Rethinking Public Housing

Lance Freeman's picture
Does the New York City Housing Authority's (NYCHA) decision to tear down Prospect Plaza, a high rise development in Brownsville Brooklyn, portend the demise of public housing in New York City as we know it? Probably not.  The Prospect Plaza case appears to be an isolated case in New York City at least.  But it is a truism that the New York City Housing Authority remains a anomaly.  Public housing in many cities has been demolished and in other places is considered a failure.  The fact that NYCHA is generally viewed as a success is illustrative of the fact that public housing can be successful.  At the national level, however, public housing has been a political failure in the sense that new public housing is not being built, units are being torn down in many cities, and the program is chronically underfunded.

The culprit is not the public housing program.  There is nothing inherent in the public housing program that deems it a failure. Look no further than the American political culture.  It is a culture not hospitable to redistribution programs that target the poor or minorities. 

But there is a way for public housing to continue serving its "public" function and be viewed in a more esteemed light.  Public Housing was initially able to achieve political support in the 1930s because it was billed as a jobs program during a time when joblessness was one of America's most pressing problems.  Why not use public housing to address some of the bigger challenges facing America today? Global warming and the fallout from the housing bust are two of the most pressing problems.  We need to experiment with new types of green housing if we hope to curtail our energy consumption.  Prototypes of housing that experiment with new technologies could be part of the Public Housing program. 

The foreclosure crisis is another area where bold and experimental thinking is in order.  Currently, the foreclosure crisis is proving intractable with millions of homes underwater and banks still reluctant to redo mortgages.  Might not there be an opportunity for the federal government to step in, particularly in neighborhoods where demand is weak, and acquire foreclosed properties and convert them into affordable housing?

More important than any specific proposal that I may have, is the need to rethink the role of public housing in our society.  Rather than being a program of last resort, public housing should be a model for how we might house ourselves including the most vulnerable among us.

Lance Freeman is an associate professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University.



Michael Lewyn's picture


What does "success" or "failure" mean in the context of public housing anyhow? What makes NYC more "successful"?

Elderly Housing

The best place to start with the issue of public housing is elderly residences. The abilities associated within this demographic are a microcosm of our entire society. Some seniors function more optimally than some 30 year olds, while others have obvious difficulties. If we can build housing that is of an optimal quality and standard for this group it can serve as a physical and social model for how we should build for the rest of society, including other sectors of the economic disadvantaged.

Not sure how I feel about this comment...

"We need to experiment with new types of green housing if we hope to curtail our energy consumption. Prototypes of housing that experiment with new technologies could be part of the Public Housing program."

I envision a lot of experimentation resulting in substandard housing as early as 10-15 years from now. Weren't the original tower blocks a great experiment in building techniques. Unfortunately poor concrete construction techniques and unanticipated maintenance needs resulted from that experiment.

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