Blog #66 –Just Housing? –Public Housing’s Past, Present, and Potential Future
In three parts: First, an argument about public housing and the concept of justice , suggesting that public housing is part of a whole housing system, private and public, shaped both by forces internal to it and external pressures from other parts of the system, justice being thus far a minor criterion for it operations.
Second, a history of public housing’s roles in the past, suggesting it ranged from being a chain of oppression, to being a pacifier of social protest, to be a pawn of special interests, to being a beacon of hope for a more just world;
Third, some policy implications of the analysis, divided between immediate efforts to address internal weaknesses to broader transformative efforts to address its social role in society, to possibilities for system-changing efforts –from an oppressive chain to a beacon of hope.__
The paper derives from a presentation on The Future of Public Housing,” part of a series on “Housing for All,” at the University of British Columbia. My keynote was entitled: “Just Housing? ” with a question mark, and both its title and the tile of the series, gave rie to ambiguities that already open the door to my main points and led directly to my agent.
HOUSING FOR ALL: put public housing isn’t housing for all, and shouldn’t be; it’s for those who need it and don’t have it.. It must necessarily be at the expense of those who have more than they need. Not for all.—except in the longest view. Will be conflict: goal is not consensus, but justice
JUST HOUSING? Is housing just, and is it just housing that decide? Can you have jus t housing if it is embedded in an unjust society??
First, then, the argument:
1. Public housing is part of a much larger system of housing, production, distribution, management, financing, and regulation, and is subject to both internal and external constraints that any discussion of the future of public housing must consider both internal and external, not just the internal, in any discussion of the future;
2. Justice should be a major criterion in any such consideration. Public housing is important not judge as a means of providing shelter for the poor, but as a way of handling a major social institution and shaping fundamental social relationships among all sections of society. Justice requires not just alleviating poverty but reducing inequality, affecting what goes on at the top of the social and economic scale as well as what goes on at the bottom.
3. Therefore, conflict is to be expected, and consensus is not a feasible ultimate goal, in any measures dealing with public housing . Ad they will not only be conflicts about details and methods, will involve a wide array of vested interests outside of housing – both internal issues and external pressures, and will be fundamentally political more than technical.
To be clear, what we’re talking about: what’s unique about public housing? Two things:
1. It’s outside of the market, at least as to the fixing of rents, but
a. Construction still generally private, so developer lobbies, ca be public, WPA First Houses
b. Land purchased privately so costs market dependent. can be eminent domain, high tax
c. Management public, can be outsourced, to a non-profit, e.g. tenant corporation, which could be elected, or CLT model
d. Ownership public, so no profit motive, although efficiency concerns because tax supported, but not just subsidized non-profit, call that social housing. Non-profit involvement is also important, but is not the final solution; it remains with its priorities privately set, not democratically publicly established.
2. It’s based on social need, family size, income, health, existing housing. Has had other: wartime production workers, needed for displaced by urban renewal or public projects.
So certain conclusions flow from these essential characteristics of public housing —-
1. Its purpose is cannot be just housing as shelter, but just housing, housing that serves goals of social justice.
2. That means it can’t just deal with housing; it has to look at impact on jobs, discrimination, status, security culture, education
3. And Justice in housing involves looking at full range of housing system, rich as well as poor, gated communities as well as ghettos.
4. It further means it will always be conflictual: justice involves distributional issues, which means there will be winners and losers.
5. It will always involve relations of power; issues of planning, construction, design, programming, will be important , but not decisive.
Second, the history: If we look at its history, internationally, the results on the ground of these characteristics of public housing have varied:
1. Sometimes public housing has been among the losers: as a set of chains binding its resident to their prescribed place within the status quo, akin to a ghetto or a prison, functioning as an instrument of oppression; (Baltimore, sometimes New York City.)
Increasingly today, concentrations of crime, police surveillance, stigmatization indicator, a controlled slum
2. Sometimes as a pacifier, to prevent the very worst problems of homelessness and shelter, it could be worse remember, be quiet and seek small improvements
Bismarck, the New Deal
3. Almost always as a pawn, serving multiple interests , developers, land owners, , in fill, economic development , aesthetics, slum clearance, votes, ideology (government good, governments bad)
4. But can be a threat to power also, because conjures up the image of what good housing can be, in a good society; it can be a beacon of hope and a spur to organized resistance, a radical utopia. In two ways:
a. As itself the basis for organization, a platform and site of action, a model community, a bubble utopia in practice. In day to day work. Or
(Vienna, The Bronx coops, Howard’s Garden Cities.)
b. As a model, an image of what a whole society might be organized to look like and provide, what the role of government should be. ideologically, theoretically: A beacon.
Utopian Communities, 60’s communes
With that history, what’s the future of public housing? How might its potential best be realized?
The answer, of course, is clear! What any economist will tell you:“ It Depends!” But on what? Well, on politics.
Not greater knowledge, better design, more sophisticated financing, more caring officials , better behaved applicants , fairer admissions or continued occupancy criteria – but, to put it plainly, on the distribution of power at the local and indeed higher levels of government and policy determination, on what politics in a democracy ought to be.
But, in today’s world, on who already has the power, already are the key actors: tax sensitive politicians, ideological politicians , developers, financiers up to hedge funds, private landlords, real estate agents/boards, employers, –and how others might be brought in as significant players, neighborhood merchants, ethnic groups , LGBT, residents, those in need of housing. On the ability to organize the politically unorganized and underrepresented..
Third, the Policy implications For the Future of Public Housing
A, Immediate policy implications.
1. Improvements possible. Knowledge, research, technical competence useful
• fair eviction proceedings,
• More efficient personal security, housing authority special police.
• better and more responsive management,
• Adequate funding for maintenance and repairs,
• Empowerment of residents and residents’ councils, for their knowledge, and support and pressure capabilities, to make actual policies bottom up.
• Hiring practices, including training of residents
• Provision of ancillary facilities and spaces for activities: health clinics, pre-school, recreation, meetings.
2. Some tough policy issues, needing research and thought, as in conferences like this
• Based on need, or good tenancy record, or family record?
• Mixed, set aside units for higher, (part from raising funding): for interaction? But less for very poor?
• Hire tenants, but social problems, less competence.
• Is inclusionary zoning for private housing a good idea as an alternate? With public housing management?
• Coalition building: with whom? middle class? Developers?
• B. Radical transformative possibilities. Defined as:
• Recognize conflict, willing to fight, not convince for consensus
• Talk about justice, inequality at the top, not just poverty at the bottom.
• Open a vista of even more, face up to the realities of capitalism and its weaknesses.
C. Systemic changes:
Fund public housing adequately. Fund distributionally, tax the rich, profits.
Decommodify land, and housing (up to mid-level?)
Empower residents of public housing, perhaps C.L.T. model, with legal authority.
A right to housing, globally recognized.
1. Public housing is part of a system, both a system of providing hosusing an a system of social and economic relations in the society as a whole: both an internal and an eternal system
2. Justice should be a major criterion for a public housing system and not just at the bottom, not just the alleviation of poverty, but also at the top, the reduction of inequality. They are inter-related, and both are needed.
3. There for conflict is to be expected, and power will be involved, and not only more knowledge and technical competence is needed, but also political organizing and democratic involvement.
4. Public housing can be an instrument , a chain, of oppression, a pacifier of social resistance, a pawn for special interests, or a beacon pointing to just housing in a just society.
Everything need not be done at once; not a revolution, but transformatively towards social justice beyond housing,
Public housing is today a pawn in the hands of often conflicting but powerful groups in our society
But there are also movements to turn it instead into a beacon exposing injustice and pointing the way to better
a future for public housing worth fighting for, well within public housing’s dna:
Public housing as a beacon illuminating the possibilities of a just society, not a pacifier, not a pawn in power plays.
And at all costs not a stick to beat the poor.
The motto might be: break the stick, discard the pacifier, capture the pawn, relight the beacon!
If you believe all that, , better gird your loins for the battles that are surely ahead, and I suspect better started in many places already . Indeed, under way from the beginning of public housing’s history.
But it’s a battle worth waging.