Housing for tenants, housing for landlords?

Who is housing for? The expiration of the national rent moratorium highlights competing interests in American housing:

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The eviction wave is expected to hit population centers across the country. Housing advocates point to renters in Ohio, Texas and parts of the Southeast — where tenant protections are generally low, housing costs are high and economic problems from the pandemic linger — as particularly at risk. Even though it has its own ban in place through August, New York is also a concern, because it has been especially slow at distributing rental assistance funds to the hundreds of thousands of tenants in the state who are behind on their rent.

The last-minute gridlock between President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress that resulted in the demise of the eviction ban this week threatens to impose new economic burdens on state and local governments. The officials will have to respond to mass evictions triggered by landlords — including many struggling financially themselves because of lost revenue — who are poised to kick out tenants who fell behind on their bills during the pandemic. The renter safety net is severely weakened, with fewer than a dozen state eviction bans in place and state and local governments having disbursed only a fraction of the $46.5 billion in rental assistance that Congress authorized over the past year.

About 7.4 million adult tenants reported they were behind on rent in the latest U.S. Census Bureau survey, which was taken during the last week of June and the first week of July. About 3.6 million tenant households said they were “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to face eviction over the next two months.

The lapse of the eviction ban, which was first imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September as a Covid-19 safety measure, comes after landlords warned that it cost them billions of dollars each month. Industry groups including the National Association of Realtors lobbied against extending the moratorium this week and made the case to lawmakers that it “unfairly shifts economic hardships to the backs of housing providers who have jeopardized their own financial futures to provide essential housing to renters across the country.”

In addition to tenants and landlords, there are more actors involved including builders, developers, real estate agents, mortgage providers, local officials, and more. But, ultimately, whose interests should win out in times of trouble?

The era of COVID-19 is a very unusual time. But, the US has faced severe housing issues before. The housing bubble of the late 2000s. The Great Depression. A housing shortage after World War Two. In the United States, the logic regarding housing tends to default to free markets – people can access what they have resources for and there is much money to be made in housing – plus homeownership. With both, interventions from actors, like the federal government, may be necessary in times of crisis or for people with very limited means. In non-crisis times, interventions can favor developers and homeowners.

In contrast, there is less support for public housing or seeing housing as a right. Housing is needed for a variety of reasons – health, stability, accessing jobs and services, personal space, etc. – but not guaranteed.

If any city or local government truly wanted to distinguish itself as a people-oriented location rather than a market-oriented community, guaranteed housing would be one way to stand out.

The architectural view of Chicago’s Plan for Transformation for public housing

In an interview for Chicago, former architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune Blair Kamin responded to a question about how public housing in Chicago has turned out:

Cover of the 2000 report on the Plan for Transformation.

Overall, though, I would say the Plan for Transformation has been a disappointment. It took far too long. It built too little housing. The overall aim of integrating very poor people into their communities and the city at large has not been fully achieved. The continued segregation of Chicago by race and class continues. I guess you could say that the series helped set the agenda or some of the reforms that occurred, but I’m sure not satisfied with the outcome.

For low-income housing to succeed, it doesn’t need to be an architectural showplace. It just needs to do the basics, right. It needs to provide shelter, it needs to provide community, it needs to provide integration into the broader society, so [that] people can climb the ladder, economically and socially, if they want to. It doesn’t need to win a design award, although good design certainly can be a part of its success.

I do think it’s really important to say that design is not deterministic. In other words, better buildings will not make better people. Design is part of the equation of integrating the very poor into the city. But it can’t do it all by itself. It’s naive to think that. It needs to be combined with social service programs, and other things – schools, families that are supportive – in order for it to succeed. Design can open the door to success, but it cannot achieve that on its own.

And the corollary is true, too. You can’t blame bad design for the failures completely. You can’t completely blame bad design for the failures of high-rise public housing. The failure has had to do as much withe federal policy that was well intentioned, but foolish. Concentrating lots of very poor people and a vast high rise development, like the Robert Taylor Homes or Stateway Gardens, was an invitation to disaster. In a way, it doesn’t matter how the buildings are designed. The design simply accentuated the social problem these high concentrations of poverty.

Kamin highlights multiple important elements at play: how much replacement housing was actually created, the larger social issues still very present in Chicago (“segregation…by race and class”), and the role of design. I’ll comment briefly on each.

First, this was one of the fears of public housing residents as the Plan for Tranformation was getting underway: if high-rises are torn down, will they be replaced and by what? The Plan for Transformation has not delivered on the number of units promised. The issue of the high-rises may have been addressed but the issues simply morphed into different issues.

Second, is the issue really public housing or is it ongoing inequality in Chicago? As luxury buildings keep going up, conditions in many Chicago neighborhoods have not improved. Public housing has never been particularly popular in the United States but neither has actually acknowledging and addressing the deeper issues of why some city residents might have a need for public housing or why affordable housing is in short supply.

Third, considering the full set of forces at work in a particular context – design, social forces and processes, relationships, power dynamics, the organizations and institutions involved – is very important. If segregation by race and class is present in Chicago, certain institutional actors have particular vested interests, and the design all need to be considered, how might this change constructing buildings in the first place?

With all this said, I hope conversations about public housing and affordable housing in Chicago are not solely relegated to discussions of past decisions and poor outcomes.

Do not forget the thousands of public housing units lost

With comments from a variety of experts addressing housing issues connected to COVID-19 and other social factors, I noticed the last expert cited provided a reminder about lost public housing units:

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“There’s a lot of talk about a universal voucher program in housing and entitlements, which would be a game changer for family homelessness, but you still have the problem of there not being enough places for people to rent,” Popkin said. “So we need to push both on the supply side and on the increased assistance side.

”Funding could go toward replacing tens of thousands of public housing residences lost between the ’80s and now, whether it be with new construction or renovating older buildings, she said.

“I’d like to see them built in a thoughtful way that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” she said.

The demolition of public housing high-rises in Chicago and numerous other big American cities had multiple effects. One of the stated goals was to help deconcentrate poverty. By moving public housing residents into other neighborhoods, it was hoped this would help their life chances.

But, this has not worked as well as might have been hoped. If the goal was simply to remove an eyesore in the city and push problems with housing and poverty out of the public eye, mission accomplished. The stigma of such projects disappeared with their demolition. Some of the land, when it was in desirable locations, was redeveloped. If the goal was to help people find good housing and attain more opportunities, this would involve a more robust approach to building and making available good housing. In Chicago, there were promises to provide for better lives and build more units…and it did not happen.

Just because the public housing high-rises are not visible in many locations does mean there is not need for cheaper yet quality housing. Americans do not have much stomach for public housing but the need is there to be addressed.

Quick Review: High-Risers

I recently finished Ben Austen’s High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing.

As I have studied some of what Austen details, I want to highlight main themes from the book:

  1. The way that Austen recounts the history of Cabrini-Green helps highlight the community, social life, and humanity present at Cabrini-Green. He does this through tracing the lives of several residents and their families throughout the larger narrative about Cabrini-Green and public housing. Cabrini-Green became a symbol or abstraction for many Chicago area resident and for the country but these stories help humanize the place and those who lived there.
  2. Public housing in the United States never had much of a chance. It was difficult to get implemented in the first place, decisions about design, locations, and maintenance were not always made with the best interests of the residents in mind, and the number of public housing units has declined in recent decades with former residents pushed out and a switch to voucher options. If this is the front line to a fight over a right to housing, it is hard to find much hope that the right will be established any time soon.
  3. The Chicago Housing Authority did poorly including locating public housing units in already segregated areas, failing to maintain buildings, and not following through on the Plan for Transformation, For a government agency that was supposed to help people, its legacy is not a good one, even by Chicago standards.
  4. Pairing this book with the 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth would provide a good education on the topic of public housingfor the general public. Both have a compelling storyline/presentation based on particular housing projects and enough connections to scholarly conversations on the topics involved for people to dig deeper.

Linking Microsoft giving $500 million for Seattle area housing to tech companies and declining gov’t support for housing

Microsoft is pledging a substantial amount to address the important issue of housing in Seattle:

Microsoft plans to lend $225 million at subsidized rates to preserve and build middle-income housing in six cities near its Redmond headquarters. It will put an additional $250 million into low-income housing across the region. Some of those loans may be made through the federal programs that provide tax breaks for low-income housing.

The company plans to invest the money within three years, and expects most of it to go to Seattle’s suburbs.

The loans could go to private or nonprofit developers, or to governmental groups like the King County Housing Authority. As the loans are repaid, Mr. Smith said, Microsoft plans to lend the money out again to support additional projects.

This article frames the giving as part of the housing issues wrought by the actions of tech companies:

Microsoft’s money represents the most ambitious effort by a tech company to directly address the inequality that has spread in areas where the industry is concentrated, particularly on the West Coast. It will fund construction for homes affordable not only to the company’s own non-tech workers, but also for teachers, firefighters and other middle- and low-income residents.

From this point of view, the health of a region matters for companies. If workers, whether ones employed by a particular company or organization or others, cannot find affordable housing, it will be harder for the region to find and hold on to workers. Whereas businesses often focus on a good business climate (low taxes, tax breaks, business-friendly governments, etc.), housing is a big factor in finding a strong work force. Additionally, Microsoft can help show through these actions that they care about local conditions in ways that tech companies are often said to ignore because of their global status. Would Microsoft be the same if it were not in the Seattle region?

Another way to view this is that private companies are now taking on what the federal government should address:

The government spent about three times as much on housing programs in the 1970s as it does today, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In the years since, the government has gotten out of the business of building public housing. And capital funds to repair the remaining public housing stock have been cut in half over the last 15 years.

Over this time, federal resources have increasingly shifted away from subsidizing the construction of affordable housing to subsidizing renters who find housing in the private market. And now most new below-market-rate housing is built not by public agencies, but by nonprofit developers leveraging tax credits. The value of those credits has declined recently as well, as a result of changes in the tax bill passed in 2017.

In a sense, Microsoft’s proposal is an extension of this story, as private actors continue to step in where the government once stood.

Ed Goetz, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied the history of public housing in America, said: “I don’t want to diminish the magnitude of what they’re doing. I think it’s important, and it will help. But it won’t solve Seattle’s problem.”

This argument suggests that private actors can only do so much to address housing issues. Because so much money is involved and the issue is so widespread, even $500 million may not do much in a single metropolitan region with high land and housing costs. Of course, the government is involved in the housing industry: the federal government for decades has supported single-family homes, primarily in the suburbs. At the same time, the government and the American people have always been more ambivalent about public housing. It is not as if  the housing market is a free market: the United States subsidizes mortgages.

At the least, this will be an interesting experiment: can Microsoft make even a small dent in the housing needs of the Seattle area? Will this help strengthen the metropolitan region or primarily serve as good publicity for the company?

Gautreaux remediation may end soon in Chicago

Filed in the 1960s, decided in the 1970s, and with remediation lasting decades, a case involving a class-action lawsuit charging racial discrimination in public housing in Chicago may end in 2024:

The Chicago Housing Authority and lawyers representing CHA residents have asked U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen to approve the agreement creating a road map for the CHA to complete its obligations under the so-called Gautreaux litigation.

Under the plan, the nearly 53-year-old case would come to a close by July 2024, marking an end to a landmark chapter in the national civil rights movement.

The settlement agreement provides a detailed timeline for the CHA to complete all planned mixed-income units and strengthen its housing voucher program to better enable families to move to more affluent areas if they choose to do so…

The lawsuit changed the face of public housing by instituting “scattered site” projects built on a small scale and dispersed in neighborhoods throughout the city — a stark contrast to the high-rise buildings constructed in the 1950s and 1960s.

This important lawsuit and ruling has both had significant effects on how policymakers have addressed concentrated poverty (more emphasis on scattering poor residents) as well as likely had limited effects because of the limited number of poor residents who have had and taken advantage of new opportunities to live in wealthier communities.

What is also striking about this is that the era of large-scale public housing and its associations with concentrated poverty are likely over. Hopefully, this does not mean less attention is paid to residential segregation and affordable housing issues but it is easier for the general public to ignore problems that are less visible.

Former Cabrini-Green site home to the fastest growing American neighborhood of residents making over $200k

A new analysis of Census data suggests the former home to Cabrini-Green housing project high-rises is increasingly the home of wealthy residents:

Cook County, which includes the county seat of Chicago, is home to the No. 1 and No. 7 fastest-growing concentrations of $200,000-plus households. No. 1 is, ironically, the area around where the Cabrini-Green public housing projects once stood. Cabrini-Green was notorious for violent crime, poverty and de facto racial segregation until its demolition beginning in the 1990s at the behest of the Chicago Housing Authority.

Even back then, authorities fretted that redevelopment plans might displace low-income families. They were right to be worried. Two decades later, the area’s concentration of $200,000-plus households has skyrocketed from zero to 39 percent. For some of the longtime residents who remain, the neighborhood’s transformation has been isolating.

Latanya Palmer, 53, grew up in the Cabrini Rowhouses. While she moved into a nearby mixed-income development in 2005, the hypergentrification has occasionally made her feel like a stranger in her own home. That sentiment echoes across the country, as poor and working-class Americans are increasingly pushed aside by frenzied development and prohibitive living expenses…

The census tract in question includes the still-standing, albeit largely vacant row houses where Palmer grew up. But now there are luxury condominiums and apartments, too. They sport rooftop terraces and sparkling views of the city’s affluent Gold Coast and Lake Michigan beyond. A three-bedroom penthouse can cost around $2 million.

This should be no surprise: the proximity of the land to both downtown and Lincoln Park meant that it is was highly desirable for developers and residents. Compare the clamor for the Cabrini-Green land to land where the Robert Taylor Homes once stood.

I would suggest there is a bit of revisionist history above. The claim that “authorities fretted” about the possible displacement of public housing residents is overstated. If anything, the city and Chicago Housing Authority probably could not wait to remove the high-rises (and other ones in the city, including the Robert Taylor Homes). Progress on replacing the units has been slow and with limited effects. The Chicago Housing Authority continues to have long waiting lists for housing. And many of the neighborhoods where public housing high-rises once stood are still relatively poor, even as a construction boom is taking place in the Loop and desirable nearby neighborhoods. In other words, some foresaw the potential for the Cabrini-Green site to be a wealthy neighborhood – and this what the city desired.

For more on why some Cabrini-Green residents fought hard to not be pushed out of their high-rises, see my earlier paper: “The Struggle Over Redevelopment at Cabrini-Green, 1989-2004.”

Chicago aldermen: from selecting public housing sites to blocking affordable housing

Even as Chicago’s mayor suggests more interest in affordable housing, a new report from the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance shows how Chicago aldermen used “aldermanic prerogative” to slow down, water down, or reject certain kinds of housing projects:

Much of the City Council’s power over development is unwritten and informal.

Typically, if a development in a ward needs a zoning change or permit, and the development is not supported by the alderman of that ward, the proposal is voted down if it ever reaches the full City Council. In some cases, a developer can make a proposal, and the presiding alderman or zoning advisory council will dictate changes — such as how many of the apartments will be condominiums and how many should be set aside for lower-income residents. Those negotiations have to be navigated before the proposal can reach the City Council. The development proposal can also linger in the zoning committee, which is another way it eventually dies from inaction…

The study’s authors examined how zoning laws were used to keep low-income public housing residents confined to certain communities and how private market rate housing has been engineered to confine lower-income residents to specific neighborhoods. They also reviewed case by case what happened with most recent efforts to create affordable housing across Chicago…

The report suggests that in order to ensure affordable housing, the city has to take steps to change the way business is conducted and develop a citywide protocol. That plan would have to force each ward to bear some of the weight of producing affordable housing.

Given Chicago’s long history of residential segregation, I would suggest this is primarily about race: wealthier and whiter neighborhoods do not want black and non-white residents to be able to move in. While the issue may seem to be housing with cheaper values or the preference that neighborhood residents have for local control, at the root, this is about controlling who can live in certain places. If given the opportunity, local officials will claim they are simply representing the interests of their constituents.

And this aldermanic power regarding housing has a long history. Here is part of the tale regarding the early days of public housing in the city retold in Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here (p. 21-22):

The city’s aldermen first bullied the state legislature into giving them the power of selecting public housing site, a prerogative that had previously belonged to the local housing authority.

Then a group of leading aldermen, who were not above petty vindictiveness, chartered a bus to tour the city in search of potential sites. On the bus ride, they told reporters that they were out to seek vengeance against the Chicago Housing Authority and the seven aldermen who supported public housing, and they chose sites in neighborhoods represented by these aldermen. Like prankish teenagers, they selected the most outrageous of possibilities, including the tennis courts at the University of Chicago and a parcel of land that sat smack in the middle of a major local highway. The message was clear: the CHA and its liberal backers could build public housing but not in their back yards.

The complexes were not, in the end, built at these sites. Instead, they were constructed on the edges of the city’s black ghettoes.

In many instances, the primary way black and other non-white residents have been able to move into new city neighborhoods or suburbs is when whites are willing to leave.

 

A lottery for limited affordable housing housing, part one

Affordable housing is in short supply in numerous American cities and an example of a lottery for 95 affordable housing units in San Francisco illustrates the issue:

Subsidized housing is often rationed this way, by lottery. Many apply, few win, most are disappointed. The process is meant to be more fair than first-come, first-served. But lotteries make literal a deeper unfairness. For homeowners, the mortgage interest deduction is available to anyone who qualifies. For poor renters, there is never enough housing assistance to go around…

Amid all the wealth in this neighborhood, a one-bedroom at Natalie Gubb Commons would rent for around $1,000 to $1,200 a month, a three-bedroom up to $1,700. Apartments next door were three times as much.

That discount is possible through a mix of resources. Mercy Housing, the project’s nonprofit developer, effectively got the land free as part of a city requirement that the neighborhood’s redevelopment include affordable housing. The market-rate developer next door was subsidizing the project, along with city funds. Revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade emissions program helped. And Mercy used the backbone of nearly every affordable housing project in America, federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits

But the tax bill’s implications for poor renters will be more profound. The odds are likely to grow worse than these: Last year, 53 households applied per each new affordable unit at The Meridian in Los Angeles; 84 for every home at Parcel 25 in Boston; 391 for each unit at Stargell Commons in Alameda, Calif.; 979 for every home at Our Lady of Lourdes Apartments in New York.

This is a reminder of both the acute need for affordable housing in more expensive cities as well as the limited approach to the issue from the federal government. Places that are often held out as the promise of America for their cultural diversity as well as their economic potential – such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, etc. – are often difficult places for those who are middle-class and below.

Additionally, the federal government has never wholeheartedly committed to helping provide housing for all. As the article notes, American housing policy subsidizes single-family homes. This has been an intentional policy choice for decades, beginning before the post World War II suburban boom and then continuing through mass suburbanization as well as into the twenty-first century. It would be difficult to have a direct national political conversation about this since it tends to happen through elected representatives who rarely discuss housing and through various government agencies. Also, it is hard to know whether all those people who have moved to single-family homes in the suburbs have done so because that is what they truly wanted among numerous equal options or they were pushed to some degree by the political and cultural leanings in those directions.

There is another intriguing aspect of this article: both how the lottery is discussed as well as how the lottery is conducted. More on this in a post in a few days.

A new account of the rise and fall of Cabrini-Green

Journalist Ben Austen has a new book titled High-Risers that chronicles the development and tearing down of the Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s north side:

But what caused Cabrini-Green to deteriorate almost immediately after its opening? In “High-Risers,” Austen suggests the repeated, systematic failure of the institutions and people enlisted to run Cabrini-Green fueled its notoriety and downfall. “In every area we examined, from finance to maintenance, from administration to outside contracting, from staffing to project management, from purchasing to accounting, the CHA was found to be operating in a state of profound confusion and disarray,” wrote Oscar Newman in the book “Defensible Space,” which Austen quotes. “No one seems to be minding the store; what’s more, no one seems genuinely to care.”

And yet, Austen’s book is not a detailed deconstruction of the causes of Cabrini-Green’s difficulties. Instead, he uses a novelistic structure to weave a tale about the other side of Cabrini-Green: its inhabitants.

Austen offers the stories of a few Cabrini-Green residents as they move in and out of the projects. There is Kelvin Cannon, a highly intelligent and charismatic resident who grows from precocious and superstitious kid to convicted criminal to high-ranking gang member in only a handful of years. There is Willie J.R. Fleming, who leaves Cabrini-Green after relocating to south suburban Dolton with his mother, only to return less than a year later. The quiet of the suburbs proved too uncomfortable for Fleming, who, despite the promise of a college athletic career, squanders it all away back in Cabrini-Green after throwing a punch…

Austen writes with a lyrical, poetic affection for the four main characters. Here we see there are as many Cabrini-Green origin stories as there were people living in Cabrini-Green. To merely stereotype is to willfully ignore each resident’s humanity. Austen deftly tells the stories of Wilson, Fleming, Cannon and another woman, Annie Ricks, without distance, bringing readers intimately into their lives. It is compelling writing, sure to separate Austen’s work from other, more anthropological examinations of Cabrini-Green.

Rarely does public housing in the United States, let alone a notorious project, receive much attention from journalists, scholars, or the public. Yet, this is a unique site. This kind of change does not occur often in American urban neighborhoods: poor black neighborhoods are not typically the target of gentrification efforts.

The story of this project is still not complete: even though the high-rises are no longer there and the buildings and neighborhood now there are hard to distinguish from other up-and-coming Chicago scenes, there are still public housing residents present (in addition to former residents who are now elsewhere) as well as memories (which could fade with generations but that could also remain in more institutionalized forms like a public housing museum in Chicago). Like many other urban neighborhoods, Cabrini-Green may be erased from a map or largely from sight but it may continue to shape not only that particular space but the whole city.