A Look at New Deal Ruins

This blog post is part of our ongoing series of insights and opinions offered directly from the desks of BPI staff and supporters. Through these posts we hope to continue to spark dialogue about topics that have implications for the work of BPI, and beyond.

Today’s entry is penned by Alexander Polikoff, Co-Director of our Public Housing program and Senior Staff Counsel. Click here to read his previous book review on Lawrence J. Vale’s Purging the Poorest.

The latest book from the pen of University of Minnesota Professor Edward G. Goetz, New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice, & Public Housing Policy, ignores recent research that has greatly enhanced our understanding of concentrated urban poverty. Two notable studies, Great American City, by Robert J. Sampson, and Stuck in Place, by Patrick Sharkey, demonstrate that, independent of personal characteristics, living in severely distressed neighborhoods has profound negative effects on residents’ – especially children’s – well-being, and that the baleful effects of childhood neighborhood disadvantage continue into adulthood. Medical research, especially on brain development in the early years of life, has identified causal links between the stress and trauma associated with growing up in such neighborhoods and many mental, physical, and social disorders that plague adults.

Considering none of this research, New Deal Ruins argues that demolishing public housing is a bad idea, and that in the midst of an affordable housing crisis we should be building more public housing, not tearing it down. Since following this prescription would lead to even more concentrated poverty neighborhoods than the overabundance of them we now have, a reader of Goetz’s book who has a passing familiarity with the recent research is left with the sense of an unacknowledged elephant in the room.

Yet Goetz is on target in his depiction of the experiences of families forcibly displaced from public housing in the current HOPE VI redevelopment process. By and large too many of these families have not realized hoped-for outcomes supposed to compensate them for the trauma of eviction. The benefits of improved HOPE VI neighborhoods, which most former residents never experience, have been purchased with the coin, so to speak, of these forcibly displaced families.

What to do? Goetz is surely right in urging that more intensive social services are the least recompense society owes to those it has evicted to enable others to enjoy improved neighborhoods. Goetz is also right in acknowledging that too many public housing residents have been trapped in communities that they do not like, and that they would leave if they could. A voluntary housing voucher program that helps people to move away from public housing neighborhoods, Goetz writes, “should be a central part of public housing policy.”

As to Goetz’s basic thesis, however, recreating concentrated poverty public housing enclaves would surely point us in the direction of a failed past. All we need, he says, is “excellent property management, good schools nearby, high quality public services, engaged and informed public-sector supervision of housing authorities, and private-sector investment providing jobs and retail opportunities for residents.” In short, public housing nirvana. In the real world we have not often managed to construct nirvanas, especially for as weak a political constituency as public housing families, and Goetz offers no suggestions as to how to improve our track record. Nirvana examples? A couple of small developments, one in New Orleans, another in Boston, said to be well managed and working satisfactorily, but with the rare advantage in both cases of good locations.

Nor does Goetz give fair treatment to the opposing view that intergenerational residence in an enclave of low-income families, managed by a public bureaucracy, is not a wise choice for the residents themselves. This view is espoused by Renee Glover, of the Atlanta Housing Authority, whom Goetz quotes to disparage, not engage. Glover believes that leaving traditional public housing is the best option for low-income families because the social networks in low-income communities transmit primarily negative influences, and that given a strategic push into the world beyond public housing most residents will benefit. The powerful findings about the intergenerational effects of living in concentrated poverty provide strong support for Glover’s views.

The course Glover urges, however, will not be a beneficial one without needed supports. Apart from Goetz’s sound criticism of our displacement of thousands of families without them, a minority require special arrangements. These “hardest-to-house” families, who suffer from a wide range of disabilities, are unlikely to succeed in the private residential market. Many need supportive housing coupled with intensive, on-site social services, provided by specialized organizations (for public housing agencies lack the expertise and resources to provide what this neediest sector of the population requires).

For most of the public housing population, however, and surely for their children, society’s goal should be to enable low-income families to live among the non-poor, in their non-poor neighborhoods. They should not be “condemned,” as Glover would say, to live in their own enclaves, certain — given the realities of our political processes — to be under-resourced. As Glover says, poverty does not have to be a permanent, multi-generational condition, and we should not establish housing programs on the assumption that it is.

Great American City and Stuck in Place are not about public housing policy, but they provide important learning that should inform that policy. Though New Deal Ruins offers justifiable criticism of HOPE VI implementation, it is flawed by its failure to take account of that learning.

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