Renaming ‘public housing’ doesn’t alter its sordid history

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Democratic Assemblyman Alex Lee of Milpitas has introduced a bill with the title, “The Social Housing Act.” He wouldn’t dare call it “The Public Housing Act.” Too much baggage associated with that terminology. So the concept was renamed.

Politicians and activists have long tried to dress old, failed, sometimes contentious and often intrusive ideas in new clothing. Gun control has become “gun safety.” Illegal aliens are “undocumented immigrants.” The politically charged term abortion has been softened for the palate to “women’s reproductive health.” Often labels are changed due to negative connotations that have arisen from the original terminology. Other times the new phrasing is an effort to obscure.

Of the latter, we’re seeing it in California, where Democratic Assemblyman Alex Lee of Milpitas has introduced a bill with the title, “The Social Housing Act.” He wouldn’t dare call it “The Public Housing Act.” Too much baggage associated with that terminology. So the concept was renamed.

Lee’s Social Housing Act, Assembly Bill 2881, part of a seven-bill legislative package, would “establish the California Housing Authority to produce mixed-income housing that is affordable and financially self-sustaining.” It also creates a Department of Housing and Community Development. The goal, says Lee’s office, is to follow “international best practices of developing mixed-income, self-sustaining housing like Singapore and Vienna.”

What makes Lee, his bill co-authors and the lawmakers who will eventually support AB 2881 believe the successes of social housing in Singapore and Vienna (are they in fact successes?) will seamlessly translate to California? What will prevent repeats of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe, and the Pink Houses of Brooklyn, N.Y. three of the most wretched public housing projects in this country’s history? Two were so fourth-rate, so soul-stealing that they were eventually pulled down. Though still standing, the third is overdue for a date with the wrecking ball.

Cabrini-Green was one of the most notorious instances of the state playing the role of slumlord. Chicago Tribune contributing columnist John McCarron called the high-rises of Cabrini-Green “Chicago’s 16-story monuments to poverty and despair” in a 1996 op-ed published before the project was leveled through a series of demolitions over the years. He saw them, as did many, as “cheerless hulks” that stunted “the lives of new generations of low-income African-Americans.”

The aim of the project was to build affordable housing, with the government prioritizing “the poorest people, including single mothers and the homeless, to access housing,” according to Arch20, an architectural magazine. Though it was intended to be “a symbol of hope for mitigating slum life,” it wasn’t long before Cabrini-Green “became a high-rise slum itself.”

Thanks to “cost-reducing measures taken during construction” – broke California wouldn’t be so foolish as to cut costs on social housing projects, would it? – the project was anything but a lasting tribute to the state’s abilities to fix humanity’s defects. While not as infamous, Pruitt-Igoe was still a destination best avoided. But residents couldn’t easily escape what “became the stage for hosting city crime,” says Arch20.

Like Cabrini-Green, Pruitt-Igoe was thrown together into a rancid combination of poor construction and shoddy material. Power failed, adequate heating tended to be iffy, the indoor plumbing “at one point … let loose floods of raw sewage through the hallways.” The project suffered from severe government neglect and a public that didn’t care.

The aesthetics were brutal, too. The “33 racially segregated 11-story high-rises,” says Arch20, “appeared utterly alien to the surrounding low-lying buildings.” Pruitt-Igoe was eventually put out of its misery. Three buildings were blown up in 1972 – on television – with the remainder razed four years later, a little more than two decades after its first residents moved in.

Brooklyn’s Pink Houses – considered by Arch20 along with Cabrini-Green and Pruitt-Igoe as one of three “utterly unsuccessful public housing projects” – is a war zone. “​​If you want someone to shoot you dead, visit Pink Houses!” it noted.

Crime at the Louis Heaton Pink Houses is not some sad coincidence but a product of – yet again – scandalous disregard by government. Burned-out lights aren’t replaced in a timely manner, often leaving stairwells, which have to be used because the elevators routinely malfunction, dark and unsafe. One resident has complained that “Work does not get done until someone gets killed.”

The few and poorly placed security cameras and dim hallways give criminals an edge over residents. The New York Post reported some years ago that one resident who had to navigate the dark corridors was in the habit of shaking “her keys in the hallway” so people could “hear her coming.”

Then there are chronic hassles that are common to public housing. Insufficient heat and water not warm enough to bathe in have tested the residents of the 22 buildings and housing 1,500 units of the Pink Houses. These public housing projects are not outliers but vivid examples of what happens when government tries to be a landlord of last resort.

But then maybe governments have learned from decades of mistakes. After all, according to Lee, “social housing” in Singapore and Vienna show how it’s done.

Well, maybe not so much.

All is not “rosy with Singapore’s housing” model, says the Market Urbanist, and whatever its “successes” might be, they “are largely due to unique circumstances” which can’t be replicated in the United States. The socialist contours of Singapore’s system of “​​government ownership of land and management of buildings” has created conditions that have not been “good at producing affordable housing.”Meanwhile, the Vienna experience is turning bitter. Says Reason’s Christian Britschgi: “The sterling reputation of ‘Red Vienna’ is largely a mirage – a product of bad accounting, opaque bureaucracy, and the failure of social housing boosters to consider the extensive German-language literature examining the program’s failures.”

Like public housing the United States, Vienna’s arrangement suffers from the familiar maladies. The model, around for roughly a century, is “expensive, insecure, conflict-prone, bureaucratic, not transparent, [and] socially unjust,” say German researchers Harald Simons and Constantin Tielkes. Britschgi points to its “diminishing affordability, deteriorating quality, and funding shortfalls.” It is also a hub of cronyism, and contributes to market illiquidity similar to the way rent-control reduces available housing stock.

Housing functions the same way any market does when left alone by policymakers and regulators, which is to say it would efficiently allocate resources. Not everyone is happy with the outcomes produced by markets, but they are always better than government work.

Kerry Jackson is the William Clement Fellow in California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.



Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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