Opinion: It's Time to Destigmatize ‘Public Housing’

Upzoning efforts, while hugely controversial, often make only a small impact on housing supply, particularly in the short term. Could a return to government-built housing be the solution?

2 minute read

May 25, 2023, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Brick high-rise apartment buildings in New York City

Contrary to the image embedded in the popular imagination, public housing doesn't have to mean isolated, high-rise towers and income-segregated communities. | SeanPavonePhoto / New York City apartment buildings

Around the country, cities are struggling to stop a growing housing crisis through developer incentives and rezoning efforts that encourage more housing production. But Daniel Denvir and Yonah Freemark write that “the typical effects of upzoning are rather modest, especially in the short term.” Writing in Slate, Denvir and Freemark argue that perhaps policymakers should look to “an obvious but long-taboo solution: building new public housing.”

The concept of public housing gained a notorious reputation reputation in many U.S. cities thanks to misguided (or outright discriminatory) policies and underresourced projects that failed to meet the needs of their residents. But this is starting to change, according to the authors.

Generally thought of as only for the very poor, government-funded and publicly owned housing—sometimes called social housing—would guarantee affordable housing for people across income ranges by adding to the national housing supply and offering new opportunities for vibrant, mixed-income neighborhoods.

The authors point to proposals that create a new model for public housing that differs from past models in key ways. “First, it would largely be funded at the state and local level. Second, the housing is intended not just for the very poor, but rather for a wide swath of residents, which could compliment public subsidy to finance more construction.”

One U.S. example exists in Montgomery County, Maryland, where “the Housing Opportunities Commission quietly initiated a program to build mixed-income public housing that uses a cross-subsidy financing system: the market rents paid by more affluent tenants to subsidize affordable units in the same building.” And subsidizing public housing is one of the best uses of government funds, the authors claim. “By generating jobs in construction, public housing development acts as a countercyclical stimulus measure, boosting employment in a critical sector with significant multiplier effects across the entire economy.”

Monday, May 22, 2023 in Slate

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