Social Housing for the US: Homes for All

By Jimmy Tobias, the Nation, 2018

These developments could not be bought or sold, nor could landlords raise the rents at will, so they remained consistently affordable. However, this made them a threat to the real-estate industry. David Walsh, a US senator at the time, complained that the PWA-constructed houses “in New York, Cleveland, and Boston and elsewhere are really in competition with private property.”

One of the Housing Division’s most grievous failures, it is essential to note, was its unwillingness to challenge racial segregation in American cities. In many cases, it even spread the sin by developing separate white-only and black-only developments. The legacy of this government-sanctioned segregation lives on in federal housing policy to the present day.

The PWA Housing Division was ultimately short-lived. It was abolished and replaced by the foundational but fundamentally flawed Housing Act of 1937. What emerged over the following decades was a two-tier approach to national housing policy. On the one hand, the federal government developed a public-housing program that was constrained by cost controls and served only the lowest-
income people in the country, many of them politically marginalized people of color. On the other, it established massive incentive and insurance programs that fueled the commercial real-estate industry and bankrolled homeownership for middle-class (and mostly white) Americans. The universalist approach to noncommercial housing that Catherine Bauer imagined never materialized.

Now, however, Bauer’s vision is being resurrected, embraced by a growing corps of thinkers and activists under the rubric of “social housing.”

Last month, the People’s Policy Project (3P), a socialist-leaning think tank founded by the writer and lawyer Matt Bruenig, released a report, “Social Housing in the United States,” which argued that the country’s market-oriented approach to affordable-housing development is woefully inadequate. Programs like Section 8 vouchers, the low-income housing tax credit, and inclusionary zoning use a variety of incentives and subsidies to encourage private developers to build or maintain affordable housing across the nation. While these are important tools in the current political context, they are too small, too timid, and rely too heavily on private interests to truly meet the needs of desperate renters. They simply haven’t provided enough affordable housing.

In place of such market schemes, 3P offers the radical solution of mass social housing in the United States. Social housing, as a recent exhibit at New York City’s Center for Architecture describes it, is defined by “a mix of public projects led by city authorities, philanthropic schemes led by charities and collective schemes led by residents. Common to them all…is the idea that there are alternatives to a purely market-oriented system of housing provision.”

With this concept as context, the People’s Policy Project put forward its proposal: The American people should endeavor to develop 10 million units of “large-scale municipal housing, built and owned by the state,” over the next 10 years (the country currently faces a shortfall of an estimated 7 million so-called deeply affordable units). Such a program, the 3P researchers contend, could model itself on the social-housing developments that thrive across the Atlantic. They point to Sweden, where municipal governments built 1 million social-housing units over the course of a decade beginning in the 1960s. They point as well to Vienna, where three in five residents live in housing built, owned, or managed by the municipal government. This housing provides not just for the poor or working class, but “serves the middle class as well…and has thus avoided the stigma of being either vertical ghettos or housing of last resort,” as the urban-policy scholar Peter Dreier has written.

Social housing in the United States, the 3P report argues, should be based on universalist principles, with the aim of moving toward a housing model with no means-testing. Such developments “should be mixed-income, adequately served by public transport, and have easy access to amenities and shops.” They should be regulated in a manner that prohibits discrimination and provides for the disabled and other marginalized populations, and should be largely self-financing, with tenants paying rents on a sliding scale.

How could we fund such an ambitious program? The report notes that a simple repeal of the Republican tax plan could generate enough revenue to build 10 million houses, at an average cost of $150,000 to $220,000 per unit. But the true solution is a massive expansion of federal support for municipal housing. Among other proposals, the 3P report’s authors call on the federal government to institute a revenue-neutral low-interest loan program to fund urban housing authorities across the country. They also call for a suite of federal capital-grant programs, including one that would provide financing to municipal housing authorities equal in value to what the private sector receives under the low-income housing tax credit. And if federal funding fails to materialize in the near term, they call on municipalities to start building right away with financing from the bond market and other available capital sources. As for where to site these developments, the 3P authors believe that cities should turn first to unused public land.

A social-housing program of this sort would be different from traditional public housing in many respects, but one of the most essential ways is this: By developing homes for a broad range of Americans, such a program would quickly generate a powerful constituency capable of resisting the sort of political attacks that have plagued public housing for decades. It would also create an enormous number of jobs.

Plus there’s a precedent for it—many, in fact. “Americans are used to national parks, state parks, fire departments, police departments, public schools, public-utility companies, water utilities—they are used to public ownership of essential services, but somehow they don’t think of housing in the same way,” Dreier says. The challenge will be to change their minds.

To do that demands a movement—a movement capable of reshaping popular narratives and overcoming a gargantuan real-estate lobby that has spent untold sums to safeguard the speculative housing market. That movement will need to reach beyond the traditional borders of housing advocacy and include unions, environmentalists, racial-justice advocates, feminists, and, yes, politicians. It will require, as Catherine Bauer once wrote, an army of people “who need better houses to live in and workers who need work building those houses.”

Tara Raghuveer of People’s Action agrees—and believes the current political atmosphere is ripe. “We’re in an incredibly urgent moment that requires a movement response,” she says. “Housing is the biggest tent issue there is.” It’s an issue that should be at the top of the left’s political agenda and on the tip of every progressive politician’s tongue.

Back in Rochester, tenants and organizers
are anxious to undertake this necessary work. In 2016, they helped found Rochester’s first community land trust, a legal tool with roots in the civil-rights movement that enables community-controlled landownership. In January 2018, the City Roots CLT, as it’s known, finalized a deal with the bank that foreclosed on Liz McGriff’s home. The CLT purchased and will hold in perpetuity the land under her residence, while she regained title to the structure. She now lives there as an owner, without fear. “I am happy. I sleep better at night. I am putting things back together,” says McGriff, now a leader with the citywide tenants’ union.

On Thurston Road, meanwhile, the residents continue their rent strike. They’re pushing the city to invoke its receivership authority and take temporary control of the building. If they succeed, they hope to raise money and use their leverage to purchase the property from the owner at a reduced price. They say they’d like to place the land under the control of the CLT and convert the building into an affordable cooperative managed by the tenants themselves. “The landlord could sell the building to us,” says Mary Brown, “and we’ll get our own property manager and have it renovated and fixed up the way we want it fixed up.”

For Ryan David Acuff, cooperatives, CLTs, and other community-controlled housing are the building blocks for a truly democratic social-housing system. “The way I define social housing,” Acuff says, “is permanent affordability and resident control.”

Yet even as the Rochester tenants inch toward that ideal, they must respond to the bitter emergencies that define this country’s housing system. In late April, Spectrum moved to evict the homeless encampment near the Freddie-Sue Bridge. Under police supervision, company employees arrived in hazmat suits to tear down tents and confiscate possessions, to erase the inconvenient evidence of our housing crisis. But the citywide tenants’ union and its allies mobilized. They arrived en masse, in militant style, and physically blocked the eviction. There was one arrest, but the police and hazmat men soon retreated. For now, the tent city doggedly endures. “Forgive us our trespasses,” its occupants insist.

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