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John Petro

Demolishing Our Public Housing: Not so fast!

Atlanta, like many other US cities, is demolishing its public housing. The projects have come to be associated with crime and hopeless poverty. It was a mistake, many critics say, to have the federal government build housing for low-income individuals. In Saturday's New York Times:

"We've realized that concentrating families in poverty is very destructive," said Renée L. Glover, the executive director of the Atlanta Housing Authority. "It's destructive to the families, the neighborhoods and the city."

The new trend is to invite private developers to create mixed-income housing on the sites of newly demolished public housing. The federal government, through its HOPE VI program, has provided $391 million in grant money between 1996 and 2003 for the demolition of public housing projects.

The federal government has gotten out of the public housing business and has shifted its focus to providing Housing Choice Vouchers to low-income households. Instead of building housing, HUD pays the difference between what low-income households can afford to pay in rent, about 40 percent of the household income, and the market rate.

The shift from physical housing to vouchers is intended to disperse concentrations of poverty and to give participating households some choice in the location and type of housing they live in. The shift also represents an ideological shift, one that distrusts government and believes that the market can provide housing for all (with a little bit of subsidy).

However, the federal government has not been living up to its obligations. If you are a low-income household that wishes to participate in the Housing Choice Voucher program in Atlanta, you must have a lot of patience. According to HUD:

Since the demand for housing assistance often exceeds the limited resources available to HUD and the local housing agencies, long waiting periods are common. In fact, a PHA may close its waiting list when it has more families on the list than can be assisted in the near future.

Atlanta does indeed have a waiting list. That list was closed in 2001. As of 2007, there were still 22,000 names on it.

New York City also has a waiting list for housing vouchers. Luckily, the city also still has a viable public housing system. My colleague Harry Moroz and I argue in a recent DMI paper:

The perception of public housing in the American imagination is not a flattering one. Most Americans would describe public housing projects as dirty and crime ridden. The flaws of public housing rest mainly in design--public housing tends to be physically, economically, and psychologically separated from the surrounding city--and in chronic underfunding.

However, as other cities have demolished their housing projects, in New York City public housing still plays a vital role in the city's housing market. Over 400,000 people live in city-owned housing projects, a population roughly equal to that of Oakland, California. Without public housing as an option, many of these families and individuals would have nowhere else to go. Public housing can be successful and should once again be considered to support the housing needs of low-income households in our metropolitan regions.

We need to remember that public housing, if done correctly, does not have to be a dirty word. Public housing projects are permanently affordable (at least when they're not being sold to private developers), they reach a segment of the population that is historically very difficult to provide housing for, and they provide opportunities for more housing development when it is needed. The mayor's New Housing Marketplace Plan has built 1,000 affordable units on land owned by the Housing Authority with 2,000 more in the "pre-development stage."

Public housing has to be done right. It needs good transit connections to job centers. Public housing projects need to be physically and socially integrated with the neighborhood and the city as a whole. Done correctly, public housing can serve a vital purpose: the housing of the very poorest of our neighbors.

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Posted at 10:29 AM, Jun 22, 2009 in Urban Affairs
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