As one of the only aspects required in a city’s Master Plan, housing clearly represents an essential factor in a city’s development, with provisions for affordable housing as, perhaps, the most important aspect. In this country, the quality of housing stock can differentiate significantly not only from one town to the next, but often within just a few blocks. The manner in which a locality organizes housing for the underserved has a great effect not only on those in need of housing themselves, but also on the municipality as a whole. Boasting high land values, minimum lot size requirements, and provisions against the development of multi-family dwellings, some municipalities are zoned as such to essentially create an array of obstacles designed to hinder the construction of affordable housing. Others, given their populations, have no choice but to establish accommodations for large numbers of people unable to afford housing independently on the traditional market. It has sometimes been the tendency of more wealthy sectors of the population to identify such conditions with burdens to the public, as visible signs of “public housing” dominate the landscape. However, such an attitude implies flawed ideologies about population movements, what “public housing” is, and what it can be.
As we all know, primal, misguided attempts at addressing the housing question in the U.S.A. were met with great challenges. Early “public housing” developments quickly became isolated islands, separated from the job opportunities and social services that defined the quality of life for those in the more well off parts of the city. To combat this phenomenon, new programs were established to “desegregate poverty”, encouraging mixed-income developments and the use of housing vouchers, which provide government subsidies to those who lack access to the capital necessary to obtain housing in a neighborhood and school district considered more desirable. However, considering the zoning ordinances adopted by many of the more “desirable” areas, housing vouchers usually allow for a very limited scope of mobility for beneficiaries. More “desirable” neighborhoods are less likely to possess the ample stock of multi-family dwellings that recipients of vouchers depend on for affordability. Furthermore, those few housing options which are not single-family homes in such neighborhoods are less likely to be under the supervision a landlord willing to accept housing vouchers, as the demand from the traditional market is not only sufficient, but preferable. It seems as though the desire and ability to migrate away from areas in economic distress is capped directly by the desire of those in flourishing areas to keep said population out. Can it not be said, then, that the wealthy, who often look down upon “public housing” are prime agents in the perpetuation of its shortcomings? A more detached and historical viewpoint helps to highlight the extent of hypocrisy evident in this view of “public housing”.
I insist on using quotations surrounding the phrases “public housing” and “affordable housing”, because I believe that a large portion of people are guilty of assigning a definition to the phrase that is both flawed and incomplete. Historically, the annual budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been dwarfed significantly by the budget designated toward providing mortgage subsidies for single-family homes all over the nation. While the physical construction of traditional housing projects is where many people start and end their definition of “public housing”, the most recent financial crisis proved that without responsible management, mortgage subsidies, too, could present a significant danger and burden on the public. Is not every home occupied by a recipient of federal mortgage subsidies, thus, an operative of “public housing”? What proportion of current homeowners would have been able to achieve said status without a flexible long-term mortgage, subsidized by government funding? Furthermore, while policy adjustments, such as the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, have helped to bridge inequalities in access to mortgage capital, lopsided lending practices have continued to make clear the extent to which “public housing” in the form of mortgage subsidies can perpetuate inequalities in housing, spanning across not only spatial bounds, but also across racial and class lines. There are many ways in which housing is made affordable and some methods are more visible than others. While recommendations for an improved course of action would require an analysis more in depth than that of a blog post, it remains clear that to draw rigid distinctions between recipients of different types of aid is a tendency detrimental to the formation of a harmonious and just society.