Monday, July 13, 2009

Public Housing, Racism and Class Power

Within mainstream white collective consciousness public housing is synonymous with a host of unsavory characteristics: crime, poverty, violence, lawlessness, squalor, dependency, ugly high-rise buildings, etc. The meaning of public housing is also deeply racialized, carrying with it a slew of ugly corollaries including but not limited to the image of the "welfare mother", etc.

In the United States from the 1937 Housing Act onwards, class-bias and racism have been literally inscribed into the laws, physical structures and institutions involved with implementing social housing. This was not inevitable.

Fashionable narratives privilege 'personal responsibility' and competitive individualism to the exclusion of human development, democratic responsibility, social solidarity. But taking the neoliberal line against social housing, which crudely condemns all social housing as such, fails to explain the specific, concrete problems with the implementation of public housing in the United States in the 20th century. Things most definitely could've been otherwise, and we should not allow the argument over public housing to be fought within the frame of either a) accepting the public housing status-quo or b) privatizing and destroying public housing across the board. It's not clear to me that our only choices are Cabrini-Green or no social housing at all.

As Jason Hackworth points out in his book The Neoliberal City (Cornell UP: 2007), public housing in the US "never reached the levels of provision in Western Europe and has always been sensitive to the needs of real estate capital". The first major piece of public housing legislation was the 1937 Housing Act, which ostensibly aimed to respond to serious scarcity problems in housing during the Great Depression. But due to "the successful lobbying of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Savings and Loan Association, the act was kept from being a central part of FDR's New Deal agenda". Moreover:
"Roosevelt was persuaded that public housing was "too socialist" a remedy to the existing scarcity of homes, and kept it out of the Administration's legislative agenda until the mid-1930s. After a bitter ideological debate in Congress, the act was finally passed in 1937, but not without significant concessions to the private sector. Among the most significant were requirements that public housing schemes include "equivalent demolition" of housing in the surrounding community (and compensation to the owner) so that no new units were added to the overall stock". [scary how most of this more or less deftly describes recent events in Washington regarding health care 'reform']
Of course, the reason for this was that property-owning classes and real estate capital did not want public housing to compete with them (a development which would have lowered rent prices and made housing more affordable all around). Yet the most compelling rationale for implementing public housing, according to the Keynesian line, is precisely to do just that: eliminate severe housing scarcity and thus force the market into competition with public institutions, which drops prices and combats slum-lording. But this path means lower profits for rentiers and property-owning classes, hence their opposition and hard-lobbying efforts to prevent this from coming to pass.

As Hackworth points out, most every major piece of public housing legislation in US history included features designed to prevent a serious public challenge to real-estate capital from ever coming to pass. The 1937 Housing Act, as I noted above, had written into it the stipulation that increasing the supply of total housing available was to be made illegal; public housing could only replace already existing housing stock. In effect, lowering prices and undercuting slum lording is proscribed from the onset. If this isn't an excerize of narrow class power I don't know what is.

After WWII with the passage of the 1949 Federal Housing Act, public housing was prohibited from competing with the private housing market through
"(a) rent ceilings that were set at a maximum of 20% lower than the lowest nearby private housing, (b) stigmatizing, austere physical aesthetics due to design limitation created to make public housing stand out from average housing stock; and (c) low operating budgets for the Public Housing Authorities charged with managing the facilities."
The private house construction lobby, Hackworth notes, emerged in the postwar era even stronger than they had been in the 30s and exerted considerable influence in the legislative process in late 40s. Rapid, haphazard suburbanization and the construction of a nation-wide interstate system (instead of, say, a modern network of high-speed rails) further reinforced this influence in subsequent years.

The trend continued with the 1974 Housing and Community Development Act, Section 8 of which began the privatizing onslaught characteristic of the neoliberal turn by "providing housing vouchers for tenants to redeem with participating private-sector landlords" and "providing incentives for private sector and nonprofit real estate developers to construct low-income housing".

The 1998 QHWR Act further consolidated this trend by enabling public housing authorities to turn over management to private managers.

Now, social housing does not have to be like this. As I argued earlier, the alternatives are not (a) have public housing on the model of the institutions set in motion by the 1937 Housing Act and its progeny or (b) private everything and simply have no social housing at all. To criticize (a) is not therefore tantamout to agreement in any shape or form with the race-baiting, conservative business-interests that so loathe the entire ethos of public amentities and collective institutions.

There is no reason, in principle, why social housing must be any of the following:

-aesthetically austere, unsightly high-rises (i.e. physically distinguishes itself from other housing stock in a negative way)
-haphazardly constructed and under-maintained
-plagued by crime and violence
-created in such a way as to maximally avoid competing with the for-profit housing market
-designed only an amenity aimed at providing for the very poor (rather than a more holistic undertaking aimed to wrest larger sectors of the housing market from profiteers).

One more thought -if history is any indication, creating social programs designed to only provide for the most vulnerable, poor or elderly Americans are the easiest to cut in times of crisis or Right-wing reaction. Or, put another way, they are the easiest to let die a slow death due to underfunding and neglect. Pissing off the cordoned-off residents of Cabrini-Green is a far less intimidating affair for government than pissing off real-estate capital. This is to say, it is difficult for already marginalized populations to generate the sort of pressure necessary to ensure that these programs are maintained and continue to function properly. Think of underfunded schools in poor neighborhoods.

But, alternatively, if we had social institutions in which all of society had a stake, the wealthy and powerful would not be so quick to right off them off. A good example here is public education in parts of Manhattan. I've read a dozen or more articles about well-off middle class families in Manhattan sending their children to public schools for the first time because of the recession. The result was widespread protest and outcry over structural problems that have plagued public schools in New York for decades. The only difference in this recent case is that a relatively well-off class of people with more voice were the ones complaining, so the New York Times, et al. took note.

Suddenly, there was a 'visible' outrage over a problem that has been around for many years. The moral is, when politically active and influential (i.e. relative to marginalized populations... obviously the middle classes are still far from being major holders of political power) classes are part of a shared social instituion, suddenly it's not so easy for lawmakers and the ultra-wealthy to shrug off the maintenance and development of those institutions.

PS: I can't recall at the moment, but I remember reading about some explicitly racist provisions of the 1946 Housing Act. Can anyone point me in the direction of where I might read about these provisions? Did they in effect give legal sanction to redlining?

1 comment:

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