It’s Housing, Not Public Housing

By Timothy Ross

Progressives face a dilemma in thinking about public housing. Many progressives support public housing because it helps low income people who are otherwise disadvantaged in a capitalist economy. Indeed, over a million people live in public housing projects, and most are the very poor with few other options. As currently constructed, however, public housing functions to concentrate poverty. There is strong evidence that concentrated poverty exacerbates the difficulties of low income people. In the worst case, the stories told by authors such as Nicholas Lemann and Alex Kotlowitz indicate that those living in public housing face very long odds in their struggle for success. So where should progressives stand on public housing?

It is neither compelling nor sufficient to say that public housing would work if only the program rules were changed, if more money were put toward rehabilitating existing projects, and if management improved. Nor is the line that Sudhir Venkatesh pursues in October’s American Prospect that “Public housing doesn’t look so bad when the alternative is to be thrown into the low end of the private housing market” especially attractive. Defending public housing because there are no adequate alternatives is the stand of a defiant but desperate martyr. Such a weak defense is vulnerable, as the welfare reform debate shows, and there is no nobility in giving reactionaries and neo-conservatives free punches.

In fashioning a position on public housing and other issues, progressives need to take the following three things into account: the political constituencies for policy positions, the arguments that most effectively recruit new followers to the progressive banner, and the positive possibilities encapsulated in a progressive vision for the future.

Public housing attracts only a narrow political constituency. By and large, the upper and middle classes do not want to pay for what they perceive as a failed program, working class people often resist the placement of projects in their neighborhoods, and many lower income people living in public housing would rather reside some place else. The last fact in particular makes public housing difficult to defend. While some point out that the majority of public housing is relatively small and well managed, the large number of distressed projects should make progressives think twice before aggressively defending the program. This suggests that progressives should refrain from talking about public housing as a separate entity. This is not to forget about the people who live in public housing, many of whom fight heroic battles to improve their communities. Rather, progressives need to focus on housing policy as a whole, not on one program that has a weak constituency and other severe liabilities.

Progressives win when they talk about corporate responsibility in an era of enormous profits. Progressives win when they point out the bitter irony of homelessness when the Warren Buffets and Ted Turners of the nation sit on multi-billion dollar nest eggs (even after one of them gives away a billion). They win when they talk about income inequality and the need for the average American working person to receive his or her fair share of the pie. In the larger picture, a big part of the country’s political future will be the evolving response of the lower middle and working classes to economic restructuring. Conservatives and other right-wingers have attracted support by playing on racial fears and stereotypes, and portraying anyone to the left of Newt Gingrich as a gutless sop for the demands of identity groups. Emphasizing income inequality plays to progressive strengths and exploits the weaknesses of the conservative coalition.

How does this relate to housing policy? At every turn, progressives need to emphasize the regressive nature of the mortgage interest tax deduction. Peter Dreier and John Atlas, in a recent article in the Journal of Urban Affairs point out that 44% of the value of mortgage interest tax deductions (over $22 billion) goes to the 5% of the population that makes over $100,000 per annum. The 65% of the population that makes $40,000 or less garners only 5% of the total value. HUD accounts for less than one quarter of the $113 billion that the nation devotes to housing subsidies. The deductibility of property taxes costs the U.S. Treasury almost $15 billion a year, and the larger and more valuable the house, the greater the benefit. Progressives need to vigorously contest the idea that subsidizing affordable housing is somehow unfair or undeserved.

If the current distribution of housing subsidies is unjust, what alternative vision do progressives offer in its stead? There are many compelling examples of affordable housing that is community based, well built, and has had an enduring impact on neighborhoods. In the East Brooklyn section of Brooklyn, New York, for example, the East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC) community organization has produced over 3,000 “Nehemiah” homes â affordable, owner occupied, rowhouse style housing. With the help of low interest loans (not grants!) provided by the state and city, the homes sell for roughly $75,000. For many, this means monthly mortgage payments lower than their previous rents. Demand for the Nehemiah homes so outstrips supply that EBC now limits the number of applications it accepts because the group does not want to raise unreasonable expectations. I.D. Robbins, the first general contractor on Nehemiah claimed that demand for the homes in the New York City area “is virtually unlimited.”

EBC is an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a nationwide network of community organizations. Other affiliates of the IAF network, including groups in the South Bronx, Memphis, Baltimore and Prince George’s County, Maryland have built thousands of units of Nehemiah housing. Independent community organizations in Newark (New Community), Boston (the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative), and many other cities have also shown how to build affordable housing by taking advantage of low interest loans, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), and bits and pieces of other housing programs at the federal, state and local level. Not all nonprofit housing works, and it is not necessarily cheap. But success is common enough that progressives can use these examples without apology, a statement not true of public housing.

From a policy perspective, housing programs like Nehemiah often work to deconcentrate poverty by anchoring working and middle class families to urban neighborhoods. This not only expands the pool of potential community activists, but also increases the political and economic power of lower income neighborhoods. Creating a national community development trust fund, expanding the LIHTC, and providing matching grants for affordable housing projects that meet certain standards of quality and community participation are all ways to increase the capacity and production of the nonprofit sector.

The political attractions of putting community developed nonprofit housing at the center of progressive housing policy are alluring. According to a Gallup poll cited in the January 1996 edition of Shelterforce, only 28% of Americans feel that government should provide solutions for homelessness, while 66% prefer the nonprofit sector. One can imagine that public support for government solutions to slightly less pressing housing problems is even weaker. Tying a progressive housing policy in part to the nonprofit sector makes it that much more attractive.

At the same time, the nonprofit sector works on too small a scale to solve the nation’s housing problems. Nonprofits currently build about 50,000 units of housing a year, while HUD estimates that 5.1 million households face “worst case” housing problems. Massive infusions of government funding, moreover, would strain the carefully developed relationships between community organizations, public officials and the residents of low income communities.

In addition to community based housing, Dreier and Atlas suggest expanding housing voucher programs, providing tax credits to help middle and lower class families purchase homes, and encouraging HUD to speed up conversion of publicly subsidized projects to cooperative housing. The first two programs have the advantage of appealing to real estate developers and the construction industry by raising the possibility that such incentives will fuel the demand for new housing. Upper middle class and wealthy people will continue to purchase houses even in the absence of the mortgage interest and property tax deductions, and millions of American would have a new capacity to buy homes. As a whole, such a housing program rests on long standing ideals of homeownership, choice, and community participation.

Most banks and many conservative real estate developers will oppose these plans, and they will be joined by their conservative allies in Congress and elsewhere. They will likely argue that real estate values will decline, that the programs will cost too much, and that such interference in the private market is unwarranted. This is a long way from discussing the problems of public housing, but wouldn’t progressives rather be talking about how much banks can afford and how much value Bill Gates’s house would lose?

Timothy Ross is a senior research associate at the Center for Urban Research. His research interests include urban politics and policy, and community organizing. Send all correspondence to 234 Fifth Avenue #1, Brooklyn, NY 11215.
Read Tom Angotti’s response to this essay.

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