Precarious Homes: The Fall of Public Housing & The Future Mistakes of Affordable Housing

Housing remains one of the most burdensome forms of expenses for families across the nation. In today’s rapidly rebounding economy, it seems quite reasonable that in the wake of the Great Recession, affordable housing stands as one solution to aid in era of costly rental markets. Yet, our predisposition with affordable housing may come at the expense of other housing assistance programs that have existed long before its popularity.

Public housing has served in this tradition. Serving as a temporary housing option for veterans returning home from World War II, public housing has a long tradition within urban housing policy. As veterans left these dwellings taking full advantage of the GI bill and new single-family home construction in the suburbs, many of the nation’s poor formed new communities in the old edifices of the urban landscape. Today, public housing serves as a mirage of racial conflict, institutional racism, economic inequality and social dislocation. In another frame, it serves as a exemplary form of social bonding, community trusts, cultural reclamation, and resiliency. It has housed what some believe to be the ‘problem poor’ or ‘underclass’ while others see these communities as the effects of structural disenfranchisement and community adaptation.

The landscape of urban areas has changed with the demolition of public housing in the wake of poverty deconcentration policies. This push has altered the terrain of major urban areas including Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. And while other forms of housing assistance programs have replaced much of it in the form of housing vouchers and scattered-site properties, the ‘projects’ as we know it are few and far between. In today’s housing area, affordable housing seems to be the new push. Rental units with fixed income limits may help preserve housing through the core and central neighborhoods of cities and allow low-income people to enter into exclusionary suburban communities. However, has our attention to affordable housing largely shifted our focus away from public housing?

If we are to learn anything about the future of affordable housing, it is necessary to understand the historical development of public housing. Revisiting the discriminatory planning techniques of concentrating poor people in urban areas through the use of public housing gives us great insights into how suburban communities zone out affordable housing developments. The integration of minority communities after the demolition of public housing into other neighborhoods provides lessons for relocating individuals away from their social networks and communal outlets. Even the political feasibility of switching largely from public housing to housing vouchers yields tools for increasing public sentiment and political response through public-private partnerships versus solely government-operated enterprises.

The future of affordable housing requires more than just income-based developments in expensive housing markets. It forces academics, advocates and policymakers to create a portfolio of housing options in the form of public housing, voucher-based assistance, affordable housing developments, mixed-income communities, housing-oriented social service programs as well as private development. Realizing the failures of the past can bring new insight into the possibilities of the future. In this case, there is much that can be learned from the stigmatization of public housing that can further the legacy of affordable housing.

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