Housing and its affordability are arguably the most pressing issues in the United States today. As the number of renters rises, the availability of housing units at lower-income levels is dwindling. Many households pay more than 50 percent of their monthly incomes on housing expenses. And while many are fighting for the construction of more affordable housing developments, we should not let public housing disappear from our affordable-housing radar.
Approximately 2.1 million people live in what’s left of our public housing. The demolition of public housing developments as a tactic in urban renewal moves to de-concentrate poverty, and redevelopment policy initiatives have drastically changed the landscape of urban areas. The tall, brick, imposing buildings of the infamous Cabrini Green Houses in Chicago, Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, and Robert Taylor Homes in Atlanta have all been cleared away and replaced with newer developments.
The characterization of public housing as traps, pockets of despair, and breeding grounds for criminal behavior have dominated popular and political discourse and led to the belief that the longer people lived in these communities, the worse they would be. This belief ignored the strong social and political bonds we now know were built in many of these communities.
Policymakers must consider public housing as a viable option. Compared with housing vouchers, scattered-site properties, mixed-income, and affordable housing developments, public housing still serves a large segment of Americans.
When considering public housing as a viable option, policymakers must keep in mind our history of racial discrimination in housing policy when planning its design and implementation. For example, the longstanding effects of housing segregation—intensified by policies like the GI Bill—and the simultaneous characterization of the urban poor as a deviant and dependent group, while returning white veterans were cast as worthy of federal support, led to different political agendas and subsequent policy for creation of housing programs, postwar. More modern examples are present in the use of exclusionary zoning policies, which served to further concentrate poverty within our urban centers and intensify racial segregation between suburban and urban communities.
The case for maintaining public housing goes beyond just preserving the current stock of public housing, it should challenge our notions about who should supply housing to families in our country. Interestingly enough, this debate has gone on for a long time.
In 1945, while testifying before Congress during hearings on post-war economic policy and planning, L.E. Mahan, President of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America (MBAA) stated, “we adhere to the general principle that private enterprise and local communities should be responsible for the development of housing needs of the people.” Mahan continued, “Our association wishes to go on record as opposing public housing wherein the Federal Government becomes the direct owner or operator of housing property.”
Though it was largely considered the only option in the mid-twentieth century, despite drastic transformations in housing policy since that time, public housing still holds a strong place in communities across our nation. If we are seeking to build more inclusive communities, then public housing must be maintained and reserved for lower-income earning Americans. We have made many mistakes in disrupting neighborhoods, especially low-income communities of color. Realizing the failures of the past can bring new insight and possibility for the future.