Federal intervention in housing has been a disaster for cities and the people who live in them. After a succession of fiascos associated with attempts to eradicate slums, build housing for the poor, and pursue other seemingly noble goals, it should be obvious that government efforts often make urban conditions worse rather than better. Not every government effort is destined to fail. In Milwaukee, where I serve as mayor, we have achieved success with some housing endeavors. But the efforts that have brought genuine benefits have usually been locally initiated and have tried simply to help the private market work better, rather than assuming that a bureaucracy can competently build or operate the places that people call home.
The sorry consequences of federal involvement in housing can be seen in the decline of low-cost housing. Up to the 1950s, American cities offered people without much money a variety of choices in shelter. Not all of that housing was pretty or spacious. But the options were numerous, and included walk-ups, apartments over stores, triplexes, duplexes, single-family houses, apartments over garages, flats in back, boardinghouses, tenements, low-rent hotels, and row houses.
Many of the customers for these places were immigrants, most of whom eventually moved on to something much better. Though much of this housing fell short of today's standards, it allowed people to save their money while still being sheltered in an urban setting.
Efficient, low-income housing grew organically in cities. For instance, at the turn of the century it was common for people to live above the shops on a commercial street. Tenants attracted to these apartments worked in the establishments below or on streets nearby. Sometimes the apartments above shops were occupied by the shop owners themselves.
In Milwaukee, German and Polish immigrants with peasant backgrounds placed an extremely high value on home ownership. Their self-denial and inventiveness is demonstrated by the "Polish flat."
The Polish flat was a modest three- or four-room cottage built with the first money these immigrants saved. As the mortgage was paid off, the owner of the cottage typically would raise it on posts four or five feet high in order to construct a semi-basement living space, with a separate entrance, below. Sometimes this space was occupied by newly arrived, income-earning members of the owner's family or extended family; sometimes it was let to boarders. As soon as additional income allowed, the timbers in the basement were replaced by brick walls. Rooms were added to the upper floor. Sometimes cottages were lifted off their foundations and rolled through the neighborhood to be joined to the homes of their kin. You could tell the Polish families that had made it in Milwaukee--they no longer used the basement for income, and had converted their duplex to a single-family house.
In Milwaukee and other big cities, there were sometimes gaps in the urban housing market. The incredibly rapid urbanization of the United States during the industrial revolution caused the gears of the housing market to grind painfully at times in an effort to keep up, particularly in the major destination of immigrants, New York City.
In 1890, muckraking journalist Jacob Riis produced How the Other Half Lives, documenting the unhealthy living conditions in some of New York's tenements. Riis's book focused public attention on real problems, resulting in valuable improvements in immunization programs and water, sewer, and sanitation services. But a detrimental consequence of the book was the vilification of such urban housing forms as New York's tenements and Boston's triplexes.
Reformers spread the notion of a housing shortage, claiming that the market had failed. New York, Chicago, and other cities began to create public housing, at first paying for it themselves. Cities built only what they …