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The Design-Politics of American Public Housing

An interview with Lawrence J. Vale

Lawrence J. Vale goes back to the early days of American history to discuss public housing policy in the US: he explores the ambivalence produced by the mix of moral stigmatization and social support present from the early policies through today’s urban renewal and redevelopment.

Question 1.

Sandra Parvu: You are the Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning at MIT in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and you have widely researched housing policy in the United States. Two of your principal publications on this topic, From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors [1] and Reclaiming Public Housing: A Half-Century of Struggle in Three Public Neighborhoods [2], put the notion of “public” at the core of your approach to subsidized housing. Could you please explain the history of this word in the American context and how it came to be associated with housing?

Lawrence J. Vale: When I think about “the public” in American history, I tend to go back to the beginnings. We are really looking at the early colonization of the New World. In the North-East, at least, the Puritans coming over from England thought they had left the poor behind. This was not a group of impoverished people. They were going to build a society where there weren’t going to be poor people. But what they found within a few years was that there were in fact poor people. They would come from other places. And they needed to figure out what to do with them since they didn’t have a family or a network of friends that could economically support them. Eventually, by the middle of the 17th century, they adopted an equivalent of the Elizabethan poor laws that had been developed in England and came up with the almshouse, sometimes called the “House of Industry”, which was indicative that these were able-bodied people that were somehow not willing to work. What this did was, right from the start, associate housing and morality together. By suggesting that there was a public responsibility for the people that I call “public neighbors,” there was an admission of the need to do something out of compassion, but also a sense that this was a kind of coping mechanism for poor people that couldn’t be fully trusted. And meanwhile, there was a parallel set of institutions for the trustable poor, the kind of upwardly mobile, hard-working people that could go and get a homestead out on the prairie and be rewarded with the ownership of that land if they built a house within five years. There was a sense that the state was there to house its “public” in positive ways, as well as in more coping kinds of ways. And so, the institutions that get named “public housing” in the 1930s inherit, I think, from both sides of that: both support and skepticism.

But the first phase of public housing is still a continuation of the reward mechanism. Trying to find the most worthy among the poor, interview them very carefully, select maybe one out of every 10 as appropriate to enter public housing. When that upwardly mobile working-class family stopped applying in large numbers because they had other opportunities in a more prosperous society, especially if they were white, public housing had a much less upwardly mobile group of aspirants seeking a place in it. And it became this coping mechanism, just like it had been in the almshouse centuries before. In a continuation of this kind of moral judgment, public housing gets redeveloped, starting in the 1990s. There is an effort to try to shift this whole enterprise back on to that first phase: how can we select only the most viable, the most desirable of the poor people for re-entry into public housing? How can we bring in other income groups to supplement this housing? And there are all of these hoops that are created all over again. The public housing reform legislation in the middle of the 1990s was called “The Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998”. It is the same language that the Puritans would have used in the 1600s: the notion that if you wanted quality housing, you had a responsibility to work—and that failure to find work was a personal, moral failure, rather than a structural failure of the economy or a problem with the education system.

And that has, I think, been the story of trying to figure out who is “the public”. Is it the public neighbor that we care about because the person is part of our community and there is a shared responsibility for their well-being? Or is it public in the sense of open to anyone, where you are entitled to something just because you exist?

Question 2.

What similarities and differences do you see between the first phase and the second phase of urban renewal in the United States, knowing that we have pretty much the same pattern going on in Europe?

First, in the United States, it is not even clear to most people that we’re undergoing a second phase of urban renewal because it is so rarely talked about in those terms.

The 1930s and 1940s were a period of slum clearance, beginning even in advance of the legislation, in 1949 and 1954, that we called urban renewal. The urban renewal program of the 1950s and 1960s tended to clear out large sections of the center parts of cities immediately adjacent to the downtown core, and in some cases to build more luxury housing or develop new housing or other projects. It was a largely discredited program, and one that was seen as heavily racially discriminatory, profiting large development interests at the expense of communities that were often displaced.

What I have done is to look at some of these instances where communities that had been the so-called slums of the city were torn down, and replaced by housing for much more upwardly mobile people. Even the public housing served a less poor constituency than those living in the communities this housing displaced. But, during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the public housing itself declined and fell into tremendous disrepair, and often became rather socially dysfunctional communities, at least as perceived by outsiders. And so there’s been this new phase since 1990 where hundreds of thousands of public housing units have been destroyed and rebuilt into new kinds of communities. So to many, it is a second form or a second round of renewal. And, in many of these places, it is also another round of a less poor population replacing a very poor population.

In essence, there are some striking parallels between the two phases. One of the things that has struck me is: why are there these twice-cleared communities? And what does it mean if each time that a physical redevelopment occurs, it is coincident with a move upward in the income levels of the population? Are you solving a problem in poor people’s lives or simply replacing “problem people”? Are you using physical development to initiate a shift of community that really isn’t necessarily in service of the needs of those lowest-income residents? This new round of public housing clearance has been very controversial in many cases. The so-called Hope VI program, implemented since the early 1990s, has been socially regressive. It has cleared areas for inhabitation by a wealthier group of people, often on now-desirable sites adjacent to the city center. There are also some examples where the public housing areas were so isolated it would be hard to imagine wealthier people wanting to move there, but even those areas have been cleared in the hope of attracting a broader mix of incomes. I think there has been some reason to see it as a second phase of urban renewal. Like the first one, there are winners and losers, and in many cases the losers have not been treated very well.

Question 3.

You were a consultant on the “National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing” that reported to the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and that led to “Hope VI”. Were any of these discussions you have mentioned already taking place at the time?

I think what was so interesting was that I was the only academic and I was at the very beginning of my career as a researcher on this subject. In 1991–92, I was asked to help with identifying the various demographic changes that had been taking place in public housing. And this was the first time in a decade that the federal government had released the data to anyone. There had been a period of 10 years or so when nobody really knew how impoverished the public housing population had become. The National Commission wanted to identify a category of places that could be called “severely distressed public housing,” that could make the problems seem more tangible and manageable. It wasn’t that everything was failing everywhere. Instead, there was a problem that was big, but not so big as to seem completely insurmountable. And so they picked a number and picked a definition of “severely distressed”. The problem with it was that the actual number only took account of physical design deficiencies and what it would cost to fix up the worst cases of physical, architectural kinds of failures—even though they also had a broad and thoughtful definition that dealt with socio-economic distress, which they didn’t want to try to quantify.

So using the narrower definition, the Commission estimated that “severe distress” affected 86,000 units out of 1.4 million, or about 7%. The message was, “We have confined the problem, it’s doable, we will fix it”. But what was fascinating to me as a consultant watching this happen is that they didn’t want to deal politically and budgetarily with the fact that distress couldn’t be measured only by physical factors. So that while the overall definition of the problem encompassed the broad range of things that had gone wrong with public housing, the actual action remedy, and the scale of the problem as it was defined, was much more narrowly conceived. I found this enormously frustrating and wrote an early article about that problem, which did not endear me to the people that I had been working with. They admitted rather freely that they needed a number that didn’t scare the politicians. If they’d stated the full scale of the problem that needed to be dealt with, it would have had an unfundable number attached to it.

The other thing I would say is that, when Hope VI was announced, coming out of these recommendations of the National Commission, through a parallel legislative process, it was not centrally premised on provision of mixed-income housing to end “concentrated poverty”. That was something that emerged only two or three years into the program. They issued a “Notice of Funding Availability” annually, and it changed the terms of the program each year. Gradually it became much more a program for demolishing public housing and finding private development concerns interested in large mixed-income, mixed-finance kinds of ways of approaching housing, thereby leveraging the public funds with a lot of private dollars. But this also very quickly shifted the purpose of the program toward broader revitalization goals rather than goals that were about improving the conditions of the people who had been suffering under terrible environments for many years.

Question 4.

Could you please explain the voucher-based public policy and in what way it constituted a turning point for public housing development in the United States?

In the first phases of the public housing program, many cities built large projects—some before the Second World War, some afterward, going all the way through the 1950s and 1960s in some cities. Many big cities built large high-rise projects, although most places did not do this. By the 1960s, there was an overall sense that building these large projects was not necessarily the best way to improve the housing lives of low-income people, and a gradual disillusionment from all sides about that. This was really part of a larger privatization of public housing that had always been a pressure from the real-estate industry. Although it appeared in a variety of different guises even before the 1970s, there was a basic decision in 1974 to emphasize the option of housing vouchers. These vouchers were initially known as the Section 8 housing program, but are now officially called Housing Choice Vouchers. The idea was that it made more sense to have the subsidy travel with the tenant, and to have them find private-sector landlords that would accept this voucher in exchange for having the government reimburse them for the amount between 25% the tenant’s income—later raised to 30%—and the “fair market rent” for that location. So the voucher system essentially took the public sector out of the role of landlord, and sent the tenant off into the private market to find housing wherever that person might choose. In theory, in a market where there is plenty of available rental housing, and landlords eager to find renters, it would work well. In practice, in many cities, it was hard for people to find landlords that would take them, especially if they were large families with lots of children.

The concept of “fair market rent” also set limits on which kinds of housing the federal government would be willing to subsidize. The government was not prepared to subsidize more than two thirds of the cost for renting the most expensive properties, those that charged more than the fair market rent, often located in the most desirable areas. Even with constraints, the voucher program became much more popular than building projects. Now more than 2 million housing vouchers are out there, compared to only about 1 million of the old-style public housing units. So it’s nearly twice the size of the program that we think of as conventional project-based public housing. Finally, there’s a hybrid system called Project-Based Section 8, in which vouchers are deployed in privately-developed housing complexes. This also added many hundreds of thousands of units to the stock, as in the 1970s and 1980s.

One can see vouchers as yet another way that the private sector has become much more integrated into the provision of housing in the United States. Many studies, though not all, have suggested that vouchers are more cost-effective, but some have criticized the lack of capacity to deliver necessary support services to dispersed populations. Others observe that discrimination continues to go on in the housing market, and this has really prevented housing policy from functioning properly in many cities.

There is also concern that vouchers could be curtailed or terminated in any given year. By contrast, despite the clear evidence of large-scale demolition, many think that having permanent units of public housing out there on the landscape will preserve housing affordability for longer. So it is not clear that vouchers are always better than conventionally developed and managed public housing.

It’s playing to the social and psychological kinds of questions about what subsidy should look like. Can it be hidden? Can it reach the people who are most deserving? It continues to go back to these old questions about which of the poor should really be served by the state. Is it really the very poorest? Or is it for the working poor and the people who were doing everything they can in some way to pay their way in society?

Question 5.

Is public policy moving toward the total disappearance of public housing units, in favor of vouchers? Or has some sort of balance been reached—and, if so, will it be maintained?

I’m in the process of actually doing something that I’ve never seen before, which is to trace, city by city, what the balance of public housing versus voucher provision has been over time. One would think that these would be pretty obvious things to find, and see charted, but I have asked many leading housing researchers in the United States, and I have asked housing authorities, and I have asked untold likely sources, and nobody is actually charting those trends. The trend lines are very different from city to city. There are some cities, such as Atlanta, that have tried to get rid of 100% of their family public housing, by just taking it out of the landscape. There are other cities that have torn down almost none of it, like New York, which has by far the largest housing program, much of it in high-rises. While Chicago has been busily tearing down such projects, New York has been able to preserve and keep them at high occupancy. Although there have been increased problems in New York in the last decade or so, Nicholas Bloom was able to write a well-received recent book entitled Public Housing that Worked. New York in the Twentieth Century. [3] This book came out in the same year as Bradford Hunt’s book on Chicago that was called Blueprint for Disaster. [4] The two cities that had the most high-rise public housing have had completely different outcomes, which makes one think that it is a management problem. It is rooted in the larger trajectory of the city in socio-economic terms. It is not simply an architectural issue. So it makes it hard to generalize about whether we’re heading toward zero in public housing.

And it’s not one thing that will give a city one approach over another—it’s many interconnected kinds of things and there are many different strategies. It has been fascinating to me to see that there are cities like San Francisco and Boston that are determined to preserve public housing and its availability to low-income people, and others like Atlanta, New Orleans and other places that are trying to get as most of it off the books and into mixed-income housing that has very little room left for those on the lowest incomes. One has to question the motives, the political settings, and the forces that yield those very different outcomes. Sometimes it’s a mayor, sometimes it’s a housing authority, sometimes it’s powerful non-profit housing organizations, sometimes it’s tenants, sometimes it’s other factors.

Question 6.

You talk about the social and psychological dimension that is involved in policy making. You are an educator. How do you see the divide that exists in American universities as well as in France between an architectural education and urban policy making, which generally goes on in geography or social science departments? Can you talk a little bit about this division and how this can change and affect the education of researchers and thinkers in urban studies?

I think it’s a terrible problem to segregate architecture into art and planning into policy. I am very happy to have spent my career in a place that has resisted that by jointly teaching architecture and planning to students and by really trying to keep a level of social and economic context into design education and to have a large part of a city planning program that is devoted to urban design. So, even at a time 25 or 30 years after social science has really taken over the core of planning education, the largest single cohort of MIT’s own planning program choose the area we call City Design and Development, centered on physical planning. But it is a different kind of physical planning, and certainly not a form of physical determinism. It’s a recognition that the physical design and socio-economic policies are intertwined and, if done well, should mutually support each other. And the act of programming a place entails what I like to call a “design-politics”. It’s really trying to understand who and what should happen where, and it emphasizes that social and spatial questions have to be taken together. Certainly, this is what I would want my students to embrace.

I really feel that housing is returning as a really important issue for researchers and practitioners precisely because it is being linked to a whole lot of other things that get it out of the realm of architecture and into the realm of the form of society we are making. What kinds of things and what kinds of people need to be next to one another? What kinds of problems and possibilities need to be considered simultaneously, rather than separated out? How do we begin to have the transportation people talking more wholly with the people who understand environmental consequences, who understand housing design, who understand energy performance, who understand immigration politics, who understand relationships between homeplace and workplace? All these kinds of questions that have to be tackled in a much more integrated way.

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To cite this article:

Sandra Parvu & Lawrence J. Vale, “The Design-Politics of American Public Housing. An interview with Lawrence J. Vale”, Metropolitics, 4 July 2012. URL :

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