Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Positives of Public Housing

In Sunday's Post, LSE sociology professor David Madden explored five myths about public housing. Here are the five myths and how they relate to DC:

1. Public housing residents want to escape it. Madden points out that nearly all the public housing authorities in the nation have waiting lists, so people actively seek to live in public housing. In April 2013, more than 70,000 people were on DC's waiting list. As Madden writes, "if you work full time for 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." So, public housing provides essential housing for many people, including those working full-time minimum wage jobs.

This is also the case in DC. In a previous post, I checked Craigslist about the available rentals for low-wage workers. If you are a full-time fast-food cook in Ward 6, you could afford to spend $491/month on rent, 30% of your monthly income. (I admit that I don't understand the tax situation with an income like that, so I am just going with the income given). What can you get for $491/month? I looked through Craigslist and found no apartments in that range, so I turned to renting rooms. Here is what I found in the first 100 listed:
    $435 / 150ft² - You Can't Beat This Deal - (Congress Heights)
    $425 Master bedroom w/private bath - (Stafford - Rte. 610)
    $495 room in nice single family home for rent - (Bowie/Glenn Dale/Washington, DC)
            If you have one or two kids, it would likely be impossible for you to rent one of these rooms. Also, several of these rooms would be very far from your job as a fast-food cook in Ward 6. Public housing provides housing that low-income workers can afford. 

            2. Public housing is crumbling. Madden writes, "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." As I discussed previously, some cities like DC had a deliberate policy of abandoning certain public housing projects in the 1980s and early 1990s to save money in an era of reduced city budgets. As Madden argues, the deterioration of some public housing projects is the "result of policy choices, which are obscured by stigmatizing language that blames tenants."

            3. Public housing assists the wrong people. You can read his comments on this.

            4. High-rise public housing is unlivable. Many people around the world live in high-rise buildings. When people think of public housing, they generally think of high-rise buildings, such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis or Cabrini-Green in Chicago. However, as Madden writes, "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." From my research, I found that the DC public housing authority always sought to build low-rise buildings. Due to government pressures to reduce costs and the lack of available land (some neighborhoods refused to allow public housing to be built, especially west of the Rock Creek Park), the DC public housing authority did build some high-rise projects, where they sought to house the elderly and disabled, rather than families. 

            5. Public housing is a top-down imposition by government bureaucrats. Madden argues that public housing is the result "of struggles between activists and the powerful institutions that have sought to shape it for their own ends." I would also point out that public housing has always been an integral element of the housing industry. The DC public housing authority hired private firms to demolish existing buildings, private architects to design public housing, private construction firms to build it, and private companies to make repairs and landscape sites.  Private architects, developers, and construction companies could seamlessly move from the construction of private buildings and public housing in the expanding urban renewal areas across the country. Public housing construction was financed with bonds bought from Wall Street firms. Public housing was not privately owned, but it always functioned within networks of private businesses.

            Madden wants us to think about the contribution of public housing to urban life. Madden states that public housing "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." How does public housing contribute to DC urban life in other ways?