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It’s not the Housing, It’s the People

November 30, 1997 by Administrator in November/December 1997

by Tom Angotti
A Response to Timothy Ross

It’s not the housing, Mr. Ross, it’s the people. They don’t care what kind of housing poor people live in. They just don’t like them if they’re poor and not white. If there were no people of color in the projects, I’ll bet Congress would be giddily appropriating billions to improve them.

It’s not public housing. If poor folk all owned one of those wonderful new non-profit homes, then maybe nonprofits would be the target. Even when poor people own their own homes, their neighborhoods get a raw deal one way or the other (remember urban renewal in the 50’s?).

Timothy Ross buys right into all the prejudices and misinformation spread by the right-wingers leading the attack on public housing. That’s why I don’t think he speaks for progressives on this issue. There’s no dilemma in my mind: privatization of public housing is not intended to help poor people but to make life more miserable for them. We should be fighting to save public housing as part of the wider struggle for equality.

Don’t get me wrong. I like nonprofit housing development and home ownership. It does provide needed housing to a lot people, including some low-income people. But there wouldn’t be any nonprofit housing without government subsidies, including huge tax benefits that the rich soak up. (The actual cost to the public of nonprofit housing is greater than the cost of building public housing.) And too many nonprofits are unable to house the very poor, but instead house middle-income people. Too many new middle-income owner-occupied homes are built over the ashes of low-income rental housing.

So I have an idea. Let’s have both – public housing and nonprofit homeownership, in infinitely complex mixes. We can walk down the street and chew gum at the same time. But don’t stay silent on public housing. With our silence, we turn our back on the many tenants and community groups who are fighting to save public housing and we also embolden the right.

Another thing. Where did this notion come from that “there is strong evidence that concentrated poverty exacerbates the difficulties of low-income people?” There are some dubious studies out there, but I’ve seen a lot more evidence that concentration of poverty and wealth have nothing to do with the quality of life one way or the other. Next time you’re in New York, take a walk up Fifth Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, one of the most densely populated districts in the world, and also the richest in the world. Concentrated wealth isn’t an issue, so why should concentrated poverty be an issue? Visit our high-rise public housing in New York. It’s better maintained than most of the low-income private housing in the city, and comparable in quality to the units maintained by the nonprofit sector. Compare it to some of the dilapidated one- and two-story public housing in sprawled California. Concentration has nothing to do with it.

Another myth is that the defenders of public housing are “defiant but desperate martyr[s].” Give me a break. Since the inception of the public housing program, conservatives have defiantly tried to discredit it. They are motivated by the Social Darwinian philosophy of starving the poor and getting them out of sight: you take away from the poor their means of subsistence – food and shelter for starters – and they’ll go away. After all, it’s their fault. Now, ever since this paleolithic philosophy made its way into the public arena, there have been a lot of defiant people challenging it. Public housing tenant groups in New York and other cities have been successful in slowing down or stalling the privatization. We’re losing the national battle right now. But please don’t ridicule us as martyrs. Help us to expose to the public how mean-spirited and deceptive the masters of public policy have been, and what really motivates them.

You’re certainly right that “public housing attracts only a narrow political constituency.” In fact, eliminating poverty by any means is not a big vote-getter these days. But in the age of “greed is good,” if the middle and upper classes hate housing the poor with public money, what makes you think they’re going to want to voluntarily give up the homeowner tax breaks that help distinguish themselves from the poor? That seems like “desperate martyrdom” to the feudal philosophy of noblesse oblige. It’s hard to take seriously right-wing proclamations of elite commitment to “fairness.” As for corporate responsibility, they’re already doing a pretty good job of discrediting the idea that anything besides the bottom line can advance social welfare.

It’s you who’s not the political realist, Mr. Ross, when you tell us to win over the fat cats. But here’s a realistic option. How about helping to convince some of those middle class folks that if they get together with the poor on labor, housing and lots of other issues they too can come out ahead? By helping to improve the quality of life for the poorest, real wages, including social wages, will rise. By guaranteeing low-income housing, we help establish housing as a right for everyone. And as most of the middle class are aware, they’re often only a plant closing away from being low-income. The conservative majority in Congress is not interested in public housing or anything else that helps poor people and people of color. They may profess great love for the use of tax benefits and nonprofit housing, but it’s only because investors and middle-class homeowners continue to walk away with the lion’s share of the benefits.

In sum, challenging inequality means challenging the myth that publicly-owned housing is by definition a contributor to poverty; the racist myth that concentration of people of color is by definition a contributor to poverty; and the physical determinist myth of high density.

It’s time to tune in to the defenders of public housing and stop repeating the suburban myths about the projects. The de-fenders of public housing want to improve maintenance and address the broader problems that contribute to the isolation of poor people whether or not they live in public housing – jobs, education, health care, environmental justice and so on. Let’s listen to the appeals of tuned-in decisionmakers who have lived in and understood projects, like Rep. Nydia Velazquez.

So Mr. Ross, it’s not the housing. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s public, nonprofit or homeownership. As long as poor people and people of color are in it, Newt and company think it’s got to go. And if there’s public housing sitting on prime real estate, all the more reason for getting rid of them. Let’s take that to our middle class.


Tom Angotti is Executive Editor of Planners Network.
Read Timothy Ross’s essay

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Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems.

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