Historian argues American public housing had successes

In a new book, a historian looks at the positive potential of American public housing:

“The story of American public housing is one of quiet successes drowned out by loud failures,” writes Ed Goetz, a professor at the University of Minnesota, in his book New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice and Public Housing Policy

But as Maddie Garrett’s experience shows, and as Goetz details in his book, public housing had—and still has—a lot of potential. It’s just that seemingly no one—not politicians, not Congress, not home builders—wants it to succeed…

In some small cities, though, public housing has worked and continues to work. That includes Austin, the site of one of the first public-housing complexes in the nation, which still stands today. The Housing Authority of the City of Austin has been recognized as a “High Performer” by HUD for 15 years in a row, and, rather than depending on the federal government for help, it has embarked on a few entrepreneurial programs to raise money…

By and large, smaller agencies across the country have been more successful at providing good public housing for residents than giant city agencies have, Goetz says. The example of Austin and other cities such as Cambridge, Massachusetts; Portland, Oregon; and St. Paul, Minnesota; indicate that public housing didn’t have to fail. And perhaps with some tweaking—dividing big public-housing authorities into smaller, regional ones, or spending more money on housing for the poor in good neighborhoods—it doesn’t have to fail in the future, either.

Much of the article summarizes some of the history of American public housing which has had vociferous opponents throughout its existence. Given this opposition – involving charges of socialism, becoming intertwined with race, criticism of poor architectural choices, to corrupt management – maybe we should be surprised that there were any successes at all.

But, the finding that smaller agencies did better might provide insights into how to limit this opposition. The scale of public housing in these cities was likely smaller. The political stakes were probably lower. These smaller cities may not have had the same legacies of residential segregation. The local governments may have been able to maintain stronger control over the public housing instead of it being lost within the big city bureaucracy. Smaller cities have smaller media contingents that can’t quite bring the same negative attention to troubled public housing choices in the same way that big city media can.

Whether lessons from this can be productively used in the future remains to be seen. Public housing still doesn’t seem to have much of a chance in major cities.

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