Opinion | It’s Time for America to Reinvest in Public Housing

Joe Biden will enter office facing a humanitarian catastrophe unlike any in modern times. Covid-19 is still ravaging the country and the economic fallout remains severe: On top of the lost jobs and closed businesses, an eviction crisis is looming.

An eviction moratorium has staved off the crisis, but it will eventually expire. When it does, a crushing housing emergency could descend on America — as many as 40 million Americans will be in danger of eviction.

While the government will need to employ short-term measures to avoid a wave of displaced households, one major step toward resolving the underlying problems in the housing market would be repealing an obscure 22-year-old addition to the Housing Act of 1937, the Faircloth Amendment. Passed in an era when the reputation of housing projects was at a low, the amendment prohibits any net increase in public-housing units.

More recently, repeal of Faircloth has been a staple of progressive proposals, including the Green New Deal and the Homes for All Act, Representative Ilhan Omar’s far-reaching housing bill. Last summer, House Democrats passed a repeal, buoyed by the efforts of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the party’s left flank.

With Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of the Senate, there was no chance of striking Faircloth from the books. But a Biden presidency with a Democratic Senate — or even a bare Republican majority that hinges on a few persuadable moderates, like Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — could offer an opportunity for a legacy-defining initiative.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was able to engineer the repeal by attaching it as an amendment to a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan that passed the House in July. If Republicans retain control of the Senate, this is probably the most realistic path to repeal. Infrastructure spending has drawn bipartisan support and killing Faircloth in an amendment is easier politically, since it won’t force an up-down vote from conservative Republicans. Still, its easy to imagine conservatives turning the expansion of public housing as a culture war issue, casting as it as a giveaway to cities.

Striking down Faircloth, though, is worth a fight. The amendment was passed in 1998, when Republicans controlled Congress and President Bill Clinton had soured on public housing. Unfairly characterized as mere dens of sin and vice — and increasingly neglected as whites moved out and poorer, nonwhite residents moved in — public housing was largely viewed as a liberal failure, with Democrats and Republicans both cheering on its destruction. Instead, politicians argued that Section 8 housing vouchers were sufficient, even though landlords were able to discriminate against tenants who received such federal housing assistance.

Since the 1990s, some 250,000 public-housing units have been demolished. Many major cities, including Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia and New Orleans, have chosen to eradicate much of their public-housing stock. New York City, one of the last holdouts, is considering various privatization schemes to raise funds for its crumbling buildings. At the minimum, these units can be returned without repealing Faircloth, but to go beyond the 1990s standard — and give the nation the housing expansion it needs — the law must go.

Though technocratic-minded politicians believed offering families housing vouchers instead of apartments in decaying developments would give them better choices, all it really created was more precarity and instability, more ways to be priced out in a fevered housing market. In the 2010s, rent skyrocketed in many American cities with wealthy newcomers swarming once overlooked neighborhoods, cities blocking affordable housing proposals and real estate developers filling skylines with pricey condominiums.

A return to New Deal-style housing policy could save a new generation from predatory landlords and traumatizing evictions. In the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt created the federal Housing Division, a part of the Public Works Administration. The P.W.A. built the first 51 federal public-housing developments, offering affordable, high-quality homes at a time when eviction riots and immense homeless encampments were commonplace.

The idea was simple: give more Americans a place to live and help jump-start an ailing economy, particularly in struggling urban cores. When the housing developments received adequate federal investment, they were home to working-class families who could flourish without the threat of unaffordable rent increases looming over them.

Even when public housing was properly funded, though, not all was well. The midcentury “slum clearance” model of city planning, championed by the likes of Robert Moses, erased thriving small-scale tenement neighborhoods in order to erect the grimly impersonal monoliths we associate with public housing today. Too often, these towers were racially segregated and designed to be isolated from their neighbors. But these are fixable problems.

The primary problem with public housing was that the government didn’t provide enough funds to maintain the buildings and allow tenants to live with dignity. Legislators have gutted the federal housing budget repeatedly, halving the capital fund between 1998 and 2018. The repair needs of New York City’s deteriorating public-housing system could be as high as $68.5 billion by 2028.

There is another way. As the pandemic accelerates displacement, Congress can repeal Faircloth, clearing the way for a new era of housing investment, building hundreds of thousands of new units in towns and cities across America.

Repealing Faircloth alone won’t address funding shortfalls, particularly in New York — the state and federal governments must step up. And at a minimum, legislators should replenish the losses of the capital fund since the 1990s. The federal housing budget, at less than $50 billion, is a small fraction of the trillions in annual expenditures the government incurs. It can easily be expanded. But repeal would be a vital signal that America is back in the business of expanding public housing.

Instead of the hulking apartment towers typically associated with American public housing developments, the federal government can create true social housing, following the lead of Singapore and Vienna, where government-run housing is attractive and meticulously maintained.

In Singapore, the government offers heavily subsidized apartments to its citizens for sale, surrounding the developments with playgrounds, supermarkets and health clinics. A housing board ensures upkeep, making them little different than upscale, private condominiums.

Unlike other cities, Vienna does not readily sell off public land, using it instead to build more housing. One-bedroom apartments in sleek modern buildings can rent for as little as $350. The municipality itself rents out the housing, as well as trusted nonprofits.

Vienna’s model that can be replicated in America, where the federal government commands far more resources. The stigma attached to public housing can be erased entirely with a reasonable level of investment. Remarkably, almost two-thirds of Viennese live in this social housing, compared to the less than 1 percent of Americans who dwell in public housing.

Without a repeal of Faircloth, it will be far more difficult to address America’s long-term housing crisis. Aggressively expanding public housing stock could help realize the dream of a universal right to housing, which is just and achievable in the world’s richest nation.

Ross Barkan, a novelist, is a columnist for The Guardian and Jacobin Magazine.

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