Friday, February 12, 2010

Public Housing

Several days ago, the Several days ago, the New York Times reported on the New York Housing Authority's plan to tear down the Prospect Plaza public housing project in Brooklyn. According to the paper, the project will be replaced by "public and private housing, not only for the poor but also for low- and moderate-income families ... in low-rise buildings."

The interesting angle here is not the demolition itself. As the story notes, "[s]ince the 1990s, public housing high-rise buildings have come tumbling down by the dozens across the country"; "Philadelphia tore down 21. Chicago leveled 79. Baltimore took down 21 as well, and when 6 of them came down in one day in 1995, it threw a parade."

No, the interesting part here is the rarity of such events in New York. "New York City has long been the great exception." This will be the first New York demolition of a an entire  public housing project. According to the Times, to date, the New York Housing Authority has only knocked down a handful of high-rises.

My view of public housing is largely shaped by my knowledge of Chicago's public housing. I find it difficult to imagine the circumstances in which state-owned, -constructed and -operated housing stock is a good response to homelessness and poverty or an efficient utilization of realty. I have the instinct to dismiss New York's refusal to abandon public high-rises as another peculiar political desire --- one as misplaced as New York's refusal to finally do away with rent control (and rent-stabilization in the idiosyncratic New York nomenclature). But I haven't researched the issue enough to know whether I'm missing something here. Am I?

Avi Bell

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All I can contribute is some general thoughts based on having been a resident of NYC for 13 years. I never got the sense when I was in NY that there were housing projects that were utter failures like those in some other American cities. So even if most of the projects are not ideal, but at least functional, then there would be less of a focus on demolishing them. As far as rent control and rent stabilization, they persist because NY renters do not understand economics, and therefore consistently undercut attempts to end rent stabilization even though it would likely help renters overall to kill it off.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Feb 15, 2010 10:47:39 AM

I know next to nothing about NYC public housing, but I have served on the Board of Commissioners for the Athens, Ga., Housing Authority for the past 4 years. Since I began that service, I've developed an academic interest in public housing -- I've published one book chapter, and have another paper in draft form that I've presented, dealing with public housing.

Overall, I think our public housing program has produced significant benefits for many poor families, but has also had major problems and failings (is this not true for just about all federal social/economic programs?). Many public housing communities are well run, and provide housing assistance at a lower cost than other federal low income housing programs, such as the Section 8 housing voucher program (now called "housing choice voucher program) or the federal LIHTC (low income housing tax credit) program.

Avi suggests that public housing ought to be discontinued across the board (but he does indicate uncertainty and an interest in exploring the issue further). Perhaps his larger point could be that the government ought not to provide directly any goods or services that the private sector is capable of providing. Subsidies possibly are appropriate, but only through government subsidization of private providers (e.g., Medicare is provided through private-sector health care providers, like Section 8 housing and LIHTC housing). Consider public education and modify Avi's comment as follows - "I find it difficult to imagine the circumstances in which state-owned, -constructed and -operated schools are a good response to educating the population or an efficient utilization of realty." My opinion: Public education is acceptable to most Americans, whereas public housing is not, because they have different social and political histories - not because they are functionally or economically different.

Posted by: Jim Smith | Feb 16, 2010 6:25:05 PM

I recommend Nicholas Bloom's recent book, "Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century" published in 2009 by U Penn Press. (Info at: His nuanced argument is that management of public housing in NY was far better than documented histories elsewhere.

(Discliamer: Prof. Bloom talked to me about his book at a recent conference, and I have only skimmed it and not read it yet so I really can only point people to it. It is getting many good reviews.)

Posted by: Kurt Paulsen | Feb 17, 2010 8:17:50 AM

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