In Support of Public Housing

Parson might have put it best when he wrote that “public housing has never come easily to these United States; nor, for that matter, has the political philosophy behind public housing, social democracy, been an enduring U.S. characteristic.” (ix) Though public housing programs have been, and still are, attempted nationwide, their successes have been influenced enormously by political leanings that often have less to do with an ideal vision of housing itself than who is allowed into this inner circle and how they got there. Inevitably, the nature of public housing is much more socio-culturally and politically complex than it might initially seem, and at its core remains a question of whether housing should be controlled on a governmental or individual level. The history of public housing in the United States appears to regard such a project as strictly temporary, with the term public housing itself tending to be a euphemism for low-income communities who are subjected to a state of continual “revitalization”. After an over-reliance on the free market to provide adequate housing for the country, subsequent post-war developments, particularly in cities, have incorporated forms of federal assistance in meeting the shortages that ‘fell through the cracks.’ Today, the dire state of concentrated poverty necessarily invites at least some governmental intervention. Our fundamental question has morphed into how such intervention should be shaped moving forward. On this note, I would like to emphasize that public housing programs should be encouraged and given more support. To begin, the U.S. has to stop viewing it as a short-term solution and, instead, reframe it as the end game.

Politics in the history of public housing

Why has public housing failed in the U.S. in the past? For Parson to chalk it up to “reasons that lie deep within the U.S. psyche,” (ix) it must mean that the very idea of public housing is suspended in the paradoxes that built America. Embedded in the definition of housing has been the metaphor of the house and home as sacred and, above all, private. (Parson ix) In tangling notions of identity with the act of dwelling, the state of housing in America subsequently invites a host of other issues the nation is still grappling with, particularly those of race and class. Statistics have shown that, across the board, there is a disproportionate correlation between lower-income classes and those belonging to a minority ethnic group – an imbalance in power that has existed since the nation’s founding. The more recent movement, of capitalism and corporate modernism, arose tangentially but in no way distinct from the issue of race, further polarizing America’s political climate and stoking fear of government intervention. Meanwhile, the areas and poor conditions of concentrated poverty increased. Over time, even the liberals have come to question the effectiveness of public housing in redirecting this feedback loop.

Development is rarely shaped without an agenda, as is the case with Los Angeles. The city serves as a prime example of public housing falling from the hands of the left because of this “U.S. psyche.” According to Parson, “public housing [in Los Angeles] was not always regarded with disdain,” (xvi) especially between 1937-1949, after which the city cancelled its federal contract that previously financed public housing projects and expanded its Housing Act to include urban redevelopment. While public housing was widely supported by a range of civic, labor, church, and ethnic associations, the public housing war that emerged in the 1950s was a direct consequence of Red Scare reaching Los Angeles, aided by the efforts of the private housing industry that believed in its own vision of a postwar city. In fear of socialism, and the supposed role of a public housing program as a gateway to becoming a socialist state, the corporate modernism movement, led by commercial interests, ended up molding what has become the space of Los Angeles today. Bunker Hill, or what makes up much of downtown Los Angeles now, was predominantly occupied by lower-income residents before its designation as a redevelopment area (Parson 149) that essentially displaced thousands of the poor and aged under the guise of urban renewal. By the mid-1960s, nearly all of its former residents had been permanently relocated, with the area itself laying barren until investment in the late 1980s prompted construction of office, retail, hotel, and museum space. The legacy of public housing here has understandably left a bitter taste that remains painfully evident in the sprawl of the city’s infrastructure, the extent of our homelessness crisis, and the burgeoning divide between the ‘slums’ and neighborhoods that make up Los Angeles.

If America demonstrates its long-standing issues with race and bipartisan politics in the failures of its public housing initiatives, then Singapore alone stands as its direct antithesis. Shortly after seeking independence in 1965, the single-party government established the Housing Development Board (HDB) to achieve its goal of near-universal provision of public housing. To date, public housing in Singapore remains an exemplary model of success, with a majority of citizens residing in HDB flats that are well-equipped and well-maintained. In many ways, these neighborhoods embody the goals of left-leaning public housing advocates in America – where houses are in close proximity to efficient public transportation systems, schools, parks and other amenities; estates consist of mixed-income houses; and where the program as a whole has also resulted in lower unemployment rates. However, such a program was only possible because the entire nation is bound by an ideological consensus that has at its core the mindset of survival through pragmatism. (Chua 128) As a hegemonic force, the government is able to introduce specific racial quotas to enforce the nation’s value of multiculturalism through the public housing program, as well as prioritize “the family institution” (Chua 141) in its policies. Supplementing HDB’s efforts are programs such as Central Provident Fund (CPF) home-ownership schemes in tandem with a resale policy that encourage the dominant developmentalist ideology by ensuring residents are motivated towards home ownership and better prospects. In contrast with America, Singapore’s developmentalist-capitalist path rests on social democratic tendencies (Chua 130), which has thus uniquely allowed the country to roll out a heavily top-down public housing approach that is largely self-sustaining through capitalist principles.

The issue with transplanting such a model lies in how the U.S. has always framed public housing to begin with. For one, it is viewed as a way to help the housing situation of poor minority communities instead of as an overarching housing model that would prove more valuable for the entire country. When compared with Singapore, this goal can seem rather myopic. It would at least explain some of the failures of public housing here, which Chua has attributed to two main reasons – profit maximization in a market-based economy, and the concentration of low-income groups that makes for an inherently unsustainable system (17). By no means does an inclusive housing program have to resemble the socialist models in eastern Europe that failed because housing was totally decommodified in the name of collective ownership. However, if public housing is seen only as (god forbid) charity for the poor, then the solutions to concentrated poverty inevitably extend beyond the reach of any public housing program to include other social and economic assistance. This alone usually proves daunting enough for people who would otherwise support a public housing agenda, let alone downright impermissible for a substantial population of conservatives who scorn government hand-outs. In addition to this, I would like to argue for a more integrated approach to the underlying issues that public housing attempts to address, namely urban blight. From an infrastructural standpoint, the notion of house and home as private seems to be at odds in today’s rapidly growing cities. It is this metaphor of the sacred home Americans still cling to that disallows the nation from viewing housing endeavors as a communal undertaking. To be clear, ridding this metaphor will not rid the ultimate American dream of home ownership. Instead, ownership is a vital part of rethinking public housing programs as collective neighborhood formation.

The ideal vision of a city

“Residential planning must be deeply connected with the way people today live,” writes Shinohara in his theory of residential architecture. (6) The early Protestants, in imagining their homes as sacred and private spaces, understood the fundamental connection we have with the act of dwelling – above all, the house must be a space that we feel we own. “If a house is beautiful, people will live in it and take care of it… People who love a house will protect it always.” (Shinohara 1) His statement holds true beyond aesthetics, and should extend into the sphere of urban planning. In a city setting, it is not enough to personally enjoy the inside of your home. Rather, being able to envision a seamless transition between public and private spaces is paramount to any urban revitalization efforts that aim to increase social cohesion, reduce crime, improve visibility, and thereafter successfully house a nation. Hence, the framework for public housing should begin on the level of neighborhoods, instead of a single apartment complex or estate.

When one pictures the ideal city, it is usually a scene teeming with stimulation and activity. The ideal city is, therefore, the living city. This implies the importance of networks, with spatial connection informing social connection, and vice versa. Gehl breaks down the elements of a living city into the following: human-scale and human-oriented, density and integration, as well as collective responsibility. The first, though fairly intuitive, has been disregarded in the United States in favor of the automobile lifestyle that accompanied industrialization and segregation. (Gehl 21) In American cities such as Los Angeles, multistory buildings proliferate, alongside parking facilities and extensive traffic. Such modernization, as stressed during the corporate modernism movement, has rendered outdoor spaces as large and impersonal. (Gehl 31) Not only are pedestrians no longer the priority, but activity is also no longer the focal point of city living. Instead, passivity is found in the “bare minimum of street design,” “the wide dispersal of people and events,” (Gehl 47) and the enlarged scale of representations like billboards. Tall buildings and wide streets, especially when interspersed with greatly unwalkable distances and unsupported by an efficient public transportation system, contribute to the gradual phasing out of social contact. To Gehl’s second point, the lack of density and integration further distances people from sites of active participation by discouraging them from meeting each other. The something that’s missing from many housing estates today is “a better framework in general for recreational and social community functions” (Gehl 49) or, more simply put, a soul.

Most radically, however, is Gehl’s last point on collective responsibility, and it is this that makes the strongest case in favor of public housing. The emotional connection with home exists on multiple levels, and the ideal vision of a city would accommodate a sense of belonging with an individual house’s surrounding neighborhood in addition to a sense of ownership over this individual house. While such a bond can, and has, been forged in private housing estates – as it manifests clearly in suburbia – the government is well-positioned to accelerate neighborhood formation through zoning policies and development of public space. Speaking to Singapore’s goal of cultural integration, the government is also able to operate in a way that provides checks and balances to the free market system in prioritizing commercial over residential development, thereby ensuring in some capacity that lower-income communities will have similar access to housing. Undoubtedly, a city-building strategy that relies solely on public housing projects would fail in the U.S., as the politics behind LA’s urban renewal program demonstrated. The reframing of public housing as collective responsibility, though, whereby the city is based on the multiplicity of residents’ experiences, provides a much surer path to successful cooperation between the government, the private housing market, and nonprofit organizations.

Moving forward

In some ways, this process of reshaping has already begun with the nationwide introduction of HOPE VI, a public housing program conceived during the 1980s that proposed a more comprehensive approach for tackling “distressed public housing.” (Cisneros 22) By this time, most public housing developments, which had been built after the second world war as transitional housing, had stooped to the “lowest possible level of habitability,” given that none of the local housing authorities had the resources nor incentive to maintain these facilities (Cisneros vii). Much of public housing, given its temporary nature and resident profile, was ill-constructed and situated in undesirable parts of the city to begin with, and the rent-setting policies that ensured its unsustainable system accelerated the physical deterioration. The National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing was established in 1989 by Congress to develop a National Action Plan that would eradicate severely distressed public housing. (Cisneros 21) This sparked the new urbanist principles that would become the foundations for HOPE VI, which was funded by Congress in 1992 – diversity, human scale, restoration, and continuity. New Urbanism itself is a counter-movement against modernism that strives for the very same ideal vision of a city mentioned before. The city would be walkable, mixed-use and mixed-income, and would optimistically stand in opposition to modernism’s values of standardization and mass production. Once again, HOPE VI was meant to represent a new, more inclusive model of public housing in the U.S.

As with any long-term public housing program, HOPE VI invariably has much more to do. Its pitfalls have proven enormous. A shift toward lower density housing, characterized primarily by limited lateral expansion in place of vertical development, has significantly altered the makeup of neighborhoods. Similarly, in attempting to disperse concentrated poverty by establishing more mixed-income communities, some former residents are necessarily permanently displaced. Many of these residents were given Section 8 vouchers, often without any mobility counseling, to assist with relocating them to wealthier neighborhoods or other public housing projects. Unsettlingly, based on the only national study conducted specifically on the consequences of relocation because of HOPE VI, resident return rates vary from less than 10% to 75% (Cisneros 195). Numerous residents who moved into wealthier neighborhoods had trouble making ends meet, encountering specific problems with utility bills, while residents who moved into other public housing projects either retained the same quality of life, or even saw it reduced. There is, overall, an astonishing lack of data on the results of the HOPE VI program, which would be crucial to evaluating and forecasting the effectiveness of public housing in the United States.

To these I offer the preliminary suggestion of prioritizing HOPE VI’s four goals in a hierarchy. For instance, while human scale and informed aesthetic is important in building a well-designed neighborhood, it has been easier and more effective to refurbish existing estates instead of tearing them down completely in favor of constructing anew. As seen from the national study, resident return rates increase substantially when the housing projects were rehabilitated rather than rebuilt. In order to streamline the process of relocation, a separate body should also take charge of Section 8 vouchers and provide the mobility counseling needed to help residents transition into the private housing market. A better informed policy concerning relocating ‘less desirable families’, such as those whose members have a disability or drug problem, needs to be developed to prevent a concentration of these residents from simply being shuffled between public housing projects. Other alternatives for temporary relocation should also be explored, including the hotel sector. Under this separate organization, a committee could be dedicated to consolidating a more comprehensive study of relocation efforts. Meanwhile, the very premise of permanently relocating residents who no longer fit into the public housing agenda of mixed-income use should be re-evaluated. Here, I propose that we could learn from the enterprising spirit of slums in developing nations where communities have collaborated to improve upon their shared space. If the low-rise, high-density model is at first difficult to emulate in existing housing estates that are better off refurbished, then perhaps the mixed-use policy can be a way for residents to regroup around activity on the ground floor. Borrowing from the informal economic sector, part of the 20% from HOPE VI’s funding could be used to encourage lower-income communities to establish small, local businesses in their own neighborhoods, thereby serving as a potential method of breaking the unsustainable rent cycle. Lastly, it is crucial that a program as broad as HOPE VI does not lose sight of the path to an ideal vision of a city – not as a goal in itself, but as a living, breathing document of human usage, activities, and interest. While public housing is here to stay, the end game is not a question of when we will get there. Rather, there needs to be an open line of communication between all parties, and especially between residents and implementers of the HOPE VI program. Such communication is key to ensuring the idea of home ownership takes root in currently disenfranchised residents, alongside rent-control and other policies that give residents a clear stake in understanding their house as home.

Local Solutions?

On paper, Los Angeles is taking its housing crisis seriously. Mayor Garcetti’s comprehensive housing strategy, as outlined on his website, is attempting to permit 100,000 new units by 2021, in addition to increasing production of supportive housing for the homeless and preservation of affordable housing, as well as strengthening the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance. As it is, at least 600,000 people in Los Angeles are considered “severely rent burdened,” where over half their income is spent on rent. The city only has rent control on certain units built before 1978, with changes to this policy restricted by state law. Not only does ever-higher rent place significant stress on the lower-, and even middle-, class populations, thereby exacerbating homelessness, but it also considerably slows down the effectiveness of new housing priced at market rate that is meant to remedy the situation. The city’s strides in streamlining the permitting of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and Unpermitted Dwelling Units (UDUs), especially in parallel with a more transit-oriented growth model and an “overhaul of [its] zoning code”, are notable. However, I believe that a holistic public housing program would do well as part of this strategy to ensure that redevelopment is prioritized over demolition, and that the densification of Los Angeles is structured around New Urbanist principles that focus on building a sense of community and ownership. To counter Garcetti’s support of single-family zoning, I maintain that Los Angeles must rid itself of its suburban past that will no longer sustain such a rapidly growing population. Instead, it needs to reflect the sort of living city that its reputation has set as precedent, one that involves public housing and its potential to reshape the idea of community that Los Angeles has long clung to.

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