America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake
The Failure of American Housing Policy
(October 2003 / Urban Affairs, Housing Policy)
by Howard Husock
For more than seven decades, American government has acted to provide housing for the poor. In America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake, Howard Husock explains how, as with so many anti-poverty efforts, low-income housing programs have harmed those they were meant to help while causing grave collateral damage to cities and their citizens. Public housing projects, Mr. Husock writes, are only the best-known housing policy mistakes. His book explains how a long list of lesser-known efforts—including housing vouchers, community development corporations, the low-income housing tax credit, and the Community Reinvestment Act—are just as pernicious, working in concert to undermine sound neighborhoods and perpetuate a dependent underclass. He exposes the false premises underlying publicly subsidized housing, above all the belief that the private housing market inevitably fails the poor. Exploring the link between private housing markets and individual self-improvement, he shows how new and expensive public efforts are merely old wine in new bottles. Instead he argues for the deep but unappreciated importance to American society of economically diverse urban neighborhoods, and he demonstrates the historic and continuing importance of privately built “affordable” housing, from the brownstones of Brooklyn to the bungalows of Oakland and, in the present day, houses built through Habitat for Humanity. Bearing witness in the tradition of Jane Jacobs, Mr. Husock describes and laments the deadening effects of public and subsidized housing on the economies and vitality of American cities.
Howard Husock is director of public policy case studies at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is a contributing editor of City Journal, the magazine of urban affairs published by the Manhattan Institute, from which the essays in this book are drawn. Mr. Husock lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
CRITICAL ACCLAIM FOR AMERICA’S TRILLION-DOLLAR HOUSING MISTAKE
“We sometimes forget, so routine has it become, that the federal government injects billions of dollars of subsidies, vouchers and loans into the housing market each year, mostly through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In ‘America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake,’ the bulk of which appeared in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, Howard Husock shows again and again how the interventionist impulse has made things worse instead of better. Federal programs, although trying to bring the bottom rung of the housing ladder within reach of the poor, have in fact managed to break it off entirely—often leaving the poor stranded. According to Mr. Husock, American housing policy is based on three myths: that the private market can’t provide, that the cost of housing can be lowered by taking profit-seeking landlords out of the picture and that the social problems of the poor are caused by their environment. He demolished these myths one after another, citing examples from Brooklyn’s brownstones to San Diego’s single-occupancy hotels. In recent years, even conservatives have bought into the idea that the classic mistake of public housing, concentrating the poor in projects, can be undone by mixing them in with the middle class, often by means of so-called Section 8 vouchers. But this is even more destructive than the old way, Mr. Husock argues. It undermines the incentives for ‘strivers’—those who scrimp and save to get as far away from the projects as possible. ‘I can understand white flight,’ says an African-American Illinois state trooper beset by new neighbors on housing vouchers. ‘I'd like to fly too, but I can’t...I’ve got to stay and fight.’ Mr. Husock’s battle plan is to export the policy of Charlotte, N.C., to the rest of the country. Adopting a key provision of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, Charlotte has placed time limits on public housing and begun to move residents toward self-sufficiency.”
—R.H. SAGER, Wall Street Journal
“This brief book is a gem. Howard Husock provides us with an incisive and devastating analysis of a failed social experiment—the use of massive amounts of public funds to provide better housing for the poor. However benign the intentions of housing reformers, he demonstrates, the costly programs they created did more harm than good. A must-read for anyone interested in public policy issues today.”
—STEPHAN THERNSTROM, Winthrop Professor of History, Harvard University
“Howard Husock has been delighting his many sympathetic readers with well-deserved criticism of the Federal government’s counter-productive housing programs. With his provocative critiques now collected in a single book, maybe this time Congress will finally listen.”
—RON UTT, Senior Research Fellow, Heritage Foundation
“Howard Husock’s is a provocative but wise and convincing book. He denounces not only public housing programs that have led to blight and social decay, but also fashionable yet ill-considered ‘market’ subsidy approaches—such as housing vouchers. He makes a convincing case that all these well-meaning subsidies actually hurt those they are intended to help by entrenching destructive dependency and threatening stable neighborhoods. He is right to urge policymakers to adopt a very different direction for housing policy, one based on the lessons of welfare reform, Habitat for Humanity and other approaches intended to foster self-improvement and spur the production of low-cost, unsubsidized housing.”
—STUART BUTLER, Heritage Foundation