Innate Problems With Public Housing

It's easy to agree that society needs affordable housing for the more economically disadvantaged, but there is a shaky assumption underlying public housing programs.  People see homeless and poor on the streets, and many assume that that means there must be a shortage of affordable housing. Public statisticians calculate the percentage of affordable units and compare it to the poverty percentages in America, concluding there is a shortage of affordable housing. But these individuals ignore that which is more difficult to measure – resourceful methods the poor use to keep a roof over their head. What they really mean, more precisely stated, is that there is a shortage of measurable units that meet their exact parameters of what constitutes “affordable housing.” These people presume to know what the minimum housing “standards” ought to be for the poor, but there are many problems created by building these kinds of communities rather than allowing communities to precipitate from the resourcefulness of the poor. Further, the need for publicly built affordable housing is just as dubious as the notion that there is a shortage in the first place.

Some hypotheticals:

I'm an unemployed engineer at the moment. I'm trying to minimize rent. What do I do? My wife and I rent a room in an apartment and share this apartment with others, or rent a basement in an owner-occupied house. Let's say I'm the out of work provider for a family of four. I need to minimize rent. What do I do? I run a divider down the middle of a large studio and split it with another friendly poor family. I'm an unemployed father with a son. What do I do? We bunk military-style in a two bedroom apartment with ten other guys. Families cook in shifts. There are boarding houses, SROs, the YMCA, and many other possible arrangements.

This is how the poor house themselves. There are indeed homeless people, patrons of the missions and other charitable organizations. But these individuals are not eligible for public housing anyway.

 

One of the chief problems with public housing is its “standard” of a certain portion of space for each individual or family. This destroys the economic basis for healthy poor communities. Community businesses require higher densities of smaller portions of income in order to have enough purchasing power in the area to pay rent and continue to stay open. Public housing, including Section 8 with its dictated standards, spreads this purchasing power out over more and more space, emptying storefronts as local businesses close up shop. These businesses can't execute as many small sales with fewer customers in immediate proximity.

Another problem with public housing is that it separates residents' decisions from their circumstances and makes them feel powerless to change their situation. This sounds overly psychological, but it should not be discounted. Consider the pride of ownership, of personal accomplishment in having provided yourself with something out of your own sweat and tears. Disassociating actions from reactions and costs from benefits robs residents of the opportunity for personal responsibility and of the perception that they have the power to change their situation. It removes some of the incentives for action, being that there is an income ceiling for eligibility and the income threshold to afford a similarly sized apartment in the private market is significantly higher.

A further problem with public housing is its well deserved poor reputation. This problem may be insurmountable.  People do not want to live near public housing units – so much so, in fact, that land values drop and nearby residents flee. Nobody wants to buy the market rate units the CHA is building so they are being sold at auction. Thanks to these compounding effects its difficult to see how residents are better off than if they occupied less space in a neighborhood where their presence is not announced and is more naturally dispersed.

I had former roommates who work at the Jimmy Johns at 35th/State. They personally attested to terribly shoddy construction, including plumbing and electrical problems, and things generally falling apart and not holding up to normal use. The CHA is trying to spread their funds out over more and more units (even as private developers apply for subsidies for including low income housing, and these often amount to nearly a million dollars a unit), and so construction quality is sacrificed. The bottom line is these are not buildings that are built to last. Nobody will want to buy them at market rates, and from auction prices they are likely to be rented to section 8 residents, pushing the poverty concentrations up again and creating some of the same problems as before.

 

It may in fact be inevitable for crime to follow public housing. Some of the problems mentioned earlier contribute to this, such as powerlessness due to responsibility disassociation, and lack of economic opportunity in the area caused in part by sparse local purchasing power. Top down planning also causes this with failure to address the street (creating exclusive culture) and with excessive value engineering. The drug war, however, breaks the public housing concept completely by clearly placing an opportunity in front of residents whose artificially decreased area-purchasing-power has left them no other options.

What makes this so sad, however, is that the public has seen vast quantities of housing in better functioning communities destroyed and replaced with fewer housing units in communities that don't function at all and only lead to death and destruction. Communities which would naturally house the poor are emptied out and demolished while the poor are concentrated in locations that would eventually cycle around to naturally command high rent location premiums but have instead been demolished, replaced wholesale, and saddled with the iron shackles of destructive public housing. Eminent domain has run rampant, public money has been wasted and stolen from taxpayers.. and the result (the most important part)? – self-righteous planners have traded dirty alleys and packed apartments for murdered six-year-old boys and raped 11-year-old girls.  Public housing advocates compassionately campaign for the poor, but in truth the most compassionate action would be to end public housing programs entirely.

Today, the 'Plan for Transformation' is already failing, and has already spent more money per unit than ever before while again decreasing the quantity of housing for the poor. Public housing is a failure, and the most tragic fact is that it was never needed in the first place.  Chicago ought to stop building it before it adds to the murder rate and plunges communities like Bronzeville, which is just struggling to get out from under its long shadow and recover, back in to the abyss.

An effective affordable housing program would read as follows:

  1. End the drug war
  2. Stop demolishing old buildings

That's all.

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    C M Snyder

    IIT produced engineer with the ambition to develop property in Chicago and help return some of the Chicago sense of place to areas of the city that are losing it. Investors and engineers solve problems for a living, so I offer my strong opinions on what these are and how they might be solved.

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