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 increased. 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 from upscale, private condominiums.