The History of American Public Housing Shows It Didn’t Have to Decline

Edward Goetz

In order to put social housing back on the agenda in American politics, we first have to understand how public housing was destroyed — especially by Bill Clinton’s Hope VI program.

The Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, New York City, circa 1938. (Archive Photos / Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

At a time of severe housing crisis in America, public housing is — often quite literally — in ruins. How did we get here?

Urban planning and policy scholar Edward Goetz tells the story of the destruction and dismantling of public housing that took off in the 1980s and accelerated during the ’90s under the Clinton administration’s Hope VI program. The stigmatization and demonization of public housing and then its demolition — about half of which took place under Hope VI — reduced the number of public housing units by 370,000 from the early 1990s to the late 2010s. The “hope” in Hope VI stood for “housing opportunities for people everywhere.” In fact, it was a neoliberal project to end public housing as we know it and remake cities for capital and the well-to-do.

All of this history matters right now. In the wake of the destruction of public housing, housing organizers are looking back to the social housing agenda.

Daniel Denvir interviewed Goetz for The Dig, a podcast from Jacobin Radio. You can listen to the episode here. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

The Origins of Public Housing

Daniel Denvir

How was public housing as we came to know it shaped by the moment of its creation in the 1930s?

Edward Goetz

Almost all housing policy that we pursue and have pursued historically in the United States has been pursued for reasons other than their housing outcomes. This is true of those largely invisible subsidies to the middle class for home ownership: those were pursued as a way to resurrect the housing market and get people back to work.

In a similar respect, public housing was seen as a way of jump-starting the economy in the middle of the Depression. The construction jobs that would ensue from a robust public housing effort would be helpful in turning around the economy and getting people back into employment. And then all kinds of follow-on economic impacts would trickle throughout the economy and be part of the great recovery.

The fact that public housing was oriented toward the lowest income members of society wasn’t actually intended at the beginning. Public housing was meant to be a way station for people who were temporarily poor because of the effects of the Great Depression. So from its beginnings, many of the tenant screening criteria that were applied by public housing authorities across the country in fact disqualified the lowest income members of the population, instead focusing on families that were working poor or temporarily disrupted by the Great Depression.

Daniel Denvir

Public housing became majority black in many places in part because it was means-tested and so limited to the poorest of the poor, and poor people are disproportionately black. But it was also because black people were shut out of that federally subsidized private homeownership system at a time when black people, amid the Great Migration, were leaving the Jim Crow South and arriving in segregated metropolitan areas, where they struggled to find housing and lived in small, overcrowded black ghettos. At the same time, they were facing discrimination amid the onset of urban deindustrialization, meaning that there were growing numbers structurally excluded from the labor market.

How did that shift in public housing take place? From that initial idea of serving the temporarily poor during the Great Depression to serving disproportionally black people structurally excluded both from the labor market and from the homeownership market? How did that shift occur?

Edward Goetz

When the program began in the 1930s, and well into the 1940s, it was not identified with black people per se. It had no racial identification one way or the other. It was only in the 1950s and then into the 1960s when you saw a significant shift in the demographics of public housing. That happened for a couple of reasons.

The first was that the economic expansion in the postwar era started to open up different housing opportunities for working-class and lower-income households. Those opportunities were not available to black people. So you saw a greater opportunity structure for working-class whites in the postwar era. They began to move in, in large numbers out of central cities, out of public housing, into a rejuvenated housing market that included more rental housing, but it also included more subsidized forms of homeownership. Public housing, remember, was still fairly new then and still in fairly good shape. It represented the best housing option for many blacks living in central cities all around the country. As more vacancies occurred, more black families applied for and moved into public housing. That transition occurred during the 1950s and then the 1960s.

The other thing to note is that poverty began to change in important ways in the 1960s. It is feminized a bit. It became more intergenerational than it had been in the past. Both of those phenomena hit the black population much more than the white population. So at the same time that public housing was becoming identified with African Americans, the incomes and the earning potential of the public housing population declined relative to the prosperity that the rest of the economy was experiencing.

Daniel Denvir

Federal law required from the get-go that public housing authorities (PHA) enter into cooperation agreements with local governments before constructing a housing project. You write, “This feature of the program created one of the ironies of public housing, that it was more effectively fought by its opponents after its passage than before.”

How did devolving the conflict over public housing to the local level shape what public housing became?

Edward Goetz

The ultimate decision of accepting public housing and locating it was left to local governments, so local governments had to actually opt in to the program and take conscious steps to create a housing authority that would receive the federal subsidies that helped build public housing. This led to a lot of politicking at the local level and an important amount of influence over the way this nominally federal program operated at the local level.

Communities could opt in or opt out, and most of the communities that opted in were those that were suffering significant housing problems and shortages. Those were central cities. But suburban areas did not have to join the program, and they often resisted doing so. This is the first factor that led to a concentration of these units in central city areas as opposed to suburban areas.

The other thing is that a lot of these local agreements included the power of approval on individual projects. So not just approval over whether the city as a whole would create a PHA and participate, but once there was a PHA and once it was operating and attempting to build public housing.

Oftentimes, city councils would then exercise authority over where those units were built, and so would end up placing those units in neighborhoods that were typically located in redevelopment areas, in neighborhoods that had declined over previous decades, and in neighborhoods that were disproportionately occupied by people of color. That’s what led to the kind of segregation of public housing even within cities.

Daniel Denvir

By the late 1930s, the real estate industry was strong enough to defeat proposals for social housing and create this more limited system of public housing that came to exist in the United States. That system was one that limited public housing to poor people that the private real estate industry was not going to serve — which meant that the private sector didn’t have to worry about government competition. But you write that in the 1940s, the opposition to public housing grew even stronger, and as a result it was close to getting killed off entirely in the mid-twentieth century. It only survived by becoming attached to a larger program of urban renewal.

What accounts for the intensified opposition to public housing at that moment, given that public housing was already limited to serving only those people who private industry didn’t find profitable to serve? Why the opposition, if the forces of opposition seemingly already had gotten everything they wanted?

Edward Goetz

In part it has to do with the difference in the political environment between 1937, when the program was initially created, and then 1949, when it had to be reauthorized. In 1937, we’re still in the middle of a depression. We are in a situation of crisis economically. And it’s a prewar period where anti-communism wasn’t as as virulent a political strain as it became in the years after World War II.

In 1949, there was a completely different kind of political economy and political environment. This is the year that the public housing program has to be reauthorized by Congress. It’s a combination of a rejuvenated and more vigorous opposition from the real estate industry, which is still concerned about its role and its prerogatives in the housing market. And they’re simply better organized at this point. They’ve seen ten years to twelve years of public housing. It becomes equated with socialist housing. And so there’s this ideological kind of attack against public housing.

It becomes something much bigger. It’s about big government. It’s about larger ideological questions in 1949 than it had been in 1937. And that’s what accounts for the significant strengthening of the opposition to it.

Daniel Denvir

You see some of this ideological opposition already present in the mid-1930s. I came across this quote from the president of the Atlanta Real Estate Board: “The working classes of this country will rue the day when they are housed in government owned, government built, and government regulated houses. Masters house their slaves, but free men housed themselves. Those who are descendants of pioneer American stock will not regard as home a unit in a fine building built at taxpayers expense in a slum clearance project.”

What was urban renewal, this broader project that public housing got attached to in 1949? And how did its overriding agenda of slum clearance shape what public housing became? And then how did that mid-twentieth-century urban renewal moment compare to the slum clearance that had also accompanied the initial wave of public housing construction?

Edward Goetz

The year 1949 is when the Urban Renewal Act was passed by Congress. And at this point, as I mentioned before, we’re coming out of World War II. The economy is expanding rapidly, but American cities have been going through a couple of decades of disinvestment and decline, which actually accelerates in the postwar era as new housing opportunities are made available in suburban locations. A few years later, the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act makes it more possible for people to drive in and out of cities quite quickly and makes suburban living even more feasible.

So the urban renewal program was an effort to prime the pump for the private sector to come back into cities and to reinvest. The idea behind urban renewal is that there was a significant obstacle to reinvestment in the cities, and that was the existing physical stock. Cities had older, obsolete buildings that had to be cleared, and there was a certain expense associated with that clearance. The idea was that the public housing, or rather the urban renewal program, would subsidize that clearance and provide the private sector with a kind of clean slate on the landscape. And then reinvestment would occur and we would see economic activity reemerging in central cities across the US.

That was the model behind it. And that was why the program was so focused on clearance, large-scale demolition, the creation of pretty large parcels of land that would be available for an almost complete redefinition in purpose and style in the 1950s and ’60s. Public housing was tied to it because, for many people, part of the opposition to public housing was to make sure it would be limited in new areas of growth and investment. So it was seen as an appropriate use for these older revitalizing areas of central cities, but not so appropriate in development of previously undeveloped areas on the periphery of cities or in suburban areas.

Daniel Denvir

What was the actual reality of urban renewal, and how did public housing fit into that as huge swaths of cities were remade in an attempt to make them better competitors to the suburbs?

Edward Goetz

The reality was that urban renewal resulted in the demolition of hundreds of thousands of units of low-cost housing that were deemed obsolete and not worth keeping around. It resulted in massive displacement of people of color in central cities across the United States. It was so associated with the displacement of blacks that James Baldwin memorably called it the “Negro removal program.” You saw it being deployed in neighborhoods that were primarily inhabited by very low-income people but people of color as well. It ended up demolishing more housing than it built, and it ended up generating a significant amount of political resistance after about ten or fifteen years from residents of these neighborhoods who saw the track record of urban renewal in other cities and realized that this was endangering their living in the central cities and their ability to remain in communities that they valued.

A lot of public housing units were constructed in urban renewal sites. This was seen as perhaps the most politically expedient way to get public housing accepted in a lot of neighborhoods, because there were no existing neighbors left to oppose the public housing that was being built.

Daniel Denvir

Did public housing also become in many cases housing of last resort for those black people that had been displaced?

Edward Goetz

Right. This was happening exactly at that time when the racial profile of public housing was changing and in many cities becoming more associated with African Americans — who, it should be remembered, continued to face discrimination in the private housing market, just did not have the range of choices that even low-income whites had access to.

The challenges faced by people of color in the housing market of American cities in the mid-twentieth century included politically determined kinds of public policies that allowed for and even encouraged the use of racially restrictive deeds. Then there were economic forms of discrimination that were practiced by private real estate operators and banks.

Then there was a kind of popular, community-based form of discrimination that was practiced at the block level by primarily white residents who took it upon themselves to reinforce and maintain the racial boundaries in American cities by oftentimes engaging in violent and intimidating actions to keep black families out of neighborhoods.

The Neglect of Public Housing

Daniel Denvir

Let’s turn to the organized neglect of public housing in the decades leading up to its active destruction. A key piece of context here is that the vast majority of public housing units were never distressed. You write, “This reality, applying as it does to so much public housing, is at odds with perceptions of the program, fueled by popular press accounts of the worst public housing in our largest cities. Indeed, even in those cities and in those specific projects that have manifestly failed to provide decent and safe housing for its inhabitants, there are contradictory experiences and more complexity than suggested by the disaster narrative.”

How did this narrative get constructed? How did public housing come to stand in for a racialized urban crisis more generally? What realities did that narrative obscure?

Edward Goetz

Black communities in American cities have been stigmatized over the decades. As public housing became identified with black residents, and as public housing became located and sited in the middle of black communities, then it began to share that stigma. This was reinforced through popular media accounts of various social pathologies that were thought to be existing at heightened levels inside of public housing complexes. This went hand in hand with concerns about the “the disintegration of the family” within the African-American community.

The whole business of explaining black poverty in the United States as the result of individual failings or failings of the community — really anything that wasn’t associated with describing the processes of a system of white supremacy and that sort of diverted our attention away from such a system and focused it on the individual failings of blacks and their communities — was taking place during these years. This led to a popular impression of public housing communities across the country as being lawless, as places of immorality, as places that are more or less hopeless and would never become a kind of functioning community.

What was problematic was the misdiagnosis of the problem on the one hand, and then on the other hand, the application of that diagnosis to all public housing, the idea that the program as a whole was a failure because of the most publicized failures within certain American cities.

I wrote the book to acknowledge that there were significant problems with public housing in cities where it was poorly managed, where it was underfunded, where there was a whole range of problems associated with disinvestment, both in the private sector and in the public sector. That’s a reality. What’s not a reality is the diagnosis that this was an inherent part of the public housing program, or that it, in fact, characterized a majority of public housing units. We need to think about the fact that in most places, at most times, most public housing actually worked and served the functions it was designed to serve.

Daniel Denvir

That point on underfunding is key. Federal funding for a long time was limited to capital construction costs, meaning that PHAs had to pay for maintenance and upkeep through tenant rents, which, given who public housing is serving, is obviously a big problem. In an effort to protect the private real estate industry, from the get-go of public housing’s creation, and keep them from having to face the sort of government competition they would from a truly expansive social housing program, there were really sharp limits on how much money could be spent on public housing construction per unit.

Edward Goetz

Right. These cost containment factors, which took precedence in the 1950s, shaped the reality of public housing and led to site designs that emphasized high-rise over low-rise development, that emphasized cutting corners in terms of construction techniques and in terms of materials used. So one of the outcomes of that obsession with cost containment at the front end is that a lot of public housing that was built in the ’50s and the ’60s was poorly designed and poorly constructed and therefore began to age pretty quickly.

This is really different and distinct from the very first kind of generation of public housing built in the 1930s and into the ’40s, which was generally quite well-designed, well-constructed, and built to last — and in fact did last for six or seven or eight decades.

Daniel Denvir

That was even with cost controls intended politically by the opponents of public housing to make housing unattractive and unappealing. Even still, the early public housing was built to last in a way that was not true of projects constructed in the ’50s and ’60s.

Edward Goetz

That’s right. The other side of the cost containment is the incomes that are eligible for public housing. That, too, was a constant element of the public housing program and was an effort to make sure that public housing would not ever compete with anything in the private rental market.

Daniel Denvir

As people’s economic fortunes improve — let’s say they get a better job or they’re in a job that wins a union and thus better wages — if their income goes over the limit, they are evicted from public housing.

Edward Goetz

Yes, that’s correct. They lose their eligibility and are forced to move out. So you have this rather contrary and ironic outcome of people who are upwardly mobile being forced to move out of public housing to make room for others.

Daniel Denvir

The 1972 demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe projects in St Louis, which is well before the onset of mass demolition, was really key to cementing this pathologized view of public housing in the American imagination. How did Pruitt-Igoe become such a politically consequential spectacle?

Edward Goetz

Pruitt-Igoe was paradigmatic in many different ways. It exhibited all of the kinds of negative construction characteristics that were emphasized and incentivized by the cost containment policies of public housing. So it was entirely high-rise development. It wasn’t particularly well made, in the sense that there were operational issues almost from the beginning. The value put on reducing land costs led to a super concentration of units in a single neighborhood of St Louis.

All of this was at odds with what was happening in the neighborhood surrounding it. The Pruitt-Igoe towers looked nothing like the neighborhood that it was located in. If you look at some of the aerial photographs of Pruitt-Igoe before it was torn down, it looks as if aliens could have just essentially placed this right in the middle of an American city, for how different it was in its physical aspects and characteristics to the rest of the city. It’s just remarkable, both in its scale and in the way that it looks and compares to the rest of the city.

Pruitt-Igoe public housing in St Louis, Missouri. (Wikimedia Commons)

What’s also important is that the community in which it was placed was in the process of significant economic decline. So all of these characteristics led to the decline of Pruitt-Igoe itself as the building started to show problems. The neighborhood itself had no economic opportunities for the residents, and the neighborhoods surrounding it became identified with significant economic decline and social problems.

All of these things led to an accelerated decline and pretty alarming vacancy rates fairly early on. It was decided then, after only a few years of operation, that Pruitt-Igoe was best dealt with by large-scale demolition. That demolition became the paradigmatic example for cities across the country that the housing in your city would end up being as dysfunctional as Pruitt-Igoe was and necessitating a response as dramatic as total demolition.

Even though, during these years, the official position of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] was that we should protect and retain as much public housing as possible. So that gives you a sense of the level of dysfunction that actually existed in Pruitt-Igoe and the problematic nature of the construction that had taken place.

Daniel Denvir

Yet that begins to change not that long after in the 1980s, in an unofficial shift of policy and at a time when we see conditions in many big-city projects deteriorating and more PHAs asking HUD for permission to demolish units, and HUD in turn granting many of those requests.

You write that a big part of this was a project of what was called “de facto demolition,” whereby vacancy rates were allowed to rise while repairs were disinvested, accelerating the entire deterioration of a project which would then lead to asking HUD for permission to get rid of it.

So already by the end of the 1980s, the thousands of units of public housing that were still being built every year were roughly matched by the number that were getting demolished. Why did this unofficial project of de facto demolition take off when it did and how did it operate?

Edward Goetz

This is an important moment in the history of public housing. Through the 1970s, even with the problems that were associated with many public housing developments around the country, there was still an effort to expand the public housing stock. It proceeded in fits and starts and never actually met projected needs. Nevertheless, the program was expanding, and there was a presumption on the part of HUD that as much public housing as possible should be protected and should continue operating.

At the same time, the negative perceptions of public housing were expanding to a point when many local housing authorities wanted to take the most advanced step in terms of dealing with the problems of public housing and move toward demolition. But section 18 of the Housing Act that had created public housing required local housing authorities to get the approval of HUD. They had to prove to HUD that the units that they wanted to demolish were in fact obsolete and that they had consulted with tenants about it, and that this was the conclusion they had come to. This could be a fairly high bar, because it wasn’t really entirely obvious in all cases that they were obsolete.

So the process of de facto demolition is one in which the housing authorities would simply allow the deterioration of their public housing stock, and they would do so by increasing vacancies. Sometimes they did this by simply not filling units that had become vacant. Then, as those units remained unoccupied, and fewer and fewer units on the site were occupied, all sorts of neighborhood problems would creep in and you would see vandalism of units. This would take more units off the property rolls, etc. It generated a kind of downward cycle of maintenance and repair.

When you limit occupancy of the units, you are also voluntarily limiting your own income as a housing authority. So you had fewer resources with which to maintain those properties. In fact, maintaining those properties was not your objective. But the ultimate objective was to convince HUD that these units were in fact obsolete and needed to be demolished. This was a way of doing that: allowing the decline to reach a point where HUD had to agree that something as major as demolition had to occur.

Daniel Denvir

Just imagine what that’s like to suddenly have, over a year or two, half the apartments in your complex suddenly become empty. It’s an extraordinarily different environment to live in. Why was that the objective of a growing number of PHAs? Why were they pursuing de facto demolition when they did?

Edward Goetz

They were doing so because they had identified these as their most problematic properties, the ones requiring the most improvement. Congress had never provided as many resources as was necessary for the upkeep and the improvement of projects that were beginning to age out. They were beginning to become thirty or forty years old. And as a result of suboptimal construction techniques and materials, they were aging more rapidly.

So a lot of housing authorities looked at demolition as their best option in an environment where it was very difficult for them to raise the funds necessary to turn around problematic properties. They may have also come to the conclusion that they could never operate a well-functioning public housing development at that location and so would pursue demolition.

This begins to turn around in the 1980s as more of these housing authorities realize that demolition is a real option. I can’t overstate how unusual Pruitt-Igoe had been in 1972. As important as it is, as an example, it was still a significant exception to how public housing was dealt with. So it did take this kind of informal, small-scale turnaround in the 1980s to generate the idea that demolition may be the best course of action.

Hope VI

Daniel Denvir

Let’s turn to the core of your book, Hope VI, which was the centerpiece of Bill Clinton’s public housing program and also in many ways the end of public housing as we knew it. How did Hope VI come about, and how did demolition become its focus? In what you write was a “remarkably sudden shift in official policy,” because it had only been a few years prior that the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing, created by Congress in 1989, had found that just 6 percent of the nationwide public housing stock was severely distressed.

And you write that the commission “clearly envisioned a program of rehabilitation and renovation, one that did not diminish the size of the public housing stock nationwide.” What happened? How did the program of de facto demolition of the 1980s that we were discussing become this enthusiastic and explicit program of demolition in the 1990s?

Edward Goetz

That happened in a number of different ways. The first has to do with the political and economic environment in the early 1990s. American cities were still reeling from a crack cocaine epidemic, which generated something akin to a moral panic in a lot of American cities about escalation of crime, about the dysfunctionality of neighborhoods, of concentrated poverty — really an idea that American cities as we knew them were being lost. And there was this other America that was being generated in these neighborhoods of high crime, high poverty, drug use, drug abuse, etc.

This moral panic dominated the day. Every new iteration of Congress tried to outdo the previous session in terms of being tough on crime. You saw the Clinton administration’s concern about reinventing welfare, about ending as we know it. This was a period when the prevailing notions of American cities were of a deeply problematic nature, that our cities were facing challenges that were simply qualitatively and quantitatively different than had ever been faced before.

This developed at the same time that the national commission was writing its report. The commission comes out with a pretty moderate piece of analysis and set of recommendations for a kind of rehab-based program of modernization — one that would also include a lot of social supports for residents. The commission explicitly says that the solution to public housing should not focus on the physical conditions and physical remaking of public housing, but that this is what in fact exactly happens.

The commission issues its report in 1992. Within months, Congress has created a demonstration program called the Urban Redevelopment Demonstration Program. This is what becomes Hope VI in another year or so. It’s a program that is primarily aimed at rehabilitation of the most severely distressed public housing. So it hews pretty closely to the recommendations of the commission. But keep in mind that background of moral panic. Then you have a new secretary of HUD, the former mayor of San Antonio, Henry Cisneros, who begins a tour of public housing across the country.

As most HUD directors do, he wasn’t taking a tour of the well-functioning public housing — he was taking a tour of the worst of public housing. And he begins to become convinced that the kind of moderate approach called for by the commission and embodied in that first piece of legislation is maybe inadequate to the task — that the problems he witnessed in cities like Baltimore and Chicago are just too great to be dealt with by a moderate form of of rehabilitation.

Then you have the midterm elections of 1994 and the rise of Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party’s Contract for America, which includes significant changes for HUD. The designs that the Republican majority in Congress had on HUD were that it might even be eliminated. So Cisneros sees himself at the head of an agency that is now endangered. He puts his staff through this exercise and creates what is called the HUD Reinvention Blueprint, which also comes out in 1994 as a result of these midterm elections.

The reinvention blueprint is a fairly radical vision for HUD moving forward. It includes a radical kind of redefinition of public housing, taking it away from the form that it had taken in the first forty years of its life, and thinking about the privatization of public housing, the switch of public housing subsidies into tenant-based forms of housing subsidies, in the form of vouchers.

So there’s this notion that big changes are needed in the way HUD does business, and public housing is chief among the problems facing HUD.

In 1995, HUD begins to emphasize the leveraging of private investment in all of the proposals it’s getting for Hope VI projects across the country. And this is a direct signal to local housing authorities that HUD wants to see significant neighborhood change taking place in any kind of Hope VI site.

The other things that are important here are that the 1990s was the first decade where we started to see some central cities actually rebounding in terms of population and economic activity. So there was this nascent market for private sector investment in a lot of central cities, most of it in the form of expanding downtowns and taking advantage of the amenities that exist in downtown areas in most American cities. What stood in the way in a lot of cities were older public housing developments. So they began to be seen as an obstacle to central city revitalization at this time.

All of these factors sort of converge around 1994–95, and they contribute to a fairly quick change in the approach of the Hope VI program from being a moderate or rehab approach to being one that emphasizes full-scale demolition, significant leveraging of private sector investment, and the replacement of monolithic public housing developments with mixed-income developments that will attract market-rate families and market-rate households. It’s an entirely new paradigm, and it was wholeheartedly adopted by Cisneros and HUD at that time.

Daniel Denvir

Critical to facilitating this is the elimination of a rule that every public housing unit destroyed has to be replaced by a newly built unit. That’s what allows Hope VI to achieve a net reduction in the number of public housing units. Otherwise, according to that rule, even if they redeveloped everything, they would have to end up with the same number of units, which is not what happened.

Edward Goetz

That’s exactly right. That one-for-one replacement rule, which had been in place for a couple of decades, was a major obstacle to the kind of redevelopment that most officials wanted to see. They didn’t want to replace public housing one for one. They wanted a smaller profile for public housing. They wanted to integrate it with market-rate units and other forms of less subsidized housing. That was all problematic if that one-for-one replacement rule was in place.

Deconcentrating Poverty

Daniel Denvir

You write, “The evolution of Hope VI in the direction of demolition was the result of the emergence of the mixed-income model and the belief among HUD officials that the design of older public housing was one of the core reasons for its decline.”  There are two key things that I want to unpack. One is about the concentration of poverty, another is about architecture and design.

Let’s start with the concentration of poverty. Federal, state, and local governments had for decades helped ensure that black people were segregated into poor and overwhelmingly black neighborhoods. The private sector did so as well, hand in hand with the government.

How, by the 1990s, had deconcentrating that poverty emerged as a priority for public housing officials and for politicians more generally? What sort of assumptions about poor people and poor black people in particular did that poverty deconcentration agenda entail? And what was the envisioned solution?

Edward Goetz

Think about the context of that period coming out of the 1980s, with the crack cocaine epidemic and the moral panic associated with rising crime. You also saw social scientists begin to study urban poverty in ways that they hadn’t before. There was the publication of a very influential book by the sociologist William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged. In that book, he highlights the problem of concentrated poverty — not just poverty, but the fact that it is spatially concentrated and that it reaches such an extensive proportion of the population. His diagnosis of concentrations of poverty was quickly followed up by other social scientists who began to delve more deeply into that concept.

The emerging understanding of American urban poverty at that time was that in those communities, where more than about 40 percent of the population was below the poverty level, the social problems that resulted were significantly different. It was a nonlinear increase in the amount of social pathologies in those types of neighborhoods. So there was something about that threshold — there was something about a concentration effect at that level. So “deconcentration” became the byword for officials and for social scientists.

The other thing that’s important about this is that this diagnosis of intergenerational poverty doesn’t directly blame the victim. This isn’t about the individual pathologies of poor people. It’s not identifying the problem in their behavior or their morals or lack thereof. It’s not identifying the problem in terms of social dysfunction. These were all theories of poverty that had dominated American policymaking for the previous ten or fifteen years. They were propagated by conservative social scientists who were identifying the defects of poor people themselves as the problem of poverty.

This notion of spatial concentration was immediately attractive to more progressive social scientists and liberal policymakers, because it was a response to the victim-blaming version of poverty that had been propagated by more conservative analysts. You saw a lot of liberal social scientists and policy analysts taking up this notion of concentration of poverty, because it appealed to their views of poverty. So the policy response changed: if the problem is a concentration of poverty, the obvious policy response would be deconcentrating that poverty.

Public housing complexes in central cities were ground zero for this type of concentration of poverty. Public housing complexes were seen as concentrating poverty both directly and indirectly. It would directly concentrate poverty, because you had to be poor to be in public housing. But it indirectly concentrated poverty, because the conditions in those complexes were so bad that anyone living around them in the private market who had any choices at all in the housing market would flee those neighborhoods and move elsewhere, leaving only those with the fewest resources.

This social science policy idea merged perfectly with the Hope VI approach and led to this idea that we could significantly deconcentrate poverty if we just tore these units down, gave people the means to move elsewhere, then rebuilt but at a lower density and with fewer public housing units that were interspersed with market-rate units so that we can achieve this kind of critical deconcentration.

Daniel Denvir

Conveniently for New Democrats, this wasn’t blaming the increasingly neoliberalized American capitalism. The problem can be solved by moving people around — as you write, “One of the most intrusive forms of state power that can be directed against citizens, that is, forced relocation followed by the demolition of their homes, is presented as the opposite.”

Edward Goetz

Right. It’s the solution to their problems. It was presented to them as a means of providing them with choice in the housing market, which always struck me as the kind of choice that a mugger gives you when approaching you with his gun.

Daniel Denvir

There’s something about the whole theory here that seems premised on missing or oversimplifying the role played by segregation in mid-century American capitalism, so that if you say, “Okay, you can live wherever you want now” — maybe it seems like it’s premised on the very same notions as these liberal notions that that exclusion from the mid-century bounty were the core of the problem, rather than understanding the constitutive role played by those kind of exclusions and subordination.

Edward Goetz

That’s a great way of putting it, because it pictures poverty as an exception to an otherwise sort of functioning system. If we can simply get people to better and more supportive environments, then we could have a fighting chance against this intergenerational poverty.

From the hindsight of forty years, it’s easier to dismiss now than it was then, in the sense that there was a significant amount of social science research showing those concentration effects. After you get above that threshold of poverty, these social pathologies accelerated significantly. There was also (and still is) social science evidence to the effect that students of color do better in more integrated schools.

This turns out to be a rather simplistic view of the world that suggests that all the forms of discrimination that produced segregation in the first place would somehow disappear if we could just rearrange people in space. But that was the prevailing notion and the prevailing concern about those “dysfunctional” concentrations of poverty — that they were so great that there was widespread agreement that just eliminating them without doing anything else would serve people and communities well.

New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina provide a great example. Here’s a major disaster that befalls not only the city of New Orleans, but concentrated low-income communities. Then you have pundits like David Brooks saying, well, you know, there’s a silver lining here. The silver lining is we get to rearrange poor people; now that they don’t have to go back to those old communities and back to that old way of living. When it came to public housing, they weren’t allowed to go back. Those communities were fenced off after Katrina and were simply not allowed to to ever reinhabit those units.

Daniel Denvir

After Katrina hit in August 2005, the city just closed down six large projects. Residents were not only barred from reoccupying their units, they couldn’t even retrieve their belongings in most cases. And the projects did not sustain serious damage. It was purely an opportunity to seize them.

Edward Goetz

That’s the unforgivable part to me — this was just utter pretense. Some of those buildings had survived really quite well and were still quite functional. This was taking that disaster and leveraging it to achieve large-scale displacement of very low-income people of color.

Rebuilding Public Housing

Daniel Denvir

You note that creating mixed-income communities or improving the lived environment of projects by no means has to mean the destruction of public housing. “Though advocates of redevelopment position it as the solution to ongoing problems of public housing and as a means of creating stable and decent living environments for the poor, there have been no attempts to use this model to expand the public housing stock. In fact, the new model is employed almost exclusively to reduce the scope of the program and the number of subsidized, very low-income units.”

Redevelopment and mixed-income projects don’t have to be inherently used to reduce the stock of public housing. Forms of redevelopment and mixed income will be precisely what is required to make actual social housing, Vienna-style social housing, a reality in the United States. What does it reveal that that’s almost exclusively how it has been used?

Edward Goetz

The rationales that are and were given for Hope VI was the idea that this was about the improvement of lives for the residents of public housing. I think what it reveals is that was always a ruse — that in fact the major objective of Hope VI in public housing redevelopment was the physical remaking of large swaths of central cities in the United States, clearing the way for private sector reinvestment and for a new round of profit-taking in neighborhoods that were in the path of redevelopment, where the only obstacle to that redevelopment was the public housing complex that was on site.

So you get people adamantly defending Hope VI by saying, look, this is just the new way of doing public housing. We have to do it in a mixed-income type of way. It’s better for residents, and we’ve learned our lessons. We’re not going to use those old, modernist designs. We’re going to use new urbanism. We’re going to give everybody a porch. We’re going to increase the human capital, the social capital in these communities. This is the way to build public housing. That’s what you heard.

But if that were really the way to build public housing, why didn’t we build more public housing that way? My point in the book is that we only use this model to effectuate a retrenchment in the program. This was a way of putting lipstick on that particular pig by convincing ourselves that we had discovered a new and better way of building public housing. That strikes me as disingenuous when we only use it in the context of reducing the housing stock.

Daniel Denvir

A lot of major public housing projects in big cities were conveniently standing in the way of gentrification of strategically located neighborhoods: Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, Houston’s Allen Parkway Village, New Orleans’s St Thomas, Philadelphia’s Martin Luther King — all of these projects that are standing in the way of gentrification and when those obstacles are removed, that gentrification can really tear through. So not only are deeply affordable public housing units eliminated, but the rents in the surrounding neighborhoods can go through the roof, further reducing affordability.

Edward Goetz

That’s what you find when you look at the data. In many of these cities, there are nascent real estate markets ready to react when that public housing is demolished. In fact, sometimes they react even on the mere announcement of the pending demolition of a public housing project.

I found in my analysis that that actually explains which cities were the most aggressive in demolishing public housing during the 1990s. This was about clearing the way for gentrification and private sector investment in neighborhoods generally near downtowns, but almost always in the path of redevelopment.


Daniel Denvir

Chicago is a really exemplary case here. HUD actually took over the Chicago Housing Authority [CHA] in 1995. Then, in 2000, shortly after regaining its independence, CHA submitted its Plan for Transformation [PFT] to HUD, which would lead to the massive destruction of public housing in the city. I lived in Chicago the summer of 2001 and saw Cabrini-Green in its very final years of existence.

You write, “The PFT in Chicago was not merely an effort to remake public housing. It became the city’s major urban redevelopment initiative of the new decade and the largest public works program in the city’s history.” Where did the PFT fit into this broader plan to remake Chicago? Who was the city being transformed for and why?

Edward Goetz

The PFT is probably the best example of reclaiming urban territory for new investment for the private sector and wealthier residents. So Chicago had the second most public housing units of any city in the United States. Only New York City had more. Chicago had this vast network of public housing projects all around downtown, north, west, and south, right of downtown. The city felt constrained by this kind of necklace of public housing developments. During the 1990s and the early 2000s, when investment was returning to central cities, Chicago wanted to make sure that that happened there as well.

Richard M. Daley was the mayor at the time. You had the MacArthur Foundation working very closely with Daley at this time to reimagine Chicago without that public housing stock that almost all observers felt was an albatross around the city’s neck. So you saw the transformation at a scale in Chicago that was not matched anywhere else in the country. And you saw massive foundation investment, private sector investment, and real ambition to remake the city of Chicago. That’s what made it the city’s largest public works project in its history. It was the most ambitious one of its sort in the country.

Daniel Denvir

You note that Chicago agencies would cooperate citywide, dedicating huge amounts of attention and labor resources in this effort to destroy public housing — the sort of things they could never seem to muster to simply improve public housing and serve public housing residents.

Edward Goetz

Right. And these directives came from the top. This was Daley’s major objective during this period of time. So the coordination of different city agencies to accomplish this and to make this work was a great priority of his administration.

Designing Public Housing

Daniel Denvir

Let’s turn to the politics of public housing architecture and design. What sort of buildings were built as public housing projects over the decades? How were prevailing designs shaped by everything from changing ideological norms to federally imposed cost constraints?

And more specifically, how did modernism go from being so in fashion to being blamed for nurturing social pathology with new urbanism presented as the solution? And then what sort of assumptions did each moment entail about the role played by the built environment in shaping the lives and even subjectivities of its inhabitants?

Edward Goetz

We have to begin again with how public housing was imagined in its early years. I think the first round of public housing construction was generally remarkable in its quality. It was what has come to be known as New Deal kinds of architecture and design. Not modernist per se, but that modernism began seeping into design considerations in public housing at the same time that cost containment became the overriding principle of design and construction.

There was an idea that simple modernist kinds of developments that lacked any kind of architectural flourish or individuality, that these developments reflected the kinds of working-class ambitions in the housing itself — that this was housing for the working person and would therefore not be subject to the kinds of architectural flourishes and excesses that we have seen in previous design periods.

A wrecking crew begins the demolition of the last remaining high-rise building from the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project March 30, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

The other element was that public housing was being placed in urban renewal sites in parts of the city that had been experiencing significant decline. To set public housing apart from what was regarded as the negative influences that surrounded it, modernism was seen as a way of doing that, making it visually distinct from the rest of the neighborhood surrounding it in hopes that it would survive and repel the negative influences from those poor communities in which it was placed.

Those cost containment elements of construction really lent themselves quite well to a modernist architectural design that did not include any kind of individuality or flourish at all. These were cookie-cutter designs that fit cost containment quite well.

The modernist kinds of buildings started to look pretty alien to the neighborhoods that they were located in. Modernism in general did not take off very well as an architectural model in American cities. So the very fact that all or most of public housing was modernist contributed to the fact that it did stand out visually, and that it became stigmatized visually as well. I mean, you could in most American cities in the 1960s drive around and spot a public housing high-rise from blocks away. You just knew it was public housing because of the way it looked — it was distinctive for those modernist kinds of characteristics.

Over time, the design became problematized by those who were trying to figure out what was wrong with these communities. They felt that the lack of individual space that you saw in modernist developments led to under-maintenance by the residents; that if space didn’t belong to any individual, then it belonged to no one and no one took care of it; and that it would be easily co-opted by outside forces, gangs, and the like who would take over common spaces, etc.

Finally there was a sense that these were visually alienating, that the very lack of ornamentation seemed to visually reflect a lack of care and interest on the part of those who put it there and on the part of those who lived there.

Then you have the emergence of this new architectural and design theory called new urbanism, which advocated the complete opposite of modernism. This was an idea that emphasized bringing buildings back to a human scale, bringing buildings closer to the sidewalk, closer to the edge of the lot and the parcel. It called for the elimination of these public spaces, these no-man’s-lands, that so dominated modernist public housing. The new urbanist design theory was adopted wholeheartedly by HUD, and Cisneros was a great believer in new urbanism and felt that these design approaches could be an important part of the solution to public housing problems.

Daniel Denvir

To what extent was looking to architectural explanations and solutions missing the point — and in doing so, perhaps exactly why it was so appealing?

Edward Goetz

It misses the point, because there are any number of well-functioning, high-income, modernist apartment buildings in every city in the United States. So it couldn’t have been the buildings themselves. It couldn’t have been the design. The problem was the disinvestment and underinvestment, poor management, and various other elements that policymakers just didn’t want to face.

To be able to tear down a modernist public housing high-rise and replace it with a low-rise — new urbanist community was seen as easier and more concrete evidence of positive change than to busy oneself with questions of better management and better investment in the families and in the buildings themselves.

Public Housing and Mass Incarceration

Daniel Denvir

There was a major carceral component to the neoliberalization of public housing policy. Clinton imposed these new tenant screening policies, work requirements, and a draconian crackdown on criminal convictions. A “one strike and you’re out” rule meant an entire family could be evicted if a single member was convicted of a crime.

Where did public housing politics fit into this broader politics of punishment that pervaded the Clinton agenda from the war on crime and immigrants to welfare reform? And what did that carceral aspect reveal about the true ambitions of Hope VI?

Edward Goetz

Given the stigmatization of public housing communities and the residents who lived in them, it’s quite clear that public housing becomes a very natural place to play out these more carceral aspects of neoliberalism. If we’re going to begin cracking down in the most extreme ways on the crime and the drug abuse that is supposedly rampant in American cities, the place to start would be ground zero for all of this: the major public housing complexes.

It’s also the creation of zones where federal policies apply in terms of punishment as opposed to local policies. You can get arrested for the same offense in public housing as you would across the street. But because it’s public housing, you are subject to much more stringent federal guidelines for sentencing.

What it reveals about the true intentions of Hope VI is a great deal. It wasn’t truly about the well-being of residents. The response on the part of policymakers is that a lot of public housing residents were in favor of some of these more draconian anti-crime measures. That, in fact, is in part true. But that’s a testament to the poor conditions that existed in those communities, that some people were willing to forfeit some of their civil liberties for the idea that they might end up living in a safer environment. That only speaks to the level of neglect that many of these communities had endured over time.

Public Housing Tenant Resistance

Daniel Denvir

Unsurprisingly, there was tenant resistance to Hope VI. But you write, “What is perhaps more remarkable than the demonstrations against housing demolition is the fact that they do not occur more frequently.” Why did tenants so often acquiesce to or even support the destruction of their homes?

Edward Goetz

This lack of resistance is important to understand. I think the primary reason for it is that it was a manipulated outcome. So if we think back to de facto demolition, we see a process whereby units or projects are slowly depopulated over time. When the decision is made to finally tear them down and to perhaps pursue a Hope VI grant to do so, there are very few tenants around anymore, and those who are around have been enduring an environment of massive vacancies, where the environment is not safe. And so there just isn’t the will or the critical mass of tenants to oppose a demolition.

The other element of it is that Hope VI incorporated processes of participation on the part of tenants. So HUD required local housing authorities to involve the existing tenants when Hope VI applications were made and when design plans were made. And so you saw housing authorities organizing tenants, talking to them, collecting their ideas. They would often ask residents, “What would you like your community to look like? What kinds of changes would you like to see in your community?”

They were purchasing buy-in from these residents. They were facilitating the acquiescence of those residents by implying a couple of things. One, that they were going to have an important impact on the design outcomes that were finally decided upon. Two, they would inhabit these new communities after the demolition had occurred and after the redevelopment had occurred.

This is one of the more despicable elements of Hope VI: it played on the desire of public housing residents to live in better communities. It therefore bought their acquiescence in a process that in the end really had almost no additional impact on those tenants other than to displace them.

Daniel Denvir

One of the most consequential features of the destruction of public housing is its political and ideological ramifications beyond the impact on the immediately displaced people, or the fact that we’ve experienced not only a net reduction in public housing units, but since 2000, a net reduction in per capita deeply and moderately affordable units, regardless of whether they’re traditional public housing or not. But you write, “Public housing as it was conceived during the New Deal and as it has operated during the subsequent decades, is no longer seen as a viable policy option for meeting affordable housing needs.”

In the midst of today’s housing crisis, both this acute crisis in the past couple of years and also a longer running crisis over the past few decades as rentals have become increasingly unaffordable to tenants, what has it meant that the idea of more public housing has not been on the table, has not been even conceivable as a possible solution, at least until very recently?

Edward Goetz

This is the ultimate victory of the neoliberal approach, is to eliminate public housing as an option. That was only possible after an extended period of stigmatization and delegitimization of public housing. This was the creation of that discourse of disaster, which emerged over a period of twenty years or so. That was the first step, was to delegitimize public housing.

The second step then was to find a palatable way of demolishing it and eliminating it as an option. That’s where the ideas of new urbanism and of dispersing concentrations of poverty come in. Those ideas got us to a place where we no longer even consider public housing as a viable option for meeting the very real and extensive housing needs that we have in this country, which have only gotten worse since we started tearing down public housing.