Non-Market Permanent Affordable Housing: Practical Solution Or Pipe Dream?

simultaneous demolition of multiple public housing highrises
Pruitt-Igoe-collapses photo by Creating Defensible Space is licensed under the public domain
The Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex was written off as a failed social experiment and demolished in 1972.

People with very low incomes face big hurdles when it comes to affording housing. With minimal resources, they have limited housing options and little control over their housing in the long term. Unable to compete with people with more to spend, those with low incomes may find themselves shut out of the private housing market altogether.

In the United States, one of the non-market alternatives is public housing. It is also notorious: the media is rarely sympathetic to tenants of public housing, choosing to blame individual failings and turning a blind eye to the changes in policy and funding that are in large part responsible for the current situation.

Enter Lucy Wallbrook, a journalist with MultiBriefs. Early this year, she produced a six part series about options outside the private housing sector. The early articles look at public housing and consider factors that have contributed to its current state. The last two articles introduce other non-market models and assess their potential.

What’s going on with public housing

The series begins by looking at the social and political events that triggered the development of public housing. Then, in a relatively short time, public housing ceased to be considered a remedy and was instead assessed as a pariah. The factors contributing to this turnaround are discussed. See: Housing America Part 1: The Decline Of Public Housing

Next comes a discussion of Pruitt-Igoe, a large public housing project in St. Louis, which became a lightning rod for all that was wrong with public housing before it was torn down. Principal among the culprits were racial segregation and poor design. See: Housing America Part 2: The Tale Of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe

The third part zeroes in on segregation. Wallbrook reviews the housing policies and programs that directed public and private resources away from the homes of people with low incomes. The same programs contributed to segregation by privileging white public housing tenants, who qualified for mortgage assistance and were able to move away. See: Housing America Part 3: Housing And Race

The final article about public housing considers the significance of design in the failure of public housing, by looking at other large scale developments and the ways that home ownership was promoted. See: Housing America Part 4: The Ambiguous Role Of Design

Other Affordable Housing Models

The fifth and sixth installments discuss co-operatives and co-housing. First explaining how housing co-ops work, Wallbrook identifies that co-op members can realize a windfall gain by converting the co-op to a condominium and selling the units in the private market. The sales, especially of older co-ops, where housing costs are considerably lower than the current market rates, may undo the promise of co-ops to preserve affordability in the long term. See:: Housing America Part 5: Cooperatives — Taking The Profit Out Of Shelter

Finally, she takes us through the features of co-housing and describes the potential for this model to provide affordable housing on a long term basis. Among its benefits, co-housing reduces social isolation and offers an approach that appeals to a range of age groups. See: Housing America Part 6: Co-housing

Why does this series matter?

These articles illustrate the potential role of public policy and programs to provide affordable housing through non-market models. They also direct our attention to the ways that program intent can be subverted, either intentionally or by accident. They focus on the US experience, but will be useful to policy makers, program managers, decision makers and advocates in other countries as well.