I entered the community development field roughly 10 years ago, as a housing fellow at New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). I joined the agency at the end of its 15-year effort to rehabilitate nearly 100,000 distressed housing units, which came to the city through tax foreclosure. During my time with the agency, HPD wound down work on these units and explored ways other than directly owning and developing properties to encourage the production and preservation of affordable housing and prevent future abandonment.
New York City demonstrated how cities could invest their own, local dollars in housing programs and how cities could creatively collaborate with public, private, and nonprofit partners to create more housing options for city residents. Most important, however, was that the city was also showing how housing investments were neighborhood investments, an essential (and often overlooked) lesson for the field.
Since the 1930s, housing and community development policy has sought to improve housing quality, increase access to affordable housing, decrease segregation, create jobs, and grow cities’ tax bases. Rarely, though, have programs explicitly targeted neighborhood (as opposed to housing) conditions.
One big outlier to this is the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOPE VI program, designed to improve severely distressed public housing projects by transforming socially and economically isolated, crime-ridden sites into mixed-use, mixed-income communities, well linked to their surroundings. The current Choice Neighborhoods Initiative follows a similar model.
These initiatives, though, focus solely on the most distressed neighborhoods and, typically, on only public housing units. And this language — linking housing investments with neighborhood conditions, using housing investments to increase neighborhood demand — has failed to pervade other housing subsidy programs or the community development field more broadly.
As a result, subsidized housing units are produced with little concern for the areas surrounding them. Builders, though well meaning, fail to grapple with some essential questions before breaking ground: Will the new units increase or decrease concentrations of poverty? Will they increase or decrease demand for the housing next door? Will they encourage or discourage neighboring owners investing in their own properties?
If not explicitly designed to increase others’ confidence in the neighborhood and willingness to invest there, subsidized units run the risk of failing to attract sufficient private dollars to remain in good condition in the long run, attract households with choice as residents and as neighbors, or trigger broader neighborhood upgrading. In other words, they run the risk of becoming housing of last resort in neighborhoods of last resort.
It is time to expand the intent of and lessons learned from New York City’s housing initiatives and HUD’s strategies for reinventing failing public housing projects and initiate as dramatic a shift in thinking in the community development field as is already underway in the planning field. Just as planners, long used to accommodating growth, are now thinking through the challenges associated with accommodating decline, community developers must reorient themselves from a narrow focus on creating housing units to the broader challenge of using housing-based investments to prompt broader neighborhood-wide improvements.