege and not a right. Beginning in 1935, the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) constructed 25 large family public housing developments, clearing slums and displacing public neighbors as it did so. BHA used discriminatory and racist tenant selection policies, and was known for patronage, mismanagement and scandals until tenant preferences and civil rights pressures forced it to accept the very poor and nonwhite families equally and fairly.

However, as the economic and racial make up of public housing changed during the 1960s and 1970s, neighborhood sentiment turned against it and local support declined. Housing tenants with very low incomes meant not having enough money from rent receipts to cover operating expenses. This, coupled with reductions in federal housing subsidies, resulted over time in a decline in maintenance.

According to Vale, these problems with tenants, quality of the buildings, management and funding are products of America’s underlying cultural unease. Because public housing challenged long-standing ideals about the relationship between hard work and quality homes, and because it increasingly came to serve a less politically influential constituency, Congress has never funded public housing commensurate with the numbers of low-income families eligible to live in it, and the system has been under constant ideological attack.

Vale supports Section 8 housing vouchers and certificates and the HOPE VI program that demolishes “distressed” public housing developments. He recognizes that the challenge will be to dismantle the public housing system in a way that builds and preserves alternative affordable housing opportunities for low-income citizens, and notes that America has to find ways to lessen the concentration of the poor. For alternative low-income housing policies to succeed, he writes, policymakers will also need to reframe public opinion about public neighbors.

We Must Remember
They say if you forget your history you are doomed to repeat it. America’s legacy of passing judgment against the poor continues. We continue to regulate, segregate, zone and stigmatize poor people. Most Americans of means choose to live apart from the poor. As a nation, we still are not clear on what our responsibilities are to them. From the Puritans to the Projects reminds us that America’s continued debate over what to do about housing the poor is a legacy from the first settlers, and forces us to deal with our ambivalence about it.

While many of us may aspire to, not everyone will own a home. As Vale suggests, the ultimate solution to America’s unease is to build enough affordable housing for low-income citizens and develop housing policies that effectively assist America’s public neighbors without making them less than citizens.

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