To solve America's housing crisis, build public housing


Originally published at:



The fate of public housing in America — its rise, much of it in the form of towers like Cabrini-Green, and its fall as those towers came down — is the story of urban poverty as an unsteady political priority.

There exists the danger that political priorities will continue to shift as they always do and that as they shift, lives depending on public housing will be destroyed.

While I am for housing the homeless, we must ensure that we keep the promises we make to the people.


Which is why it will never happen, because the oligarchs have zero concept of public good or long-term co-existence.


This sounds great on paper, but tends to run into issues in the real world. Concentrating severe poverty into select neighborhoods creates ghettos and maintenance of public projects becomes a huge issue.


Given the history of Social Housing in the United States, there would need to be a clear plan in place to prevent the issues that have hampered the “projects” almost universally in place from the beginning.

Honestly, I’m not sure how you would create a community that would be able to set it’s own norms and police behaviour to prevent trouble with drugs and violence while maintaining the means tested mandated poverty in those communities; particularly with the lack of ownership within the community and the transient nature of the people who would otherwise be your community leaders. (The people motivated enough to lead the community who are able to are likely also be able to grow their income to the point where they are forced to leave.)

I think we need to somehow provide ownership opportunities for people who are on the lower aspects of the wealth scale to help them build wealth and have ownership in their communities. Once people have ownership in the communities, gentrification isn’t a problem because the people who live in the neighbourhood receive the benefits - either a nicer housing situation, or the ability to cash out.


I’d suggest re-reading the relevant bits of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs. As I recall, she makes a good case for subsidies rather than publicly-built housing.


This pretty much sums up my thoughts on the subject. Previous experiments with public housing projects pretty much inevitably devolved into “The Projects” and were places difficult to escape from and even more difficult to live in. I would be open to a reimagining of the theory, but anything that amounts to warehousing the undesirable poor seems doomed to a similar outcome.


I see the comment chain here had the exact same thoughts I did. Public housing where I live is constantly neglected, and the residents thereof are victims of crime at a disproportionate rate.

Crazy idea: relax some of the zoning rules that strangle affordable homes, ie 50-acre lot minimums in some places around here. If people want to buy affordable housing, free the market so that it can provide affordable housing.


This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I live in rural Maine, in a “city” of 3300 people that has been collapsing since the lumber boom of the 19th century (it had 7,000+ people a hundred years ago). The huge majority of housing here consists of sprawling, ancient Federalist-style Victorian homes that are extremely drafty and inefficient to heat thanks to their 12-foot ceilings. Some landlords have made a pretty penny by partitioning the homes into apartments, but there aren’t enough apartments available to meet the need.

Every time I see one of these ancient old homes - and they are literally outside both of my windows in my office (which is also located inside one) right now - I think about how we could instead be living in houses made of modern materials using much more efficient heating systems. I know they are doing it in other countries. We can make it happen here.


Subsidized co-ops where people help grow their own food and help maintain their own living spaces seems like a more feasible and sustainable idea; like a lot of other folks have already said, it’s way too easy for “projects” to go completely awry and become ‘ghettos.’


As you imply at the beginning of the article, one of those promises needs to be “we will never again build public housing designed by acolytes of Le Corbusier.” Poor people deserve better than the likes of Pruitt-Igoe or the original Bijlmer.


I know it is a pipe dream, but resurrecting some form of the Homestead Act for underutilized public land might be nice. Instead of concentrating poor folks ever tighter into unsustainable cities. Or instead of selling that land off to highest bidder corporations.


Relaxing the zoning just means you frequently end up with a worse situation. Houston property costs are relatively low, but with a lack of zoning commercial swoops in an buys out low cost areas if the multi-million developers don’t. Maybe just require some mega-development to allocate public/low-cost housing as a part of the space.

However, there should be better opportunity for individuals to buy land/develop for primary homes. That would help the working class significantly.


Amen. If you look at Sweden (god forbid) you’ll find that public housing agencies act like developers addressing a wide range of the market with compelling offerings. They enjoy a market advantage because of all the factor’s you described, and even run ads making fun of “greedy developers” and asking the question “why would you buy from those guys, who put so much of the money in their own pockets instead of into your home”. In the end, they deliver more value to the consumer, and are a very competitive part of their housing market.

I think the key to their success is the fact that they don’t act like the familiar American stereotype of public housing. They act like a developer, who has an advantage, because they can make better housing by not taking profit off the top.


After the ass kicking I got the last time this topic was broached, no thank you.


This, thank you. Plenty of research has already been undertaken in examining the failures of past public housing projects, and we do know a few things about what not to do- housing as warehousing, concentration, and relying on the federal government to maintain its funding commitments on the LR (just to name a few biggies.)

There are fairly straightforward solutions for all of these problems.

  1. There are plenty of architects interested in humanistic, public interest architecture. (I am privileged to study under several of these persons)

  2. As noted in the OP, cities generally possess or can possess land practically anywhere within their boundaries.

  3. Charter a public bank to finance development. The path of least resistance being a city closing its accounts with the Wells Fargos of the world, and using those funds to capitalize the new public bank (there is movement on public banking here in Portland.)


This, a whole lotta this. Public housing tends to concentrate crime, and those tendencies lead to a slow walling-off of public housing areas; both literally and socially.


Isn’t what was proposed in the linked article.


Yeah, all those urban settings with their 50-acre lots for affordable homes… …

okay, so, back to reality: Relaxing zoning regulations in general tends to favor one group over another, and it isn’t the poor.


As i said to @jandrese - did we read the same article? I have to think you’re reacting to 30-60 year old housing projects, and not the piece or the ones discussed in the piece.