5 Arguments to Help Change the Debate on Public Housing

 A beautiful day at Mill Brook Houses (homebody)

A beautiful day at Mill Brook Houses (homebody)

Despite the unprecedented affordable housing crisis across the country, there is seemingly no popular support for more public housing. President Trump instead reflects the general sentiment in Congress by outlining a budget that would cut billions of dollars from housing assistance for millions of low-income Americans. Though many residents, housing groups, and elected officials are speaking out against these cuts, they are hobbled by a lack of national attention. Frankly, I believe it’s because their message “#nocuts” is hardly a battle cry, as important as it is.

If we are to prevent these draconian cuts from becoming law this year, we must put as much pressure on Congress as we can. It’s likely that some of these programs will be saved if we do. But simply reducing the cuts or saving certain programs is not enough to help the millions of Americans struggling to find affordable shelter.

We must fundamentally transform the discussion about housing in the US and we must once again create a national effort to support, build, and maintain public housing on a significant scale. In the spirit of “#nocuts” I have outlined 5 hashtags that describe where I believe we can succeed in doing so.

1. #HousingIsARight and Denying it is a Crime

We live in a deeply segregated country. This is not an accident. This was not an organic result of natural clustering or preferences. As Richard Rothstein has pointed out in detail in his book The Color of Law, it was the result of direct, explicit federal and local policy decisions to favor white Americans over all other types of Americans. The US Government made housing a de facto right for white people and denied it to black people and other minorities. The consequences have been devastating.

A lot of people, including the Supreme Court, do not know or accept this. This can no longer be tolerated. Just as we are finally taking down statuescelebrating an armed insurgency based on white supremacy and slavery, we must also face the blatant suppression that has been staring us in the face for generations every time we drive from a suburb to an inner-city core. The geography of our built environment must finally be accounted for with proper historic context.

Only by recognizing that housing is a basic human right and a basic obligation of our government, will we ever truly reconcile with and change the accepted narrative that downplays the scale of suppression. The God’s honest truth can tear down more than just statues in this country.

2. #RealTakers and Subsidizing Wealthy Homeownership

Once we accept how awful our housing policy was in the 20th century, we can then take a critical eye to how terrible our current housing policy is in the 21st. The specter of racism undoubtedly hangs over our current policies by the sheer scale of previous decades. However, today the true outrage is more about class.

As Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted, has recently written about, the federal government spends $134 billion a year — more than the entire budget of the Education, Justice, and Energy Departments combined — subsidizing homeownership, particularly through the Mortgage Interest Deduction. About 60% of that money goes to wealthy homeowners. The 7 million households that make over $200,000/year receive a larger share of that savings than the 50 million households who earn less than $50,000/year.

This is far from “free market” principles and in fact inflates the housing market to the benefit of wealthy homeowners. It’s estimated that removing such programs could reduce housing prices across the country by 13–17%, making it far easier for many people to purchase a home if they chose.

When a record number of Americans are rent burdened, and over 600,000 Americans are homeless, the fact that we subsidize these homes is a national disgrace. By placing a hand on the scale (again, for explicitly racist purposes) the housing market has exacerbated the economic inequality ravaging all quarters of the country.

Let’s start calling these households what they actually are: takers. Let’s remove the moralizing and euphemisms around how some politicians use that term currently and instead, by placing basic logic and fairness on it, aim it towards those who are actually taking the most from all of us.

3. #PublicHousingWorks and Has Always Worked

Despite decades of discriminatory policies favoring white homeownership (and now more general wealthy homeownership) and systemic neglect against everyone else, we can still point to an obvious truth: public housing works.

During the brief period when there was popular support for public housing and federal intervention in general, the US government built thousands of units. Though some, like Pruitt-Igoe, became shorthand for crime and neglect, the larger truth is that many more continue to be wonderful homes. And the complexed that did fail, failed because the federal government let them fail due to systemic neglect and more racial discrimination.

NYCHA is by far the largest public housing authority in the country, housing nearly 400,000 people across thousands of units. It is a bigger city than Miami and Las Vegas. Despite a rapid retreat of federal funding and larger demographic shifts that decimated NYC in the 1960s and 1970s, NYCHA has endured. Even today, as it faces billions in capital budget gaps and millions more in potential cuts in Trump’s Budget, residents are happy with their communities and the agency. And only 13% of residents receive public assistance.

The idea that Public Housing is a wasteland where people want to get out of, or where they should be encouraged to get out of, has never been true. As Affordable Housing in New York shows repeatedly, even in the hardest times when crime was high and many facilities were in poor shape, these communities survived and in some cases thrived.

NYCHA residents should be proud of where they live. Employees of the agency, past and present, should be proud of the work they did and continue to do to keep it going when no one could or would help.

Public housing residents shouldn’t be pitied or demonized and they don’t need to be romanticized either. They are normal Americans who happen to be part of something bigger than any one person or one building. Their experiences represent just how much the republic can achieve if it follows its values and how many it can fail when it abandons them. We should be telling this story everywhere to everyone.

4. The #FutureOfPublicHousing Will Not Look like the Past

There were many flaws in the design and support of public housing in the US during the 20th century that caused many complexes to fail outright or fail for a period of time. Early generations of complexes were sterile and anti-social. Many of the funding sources were fleeting and easily diverted. Sociological assumptions in design were flawed and discriminatory.

No one is suggesting that we go back and do this over again. Throw out the idea that public housing means tall brick towers isolated from neighborhoods. Instead, we should articulate a new vision for the 21st century that reflects lessons learned from the past and a broader mission for the future.

Instead of building new residential towers on superblocks, repurpose older infrastructure and combine multi-use functionality within existing city and town fabrics.

Instead of designing uniform apartments or complexes with rigid specifications, allow for innovative construction techniques like pre-fab units, modern SROs or shared living arrangements that strive for different, locally desired outcomes.

Instead of subsidizing homeownership (especially for wealthy Americans), invest those resources in community land trusts and land banks to give local communities more agency and sustainability. Take the speculation out of (at least parts) of the housing market by tipping the scale towards affordability.

We should simplify yet broaden HUD’s mission based on housing as a right. Set its goals and budget around lowering the cost of shelter across the country in whatever forms that shelter is needed for local conditions. Make HUD about providing Public Housing whether it’s apartments or a single-family home.

The possibilities of future Public Housing are almost endless when you shed the vision of the past. Let’s start showing the country what the future could look like and how it could help everyone, whether you live in a city, a suburb, or the country.

5. #RebootTheUS Can Start With Public Housing

The polarization of our politics has increasingly bled into all corners of our public policy discussions, crippling our ability to address the challenges facing our rapidly changing nation and planet. The polarization of our economics, in the form of runaway income inequality, has also poisoned our broader civic life and national identity. We were in crisis long before President Trump and will remain so long after him unless we can do what America has always done best — reinvent itself.

As when the Gilded Age spawned the Progressive Era and the Great Depression spawned the New Deal, we must lay the seeds now for a great rebirth of national promise and purpose. We must embrace the core values and aspirations of our republic — freedom, justice, and the public interest — and shed the rot of late capitalist values of commodification, exploitation, and greed. In the digital age, no term better represents what I think we need than a great “reboot.”

And there’s no better place to start than with public housing. Committing again to a massive nation-wide effort to provide affordable housing in many forms not only addresses the moral urgency of our current situation, but it also addresses the economic urgency as well.

Public Housing is infrastructure. Its creation means jobs and economic activity on a scale unseen in decades. Its existence means more take-home income for millions of Americans who are rent burdened or underwater in their mortgages. Its location means more mobility for families and individuals in economically productive regions.

What other effort could so thoroughly demonstrate the power of a great national reboot to inject economic and civic purpose into a country that should never have to sacrifice either. We don’t need to abandon the experiment of national government to do so. We need to reinvigorate our civic intellect as well as our institutions. We start by showing how a focused federal effort in housing can promote our values, help our citizens, and share our prosperity.

None of these ideas are new or radical. They reflect an obvious truth about contemporary America: what we have now is not working. We are ultimately presented with two options. First, we can continue on with our late capitalistic doctrine that we are all consumers on our own or, second, we could revitalize our identity as citizens and recognize that we are in this together. One leads to a brutal, empty society. The other leads to something much stronger and fulfilling.