Brett Litzler is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a first-year MPP student.
The United States has a tumultuous history with government-run housing. Throughout the last century, efforts have been made at every level of government to find ways to provide stable, quality, and inexpensive housing to those who are unable to afford it on the private market. Yet over time, public housing has acquired a bad reputation among residents and the general public alike for its sub-par quality and association with high-crime areas of inner-cities. However, there is much more to the picture than this perception of bureaucratic mismanagement and red tape, and there are in fact ways to improve upon state-run housing as a means to house the homeless and provide better alternatives to the estimated half of all renters who spend more than 30% of their income on housing. To do so, we need to reflect on America’s public housing history, while taking inspiration from government housing in nations like Austria and Singapore.
Problems with Government Housing in America
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there are 4.8 million households that benefit from some form of housing assistance, including 1.1 million in government-owned units, 1.3 million in subsidized Section 8 housing, and 2.1 million utilizing housing vouchers to pay for housing on the private market. Housing provided by the government combined with that of the private market is not enough to house the estimated 552,830 homeless individuals across the country or the roughly 20 million renters at risk of eviction due to the Covid-19 pandemic as state and local eviction moratoriums begin to expire. A common proposal to address this is to change local zoning laws to allow for more multi-unit housing and to subsidize development through tax credits. Thus far, this strategy has yielded mixed results. In New York City, re-zoning and nearly $1.4 billion in tax credits did encourage development, but only resulted in 6,844 units that the city considered to be affordable, a fraction of the total units built since 2014. Developers, of course, should not be expected to build more low-cost units than they can afford to maintain, as they rely on charging market rates to stay in business. In order to guarantee that housing is available to everyone, policymakers should seriously consider investing in building public housing.
Aside from quantity, public housing has historically faced a myriad of quality concerns. Oftentimes public housing projects are associated with high-crime and low-quality education neighborhoods with poor public services and severe racial inequalities. Public housing is also typically seen as drab and gray, and the housing of last resort rather than a legitimate option for comfortable living with amenities and services.
Solutions Found in Other Countries
Between 1945 and 1956, the Austrian government built over 50,000 new housing units in Vienna, bringing the number of public units above 220,000. This measure accounted for over 25% of units in the city. Public housing residents in Vienna also pay significantly less than their American counterparts, and when their incomes rise above the threshold to qualify for public housing, there is no requirement or expectation for them to leave. The buildings themselves also come with a wide array of amenities including fitness clubs and spas. In Vienna, public housing is a place where people seek to move to, rather than get away from. The city spends about €600 million on social housing annually, and while construction and maintenance costs are not entirely analogous to those in a large American city, Austria proves that high-quality public housing doesn’t put a financial strain on its government.
Another model for public housing is that of Singapore, where upwards of 80% of all residents live in some form of government constructed housing. The vast majority of these residents also own the units that they live in. When the government began rapidly expanding housing construction in the 1960s, nearly all residents in the country were renters, and most were migrant workers with little intention of staying in the country forever. Therefore, Singapore decided to sell the newly constructed units rather than rent them in order to “foster a sense of rootedness” in the country and increase social cohesion. The units were also sold well below the market rate because the priority was not to profit off of residents but to house them. In order to implement this model, Singapore relied on a carefully planned public housing model composed of high-density, mixed-income buildings, and though this model has its fair share of problems, such as over-crowded housing provided to migrant workers, there is still much that the United States can learn from its successes.
Implications in the United States
In order to create a public housing system that works for America, policymakers must address the issues of homelessness and housing insecurity, racism, policing and crime, education, and healthcare. It is clear that coupled with further research and alternative modeling, public housing has the power to improve the lives of many as both a concerted public investment and a means to revitalize communities. Policymakers should take a serious look at the implications of the status quo on housing and consider the successes that other countries have had with public funding and public operation of housing.