Broken Ladder: Government Thwarts Affordable Housing

By Husock, Howard | Policy Review, March-April 1997 | Go to article overview

Broken Ladder: Government Thwarts Affordable Housing


Husock, Howard, Policy Review


From all appearances, federal policy on affordable housing is facing its most searching reassessment in decades. As housing policy comes up for reauthoriza- tion in Congress, the decades-old approach of housing low-income tenants in massive housing projects has few defenders in Washington. The Clinton administration seems to favor the demolition of some of the notorious projects, relocating some of their former tenants in newer, largely mixed-income units, and assisting others with vouchers to subsidize their rental of housing in the private market. On the Republican side, Rick Lazio, the chairman of the housing and community opportunity subcommittee, has gone so far as to suggest repealing the National Housing Act of 1937, the basis for all current federal housing programs. In addition, he has advocated potential time limits for public-housing tenants and tougher oversight of corrupt hous- ing authorities.

None of these proposals, however, have challenged the intellectual basis of current housing policy. Both sides have essentially proposed marginal changes intended mainly to ameliorate the worst aspects of public and subsidized hous- ing. Unfortunately, the changes rest on dubious assumptions -- chief among them that the problems with our housing policy have stemmed from its implementation rather than its very conception. We are told that public hous- ing might work if only it did not take the form of high-rises and serve mainly the very poor, that low-income housing subsidies should certainly work if only they were provided in the form of vouchers that will open up the private hous- ing market to those in need. But since these proposed reforms ignore the powerful social dynamics that shape neighborhoods, we are in danger of lurch- ing toward a new generation of policy mistakes.

There is another way out of our housing policy problems. Throughout the coun- try, we see innovative models of housing that work and, in most instances, are neither politically divisive nor dependent on government subsidies. This network of privately built and maintained neighborhoods suggests that massive government spending is not needed to help those of low and moderate income find good housing.

The key to understanding what works is a concept called the housing ladder: the idea that neighborhoods and the types of homes in them shape the way we organize our society and its social structure. Public officials who understand the housing ladder can help citizens of any income secure good homes and neighborhoods. If we understand its rules, its social dynamics, government can help extend housing opportunities through use of the market and,at most, limited subsidies.

In 1979, geographer Phillip Rees found that socioeconomic status is a universal sorting principle in American cities. People of similar incomes and educational backgrounds overwhelmingly choose to live together. The result: Most neighborhoods comprise relatively similar lots and types of housing. Each type of neighborhood is linked roughly to an income group. Each type of neigh- borhood represents a rung on the housing ladder.

But the housing ladder is not just a system of physical structures; it's also a social system. Families strive to improve their economic position -- to climb to a higher rung. A bigger and better house in a more affluent neighbor- hood is one of the rewards that market economies bestow upon individuals. Unlike other consumer goods, the value of one's house is, in part, determined by the condition of one's neighborhood. Keeping a neighborhood safe and property values high is a common enterprise that helps hold communities together. Residents may, for example, work hard to forestall neighborhood deterioration and so avoid falling to a lower rung.

Residents fashion the civil society of their neighborhoods through myriad activities-organizing crime patrols, volunteering at a local school, or simply doing favors for neighbors -- that make an area a better place to live. …

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