A new generation of activists seeks to revive an old urban policy, despite its troubled history.
For a new generation of urban progressives, sky-high rents in New York, San Francisco, and other prosperous cities have inspired a fresh embrace of an old and seemingly discredited idea: public housing. Last week, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota put forth legislation calling for 9.5 million new public-housing units, at a cost of $800 billion over 10 years. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, has proposed repealing a federal law limiting the construction of new public-housing projects. The group Data for Progress has called for a “massive new commitment to publicly owned homes.” Advocates have not been discouraged by the fact that violence and neglect led to the demolition of previous generations of public housing. Nor by the rats, leaks, mold, and lead paint that have now brought the New York City Housing Authority, by far the nation’s largest operator of public housing, under the oversight of a federal monitor. Stoked by the Democratic Socialists of America, the Los Angeles Tenants Union, and other groups, a PHIMBY movement—“public housing in my backyard”—has emerged as an alternative to both anti-development NIMBY groups and the YIMBY groups that support new market-rate homes.
In an interview earlier this year with Los Angeles Magazine, a co-founder of the tenants’ union, Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, harked back to Catherine Bauer, the New Deal–era official who was the original intellectual leader of U.S. public housing. “The private market cannot provide adequate housing for poor and working people,” Rosenthal quoted Bauer as saying, adding that “the situation is permanent.” Skeptical of the private market, advocates such as Rosenthal show an abiding faith in the government’s ability to successfully plan, build, own, and operate housing on a grand scale.
Both the historical record and recent news suggest that this faith is misplaced. Here’s what the federally appointed monitor, Bart Schwartz, had to say earlier this year about just one of the New York public-housing properties that his team observed: “Our investigators on a routine and unannounced visit to the Polo Grounds houses discovered a large pipe cascading putrid liquid into the laundry room from the ceiling. A lone worker was trying to stem the tide with a mop. When questioned, he advised that this problem had existed for approximately two months unabated.”
To hear PHIMBY-ites talk, it’s almost as if public housing has never been tried in the United States. But it has been, mostly to disastrous effect. And the time is right, before a public-housing boomlet gains any further traction, to make clear that American public housing hasn’t just been poorly executed; it’s an idea with inherent conceptual and practical flaws. Those who suffer the most are those it’s intended to help: low-income tenants.
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