The Urban Housing Crisis: Time To Rebuild Public Housing


On January 19th the New York Times ran a story that probably caused a certain class of readers to do a double-take. It turns out that a year has gone by without there being a single shooting in the Queensbridge Houses. As for a homicide it’s been almost two years. The famous, or long derided as ‘infamous’, 96 building Queensbridge Houses are the largest public housing project in North America. The houses are famous for having a legitimate claim to being the birthplace of hip-hop, though of course the South Bronx also has its claim to that throne, and infamous for being an area that many went out their way to avoid. Queensbridge native Nas may have opened his legendary Illmatic album with references to MAC-10s and stick-up kids but such things have become much less prominent in the years since. Thanks not only to security improvements but also to local community efforts, including one local group named 696 Queensbridge, crime continues to decline. Lest it be said that safety only comes from militarized tedium the past year featured only 11 recorded stop-and-frisks. 2015 had 15- this in contrast to the insane 2365 stops in 2003.

Overlooked in the media coverage of the milestone was the very issue of public housing. Namely after decades of being vilified as irredeemable cesspools, public housing in New York is fulfilling its original mandate of providing affordable housing in the midst of a housing crisis. Ever since Jane Jacobs published her seminal study The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 cementing public housing, and its shabby Corbusier design, as isolating and destructive, popular opinion has written it off. The modernist age is said to have ended on live television when the city of St Louis dynamited the largely abandoned Pruitt-Igoe complex in 1972. If that event was a death of sorts the carcass continued to rot in some places for a while longer. Starting in the late 1990s Chicago would tear down the decrepit Robert Taylor, Stateway Gardens, and Cabrini-Green Houses. The Chicago Housing Authority had become corrupt enough to be taken over by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Atlanta ‘redeveloped’ what was the Techwood Houses, the first public housing project in the country, into Centennial Place in time for the Olympics in 1996. Less than 7 percent of the original inhabitants were able to find themselves in the newer mixed income development.

By no means is this just a crass American trend. Glasgow tore down the Red Buildings in August 2015, once the tallest residential structures in Europe (the initial target for this clearance was the 2014 Commonwealth Games). If it’s taken as a given by most urban planners that height doesn’t do the poor much good, when it comes to the wealthy one finds vast tomes as to its virtues for things like population density, smart growth, and green buildings- a point well made by Stephen Graham in his brilliant book Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers. Vancouver has packed its central core with homogenous glass towers of luxury. Social housing has been diminishing London since Margaret Thatcher yanked the financing while promoting the ‘right to buy’ program. In London hundreds of towers of twenty plus stories are in the works. Most of the tallest buildings in New York’s skyline are now skinny luxury towers designed by big name architects. Like in Vancouver and London New York’s towers of Eden feature pools, heated bathroom floors, private restaurants, bars, and parking garages. It basically amounts to urbanity without actual urban life or at best a part-time suburban wood-paneled version of it for the global elite. Much of Vancouver’s pricey real estate is brought up by wealthy Asian investors. In 2013, 85 percent of all housing purchases in inner London were brought by non-UK investors- meanwhile 50,000 low income people were pushed out of inner London from 2012 to 2015.

For an additional layer of perversity sold off towers in London like Trellick and Balfron Towers are found on stylized images plastering stuff like crockery, tea towers, and mugs around local designer shops. New York has the Lower East Side and Brooklyn to be branded and marketed to hipsters as authentic street grit.

One would have to search for a bit in the midst of all this is discover that according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities more than 85 percent of the public housing units left in the U.S. meet or surpass federal standards. In New York the public housing system features a 1 percent vacancy rate and a waiting list of over 250,000. Residents total more than 400,000. Of course the system, under the control of The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), is not without its share of problems. It has long had to do more with less. Due to cuts of state and federal funding NYCHA has lost more than $2 billion in capital and operating funds since 2001 and faces annual operating deficits of tens of millions of dollars, along with a requisite maintenance backlog. The city has been flirting with various privatization schemes including selling public space with public complexes to private developers. However it can be said that the city has overall kept its commitment to its public housing and NYCHA management compares favorably to agencies in other American cities.

There are cities with better examples. About 60 percent of Vienna’s population lives in some form of subsidized housing. Vienna’s Municipal Department owns more than a quarter of the city’s total housing stock, a legacy that goes back to the Red Vienna days (1924-1933) of social democratic rule. Other subsidized housing is run by nonprofits. Architectural brilliance isn’t a casualty due to the city promoting developer competitions based not only on design and economics but also ecological impact. Singapore houses 80 percent of its residents in housing built by its Housing Development Board. A majority people living in the housing own their homes, often a result of a low interest government loans.

The obvious lesson is that well managed, well-funded public housing can not only be effective in being affordable but can also provide stable, safe, well designed long-term housing. With homelessness spiraling in gentrified cities like New York, San Francisco, and DC it’s time for a reevaluation in the U.S. In New York the hundreds of empty city owned apartments are a good place to start. With Ben Carson now running the show at HUD, for the short-term at least, this is a project for cities and states. In a way this may be all the better. Many American cities with accelerating homelessness are the ones which pride themselves on their progressive politics. Perhaps it is time this was truly reapplied to housing.

Joseph Grosso a writer and librarian in New York


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