Debunking the Mythical Discourse Surrounding Public Housing: Part IV of the UHA 2012

In ToM’s final installment of its 2012 UHA coverage, our correspondents present a detailed report regarding one of the conference’s perpetually most popular subjects: public housing. With a packed house in attendance, the UHA’s six roundtable presenters provided a coherent and compelling argument against prevailing myths regarding public housing.  Considering the success of documentaries like The Pruitt Igoe myth in recent years, new interpretations of public housing’s legacy have come to the fore. Leading figures in urban housing including Kenneth Jackson and Alexander Von Hoffman among others attended, making for a lively post presentation discussion.   From Le Corbusier influenced architecture to the role of Singapore’s Central Provident Fund in promoting homeownership, the 2012 UHA “Roundtable: Public Housing Myths: Beyond Victims and Villains” provided a concise and thought provoking reassessment of public housing.

Our previous installments regarding the 2012 UHA can be accessed below:

Part I -“Impending Hurricanes, Alternative Sexualities, and Tourism”-  Here

Part II – “Crime in the City and the Curious Case of Philadelphia” – Here

Part III – “Steel Towns, Motor Cities, and Cuban Refugees” – Here

Roundtable: Public Housing Myths: Beyond Victims and Villains

Le Corbusier’s vision

D. Bradford HuntMyth #1: Modernist Architecture Doomed Public Housing

For decades, many observers have held that one of the main reasons for public housing’s failure resulted from the severe designs of Le Corbusier inspired housing projects. The avant garde nature of Le Corbusier’s architecture in the 1930s became the template for modern public housing as the modernist classics of the early twentieth century moved swiftly into the institutionalized mainstream of life.   If novels by Hemingway and others served as cultural foundations for English teachers across America in the 1950s and forward, so too did Le Corbusier’s vision of urbanity among urban planners: sterile high rises and emphasis on flow over the needs of city’s citizens emerged as hallmarks of this style.

While it may be true that in some places, the modernist architecture that came to define public housing did contribute to difficulties, as D. Bradford Hunt pointed out people have overstated this influence. Across the world people reside in vertical towers, most of which have avoided the doom and gloom of American public housing. Additionally, as Hunt noted, high rises came into being over time; Chicago’s housing authority, for example, moved slowly toward the high rise model, yet this form of public housing came to dominate public conceptions.

Instead of architecture, Hunt pointed to demographics. When Alex Kotlowitz wrote There Are No Children Here in 1992, Kotlowitz focused on the plight of two young boys growing up in Chicago’s Henry Horner homes.  For the author and the two boys’ mother, Henry Horner’s environment left little time for childhood pursuits and far too many for adult ones, many of which promised less than favorable outcomes.  Instead, Hunt argued that “youth density” or the sheer numbers of children residing in CHA housing proved problematic overtime. Critically, Hunt noted, large families were not new; they had always been present and in fact, contrary to popular belief, fertility rates dropped rather then expanded in the twentieth century.  However, by the 1960s, CHA families averaged 2 children for every adult and struggling projects like the Robert Taylor Homes demonstrated even higher averages: 2.7 children per adult.  Not since the 1880s does one find a ratio where housing includes more children than adults,  historically a 1:1 ratio between adult and child proved more common. As public housing moved forward, these demographic shifts undermined resources as authorities never adjusted or planned for such developments.

Nicholas BloomMyth #2 Large Housing Projects Are Unmanageable

Following Hunt, Nicholas Bloom provided an overview of New York’s public housing experience, which in essence, rebukes myth number two regarding the inability to govern or manage large government owned housing complexes.  As Bloom notes, from 1934 to 1965, New York City’s Housing Authority (NYCHA) built 154 projects, fifty of which consisted of more than 1000 apartments each.  Even smaller projects were often comprised of hundreds of units.  Moreover, much like other cities, authorities frequently clustered public housing in poorer communities.  With approximately 178,000 occupied apartments, New York provides an enticing sample size with which to refute myth number two.  Though far from perfect, as the aforementioned Professor Jackson noted in the post presentation discussion, New York’s public housing seemed integrated into the larger city and relatively safe, especially when compared with the massive Robert Taylor Homes.

The infamous Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago

The city’s contextual factors demonstrate the advantages of public housing in New York.  First, NYC remains a densely populated city of high-rise living. The density at city center exceeds that in most US cities and the extensive transit infrastructure proves no less influential.  Add to it a diverse metropolis – in nearly all categories including race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality – that acknowledges an active municipal government and a sense of public space and one can understand why New York’s public housing may have escaped some of the travails similar attempts experienced in places like Chicago.

Keeping the elevators running

Bloom added that during a recent spot check, he found spaces defined by relative cleanliness (this is New York after all), nice playgrounds, active managers, YMCA programs and a visible police presence: hardly the Robert Taylor Homes or Cabrini Green.  Bloom marshaled further evidence of NYCHA’s ability to manage its public housing in its internal maintenance. With so many high rises, elevators perform a critical duty, ferrying residents up and down unending flights of stairs. With over 3300 elevators (two-thirds of which have been replaced over the last 10 years) and considering the youth and age of its residents, NYCHA’s responsibilities in maintaining their use remains critical.  When an elevator goes down, workers have it up and running, on average, in five hours. If you think this is no big deal, consider that the MTA struggles to keep its 194 elevators and 172 escalators in operation and that in Chicago, a downed CHA elevator takes two days before it’s again operational.   So yes, sometimes high-rise towers do not work in public housing, but to say they can’t work, as evidenced by NYC, simply isn’t true.

Lawrence ValeMyth #3: Mixing Incomes Is Necessary to “Fix” Public Housing

In Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, Paul Boyer explores the numerous avenues nineteenth and early twentieth century reforms travelled to rescue cities from moral lassitude and ethical decay.  Of note in discussions about public housing, Boyer noted a recurring theme among reformers: the idea of middle class role models serving as models for poor and working class residents to better themselves.

Mixed Income development: unhealthy fetish or legitimate answer?

How does this relate to modern day public housing? Since the passage of HOPE VI legislation in the early 1990s, municipal housing authorities across the nation have used federal funds to replace public housing with mixed income units.  Though several schools of thought support HOPE VI housing reforms, one dominant argument for mixed income units argues that the presence of middle class families along side public housing residents would balance local revenues, create new opportunities, and provide a behavioral model for poorer residents to better themselves socially and economically.

As Vale pointed out, in its early decades public housing served upwardly mobile families, often transitioning from working class status to America’s then expanding middle class. However, by the 1960s and well into the 1990s, places like the aforementioned Robert Taylor Homes had become ostensibly “welfare housing.”  With the passage of HOPE VI in 1992, mixed-use redevelopment emerged as the new dominant model.   Many academics, segments of the popular press, and numerous tenant organizations expressed marked skepticism regarding the 1992 legislation.  With this said, as Jason Hackworth noted in The Neoliberal City, there has also been a powerful countervailing discourse expressed by HOPE VI advocates.  According to Hackworth, since the state passed the legislation to empower residents, a narrative spread arguing that such innovations were unavoidable but “progressive.” The wide scale displacement that unfolded in many of the HOPE VI projects was disguised by this narrative discourse, a discourse that found proponents in the media, among housing officials, planners, and even “housing scholars.” (183)

What did proponents and opponents layout as arguments? Supporters noted the mixed income units led to better local services and institutions, notably safe schools and empowered residents with greater social capital. Moreover, much like Boyer’s nineteenth century reformers, middle and upper middle class residents would display values worth emulating. Opponents argued that mixed income units did not provide one to one replacements with the former housing, meaning fewer apartments overall. Residents unable to remain in the new buildings often moved to communities already struggling economically. Finally, this displacement resulted in disruption and loss of social networks and support services.

The nebulous definition of mixed income housing remains part of the problem.  How narrow or wide should the income range be?  What does “market rate” mean? As witnessed in Chicago and elsewhere, the mechanisms that establish income levels can be deceptive.   Additionally, accounting for poor housing in gentrified neighborhoods differs from similar housing located in low-income areas.   Nor did all public housing need saving, as discussed by Bloom in myth #2 above.   Vale pointed to the success of non-mixed income housing developed by the Boston Housing Authority that features strong management and active informal control by residents as a parallel example to New York.

To be fair, some evidence exists supporting the idea that mixed housing has led to better and safer communities for some residents. The Move to Opportunity program suggested some gains in security and mental health.  Unfortunately, evaporating social networks and services and economic difficulties countered these positives.

Greg “Fritz” UmbachMyth # 4 – Public Housing Tenants Are Lazy Criminals Who Hate the Police

Of the many important points that documentaries like The Pruitt Igoe Myth and books like American Project make, the desire by residents to enjoy the kind of police protection that counterparts in private housing receive remains a primary goal.  In both works, tenants point out that it wasn’t an overbearing police presence that troubled them but rather the anemic ability of the city’s peace officers to reduce crime. Tenants may have resented police overreach and brutality, but they also despised the violence and crime to which their communities remained subject.

Greg Umbach highlighted this tension in tackling myth number four. Opening with a story about an undergraduate interview of a former housing resident, Umbach’s student asked the older women how she viewed the police during her stay in housing. “They were like family,” replied the former tenant, underlining the complex relationships that exist between residents and city police.  Into the 1980s, in a preview of the community based policing that became popular in the 1990s and 2000s, public housing relied on beat cops. This helped connect the police more directly with tenants and the larger neighborhood. Additionally, unlike in many other cities, the diversity within the NYPD helped assuage tensions: in the 1960s the NYC had the largest majority minority police force in the nation.

As Umbach pointed out, from 1963 to 1980, public housing residents in New York staged 60 protests demanding more cops, not less. In fact, though crime rates rose throughout NYC in the 1960s and 1970s, public housing reported safer communities than their surrounding environs – 60% safer noted Umbach.

The rights or urban liberation movements of the 1970s – with their emphasis on social freedoms – did not always align with public housing communities’ ideas regarding uplift.  Built on the New Deal liberalism of earlier decades, the infrastructure created to support public housing wilted under reduced funding and outside pressures. The protests of the 1970s social movements demanded a redistribution of resources but in ways that repudiated what many in these movements saw as an overly “bureaucratized” America.  After 1971, new regulations made evicting problematic tenants more difficult, and Umbach connected rising crime rates and social dysfunction in New York’s public housing to these shifts. Many tenants lamented NYCHA’s inability to remove residents.  In the 1990s, residents protested these developments and by 1996, the 1971 regulations regarding evictions had been overturned.

In the end, as Umbach concluded, public housing residents often asserted support for strong policing and tenant policies that observers normally ascribe to the political right.  By connecting these difficulties with the social movements of the New Left, Umbach laid out a complicated set of factors that contributed to tenant dissatisfaction with public housing policing but also emphasizes the same community’s desire for less crime and more security.

Dan Wishnoff –  Myth #5 – Public Housing Ended because Public Housing Failed

Few postwar twentieth century politicians recognized the value of bureaucratic knife fighting and symbolic politics like Richard Nixon. Writers like Bruce Schulman have asked whether or not we should consider Nixon the last of the old liberals or the first of the new conservatives. Unsurprisingly, Nixon’s policies regarding public housing demonstrate the administration’s cynical machinations.   Far from cutting public housing, Nixon instead increased federal housing while simultaneously undermining the complicated old liberal network that advocated, built, and operated it. Moreover, Nixon successfully rerouted funding by shifting resources from “building and maintaining public housing to handing out rent subsidies, so poor tenants could rent from private landlords,” notes Schulman.   By doing so, Nixon not only undermined its construction but also defunded already insufficient maintenance programs.  Along with his moratorium on construction, he helped to fundamentally to entrench myth number five.

Nixon so Machiavellian he pretends to like NY diner coffee.

Dan Wishnoff adds to Schulman’s argument noting that by 1973, HUD scandals, wasteful public housing spending, and projects that no longer provided safer communities than the slums they had allegedly replaced, combined to undermine popular and elite support for government owned housing. For Nixon, public housing provided a political opportunity more than a cause or moral crusade.  He simply wanted to divide his opposition and in the case of New York Mayor John Lindsay, discredit potential GOP rivals.

When plans for low income housing in Queens emerged in the early 1970s, the Jewish middle class community of Forest Hills provided Nixon with an opportunity.  Working behind the scenes to aid opposition at the local level, Nixon connected public housing with failure on the national stage.   Forest Hills residents resented accusations of racism, but articulated fears regarding crime, economic decline, and social integration.  Nixon never intervened but his appeals at the national level and behind the scenes in aiding the resistance signaled to suburban white voters the president’s intent to protect their perceived interests – especially resistance to integration.  Moreover, in the case of Forest Hills, Nixon made a play for the city’s Jewish vote, recognizing a chance to boost his standing in a demographic increasingly questioning the postwar liberal state.

Mayor Lindsay

Eventually, Mario Cuomo, a young lawyer at the time, came in to serve as an intermediary between opponents, the city, and the federal government.  Cuomo’s negotiations resulted in a revised plan that reduced the number of units in half, made structural alterations, increased the numbers of elderly tenants, and promised to screen residents more stringently (the revised units had higher income limits than most NYCHA housing).   Over time the Forest Hills Houses became the first low income housing cooperative in the city.

When one takes Wishnoff’s presentation into account, public housing did not end because it failed, it ended because segregation behind the construction of public housing remained so persistent. Political appeals and the discourse of failure from the President on down only provided cover for suburban and “quasi-suburban” communities to oppose low income and public housing while avoiding integration.

Singapore Public Housing

Nancy Kwak – Myth #6 Public Housing Is Only for Poor People

 Too often when scholars and planners speak about public housing, the discussion focuses narrowly on North American examples. Nancy Kwak provided perhaps the freshest insight into public housing: the popularity of government owned units in East and Southeast Asia.  Driven by postwar economic growth, government spending, and the G.I. Bill, owner occupied housing emerged as the idealized American home. Unlike the U.S., in Singapore and Hong Kong, public housing has served and continues to function as the fundamental form of residency for respective citizens of the two city states. Though it began as housing for lower income citizens, public housing grew to become the dominant model while serving as an engine for economic growth. In Singapore, construction of government housing boosted related industries and the production of the industrial material necessary for large scale endeavors while also helping to deflate unemployment.  Additionally, public housing gave the government greater control over more land and salved political unrest and ethnic tensions. In general, planners avoided monotonous structures that became endemic to American conceptions of public housing.

As Kwak points out, a critical financial instrument enabled Singapore to follow this course: the Central Provident Fund (CFP).  Though established initially under British Colonial rule, the CFP developed over time into a social security type savings plan that includes pre-retirement uses ranging from health care, college or trade school, and yes, homeownership. Employees and employers make compulsory monthly payments into the CFP (there are assigned percentages according to age and other factors and the CFP itself is divided into separate accounts with different responsibilities.) As noted one of its pre-retirement benefits involves homeownership.  Residents may use CFP funds to purchase homes in public housing, which, has the added bonus of limiting speculation.  The state then uses these revenue streams for investment in industry.  In this way, the CFP has proven critical for national economic and urban development.   As of 2009, Singapore’s homeownership rate reached 90%.

The Singapore and Hong Kong examples need not be exclusive to these city-states. Shanghai instituted its own CFP in 1994 as part of its National Homeownership program. Though considering push back on Obamacare, the frail state of Social Security, and the passion for stand alone homes in America, an individual might wonder how feasible a CFP program combined with some form of public housing would be in the U.S.  Nonetheless, Kwak’s research opens up new and intriguing avenues in all discussions of housing but notably its transnational aspects.