Could Reviled Public Housing Beat Current National Affordability Programs?

black and white image of three wooden doors, each with a lock
3 doors.. photo by lensnmatter is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Three doors, one for each of the US housing programs. Which one(s) to open wide(r)?

Useful articles on the subject of public housing have been a rarity in mainstream American publications. “Not in our lifetime,” has been a characterization of a date when the benefits of social a.k.a. public housing might one day be reconsidered.

And yet, as decades pass, the two key replacement programs meant to support America’s most vulnerable citizens have had ample time to demonstrate their superiority. Both have been abject failures.

The Housing Choice voucher program for lowest income renters, universally known as ‘section 8’, has been sabotaged from the start because landlords are not required to accept the vouchers. But even in the states that have mandated landlord cooperation, enforcement is lacking and illegal abuses are rife.

As for the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTC), we will leave aside its tendency to line the pockets of investors at the expense of aiding low income citizens. Instead, we point to two profound flaws present in its design. LIHTC:

  • creates temporary affordable housing, not permanent affordable housing, because the affordability requirements expire, and
  • can’t deliver quantities of housing that are needed because it applies to a small subset of the much larger number of market rate units that a private developer decides to build.

Experts are quoted in the excellent article linked below on the future of social housing in America. They show a strong preference to believe that Housing Choice vouchers can be fixed, or LIHTC can be fixed. So, too, could the flaws of public housing be fixed. And yet all three programs have carried on and on without care or attention to their improvement. (Vestiges of social housing programs still exist.)

It’s perhaps time to reconsider Winston Churchill’s famous comment on democracy and apply it instead to public housing: “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

At any rate, public housing was once a mainstream program. It burst into the open again as a part of 2020 electioneering in the United States. Attacked as left-leaning progressive at best or subjected to America’s rote ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ sneers at worst, it has at least brought the subject of social housing back to the national table.

For a historical perspective on public housing, and summary of current replacement programs seemingly as flawed as the original, read more in Curbed: Affordable Housing Is In Crisis. Is Public Housing The Solution?