In 1890, a young Danish immigrant by the name of Jacob Riis published a harrowing account of life in the dilapidated “dumbbell tenements” of New York City. His book- How the Other Half Lives-became a sensation. The scenes of squalor described in his account persisted in some areas of the country for several more decades. One of the most notable of these slums was St. Louis’ DeSoto Carr neighborhood.
After the increase in affluence that followed America’s World War II industrial boom, public funds were appropriated towards the construction of public housing projects as a result of significant public pressure. When DeSoto-Carr was bulldozed, an ambitious 33-building public housing complex, designed by world-renowned Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki (who would later design the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center), sprang up in its place in 1954. As the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex opened in St. Louis, the project was lauded as an innovative solution to the problem of low-income housing.
Unfortunately, that dream would be short-lived. Pruitt-Igoe would be imploded in 1972. The complex had become so dilapidated and crime-ridden by the late 1960s that its residents fled in droves. Finally, the St. Louis authorities sketched up plans for the demolition of the project.
After its peak following the Second World War, public housing construction would fall precipitously. By the year 2000, 57% of public housing projects in America would be more than 30 years old according to the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. The vast majority, fortunately, would not fall into such an utter state of disrepair as Pruitt-Igoe. However, it is still important to delve into the question of what exactly happened to the public housing program, and why it has appeared to have fallen out of favor. The same 1947 Federal Housing and Rent Act that would appropriate public funds to the construction of public housing projects for low-income residents also made available FHA loans that would make the dream of owning a home in the suburbs a reality.
When many of America’s urban public housing projects were built, the country was at the peak of its post-war urban population boom. The goal was to partially sustain these projects with the rent of the complex’s more capable residents, similar to the way that many college financial aid programs work today. Unfortunately for the poorer, predominantly African-American residents of public housing, the rise of FHA loan-fueled suburban growth would pull more affluent individuals out of the city.
This problem was compounded by the later “white flight” to the suburbs of the late-1960s. Even after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was passed, these projects remained, and remain to this day, very segregated. One major reason for this segregation was the incorporation of towns (with predominantly white populations) outside of major cities. By checking the expansion of the city and establishing autonomous localities, suburbanites could be assured that their civic leaders would never approve the construction of a project in their town. This phenomenon, coupled with a continuing lack of mobility for the urban poor, helped create a lasting legacy of segregation in American cities.
The demolition of many of the worst projects in recent decades has led to a precipitous housing shortage for many urban poor. In cities like Washington D.C, the waitlist for public housing can take years. Currently, according to the D.C. Housing Authority, the waitlist is closed to new applicants and there is “no scheduled time to re-open the waitlist.”
For many unfortunate residents of the District of Columbia, this means having to either struggle to survive on the expensive urban rental market (and likely having to cope with the scarring effects of eviction) or vacillating between homeless shelters and the streets in hopes of one day being able to live in their very own segregated public housing complex. Recently, city governments have been experimenting with a new mixed housing approach to public housing.
In this system, developers planning on erecting a new apartment building must set aside a few units in the complex for low-income residents. Ideally, this should promote integration and allow more affluent neighbors to serve as “role models” for low-income residents hoping to escape poverty. Unfortunately, a mixed housing complex, the plans of which are publicized ahead of time, may deter more affluent residents from moving into the complex in the first place, simply transplanting the segregation problem elsewhere.
A major contributor to the rapid dilapidation of Pruitt-Igoe was the lack of public funds appropriated towards maintaining the complex. Building public housing projects was popular with voters after World War II, but this enthusiasm quickly dried up. The projects had become an unpopular subject in politics and many of them crumbled as a result. Even today, maintaining and building new public housing projects, or subsidizing the construction of mixed developments can be a heavy burden on taxpayers. Fortunately, there may be a solution to this problem that can reduce residential segregation, provide quality living conditions for residents and be easy on the wallets of taxpayers. This solution can be found in the private rental market in the form of public housing vouchers.
These housing vouchers allow low-income citizens to choose a rental property of their own, pay no more than a set percentage of their income on rent (usually 20-30%), and have the rest of their rent subsidized by the government. By giving people the ability to choose homes wherever they want, low-income citizens are able to achieve higher levels of mobility that can lead to reduced residential segregation in American cities. This system does come with its flaws. Many cities have what is called a Fair Market Rent (FMR), in order to prevent unscrupulous landlords from charging exorbitant rates for their tenants. In order to promote integration, this figure is usually calculated at the municipal level (which may include some parts of suburbia).
However, if a low-income citizen should pursue rental housing in a nicer part of the ghetto (just because inner-city residents now have the means to move to the suburbs does not necessarily mean that they will always feel welcome there), landlords can still overcharge them and stay well below the municipal FMR as the figure can still be higher than the median rent in a poorer area. This doesn’t really affect tenants as they only pay a set percentage of their income, but this overcharging can end up costing taxpayers millions of dollars over time.
However, with a more vibrant regulatory system, such abuses can be kept to a minimum. A major benefit of public housing vouchers is that residents who use this system are guaranteed sanitary living conditions as landlords are required (and are frequently audited) by the housing authorities to ensure that their rental properties are up to par. Landlords, despite more stringent regulations, can also benefit from this system as their tenets are virtually guaranteed to not fall behind on their rent, which is otherwise a large problem in the private rental market in poorer urban areas and can frequently lead to evictions.
Although imperfect, public housing vouchers can help alleviate the most glaring issues presented by public housing projects today, namely segregation, poor living conditions and lack of availability. A big factor of economic well-being is having a stable home. Many impoverished individuals in America’s cities do not have that foundation on which to build normal lives. By providing a clean, safe home to people in need, public housing vouchers can put disadvantaged Americans on the path to future prosperity.