David Simon’s recent HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero” has drawn attention to the history of one of the most misunderstood parts of American urban life: public housing. Many observers across the political spectrum believe that public housing in the United States has been a failure. Liberals think it concentrates poverty and epitomizes top-down, bland urban planning. Conservatives have always seen public housing as it was described in 1991 by Jack Kemp, then secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): as a “relic” that is “one of the world’s last socialistic schemes.” But these are views from people who don’t live in public housing, and they fail to capture its diverse reality. Researchers have consistently shown that the vast majority of the more than 2 million people who actually live in publicly owned rental housing don’t see it as a failure. And far from a relic, dependable and affordable public housing is more important now than ever; if you work full time for the minimum wage in America, the number of states where you can afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment on the private market is exactly zero. Yet as scholars such as Lawrence Vale and Edward Goetz have shown, ever since public housing was created, there have been efforts to delegitimize it. This has resulted in an oppressive stigma felt by some residents. And it has prevented a serious discussion of the real challenges public housing faces, while blocking any acknowledgment of its contribution to urban life. Let’s look at some of the major myths that stand in the way.
1. Public housing residents want to escape it.
For many critics, it’s an article of faith that public housing is something from which everyone wants to flee. Public housing is routinely described as a “last resort,” a place from which people must try to “escape.” The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal claimed that New York City Housing Authority buildings had become “crime-ridden wastelands, since no New Yorker with an option to live somewhere else wants to live with a dysfunctional underclass.”
From the nearly universally negative coverage of public housing, you’d never know that far more people are trying to get into it than leave it. Nearly all of the nation’s more than 3,000 public housing authorities have waiting lists. New York City’s public housing has a 1 percent vacancy rate and more than 270,000 families waiting for a spot. Surveys consistently show that most residents of public housing developments (many reject the word “project” as stigmatizing) are satisfied overall with their homes, even as they demand solutions to pressing problems with maintenance and management. Ethnographic research has shown that public housing residents tend to develop important networks of solidarity and mutual aid that they want to maintain, not abandon.
Yet the story that the best way to help public housing residents is to destroy their neighborhoods and force them to move, presumably to more economically mixed areas — what housing scholar David Imbroscio calls “the dispersal consensus” — has become the dominant narrative for many politicians, developers and academics. A host of federal housing policies aimed at deconcentrating poor households have been based on this premise, especially the HOPE VI program, which since 1992 has pushed to replace public housing complexes with private ones. But as the Right to the City Alliance, a network of housing activists, puts it, “The problems with public housing are due to lack of resources and services in low-income communities, rather than simply the concentration of low-income people.”
Most residents do not want to “escape” from public housing or see it demolished. It is their home, and they want to see it strengthened, improved and expanded.
2. Public housing is crumbling.
The received wisdom is that public housing buildings are falling apart or are what one real estate writer described as “symbols of danger, social dysfunction and blight.” A recent book laments that coverage of public housing largely consists of “endless portraits of derelict towers, rampant criminality, and unchecked disorder.”
The image of public housing dereliction is, at best, a too-sweeping generalization. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “problem” developments, like the now-demolished Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis or Cabrini-Green in Chicago, are by far the exception, not the rule. Most public housing is in decent shape: More than 85 percent of units meet or exceed federal standards, and more than 40 percent of developments are considered to be in excellent order. Public housing is usually in better condition than comparable private housing in similar neighborhoods.
This isn’t to say that there are no problems. In some developments, stalled elevators, mold, broken plumbing and other maintenance issues are pervasive. Faulty lighting played a tragic role in the 2014 fatal shooting of Akai Gurley by a police officer in the Louis H. Pink Houses in Brooklyn. But these problems are a result of policy choices, which are obscured by stigmatizing language that blames tenants. Public housing has suffered major cuts in funding, and this disinvestment is reflected in the condition of many developments. HUD estimates that public housing stock nationally has $26 billion in unmet capital needs. New York City’s alone has lost more than $2 billion in capital and operating funds since 2001. Across the country, there are plenty of buildings that have serious repair needs. But this condition isn’t universal, and it isn’t inherent to public housing. It’s because local and national governments have been slashing budgets for decades.
3. Public housing assists the wrong people.
Public housing has long been denounced as a dwelling place for people who don’t deserve it. In the 1950s, it was a target of anti-communist witch hunts. Recently, some news organizations have been making a big deal about millionaires living there at taxpayers’ expense. Others have cast public housing developments as “warehouses for the poor” or as home to people who are essentially different from other Americans. In June, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) introduced a measure that would “make sure” undocumented immigrants are blocked from public housing developments. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) wondered whether HUD-sponsored programs such as public housing are “simply helping to create a permanent underclass.”
The reality is that public housing is home to many different communities of lower-income households. According to HUD, the average income of public housing residents is a bit more than $14,000 per year. More than 50 percent have annual household incomes between $5,000 and $15,000. But they are not monolithically poor: Fewer than a third receive welfare benefits. Most tenants pay 30 percent of their income in rent. And according to reports, fewer than 30,000 of the millions of people living in public housing are ineligible noncitizens.
Public housing isn’t a scam for the well-off to receive free homes. Nor are its residents an alien group. Rather, it is a crucial resource for working families, the elderly, the disabled and others whom the market does not — and will not — serve. And it protects economic and social diversity in many places, especially in expensive, fast-gentrifying cities such as New York, San Francisco and Washington.
4. High-rise public housing is unlivable.
When he was HUD secretary, Henry Cisneros remarked, “The history is clear that the high-rises just don’t work, and we have to replace them.” He may have had in mind “Defensible Space,” a 1972 study by the architect Oscar Newman that strongly influenced policy at HUD and other public housing agencies. Newman argued, “It is the apartment tower itself which is the real and final villain.” The New York Times simplified this to “High Rise = High Crime.”
But the notion that public housing is unlivable because it takes the form of high-rise towers is doubly false.
First of all, a relatively small number of public housing developments are high-rise buildings. Even in 1994, when the number of units was at its peak, only 27 percent of public housing buildings were high rises, and that number has decreased since. In comparison, 32 percent were garden apartments in 1994, 16 percent were walk-ups and 25 percent were single-family homes. These buildings were constructed in a variety of architectural styles, from art deco to brutalism to neo-traditionalism.
Besides, high-rises exhibit huge diversity. Around the world, millions of people, rich and poor, live in high-rise buildings. If towers were inherently unlivable, presumably wealthy condo-dwellers who have plenty of other options wouldn’t be buying into them throughout New York, Chicago and other highly vertical cities. As researchers Fritz Umbach and Alexander Gerould point out, there have been some times and places when public housing has had a crime rate that is higher than that of private housing, and other times and places when it has had a lower rate. Scholars have also questioned Newman’s methodology and the spatial determinism upon which his study was based.
5. Public housing is a top-down imposition by government bureaucrats.
The idea that public housing represents inefficient bureaucracy run amok is widespread. Howard Husock writes in Forbes, “As with early utopian promises of public housing projects, bureaucratic ideas of how Americans should live . . . tend to go awry.” The New York Post thinks it’s time to “break up this behemoth government monopoly.” And even some supporters of public housing portray it as an expression of technocratic reform disconnected from popular politics.
Once again, this is a crude simplification. It’s true that some of the shortcomings of mid-century public housing can be traced to heavy-handed planners (though many of their mistakes stemmed from making compromises with private developers, rather than from resisting them). And it is true that, like many large public and private organizations, public housing authorities can be frustrating bureaucracies.
But the history of American housing activism shows that public housing was not only a creation of bureaucrats. It was demanded by generations of activists, from Yiddish-speaking rent strikers on the Lower East Side of New York in the early 20th century to the Black Panther Party, which included government-supported housing in its 10-point program. And as historian Rhonda Williams and others have shown, public housing provides an avenue for political participation and activism, often with women of color taking the lead. The residential public sector that exists today is not a top-down imposition. It’s a result of struggles between activists and the powerful institutions that have sought to shape it for their own ends.