Public housing in the United States is at an uncertain crossroads. While it may have been unnecessary in its origins, owing the famous post-war housing crisis to anti-urban policies, a completely wrong idea about what a slum was and the usual canards about open space, density and city living, the people who live in it today are dependent upon it.
Unfortunately, yesterday’s social utopia in concrete has become today’s maintenance backlog. The court architects, who seemingly never shut up about “form follows function” in their disdain for beauty, have ironically been shown to be incapable of designing buildings that were functional at all. Flat roofs, a material quite susceptible to industrial pollution and rain and blocky designs that took no notice of the wind or Sun, have fallen into decay around the country.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated in 2011 that public housing needed $26 billion in major repairs — nearly four times as much money as needed to fix the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. A 2013 plan in New York City to fund repairs with ground rents to developers also went nowhere.
The fact that there’s so much open space associated with public housing, in the form of both parking lots and green space is a bit of a scandal and leasing that land to developers at market rates is probably the best our current political leaders can or will do. However, the whole situation could also be an opportunity to improve public housing and correct the mistakes of the past.
Public housing has a several problems: like suburbs, they’re single-use districts, which reinforces the car-dependency they were designed with back in the 1950s. This stops the complexes from being used throughout the day while the design is so radically different from the surrounding neighborhoods it inhibits cross use, encourages “turf wars” and divides the complex from the neighborhood. Socially, they haven’t done a good job of relieving poverty, either. People in public housing or with Section 8 vouchers are in it for the long-term.
The crux of the idea is simple: instead of bloviating on about the utopian future, we rebuild public housing to replicate what worked in the past. The complexes should be rebuilt along traditional city lines, with narrow streets, mixed uses and buildings close together, with little open space and no green space. A park and a playground or two wouldn’t go amiss, though.
Some of the redeveloped space should be private and for-profit, with the proceeds going to help pay for upkeep. Similarly, there should be some attractions, like a grocery store or library that would attract people from outside and therefore encourage cross-use.
Most importantly, though, a credit union with an endowment should be set up and say, 66.6 percent of commercial/industrial space should be reserved for ventures owned by residents. Or rather, they would have right of first refusal on those spaces. They would also get lower rents. The credit union would invest in them, as well as providing consulting. The whole aim would be to foster economic development for the impoverished, communal ties between people in and out of public housing and recreate the conditions of successful city districts.