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Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

Problems of Government-Owned or Government-Subsidized Housing

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Last October Howard Husock, a Manhattan Institute scholar, explained at the Center for Urban Renewal and Education why both government-owned housing and Section 8 government-subsidized private housing leave many poor people behind the 8-ball.

He said both kinds have been “especially harmful to the interests of African Americans. They have lured Black households into dependency and long-term poverty, rewarded single-parenthood and led to the gnawing gap in home ownership and wealth between White and Black households.”

He showed how federal and local governments in the 20th century destroyed in city after city black neighborhoods filled with black-owned businesses and homeowners but labeled as slums. Governments replaced them with public housing projects, set housing rules that punish increasing income and marriage, and defined “affordable housing” as subsidized rentals rather than small, privately-owned homes whose ownership builds wealth.

The result in Detroit, late in the century, was vacant lots, a highway, and high-rises ready for demolition. For similar stories, look up Central Avenue in Cleveland, Desoto-Carr in St. Louis, Bronzeville in Chicago, Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis.

Have we learned? Well, today in public housing schemes, the poorest households get priority. Sounds good at suite-level, but it means single-parent households — almost always single moms — go to the head of the line. Today in public housing, only four percent of households are comprised of children with two parents. 

In essence, the rules punish marriage. They also punish those who seek to improve themselves, since subsidized tenants pay 30 percent of their income in rent. At suite-level, seems like a good deal, but it means that when income goes up, so does rent. Husock asks, “Who would ever sign a lease like that in the private market? It’s not a ticket out of poverty but a shackle that keeps one in it.”

One thing I’ve learned from researching and writing about poverty: Anything that at street-level cuts against marriage and hard work is unproductive. Sobering statistic: The average time residents have spent in New York City public housing is 23 years. Some residents have lived their entire lives in “the projects.” Instead of gaining skills and pride by fixing up their own homes, they learn to beg officials for basic repairs.

Husock proposes that local laws permit “the construction of homes that local residents can afford naturally — because they are modest homes on small lots, starter houses, maybe two or three-families, maybe paying the mortgage by taking in lodgers. Some of those homes should have storefronts on the ground floors, where grocery stores and small businesses such as barber shops can set up shop.”

He envisions “a real neighborhood, one where there are people on the streets and kids walking to school in safety. Where wealth is created not by checks from the government but through ownership and appreciation.” Maybe a neighborhood where we learn from eagles.

That’s a reference to the pastor of a church, New Bethel Baptist in Detroit, which had to move when officials demolished its building to build the Chrysler Freeway. One of Rev. C. L. Franklin’s famous sermons, “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” encouraged those who needed to learn that God’s grace often comes amid hardship.

Franklin told of how an eagle mom takes her young out of the nest upon her back. The eagle then dives, forcing her eaglets to learn how to fly. She swoops down to protect them if needed. Franklin said “God does us like that sometimes” when we have “too comfortable a nest of circumstances…. We don’t bother to struggle, we get comfortable right where we are.” 

That’s true in general, but reporters in Chattanooga, Atlanta, Austin, and other cities have found that many who live in Section 8 housing are not comfortable where they are. They don’t like sharing their apartments with rats, cockroaches, and termites — and the apartments are generally in impoverished areas with high crime rates and failing schools.

They don’t want to complain, though, because eviction might push them into a worse place. Some try on their own to fix problems, but often their neighbors are not cooperative and their landlords, knowing the reluctance of tenants to speak up, do little. Given the reputation of Section 8 housing, tenants find they don’t get much R-E-S-P-E-C-T—as one of Rev. Franklin’s daughters, Aretha, might put it.