Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Student reacts to articles about public housing

A student considers issues with public housing in this reaction essay:

In the four class sessions we attended so far, we did a small-group exercise where we had to present an example of an anecdote from the book $2.00 Per Day to the class. We summarized a character’s situation in the book in a way where we could present it as a story to persuade someone to care about a policy or service need that individual was or wasn’t lacking. We were supposed to make sure that the anecdote appealed to an ethical foundation such as: fairness/ justice ethic or loyalty ethic, purity ethic, conservation ethic, respect for authority ethic, and so forth. My group discussed the family of five who lived in a three-bedroom household. The grandmother was an elderly lady and receive SSI to help pay the bills. The daughter, who didn’t work at all and received food stamps for her child, which helped put food in the house, could not find employment.  The daughter’s husband, who also had a hard time finding a job, felt like less than a man because he could not support his wife and child. Lastly, the grandmother’s brother, who fixed cars for a living, helped out with bills from time to time. The cramming of five people living in a three-bedroom house creates a situation where we can ask, “is public housing actually helping or harming”?

  Howard Husock explains in his article, “How Public Housing Harms Cities”  that the housing projects radiate dysfunction and social problems outward, damaging local businesses and neighborhood property values, making this a noxious environment for their tenants.  Howard believes public housing now concentrates on welfare dependent, single parent households, whose fatherless children disproportionately turnout to be school drop-outs, drug dealers, non-workers, and criminals. This was not the original aim for the establishment for public housing.  Before World War II, President Johnson created the housing act in 1937, to help provide affordable housing to lower-middle class working families of all races. Today most public housing tenants are single-parents, people who have a disability and cannot work or felons who cannot get a job, because of their criminal record. 

I agree with Husock that public housing does concentrate on welfare dependent, single parent households, because most lower working middle class individual only make enough to cover rent and utilities and sometimes are left with hardly any or no money to buy food. The problem is very simple problem in my opinion, there isn’t enough affordable housing to go around, because of the barriers of racism in this country. Historian Ed Goetz explains in his article, “The story of American public housing is one of quiet successes drowned out by loud failures”, that things started to go left after World War II.  The federal government pushed for people to become homeowners by increasing the authorization for Federal Housing Authority loans, mostly available to white families, which helped to create better job opportunities for them as well. Leaving minority residents with nothing. The whites began to move out of public housing and bought their own homes. Minorities were prevented from buying better homes in certain areas, and they were discriminated against in job applications. As the population of public-housing properties became more impoverished and blacker, white residents with jobs, even low-paying ones, hurried to move out of the projects.

This is a nice reaction essay because you have taken two long and detailed articles from two different points of view, one from a conservative (almost Libertarian) perspective (Husock), and another from a more liberal point-of-view (the Samuels article from the Atlantic Monthly).  Reading Husock's article reminded me of the frustration I had back in the 1980s when I read propaganda published from the Soviet Union or the so-called "communist" East Bloc.  It resembled those sources inasmuch as the article is full with truth and accurate observations and valid quotations from authorities, but it is all presented in a biased, unbalanced way, and leaves out important facts, ignores other truths, and simply gets a few things flat wrong. That is, it's a "half-true" article, mixing in lots of realistic material with assumptions and distortions that mislead.  For example, the "Moving to Opportunity" and other studies of what happened when poor youth were moved out of Chicago's dangerous neighborhoods and placed in less dangerous small town or suburban areas found that, yes, there was a slight deterioration (negative influence) in behavior initially among males, but over the long-term, the results of the most recent research shows that there were significant and substantial benefits to the youth who were moved out of bad neighborhoods, and trivial or non-existent negative consequences for the youth in the new areas where the relocated youth arrived.

You are wise to point to two main points, which are fairly indisputable: 1) there is not enough affordable housing in some housing markets; and 2) large public housing projects concentrated people in poverty, and the concentration of poor households was a harmful problem.  I think there is wide consensus on these two points, and has been nearly universal agreement for the past two decades.  Husock does challenge the idea that affordable apartments are difficult to find in New York City, but elsewhere in his article he admits that the residents of public housing: (mostly elderly, persons with disabilities, and single mothers with children) do pose a problem, because we as a society do want them to have decent housing, and we don't want them to become homeless.

The thing I found in my research on public housing in the 1990s in Saint Louis was that the reputation and the narrative about public housing became a perceived reality that everyone agreed about.  Almost everyone I interviewed who lived in public housing complained about it and said they were eager to get out of public housing, and those who were also poor, but lived in low-rent housing likewise said they did not want to live in public housing. And yet, when I asked about environmental stresses, or social connections, or quality of life, the respondents living in public housing reported a far better daily life experience in their lived environments than did the other poor who lived in non-subsidized low cost market-rate housing. I was especially struck by Husock's description of subsidized housing as being terrible compared to market-rate housing, since my experience in researching this issue in the 1990s in Saint Louis suggested that HUD's requirements for landlords to keep their apartments qualified for housing choice vouchers were strict, and set such high standards that the potential supply of low-cost subsidized housing was severely restricted. That is, lndlords found it easier to have apartments rented to low-income tenants without housing vouchers because the costs of upgrading their units to comply with HUD standards outweighed the advantages of having a more dependable rental payment from HUD-subsidized tenants.

Also, Husock is working with an assumption about which is better: having affordable (public subsidized or provide) housing or having no local affordable housing so that more valuable housing can earn higher tax revenues and profits for developers and landlords.  This is a value assumption, and many people would prefer that the public step in to ensure that there is some affordable housing in a city, rather than allowing the free market to make a city affordable only to the wealthy.  The HOPE VI policies that Husock so strongly detests tried to strike a balance, reducing the concentration of the poorest families while making available housing for a range of incomes. This seems to many observers a reasonable middle-ground, since the concentration of a solid block of poor households has some negative consequences, and the market tendency to create situations where only the wealthy can afford to live in some areas also seems undesirable.


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