Friday, January 22, 2010

Home Sweet Home?

Third in a series about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I believe that public housing is a contributor to racism and institutionalized poverty in America. What began as an ambitious project to provide more humane shelter for tenement dwellers has been perverted into a program for repressing a class of disenfranchised people and perpetuating the myth that certain people groups cannot make it on their own without the government providing that linchpin of all needs: shelter.

It started after World War II, in America's biggest cities: a massive construction boom that reshaped urban areas and accelerated racial segregation. It contributed significantly to the creation of what has become a seemingly permanent underclass of citizens. Although recently, many public housing residents have been moved out of "the projects", they're still beholden to taxpayers for Section 8 housing vouchers that pretty much preserve the status quo.

I wonder if Dr. King were to revisit America today, wouldn't he be shocked at the racism perpetrated by the liberal social bureaucracy - seen predominantly in the travesty that has become public housing - that claims to be the advocate for the poor?

Public Housing Isn't Equal

Let me clarify what I mean by public housing. As I see it, public housing could typically be described as housing that either does not make the owners any profit or housing that is made available below market rates. Not all public housing is slum housing. Some below-market-rate housing has been designed to provide a protected housing stock for working people of middle-income status who simply wouldn’t be able to afford market rate housing.

For an example, after World War II in New York City, corporate and city leaders alike recognized the need that moderate-income professionals like teachers and nurses had for homes close to their city jobs. To keep these professionals, massive apartment complexes were constructed and rents stringently indexed as a safeguard against exorbitant housing costs. Successful examples of such projects are Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town along Manhattan’s East 14th Street. They were built and owned by Met Life, which enjoyed special tax incentives on the properties.

Of course, real estate executives fumed about this protected housing stock for decades. Some argue that if they were so sorely needed, these workers' salaries would have risen accordingly, and their income would keep up with rising rents. However, New York is relatively unique, being home to a significant number of extraordinarily highly-paid people who skew the real estate market upward.

Interestingly enough, Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town and another similar complex in Brooklyn, Starrett City, have been sold to commercial developers with the intention of transitioning apartments into market-rate rentals. So, New York's experiment with middle-income "public housing" may not last too much longer. *(see update below)

"Real" Public Housing

When I talk of "public housing" in the general sense, I'm not referring to the Stuyvesant Towns and Starrett Cities that have been relatively successful, and certainly don't contribute to institutionalized poverty. The public housing I’m talking about is housing for the poor that has been constructed by and managed by local governments with money from states and the Federal government. It extends in theory today to Section 8 housing vouchers for subsidized housing within the private sector, one of the sneaky little secrets government agencies have devised to hide the dispersal of public housing residents outside of the projects.

Post-war public housing was originally meant to be a temporary shelter for people transitioning between jobs or economic crises. Instead, it quickly became the permanent home of what became an entire sub-class of Americans which was disproportionately black, disproportionately chronically unemployed, and disproportionately uneducated.

Modern Architecture's Dark Side

While the middle class soldiers from World War II came home and went to the brand-new suburbs, the poor soldiers came home and holed up in squalid tenements, which were already old and hadn’t been built well to begin with. They were fire traps, ridden with vermin, and completely unacceptable in the brave new post-industrial, post-war society that was reshaping virtually every aspect of American life. The big idea? By providing the urban impoverished better living conditions, those people would have a better environment in which to get their feet on the ground and begin the transition upward into private housing.

One of the architects – literally – of America’s solution for housing the poor was Robert Moses, who is either credited or vilified for destroying many historic neighborhoods in New York City and replacing them with ugly, modern towers. Into these towers Moses stuffed the unfortunates who were being evicted from the old tenements that were being torn down. Other tenants included blacks moving north from the racist cauldron of the south; while New York wasn’t exactly a haven of equality, there were jobs and opportunities blacks couldn’t find below the Mason-Dixon line. The fact that New York had one of the most liberal social welfare programs in the country didn’t hurt, either, since most of the blacks leaving the south had been so disenfranchised they came north with nothing but hope.

Architecture’s “Modern” movement reveled in the opportunity to project their mass-housing theories onto the American cityscape. Celebrated modernists like Le Corbusier had already achieved notoriety for their then-groundbreaking designs for low-income Europeans. Using exposed steel and concrete, suffocating population densities, minimal infrastructure amenities, and assuming ridiculous levels of cooperation among future tenants, the new breed of urban designers built complete vertical towns with everything except a sense of place and community.

No thought was given to the peripheral problems and maladjustments inherent among many people who would become permanent residents, the casualties - or lazy bums, depending on your viewpoint - of institutionalized poverty. Blind corners became mugging hotspots, remote stairwells became havens for sexual abuse. Shoddy construction by corrupt contractors soon revealed itself in maintenance nightmares. Nobody expected public housing to be Beverly Hills, but by the time mayor Jane Byrne moved to Chicago's infamous Cabrini-Green as a publicity stunt in the 1981, people were wondering how much better these projects were than the turn-of-the-century tenements they replaced.

For those unfortunate few who landed in public housing and realized they needed to work extra hard to get out of it, their tenure in these monuments to bureaucratic narcissism proved blissfully short. For the people who landed in public housing and stayed, they became part of the new under-class of American citizens who weren’t being marginalized necessarily because of their skin color, but because of their income status.

There was also a case of bad timing. By the 1950's, manufacturing began to slump in New York City, and by the 1960’s, factories were in full retreat to the suburbs or to the south. Blacks who had moved to the urban north and found themselves in public housing assumed that they would work their way out soon enough, but the economic tide was turning against them, and in effect, many got beached in their high-rise housing projects as manufacturing jobs left the cities.

Liberals and Their Nanny State

While at the beginning of the urban renewal movement, public housing was considered temporary housing, as time went on, the new bureaucratic class of social scientists completely forgot why public housing existed. With a hubris characteristic of the nanny-state mindset popular at all the best colleges after World War II, social scientists came to justify their existence by the social strictures they concocted to subjugate the urban poor. Some may have done it unintentionally and with the purest of motives, but these social scientists actually stopped assisting in the transition of public housing residents into the workforce and private housing. Instead, it became a given that this poverty-stricken underclass was here to stay, and the urban culture needed to change to accommodate this new group.

The fact that most of these unfortunates were black played into the hands of politicians looking for a solid political base and bureaucrats who wanted to implement their social engineering theories on a captive audience. It didn’t take the Democratic party long to realize that they had a solid voting block right there in public housing. If the poor blacks were made to think they were being oppressed by a white majority, Democrats could build a political empire with white Republicans as the villains and symbols of authority – including the police – as their lackeys.

Public Housing Isn't a Prison

Racist folk tend to simplify the plight of blacks living in public housing with the assumption that they have no sense of personal responsibility. While that may be the case for some, I have explained above that it's likely other people have hit the bureaucratic brick wall so many times they're now cowed into conformity with the process of the projects. For others, being disenfranchised for whatever reason for so long can make it difficult to object when somebody tells you that because of your skin color, the projects is where you belong.

However, while today's public housing residents are overwhelmingly minority, that doesn't mean blacks - and now Hispanics - don't have the opportunities to take advantage of social programs that do work: programs for education, job placement, and more. Many former residents of the projects realized their fate was in their own hands, and they stepped out and into the workforce. They got jobs that paid enough for rent in a private building. They moved into neighborhoods where their kids could go to safe schools and get good educations. I'm not just spouting self-improvement platitudes; I'm simply describing the reality that people can beat the projects.

Same Problem With a Different Look

Today, public housing across the country can generally be described as one big idea that has proven to be a failure. Chicago has torn down its infamous Cabrini-Green, while here in Dallas and Fort Worth, several major projects have been bulldozed and residents sequestered in sprawling apartment complexes and duplexes with less density.

But whether it’s form is the aging, brick towers of the Bronx or the new, suburbanesque townhouse villages of west Dallas, the main problem of public housing remains: it is not seen as temporary assistance between one private housing arrangement and another. Entire generations are born, raised, and then have their own kids either in the same apartment, or within the public housing structure. This is part of institutionalized poverty. There exists a pervasive assumption that public housing provides a permanent home for people, and this mindset can neuter ambition.

Of course, there are broader societal issues which contribute to poverty and racism, and public housing itself can still be a better last resort than homelessness. The reason I’m discussing public housing in this fashion is because having a home is a basic component of life in America. The government and your employer want to know your address. If your kids go to public school, that school is dictated by your address. Your home is the place where you find shelter even if no other place offers it. Your home gives you the privacy to be yourself, to raise your family, and to give you a certain sense of identity and belonging.

The Slippery Slope

If public housing is where you do all of this, and we all know the poor quality of life inherent in public housing, then what is the best your family can expect in terms of its safety, security, and social opportunity? If you're not paying the costs of of your home, how much incentive do you have to maintain it? If, for some reason, you’re satisfied with your shelter in public housing, then why pay market rates to rent something else? What is the extent to which society has a responsibility to house those who have not, do not, or appear unwilling to obtain the qualifications necessary to contribute to society? At what point does public housing contribute to the lack of initiative, the dearth of economic development, and increased crime within society? The more one capitulates to the least common denominator, and the more other people join you, the worse our society becomes.

This is not just a racial issue. This is an issue about the basic level of respect people have for one another and for the society of which they're a part. Not just whites looking down on public housing residents, but public housing residents refusing to use what tools are available to them to try an extricate themselves out of someplace they know they don't want to be.

There are many reasons for poverty. Jesus Christ advises His followers that "the poor will always be with you". However, living in poverty doesn't mean abdicating responsibility. To the extent some people have come to expect that the public will always provide them a home, institutionalized poverty will continue to cripple a significant sub-group of our society and contribute to the perpetuation of racial profiling that continues to divide us.

I'll talk more about this next week...!

* Update:
The Stuyvesant Town deal has already ended in default - on Monday, January 25, the borrowers returned Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town back to their creditors after the value of the project sank. For details, please click here. -1/26/09

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