A recent article in Mother Jones recounts a story from Los Angeles about 10,000 units of public housing that were never built.
The article is about Frank Wilkinson, who worked for the L.A. Housing Authority, and was leading the housing development. As the article relates, it was Mr. Wilkinson’s membership in the Communist Party that proved to be the project’s undoing.
Despite the fact that the story dates back to the 1950’s, it is worth reading. It helps to understand the origins of the animosity toward public housing and why even speaking in favour of public housing today goes against a deeply established grain. Rather than decide the issue of a massive new housing project on its merits, which were not by any means entirely positive, opponents politicized the issue by enlisting Herbert Hoover and his FBI to smear Wilkinson at a critical moment, effectively killing the project as well as ruining his career.
Was there a case to be made against this project at the time? Advocates for social housing in the 50’s tended towards “slash and burn” solutions, razing existing neighbourhoods in order to achieve meaningful quantities of truly affordable housing by the most economical methods — building large, multi-storied buildings.
The folks who lived in the targeted communities? Advocates like Wilkinson could ride roughshod over their often poor and politically voiceless residents.1
Elysian Park Heights, where the new housing project was to be built, was home to recent immigrants with meagre incomes. The residents had already been excluded from other neighbourhoods for reasons including low income, skin colour and immigration status. They protested when their neighbourhood was chosen for public housing. They faced the prospect of losing the homes and the community that they had built. As the L.A. Housing Authority systematically bought up properties in preparation for the housing project, it could have offered local residents homes in the new development, but chose instead to force them to relocate. Small wonder that people who might have benefited from public housing also opposed it.
Did Wilkinson’s flawed dream to build public housing deserve to be destroyed? You can read more in Mother Jones: The Dossier That Destroyed Frank Wilkinson’s Dream of Public Housing in LA