Maya Dukmasova recently published at Slate an interesting piece about the potential for current trends in affordable housing policy to tear apart the social capital of low-income people. She makes the Ostromian point that policymakers’ lack of understanding of the informal institutions that govern communities makes it likely that government housing policies are likely to have unintended consequences.
While Dukmasova aptly characterizes some of the problems with American anti-poverty programs to date, she gets some key history wrong. In particular, she writes:
Part of the liberal establishment’s failure to address this problem stems from its inability to embrace truly progressive understandings of poverty. Those advocating for solutions to poverty rarely speak about the way our economy and social infrastructures entrench it. Rather, much of liberals’ efforts have been crippled by unexamined and unchallenged beliefs that the spaces where poor people of color live are morally compromised, beliefs summed up by one well-intentioned but ultimately damaging term: concentrated poverty.
In fact, the programs that she criticizes directly grew out of progressive scholarship and politics. Nineteenth century progressives set their sights on demolishing tenements occupied by low-income, immigrant populations with the goal of relocating residents to suburban homes deemed healthier and better for the morals of their inhabitants. Jacob Riis’ influential work in How the Other Half Lives fueled a progressive movement to eradicate tenement housing, with activists motivated both by altruism toward the poor and by a fear of disease and cultural changes that immigrant-dominated neighborhoods brought. Riis became one of the first reformers demanding that “light and air” be a key consideration in new construction. While he used this phrase to campaign against unventilated tenements that actually did create unhealthy indoor conditions indoors, it ultimately provided the policy rationale for the the New York 1916 Zoning Resolution that would limit building height and massing to protect outdoor light and air, as if shade is a health concern. This ultimately has made the city unnecessarily expensive for the poor.
Eventually, the progressive vision of eliminating any housing deemed substandard by intellectual elites provided the ideological support for infamous slum clearance efforts in cities like New York, Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago. Slum clearance, funded with President Truman’s federal Title 1 dollars, displaced hundreds of thousands of low-income, largely minority Americans. While Truman’s rhetoric surrounding the Housing Act of 1949 framed it as a policy tool to increase the housing supply to serve low-income people, its funds were used to destroy more housing than they built. Title 1 became a slush fund that allowed local policymakers to eliminate the housing that offended them without concern for the consequences for the low-income people who were the stated beneficiaries of the program.
Some of the most notorious high-rise public housing projects, such as St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe and Los Angeles’ Nickerson Gardens, were constructed to house people of modest means, but who could afford higher rents than the residents of the tenements they replaced. This urban renewal resulted in displacing black residents to make way for the white residents who policymakers hoped would occupy central real estate. Only after the original tenants fled public housing due to the social problems caused by its poor design did it become inhabited by extremely-low-income, largely black residents.
As Robert Caro details in The Power Broker, one devastating consequence of the old-style progressive slum clearance in New York was the destruction of tight-knit communities in neighborhoods including the Bronx’s East Tremont, Manhattanville, and Sunset Park. Land grabs that forced residents of these neighborhoods out of their homes meant that they not only to find new housing as the city was bulldozing a large portion of its market-rate affordable units, but also scattered the community, removing residents from their social network.
While damaging the social ties of low-income communities was perhaps an unintended consequence of past housing policies, it’s become an explicit goal of today’s preferred policies that seek to achieve the “correct” mix of income diversification. The most recent trends in affordable housing are focused on inclusionary zoning, mixed-income developments, and housing vouchers that come with the requirement that low-income people move into higher-income neighborhoods. While these policies are no doubt crafted with the best of intentions, Dukmasova points out that despite the good intentions of a century’s worth of progressive reformers, American housing policy has failed to help the country’s least-advantaged citizens:
And yet, despite this federally funded bounty, the black ghetto persisted. In fact, life there got worse as the 20th century drew to a close. In 1987, sociologist William Julius Wilson published The Truly Disadvantaged, a seminal study in which he coined the term concentrated poverty to describe poor urban neighborhoods.
“Concentrated poverty”—which Wilson described as wreaking havoc among black Americans in the same ways as Moynihan’s “tangles of pathology”—quickly caught on with the liberal establishment, becoming the focus of poverty studies and policy initiatives in recent years.
Her policy prescription to improve living standards through a “truly progressive understanding of poverty” that respects the institutions that underlie social order in low-income communities fails to acknowledge that housing policy to date has been led by progressives under the ideas that government can improve social organization over what voluntary civil society achieves. Hopefully today’s progressive housing policies of encouraging lower-income people to purchase homes, housing vouchers that can only be used in middle-income neighborhoods, and inclusionary zoning will be less detrimental than slum clearance. However, as Dukmasova points out herself, these latest policies all seek to break up current low-income neighborhoods, thereby reducing the strength of residents’ support systems and potentially making life more difficult for beneficiaries.
The long, failed history of housing policies designed to engineer the lives of low-income provide ample reason to be skeptical of new policies designed to break up concentrated poverty, as Dukmasova demonstrates. Unconditional cash transfers provide an alternative. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget is nearly $50 billion per year. Devoting some portion of these resources to cash transfers that low-income households could spend either on improving their housing or on any other goods that would improve their lives provides an opportunity to break with the failed, paternalistic policies of the past. Unlike slum clearance, public housing, or housing vouchers that require recipients to move to a new neighborhood, cash transfers do not disrespect the autonomy and ability of people of all income levels to make decisions that benefit their own interest.