Term Paper: Beyond the Box While at Least

Pages: 13 (3487 words)  ·  Style: Chicago  ·  Bibliography Sources: 2  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: Urban Studies  ·  Buy This Paper

¶ … Beyond the Box

While at least a great deal of the motivation behind public housing in the United States has probably been good, the results have often fallen very short of good, or even adequate. Stalinesque is one of the more accurate terms that could be applied to far too much of the public housing that has been built in the United States, especially since the middle of the last century, when much of the push for public housing came about. In no small part because of the many problems that plagued so many public housing projects from the very beginning, government support for public housing has waned over the decades. This paper examines some of the possible paths forward that might be taken for supporters of public housing, public housing that genuinely meets the needs of the entire community in which it resides.

The history of public housing in the United States is a series of missteps. Examining them in brief suggests how the future of public housing might be brighter both for the residents of the housing and for the entire community. The fact that public housing has an effect beyond the residents of the projects is something that has not been sufficiently considered in general in the history of public housing, a point that shall be elaborated below.

The need for an entire new chapter to be written for public housing in the United States can be summarized by the following paragraph, describing just two incidents that occurred in one public housing "warehouse" in Chicago:

In 1992, a Cabrini resident hiding in a vacant 10th-floor apartment shot and killed 7-year-old Dantrell Davis as he walked to school holding his mother's hand. Five years later, a 9-year-old girl known as Girl X was found raped, choked, poisoned and left in a stairwell with gang graffiti scribbled on her body. (Hawkins, 2010)

These events were particularly awful. But from the 1970s on, terrible things were happening on a regular basis to the residents of public housing projects across the United States. It would take decades of degraded lives and scorched hope for public officials and community activists to begin to make headway on what a more humane version of public housing might look like.

History of Public Housing

The history of public housing in America (which parallels the history of public housing in most Western nations) has very modest beginnings. At the end of the 19th century, local and federal governments began to develop and enforce building standards. While such building standards applied to all structures, effectively they were only important for the poor. The wealthy had the means and power to ensure that their houses were well-constructed.

The poor, on the other hand, needed the power of the government to help them have access to housing that was minimally safe. The fact that public housing begins with a consideration of safety is certainly appropriate: Safety is the essential first step. However, for the most part, public housing in the United States never moved beyond this point, never pushed past the point when safety was not simply the first but in fact the only criterion for housing for the poor and therefore generally widely stigmatized.

The first major push for substantial public investment and oversight for housing for the poor came about in the 1930s as a response to the dire conditions of the Great Depression. New agencies -- at first, the Public Works Administration and then the U.S. Housing Authority -- oversaw public housing projects. The stated purpose of such agencies was to provide housing for urban residents who could not afford to find shelter on their own (public housing in the United States has always been concentrated in the inner city with no roots whatsoever being put down in rural areas). However, the real purpose of the agencies, at least as far as they carried out their mission, was more focused on clearing out slums. (This overview of the history of public housing is taken from Jackson's [1987] description of the suburbanization of American society and the effect that these centrifugal exodus has had on a range of aspects of urban life.)

New housing was sometimes built in previous slums, but sometimes the land was converted to other purposes, such as middle-class housing. The directive to clear out the slums was generally not so much an attempt to provide a space in an urban neighborhood that could be rebuilt in a place they would allow for housing for poor people to live in safety with some additional resources set aside to allow for a certain grace.

Rather, those residents who lived on the borders of public housing projects were highly critical of the effect of such housing on their own property values and the more intangible qualities of their neighborhoods that they valued and that they felt were being destroyed by living next to poor people. Not that such complaints were usually expressed so openly, but this was the clear and repeated subtext at least: Poor people make poor neighbors. What allowed some of the largest housing projects to endure through the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century was that they were located in areas of cities that were not adjacent to residential neighborhoods of middle-class families.

In many ways, the housing projects that endured (generally in large cities such as New York and Chicago, and Los Angeles to a lesser extent) can be seen as being analogous to the land that was given to Native Americans to serve as their reservations. The land set aside for reservations was the land that no one else wanted for any other purpose; the land that was set aside for public housing and that endured as public housing was land that simply had no value for anyone else.

Public housing has also seen rapid deterioration in almost every state as a result of several other political dynamics. The first of these is that the power of the urban poor has been declining for decades. Of course, being poor, the power of the residents of public housing was always proportionately less than that of wealthier residents. However, residents of poor urban neighborhoods (including but not limited to residents of public housing) had more political power when there were more of them: Numbers matter in a democracy, even if they (all too probably) matter less than money. As more and more urban poor have left the cities, moving to distant suburbs that offer safer housing and better schools, even if these are accompanied by killer commutes and fewer economic opportunities, their power has waned.

Another an even more important political dynamic that has lead to the deterioration of public housing over the past several decades is the growing conservatism that has defined American domestic policy for much of this time. President Reagan's demonizing of welfare mothers that he accused of (or at least characterized as) driving Cadillacs while cheating the honest working American was one of the most dramatic but hardly the only powerful demonstrations of the ways in which the federal government has during Republican (and even during Democratic) administrations turned away from helping poorer Americans.

Public housing projects have, moreover, been continuously subject to the depredations of state and local governments. While most funding for public housing has come from the federal government, the administration of this funding and all of the significant decisions about public housing (including where projects should be located, the number of units in each project, etc.) are under that control of local officials. These officials are highly susceptible from pressure by local residents who in typical NIMBY fashion do not want public housing in their neighborhoods. Their objections are generally focused on the kind of high-rise, very dense housing that is seen as the stereotype of public housing. Indeed, a great deal of public housing projects in the United States do conform to this design, although there are always been low-rise public housing projects as well.

But even when the housing projects that have drawn disapproval from other residents have been low-rise and relatively less ugly than the worst of the high-rise monstrosities, the push to tear them down has tended to preclude sufficient new units being built to replace housing that is bulldozed:

Although the program has enabled city governments to clear up poorly utilized lands and spur new public housing development, critics have charged that HOPE VI has paved the way for rapid demolition without building new units. As of 2003, HUD had approved about 135,000 units for demolition. This far surpasses the original goal proposed by the Commission, leading critics to charge that HOPE VI and other development initiatives offer municipalities an easy way to tear down low-income units without adequately replacing them. (Venkatesh & Celimli, 2004)

The HOPE VI program is one of the possible future faces of public housing. This program along with other similar programs that have shown some promise in recent years… [END OF PREVIEW]

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