Project Towers Reboot: Let’s Dump The Bad Attitude

St James Town Towers photo by Joseph Morris is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Mid-twentieth century Toronto apartment towers.

Consider the All-American Attitude towards Public Housing Project Towers. That’s “All,” as in pretty much all government, all political party, all public opinion.

And that Attitude is? Surviving American Project Towers are zombies. Dead, but they just don’t know it yet. As to those already demolished, they have met a fate they richly deserved.

Or did they deserve it? Consider the possible benefits of the last of these much-maligned buildings. Why not consider a change of attitude? The reputation of project towers, the future of public housing, could do with a little spring cleaning. Are there practical reasons for the reconsideration of these high rise horrors?

Density is here and now and most surely our future. Residential towers leap skyward everywhere. High rise heaven living near downtown in America’s greatest city, New York? No need to imagine. Brooklyn developers now vie for “tallest and sexiest,” pushing past seventy stories to warehouse wealthier New Yorkers in a dense forest of all mod condo towers. Public housing towers have been criticized for their density, but that argument doesn’t hold today for the private market.

Next, there is the attitude toward tenants who live in public housing. The current American attitude is: public housing tenants were altogether too low, deliberately, aggressively poor, lacking the moral imperatives of tidiness and cleanliness, and too lazy to learn the high rise custodial skills that would have saved their homes from gradual deterioration into hell-holes. They got what they deserved.

So, permit us to propose a little attitude adjustment from a most unlikely source. Following the World War II, America was briefly an ally of the Soviet Union and admired the incredible feat of housing renewal performed in a USSR devastated by war. Serviceable prefab apartment buildings were thrown up by the tens of thousands in former war zones where much of the housing had been destroyed.

There is an interesting legacy of that mammoth rehousing — a national attitude towards public housing, which today is much different from that of Americans.

Soviet post-war housing has been characterized as ugly, soulless, and monotonous in style. And yes, it was also neglected by its managers over the years. But housing was needed and built! Today in some of the former soviet republics, everybody either lived in the the postwar housing themselves, or had relatives who did. It created a bond between people, not a class divide as in America1.


Could there not be other ways to view inhabitants of public housing? Ways to try again, with more imagination and more compassion?

There were certainly systemic problems associated with the American experiment in public housing, some surprisingly universal. The above link considers not only attitude differences towards public housing, but also systematic neglect of the housing stock itself.

In the US, although tenants are often blamed for poor maintenance, this is not universal. One perspective explains that poor maintenance is connected to the original program design, where building maintenance costs were to be covered by rents. This was not successful as the program’s tenant selection and retention policies produced rents that did not cover maintenance costs2.

Still, under different circumstances in the Soviet Union after World War II, ongoing maintenance seems to have been irretrievably flawed as well. Housing boards and housing management of all kinds and political stripes appear to have a blind spot when it comes to the importance of maintenance.

Which brings us to a telling quote from an affectionate look at apartment housing in Toronto, reflecting a different attitude to high-rise renting, where poverty was present, and “.  . . where constant maintenance was the key.” Decades of enjoyable high-rise dwelling made possible by something which rarely, if ever, occurred in project towers.

Could constant maintenance have saved public housing? The quote is almost a throwaway line from a nostalgic retrospective on happy years spent in a city high-rise. The Toronto Star: An ode to the mid-century Toronto apartment

There is also evidence that kinder, gentler more human forms of social and human interaction have always existed in American public housing. Read an in-depth review of a book about the life and times of one such project, reviewed in the Washington Post: Lives and legacy of a notorious Chicago housing project

For a longer read, find the book itself: High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing 

There are fond memories to be had there, as well as exasperation at the endlessly deteriorating conditions. However, evidence of human kindness, happiness, and sense of community seems to be ignored when politicians and others pursue a “blame the tenants” justification for the decline and fall of public housing and project towers.

Finally, here’s an affordable housing future through refurbishing mid-twentieth century market rate high rises. No poverty-stricken tenants to blame, no vindictive destruction of existing housing stock necessary. Read more in Citylab: Unlocking the Potential in Toronto’s Suburban Highrises

In a less class-driven society, could social interactions be nourished rather than denied? With more attention to human spirit and less obsession with income, could refurbishing projects have save project towers, perhaps even mixed developments (given the inevitable shrinking of urban living space that impacts all economic classes?)

It might be that systematic neglect doomed remaining public housing. But that in itself is a poor excuse.


  1. For more on the subject, try: NYCHA 25 Billion Repair Estimate: Bad Management Or Weird Flaw Of Human Nature?
  2. Try also: How Adjusting HUD’s New Raise-The-Rent Proposal For The Very Poorest Could Work


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