Last week I wrote a post highlighting how important it is for major cities to have places for low-income people to live. Without the opportunity to live in vibrant, growing cities, our nation’s poor can’t take advantage of the employment and educational opportunities cities offer. My post offended some people who don’t think that reforming quality standards is a necessary part of affordable housing policy. On Twitter @ said that my suggestion that people should have the option to live in housing lacking basic amenities is “horribly conservative.”
Multiple people said that my account of tenement housing was “ahistorical.” They didn’t elaborate on what they meant, but they seemed to think I was suggesting that tenements were pleasant places to live, or that people today would live in Victorian apartments if such homes were legalized. On the contrary, I argue that in their time, tenements provided a stepping stone for poor immigrants to improve their lives, and that stepping stone housing should be legal today.
Historical trends provide evidence that people born into New York’s worst housing moved onto better jobs and housing over time. The Lower East Side tenements were first home to predominantly German and Irish immigrants, and later Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The waves of ethnicities that dominated these apartments indicate that the earlier immigrants were able to move out of this lowest rung of housing.
The Tenement Museum provides multiple oral histories of people who were born into their apartment building and went on to live middle-class lives. In The Power Broker, Robert Caro provides an account of one community that had moved out of the Lower East Side to better housing in the Bronx:
The people of East Tremont did not have much. Refugees or the children of refugees from the little shtetles in the Pale of Settlement and from the ghettos of Eastern Europe, the Jews who at the turn of the century had fled the pogroms and the wrath of the Tsars, they had first settled in America on the Lower East Side. The Lower East Side had become a place to which they were tied by family and friends and language and religion and a sense of belonging — but from whose damp and squalid tenements they had ached to escape, if not for their own sake then for the sake of their children, whose every cough brought dread to parents who knew all too well why the streets in which they lived were called “lung blocks.”
This anecdote provides color to the demographic trends of upward mobility in pre-New Deal New York City. The East Tremont community demonstrates the ability of low-income people to improve their families’ plights in less than a generation. Not only had the people of East Tremont saved up to leave the tenements, but according to Moses’ account, all of the families in the community were saving to send their children to college, indicating further economic mobility for the children who were born in New York’s worst housing.
Evaluating low-income residents’ lives in the tenements requires not comparing their lifestyles to their middle-income contemporaries’, but rather to their own alternatives. No one’s first choice is to raise their children in an area known as the “lung blocks” because of a high rate of tuberculosis. But the people who inhabited these blocks were fleeing famine, revolution, and violent anti-semitism. While neither famine nor a tenement is ideal, the people who chose tenements did what they thought was best for themselves and their family given what they knew about housing conditions in America from their countrymen who traveled before them.
In response to my last post, some people suggested that government housing support is a better option than cheap, privately-provided housing. But government housing has a long, broad, and universal history of decrepit living conditions, poor safety, and negative economic mobility. Indeed, a welfare state large enough to provide housing support to millions of immigrants would have drastically increased voter-opposition to the United States’ relatively open doors. Between 1840 and 1930, the United States accepted over 400,000 immigrants per year. If native-born American’s tax dollars were going to support housing for these immigrants, the reality is that far fewer would have been allowed to enter the country. Instead, they may have had to face circumstances far worse than New York tenements in Europe.
As I wrote in my original post, allowing low-quality housing in today’s world won’t bring back the tenements of old. Since 1871, real per capita income has increased by an order of magnitude, and low-quality housing today will reflect that change. But even if given the choice, a Syrian family might choose to move to a ’20’s-style tenement over their current situation–if such a choice were legal.
Those advocating greater government support for housing seemingly embrace ahistorical accounts of previous and current public involvement in housing. Rather than leading to better housing for the poor, the most common outcome has been the elimination of residences deemed inadequate by politically influential people. In 1934 in an early slum clearance project, one of the dreaded “lung blocks” was demolished to make way for Knickerbocker Village, public housing for middle-income workers. The rental rate was more than twice that of a typical tenement, leaving the displaced tenement residents to search for housing they could afford as reformers razed it.
Charlie Gardner explains this process at the Old Urbanist:
It might not be going to far to say that the traumatic process of urban renewal instigated an involuntary filtering, as residents of the poorest areas were literally displaced — cast out of condemned homes — and forced to seek new housing from among a diminished housing stock. These people probably did move into somewhat higher-quality housing, but at higher cost and possibly in more crowded conditions as well.
Early public housing projects in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles were constructed for predominantly white, working- or middle-class tenants. Not until the 1960s did some of the earliest public housing become accessible to truly low-income people. At the same time, cities shifted toward building housing designed for its lowest-income residents. The role of government-provided housing in creating generational poverty is well-known. Unlike the children born into tenements, people living in public housing today tend not to improve their economic circumstances throughout their lifetimes or across generations.
Inclusionary zoning avoids the problems of concentrated poverty; however, it will never put a substantial dent in the need for housing that is accessible to the truly low-income. Furthermore, it exacerbates affordability problems for those who don’t win the IZ lottery. Today’s tenant-based Section 8 vouchers are a step in the right direction away from the horrors of slum clearance, government-built housing, and privately-built Section 8 projects. However, the $40 billion that the federal government spends annually on housing still leaves a decades-long waiting list in many cities. Simply allowing private property owners to lease smaller and lower-quality units would let vouchers go further and provide options that are better than homelessness for those who don’t receive vouchers.
Regarding my post last week,
It’s very hard to have thoughtful conversations about this kind of stuff without offending people’s sensibilities. https://t.co/v24VABvfPy
— Kim-Mai Cutler (@kimmaicutler) March 21, 2016
She’s certainly right. As a result, American housing policy limits affronts to middle class sensibilities, but it doesn’t provide housing that people can afford. Legalizing cheap housing is a key part of the economic mobility and affordable housing puzzles.