Public Housing in the United States
Journal of International Affairs (JIA): So, just to begin with, for any of our readers who are unfamiliar with you and your research, we would love for you to just give a debrief on what your area of study is at this point, and what led you to be passionate about this subject.
Lawrence Vale (LV): Well, the first thing I might say, and I don’t know whether this will take us too far astray, but this is probably one of the stranger areas of work for someone with a doctorate in international relations to actually study because, well, a lot of my work has been focused on international comparative aspects of politics and the built environment. The most sustained part of my work has been on the history, politics, and design of public housing in the United States, both the long process of getting to the point of emphasizing public housing and the long struggle to build it, and then redevelop it when there are problems.
I can tell you how I got into this if that’s perhaps most relevant. And the short answer to how someone with a doctorate in international relations got interested in public housing is that the public housing interest was there first. I grew up on the 11th floor of an apartment building in Chicago that was about a 15-minute walk from a lot of other high-rise buildings. These buildings happened to be the high-rise towers of Cabrini Green in Chicago that, at the time, and for decades thereafter, were among the most infamous places to live in the country. The contrasts were really stark and the question for me as a kid was, why is the apartment building where I’m growing up entirely safe, and the ones at Cabrini were places I was told I should never walk or drive by?
So, what specifically did it mean for me as a privileged white male that I had the option not to share some parts of a profoundly unequal neighborhood that was largely occupied by low-income black women and their families? And so how could one not be drawn to ponder that? Even when I was in high school, I was interested in both architecture and social science, and eventually, studied both separately in graduate school, following a degree in American Studies. My undergraduate thesis was about Chicago public housing, and essentially, I kept rewriting better versions of that for the next 40 years.
JIA: I know a lot of your research has been looking at what are essentially factors for success or failure in public housing. Before we even get into that, I want to frame this within a discussion of what does successful public housing look like? What purposes should it serve? And what role does it play within the broader urban environment?
LV: Well, I would say that the first thing that matters for success in public housing is that it becomes a source of stability and community for its residents. And stability means that the cost of one’s housing which can be an overwhelmingly problematic challenge in many American cities. Stability enables people in precarious situations to focus on other aspects such as health, well-being, education, and work. So the first thing I would say is that public housing matters as an extension of the safety net and as an extension of what it can afford for people to do. I like to say that one should be asking what should affordable housing afford? And if public housing is to be valuable, whether in this country or really anywhere in the world, I think it has to afford not only the economic stability, but also environmental safety, access to livelihoods, meaning where it’s located, and what it’s possible to do from their security—both physical security from violence and security of tenure, the sense that eviction is going to be unlikely.
Finally, I would say public housing and other affordable housing ought to have some contribution to governance, self-governance. I mean some control over the management of one’s lives and neighborhood, the sense that it is not something simply imposed upon you from outside. If it’s affordable, if it supports livelihoods, if it’s a conducive environment, if it’s secure, and if it enables by sharing governance, then I think it can be successful.
JIA: And so what is stopping it from doing so? We can do this in the context of Reclaiming Public Housing, your book or just at large.
LV: I have looked at this over time from multiple angles. The Reclaiming Public Housing book was one of the first pair of books now 20 years ago that focused on Boston. I think it’s important to step back and say what I was trying to do then, and then what I tried to do in the second pair of books that’s more recent and more beyond Boston because they get at I think what you’re getting at, which are why does this sometimes work? And why has it been so difficult? And I guess the first thing is that I thought I could answer that question by starting closer to the present time, and discovered in the first book called From the Puritans to the Projects that I actually needed a long prehistory to understand the struggle of what the role is for the government in supporting the needs of the least economically advantaged. That’s not something that invented itself with public housing in the 1930s. You could in a city like Boston, go back to the 1630s and see that this was a struggle at a much more basic one for that. And to me, that really was what made the subject so interesting and so relevant for understanding American culture and American politics.
It had to do with which of the poor should the government support and for what reasons and how do we judge that? Who is the we that should be doing that judging? I looked at a long history of attempts to cope with the poorest of the poor, going back to the tradition of almshouses and workhouses. I also looked at the long history of reward systems for the upwardly mobile working class, the rewards that could be the Homestead Act in the 19th century or the provisions given to support home ownership in the 20th century in the tax code, and things like that. If you think of public housing as inheriting from both sides of that, the long arc for me was seeing that it was initially part of the reward system for figuring out who are the most deserving among the poor, the worthiest among the neediest. And then the struggle once it became clear that many more people needed this assistance and it had to become much more of a coping mechanism, an extension of the welfare state.
To get at the question of, what do you do about it? What happens next? This had a lot of people saying, oh, well, all you’ve done now is concentrate poverty, and so what’s the solution to that? And what does it mean to accuse a community of being concentrated in poverty? How does that feel like from the community standpoint? What does it mean from a public policy standpoint? The books that I’ve done have come from both perspectives. The first one was an institutional look at what were people thinking when they put these kinds of programs into place? And the second was, what does it feel like from the perspective of communities that are being built initially by someone else and then being redeveloped with a lot of input from those communities? I wanted to understand why is it that reclaiming or rebuilding public housing could sometimes be in service of the needs of the lowest income and could sometimes be captured by other interests that really were not centrally focused on meeting the needs of the lowest-income Americans.
JIA: I wanted to dive into that because you’ve written a lot about this topic. Why are some cities attempting to minimize the number of their poorest residents who are in public housing?
LV: Well, I think... so this is why I have found it so helpful to try and frame the story in a longer arc. I don’t think of public housing as a humanitarian attempt to serve as many of the poorest people as possible followed by a recognition that this didn’t work very well, so let’s tear it down and start all over. I think of it as a three-part story where public housing initially was there, not to serve the poorest of the poor, but to actually do what the third book was called Purge the Poorest. That book is the story about what happens when public housing is built. And the recognition is that the people living in the so-called farms that were torn down to replace it are not the ones that the city leaders wanted to rehouse. The idea was to find a better and more upwardly mobile most likely to succeed group of barely poor people to put into the housing, and then build it. Then the middle period is the period where public housing comes to serve the poorest of the poor starting in the 1960s and 70s. And then we’re in this third period of what do you do next? And in some places, it’s purging the poorest again. It’s turning into what I’ve called twice cleared communities in the same place.
And I tell that story in Chicago, including Cabrini Green and in Atlanta where there was very little interest in bringing back large numbers of extremely low-income people to the sites of the former projects. So the question for me is, does it always have to be that way? And then the fourth volume of this the second part of the second pair that’s called “After the Projects”, looks at four cities, three of which said, No, we really want to serve the lowest income people, the people who need this most. My question was, under what circumstances is it possible to get to the point where public housing can meet all of those criteria that I outlined for its success, and also deal with the people who need it most and continue to reclaim it for those least advantaged?
To me, the factors that mattered most were what happened in each individual city from a governance standpoint between the period when urban renewal comes through and large scale evictions from neighborhoods happened, mostly in the 1960s, starting in the 50s, and into the 1970s. What was the reaction? What I found is that the places that not only had a lot of experience with urban renewal, displacing neighborhoods of color, had backlash against that, and developed organized groups and institutions, community development corporations, not-for-profit developers, city councilors committed to the lives of low-income people. By the time the redevelopment of public housing happened in the 1990s and 2000s, those cities were much more likely to say, “Okay, never again. We’re not going to let the poorest of the poor be purged again. We need to figure out a way that the political starting point is the one for one replacement of low-income housing.” Chicago didn’t do that, Atlanta didn’t do that, New Orleans didn’t do that. But San Francisco learned to do that, Boston learned to do that, even Tucson, Arizona learned to do that. So what I’ve been exploring is why and how did that happen?
JIA: Just to clarify and make sure I understand, you’re saying that the cities that had experience with gentrification and displacement of their lowest-income residents and experience with resisting that were the most successful in housing the poorest of the poor?
LV: Yeah. I think that’s right. Some of the places that are incredibly expensive like San Francisco or Boston, were pretty brutally destroyed in the urban renewal areas of some of their neighborhoods. In some of the neighborhoods, they developed a set of counter-movements that have become very powerful. So you have the paradox that some of the most expensive places are also on a percentage basis doing the most for the lowest income households. It’s not enough, but it’s there. But it’s not only the most progressive cities that have done that. In Tucson, one of the places that I looked at, the core of the Mexican-American area was destroyed to build the convention center in the 1970s. And for decades after that, the MexicanAmerican community and their allies resented that. By the time Tucson redeveloped public housing, it was said, “Well, you’re not going to do that to us again.” The state agency in charge of it understood that and didn’t let that happen again. It’s not just the most liberal coastal elites that think this way. Difficult circumstances and under different circumstances.
JIA: That’s really good context. I wanted to return to your point about concentrating poverty in public housing. You’ve written a bit before about the stigmas public housing face. What specifically are these stigmas that public housing face? And how does this affect the lived experience of people in public housing and the success of public housing projects and policy?
LV: I think the stigmas have changed over the years but they’re rooted in race and racism, they’re rooted in false assumptions about high rates of unemployment or accusations of laziness or issues of people spending generations living on government money in these places. Those kinds of things just don’t hold up when you look statistically at who’s in public housing. The vast majority of the people are either employed, looking for work in education or have some form of disability. And it’s not this place of uniform unemployment and or people sitting around watching television. And so those kinds of stereotypes that have stigmatized the public housing for decades are largely built out of ignorance and undergirded by racism that may also miss the racial and ethnic diversity that’s actually in public housing. The biggest problem that I see about the stigma of public housing is that the worst problems of the worst managed big city agencies have been allowed to become a stand-in in the media and in academic scholarship for the totality, whereas nearly 3,000 public housing agencies are largely pretty successful. They’re just in smaller cities, and we don’t hear about them as much, precisely because they’re not in the news.
The challenge of this is to deconstruct the variety and to understand that public housing on the whole has been extremely beneficial for the lives of those who are lucky enough to get a place. And I say lucky enough because one out of four income-eligible families are getting either a place in public housing or a housing voucher that brings their rental cost to one-third or 30 percent of their income. And three-quarters of the people who would be income-eligible are not being served by it.
JIA: You brought this up there, and this is something I actually wanted to dive in deeper. There is a big racial element to public housing, historically and currently. And I know you’ve done research on this. To what extent did public housing perpetuate segregation back in the civil rights area? And do you still see these same elements of public housing enforcing and perpetuating segregation today?
LV: Yeah. I would take it back slightly earlier because in some ways, the civil rights era used public housing as a desegregation moment, but they had a lot to desegregate because the housing that was built starting in the late 1930s used a neighborhood composition rule, they called it, and essentially was building projects for whites and projects for usually, blacks. Although sometimes in some cities the non-white component was a different other, but called out by its name. Sometimes cities like New Orleans, or Atlanta and other places replaced mixed-race neighborhoods with uni-race segregated public housing. So it’s pretty explicit that the federal government was contributing in perhaps the most direct ways imaginable to formalizing segregation, and did so as a consequence of the need to appease legislators who otherwise wouldn’t have allowed the legislation to go forward. Then if you fast forward to the 1960s, that period of time was when public housing shifted from being this carefully selected reward mechanism for that particular set of families that typically were both racially encoded into their place and of households that were married couples with young children often where one of the parents had been a veteran and honorably served the country.
They were explicitly excluding extended families or households that had borders in them, or anyone that would be a gay or lesbian couple. Anything that was not a standard nuclear family, one male, one female, young kids was filtered out in large ways. And one of the things that the civil rights movement did, in addition to the racial segregation was to say, wait a minute, you can’t discriminate on the basis of someone having a child out of wedlock or being a single-parent household, or those kinds of things. And public housing increasingly had a demand from families that were struggling economically, many of which were single-parent households.
The other way that race came in was once it became harder to build family public housing in some neighborhoods and cities that now saw it not as serving people they were trying to keep out of their neighborhoods. There was a shift to housing for seniors with the idea being that the elderly would be easier to manage, would be easier to find more white people to fill apartments, and would need smaller apartments so that it was less expensive to build housing that could put a lot of units in the same building, and were more conducive to being using and needing elevators so that high-rise housing taking up less space could be built. So that’s not directly a racial issue, but many cities played into it in an effort to retain a larger political constituency for the housing by suggesting that it could serve a broader range of the public.
JIA: Cutting to today, the civil rights era obviously didn’t solve all these problems and we’re still a racially stratified country. To what extent do you see public housing as a counterbalance to that? A perpetuator of that both? How do you see it playing into racism and racial segregation today?
LV: Well, I think it’s a city-by-city thing. Certainly, there are relatively few white people living in public housing, in family public housing, fewer than there used to be. But the category that gets lumped together as non-white is a very crude and misleading one that could reveal quite a lot of variety being served. So a question is, how do we measure segregation and who is segregated from whom and which ones matter most? The problems that have arisen have been when public housing redevelopment explicitly takes on a racial desegregation agenda and is then seen as bringing together these mixed-income communities, some of which become stratified not only by income but by race, creating some tensions. Not to say that there are higher-income black or Latinx or other households coming into the mixed-income mix. But it is a basic decision that many communities have struggled over when they plan for the post-public housing mix, whether the predominantly African-American households that lived in these places are returning in large numbers. And if they’re not, who is it that’s coming in to replace them? It’s what I call the design politics of the unit mix, meaning that simply deciding how many apartments are of which size and how you put them in juxtaposition to one another will say things.
And one of the other things that I’ve tried to make a hallmark of my work is to focus on this relationship between the design and the politics because I think it’s one of the ways that you can see race and racism playing out. For example, in the Cabrini Green redevelopment, one of the new mixedincome communities that was being built to partly rehoused the former Cabrini residents was trying to attract a lot of higher-income people who would pay market rates to live right in that same community. The designer drawings initially showed a community that had potlucks and benches to sit in. The developers looked at this and they were trying to partner a for-profit developer who was in charge of the market-rate housing in a not-for-profit that was more focused on the subsidized or deeply subsidized housing, and to figure out how to make that work.
And the for-profit developer looks at the drawing and said “No, no. We don’t want all those people to be gathering together.” And they changed the drawing to show a dog park instead of a taut line. So it’s not that they’re saying something explicitly racist, but it’s not very far from that. The design politics of that drawing saying we don’t want your large black family here anymore. It’s fine if you’re white people with little dogs, but if you’re black people with little kids, maybe not so much. And so one of the things that has been so interesting to me is to see how silently, but powerfully the world of design and planning is encoding assumptions about who is welcome, who is resisted. To me, that shows some of the ways that racism and race continue to be at the heart of the story.
JIA: That’s really interesting. I hadn’t heard that story before. I think that’s fascinating that the racial segregation gets perpetuated just to design and architecture.
LV: To me as somebody who studied politics and studied architecture separately, my career challenge has been to figure out how are those intertwined? And I find it everywhere.
JIA: You touched on this in your last answer and I don’t know if you looked at the questions I sent beforehand, but I included a somewhat provocative one that I think is maybe oversimplified. In reclaiming public housing, one or multiple of the areas you studied had some degree of privatization of the process. And I think you’ve found that there’s some success there. Should public housing be privatized? What role does privatization play in this process? And do you see it as a positive or a negative? How can it contribute to public housing?
LV: I don’t see that as an especially provocative question anymore because it’s at the heart of a lot of the debates. The example that I wrote about in “Reclaiming Public Housing,” which was the Commonwealth development in Boston was one of the early examples of a private management company taking over public housing responsibility for management. And it’s become the rule rather than the exception. This was done in the 1980s before the so-called “Hope VI” program that did hundreds of public housing redevelopment efforts since the 1990s. In many ways, it was a precursor for that, but it’s a very different kind of privatization at work. It is indicative of the partial privatization that’s been there from the beginning. I did an article that was called “From Public Housing to Public-Private Housing.” The article traces this long evolution. But I would say that the private sector has never been absent in public housing and that subsidized housing has long been privatized, it’s the part of public housing that is the voucher system. People don’t necessarily call it that because it’s not in a project. But the whole idea starting in the 1970s was to say, “Well, if we’re going to put government money into this, why don’t we have it used with private sector landlords and let people go find those landlords and then get their housing subsidy in both places instead?”
So that already is well over double the number of units as public housing. And then where public housing gets described as privatized now are in two modes. One is this private management and then the second is the transfer that has happened under the so-called rental assistance demonstration, or RAD that has gradually taken a lot of the public housing stock that changes the category that public housing is in so that it’s possible to borrow money to pay for the renovations with the claim that it will be the way of getting those renovations paid for without evicting people. What I would say about both of those things, the private management and the rental assistance demonstration is that it depends very much on the place. The example that you mentioned that I wrote about is privatization in the sense that a private sector landlord took over the management of the newly redeveloped Commonwealth development in Boston. But it did so in conjunction with a really long management agreement negotiated by a lot of tenant-centric lawyers and Housing Authority officials and others that did something I’ve never heard before since. It gave the residents the right to fire the private management company with 30 days notice. So that’s privatization, but where is the power? It’s staying largely with the low-income tenant organization that persists. And so the private management company that was picked in the 1980s has periodically been re-vetted and then rehired.
And it’s arguably the best run public housing in Boston, still, but part of it was this complexity of its governance that it wasn’t simply an alien force saying, “These people are in charge of your lives, get used to it.” It was saying, “This is a 250-page document that you have negotiated with these people where the community has set its own rules, where the management pledges to be responsive in these kinds of ways on these kinds of deadlines.” And to me, this is still the most exciting moment in co-management that I’ve seen. And if that’s what privatization can mean, I don’t see it as a wholly negative phenomenon. Where I worry is in cities where the tradition has been to let the for-profit private developer run rampant where there is correspondingly rampant mistrust for the public sector agency that has frequently been in trouble and designated as such by HUD, and where there is a completely inadequate system of protections for residents.
If you’re in a place that has strong tenant-centered management capacity, where you have strong not-for-profit organizations, where you have a committed public agency that knows how to build in precautions, these kinds of ways of opening up opportunities to invest in public housing through this RAD program could be possible and could be done. A small city like Cambridge, Massachusetts, for instance, set up its own development unit to oversee RAD for the entire public housing stock of Cambridge. And that’s a really well-functioning agency with a lot of trust. And hopefully, they can pull it off in a way that doesn’t force people into the landscape of eviction that is so troubling around the country and is bound to get worse very soon.
JIA: I would love to slightly switch tracks a little bit and start look at the current and future challenges that cities are going to face and how they will affect public housing and how public housing can contribute to solutions. The first one I wanted to focus on is the subject of this issue, urbanization. What challenges does urbanization pose to the public housing system? And how do you see public housing as multiple solutions to that challenge?
LV: The challenge to answering that question is that I think urbanization as a phrase applies much more in other countries than it does to the United States, which has already urbanized so heavily. So yes, there are certainly some cities growing rapidly. And where the public housing needs are falling further behind, it may not be the same kind of rural to urban migration that preceded the public housing construction in the mid-20th century and had a lot to do with its earliest constituency. So in some ways, I would say that the biggest connection between urbanization and public housing in the U.S. is the one that already occurred. Where it has had new rounds of contention is the confluence of urbanization and global immigration. And the question of, who should the housing authorities serve in their public housing? Should it be people that have been around in the community for generations? Or should it be serving impoverished newcomers? And I think that’s been a challenge in many cities. And so that’s one aspect of it. And the second aspect is that the demand for public housing and for vouchers has been much higher than the supply for a long time and will continue to be so, especially if there are a lot of private landlord evictions coming from people once the moratorium on rent is lifted.
So the crisis that will need to be managed is both where do people who don’t have the money to pay their rent if they’re being asked to pay money that they haven’t paid but haven’t been evicted for before and they’re now eligible for that. Where’s that money going to come in? If evictions resumed, where are they going to go? And second, how are the small landlords protected if they have been unable to sustain their own place of business because their tenants have been behind in their rent? So as I look at it, the pressure on the public housing system will be ever greater and it’s probably more likely to be pressure on the housing voucher side where as many in Congress have called for, there could be an increase in the number of these deeply subsidizing housing choice vouchers provided that have the advantage of not needing to spend money to construct new public housing, inexpensive housing markets that takes a long time and is fought over. The problem with that is that the long history of landlord resistance to taking these vouchers, sometimes rooted in racism, is still pervasive in many parts of the country. And so a voucher is only helpful if your household is able to deploy it, rather than look in vain and then return it.
And so the question that I fear for, or at least the scenario I worry about, is increasing the vouchers and having an inadequate capacity to deploy them in ideal ways. It’s linked to a lot of other issues about the distribution of housing in the metropolitan areas of cities. The challenges of fair housing and the progress that was made on the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule that was passed in 2015, and then suspended in the late part of the Trump administration was intended to try and ask all communities to document the ways that they were facilitating access to housing for all in their communities and to facilitate more of that. With three other MIT folks, we have a co-edited book coming out next week on this subject called Furthering Fair Housing: Prospects for Racial Justice in America’s Neighborhoods that is intended to both look at that question of where can affordable housing be located in ways that maximize access and equality of access to opportunities in the larger city regions that we face.
So is that urbanization? I don’t know. I think in some ways, it’s the problem of suburbanization rather than or urbanization when we talk about it in the United States. A lot of my other work in recent years has started to become much more internationally comparative and has looked at how places in Latin America, for instance, are coping with urbanization and low-income housing. But that is an entirely different challenge when you really are having massive rural to urban migration and increasingly migration that is driven by climate crisis as well as political crises, civil war, and other kinds of conflicts. The pressures on low-income housing cities will differ city to city and country to country, but are completely inseparable from all of these other kinds of events that are going on in those countries and increasingly, beyond their borders that are forcing new people to move to cities in search of some type of economic stability that may not actually be there. And the question is, where in the city do they go? Do they get pretty close to the center like some of the favelas in Brazilian cities? Or are they clustered in the peri-urban areas where there is a tremendous deficit of infrastructure, and or new housing that is nowhere near transport or jobs? And then fails on the things I talked about—fails to give access to livelihoods, fails to produce a safe environment doesn’t give you security from violence or from eviction, and doesn’t allow any kind of control and participation in governance.
JIA: I think that’s really interesting. We do think of urbanization as a singular phenomenon of moving from the country to the city, but it really is more complicated about where do they move? Why are they moving?
LV: What is the city? And how welcome, and what type of place can they live once they’re there? And in many cases, cities have changed their boundaries. What comes to our head about what the city looks like may be very different from city to city and country to country. The facilities and answers to my question about what should affordable housing afford will be very different depending on the place and the need to find work and support a household.
JIA: I want to be conscious of your time. It looks like we’re heading towards the hour. Before I let you go, is there anything about your research about public housing writ large that you think our readers should know when they read this interview?
LV: I think I’ve made clear why I think public housing matters for residents. One of the things I saw that you listed in your questions was, why is the subject important? And I think I just said why it’s important for residents, and that is the central importance. But I think it’s really important as an area of research as well as an opportunity to see public housing as a window into nearly every perennial challenge facing Americans: racism, economic inequality, disparities and health, vulnerability to disaster, violence, and productive governance. And then, for me, it’s also a window to understand the limitations and the value of professions like architects and landscape architects and urban designers and planners. It’s asking us to really not think of it as a narrow subject of some object on the land and some particular set of people, but it’s an invitation to ask, what I think of it are pretty basic questions.
What is the proper role for government in assisting the least economically advantaged? And the one that you asked already, what has been the role of federal and local policy in instigating racial segregation and sustaining it? Finally, the more general one that I find myself observing in cities, both in the U.S. and abroad, who benefits from the development of places and who loses out? For me, the important thing is that it’s about more than the study of problems, it’s also about identifying the circumstances that still permit transformation to happen. And that’s why I still find this a worthwhile subject to spend as much of my time and energy as I have.
JIA: Increasingly as cities start to become this greater area of study, I think public housing will be a big issue that we need to look at. I’m glad you mentioned that at the close of this.
LV: We didn’t focus and I haven’t focused as much on the international dimensions of it, or the ways that the international dimensions impact domestic policies. But one could talk to people in Minnesota about the Hmong population in public housing, for instance, or in Maine, I think it’s probably true too. A lot of East African population, Somalis, other groups that have arrived in the U.S. as refugees often end up in different forms of public housing. I’ve not really seen anybody do a lot to study that particular subject, but it’s starting to happen.
And there’ll be opportunities for people to really see how the world of international politics and global displacement plays into the subjects of low-income housing in the United States, as well as in countries and places that have done a lot about it because there are a few huge success stories like Singapore where 80 something percent of the population is in public housing of some form. But you could question, what does it mean that the government imposes an ethnic quota on every one of these as a way of making sure that there are never any communities that don’t have a Chinese ethnic majority in them? The design politics plays out in Singapore just like it does in the United States. And that’s why I find this is such a useful window.