Positively Public

There’s a very interesting and important debate currently going on within the NYC Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) about the future of the city’s public housing. What follows is a longer-than-usual post that’s partly intended as a fraternal contribution to that discussion, from an interested outsider, but based on very similar experiences in the UK.

It seeded in another time and place, but my “America thing” took root in 1992, when I was an intern with the Jersey City Public Housing Authority. That seminal experience, 29 years ago, has shaped a lot of what I’ve done and thought since. Seeing the problems of US public housing was a warning of what happens when successive government policies deliberately create a housing of last resort.

Jersey City Public Housing Authority, early 1990s (with hair and plaid).

Being “emergency housing”, as one ignorant former UK Prime Minister tried to re-cast it, wasn’t the intended status of UK council housing when it was created, or for most of its existence. Although the sector was already under serious attack in the early 1990s, only a decade earlier, one third of the population were council tenants, a fact that never fails to amaze Americans (and increasingly, people in the UK). But although it was always heavily stained with racism, US public housing was also originally seen as a tenure of choice, not as “housing for poor people”.

But everything that’s happened since my time in Jersey City has deepened the crisis and marginalisation of US public and UK council housing. Although fueled by class and ethnic prejudice, the fundamental reason for this is capitalist paranoia that non-market, municipally-owned, secure, rental housing, that’s not built or run for profit, will be an unassailable rival for the innate exploitation and insecurity of the private sector.

It’s with this awareness that demands and policies for more and better public/council housing should be framed. For understandable reasons, campaigns for them have long been couched in defensive terms. But as COVID-capitalism lurches from one crisis to the next, with housing increasingly its most vivid feature, it’s time, as they say in sports talk here, to “switch to offense”.

These issues assume massive significance in New York City, where the public housing authority (NYCHA) is the biggest single landlord. Estimates vary, but some say up to a million people are living in the city’s 326 public housing developments. Even if the official figure of 400,000 residents is right (although it probably is more, given the chaos of COVID), that still makes NYCHA’s tenants, potentially, a very powerful political force.

How public housing tenants vote – and the assumption that they often don’t – is one of the sector’s fault-lines. A former Secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) once told a friend of mine that if public housing tenants voted more, they’d be less ill-treated by the government. That may be true, but it’s also a circular argument. The overwhelming majority of US public housing tenants are people of colour and poor (because access to a tenancy is means tested – a fatal flaw in the system that UK council tenants have successfully resisted). These are among the people most betrayed by US democracy, so it’s no surprise they don’t see much reason to participate in it.

US public housing has been stigmatised, often in racist terms, to a degree that, so far, even UK Tories can’t match. But what was once a taboo, is now back on the mainstream political agenda. There is real hope that the Biden administration will, eventually, include billions of dollars for repairs and improvements in its “Build Back Better” social infrastructure budget. This, in turn, may stimulate more demands from public housing tenants, some of which may be articulated through the electoral process.

However, even if the anticipated investment finally arrives, there are still serious threats to what, as in many parts of the UK, is the only genuinely affordable rental housing in NYC and other big US cities. Reversing the historic neglect of public housing will take more than one cash-injection and some, including those with vested commercial interests, argue the only way to do that is through privatisation.

This is where the trans-Atlantic experience again overlaps. Starting with Tory governments, but aggressively accelerated under Blair/Brown New Labour, UK council tenants were repeatedly told there wasn’t enough money to bring their homes up to standard and that this could only be done by opening the door to the private sector.

The results, to put it mildly, have been mixed. It’s true that some repairs and improvements have taken place, but there’s no real reason to think that couldn’t have happened anyway. On the contrary, there have been several official reports finding that work carried out on council estates by private agencies is a lot more expensive than direct public investment. It also often comes at the price of tenants sacrificing their secure tenancies and the important legal protections that go with them, paying higher rent and losing a landlord that is, however imperfectly, democratically accountable. Land-grabbing private housing projects on formerly public land on UK council estates have also led to demolition, displacement and a net loss of truly affordable homes and much valued open green space.

In a reversal of what I saw in Jersey City almost 30 years ago, what’s happened with UK council housing in the last 20 is a warning to US public housing.

As by far the biggest public housing authority in the US, these issues assume special significance for NYCHA. Although public housing authorities are administered locally, it’s reasonable to argue that what happens at NYCHA will influence policy and practice for public housing nationwide. The scale of NYCHA’s problems is also unique, with some estimates suggesting that $40 billion is needed to catch-up on decades of disrepair and neglect, although, again with the UK experience in mind, some care should be taken with such figures. They can easily be inflated by those who want to present the argument that there’s no alternative to privatisation. At the very least, such costings should be exposed to independent, tenant-led review, including consideration of the amount of money wasted through poor management, unnecessary consultants, expensive sub-contracting and excessive salaries for senior executives.

Nonetheless, there is undoubted anger and desperation among NYCHA tenants who, quite rightly, want to see an immediate improvement to their living conditions. So it’s not surprising that policy makers and politicians, including some on the left, look for “creative” solutions. It was the same in the UK in the 2000s, when “there’s nothing we can do” became the mantra of those who weren’t prepared to fight alongside tenants for the housing they were entitled to and against the lie that the money isn’t there to pay for it.

NYCHA is currently promoting two particular versions of privatisation. The first – the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) – is an Obama-era invitation for private developers to worm their way into public housing by paying for improvements, in return for acquiring a stake in buildings (sometimes as managing agents) and land, the latter with an eye for new development, supposedly to off-set their original costs. The second is a “Blueprint” that envisages setting up a trust able to secure finance NYCHA could not. Assurances are being offered that this will keep NYCHA homes in the public sector. But the UK experience with similar models is of withering accountability to tenants, patchy services, bloating, unnecessary bureaucracy and privatisation by stealth.

These NYCHA policies have almost exact UK analogues in the Stock Transfer, Private Finance Initiatives (PFI), Arms Length Management Organisations (ALMOs) and Local Housing Companies (LHCs) of New Labour and are based on a similar set of false premises, leading to broken promises. UK council housing has been reduced by about two million homes through these devices, which have often been one-way tickets to privatisation.

Advocates for private finance are rarely willing to seriously consider the alternatives. But as Upton Sinclair said “It’s difficult to get a person to understand something, when their salary depends on not understanding it”. The fact that predatory private investment in public services, from transport and healthcare, to utilities and telecoms, has repeatedly proved to be bad value for money is forgotten. Somehow, it’s going to be different next time.

When it comes to housing in general and NYCHA/public housing in particular, this triumph of hope over experience is particularly worrying. Despite its pejorative reputation, some public housing sites are in highly desirable locations that private property companies would love to get their hands on. But as with council housing in the UK, public housing has acted as a firebreak on speculative development and gentrification. Any attempt to dilute the concept of public housing will create a hole in that barrier.

Ensuring that cities remain places that are genuinely socially and ethnically mixed is just one of several positive arguments that should be made for public housing. In these volatile times, when literally millions of people living in the private sector (as renters or mortgage payers) face losing their homes, public/council housing provides a level of stability and social solidarity that the atomised market deliberately works to undermine. This point becomes absolutely critical if we are ever to make our homes (the source of about 20% of carbon emissions) energy efficient, because saving the environment individually isn’t going to work. With the link between poor housing and poor health (physical and mental) firmly established, even before COVID, the role of high-quality public housing during this – and future – pandemics can’t be emphasised enough. Truly affordable homes, close to workplaces, schools and social networks will reduce car reliance and emissions. Decades of neoliberal housing policy has not only deepened social and ethnic inequality, but increased the generation gap and the alienation of younger people, many of whom now live in a permanent state of housing anxiety.

Now isn’t the time to walk away from these arguments, but to drive them home. Undoubtedly, improvements could be made to how NYCHA is run, particularly by giving tenants more genuine decision-making power and by more localised service delivery. But making outright privatisation, or even privatisation lite, a pre-condition for what should happen anyway is a big mistake. Any thought that NYCHA tenants will reward political organisations who, however well intentioned, promote privatisation is also mistaken. When the UK Labour Party has done this, in areas where it largely controls housing policy, it is often held in contempt by council tenants.

The role of socialists is to raise people’s expectations, not manage them. Compromising on privatisation may have been more understandable at various points in the last four decades, but right now there’s a bill in Congress with a public housing ticket on it. Not long ago, it read $80 billion. After months of Capitol Hll horse-trading, the latest was $53 billion. Who knows what will be left by the time Manchin and co. have finished with it? Instead of trying to game the capitalist system, the DSA, Progressive Democrats and US labor movement should be mounting a national campaign demanding full implementation of the Build Back Better agenda, including a long-term plan to revive and expand public housing. Conceding the argument that “there’s no money” is vacuous and defeatist. Only yesterday, while they continue to dither over essential housing investment, US politicians voted through $768 billion for “defense”.

As I often quote, when Harry Hopkins, one of FDR’s New Deal advisors, cut the ribbon on NYC’s first public housing development (see photo below) he said, “Private capital has never spent a dime to build a house for a poor person”. It’s an eternal and universal truth. No amount of flirting with the private sector will change it.

Mary Hladek and her son Jim, long term tenants of First Houses, NYCHA’s first development (photographed in May 2015). Jim told me the security of public housing “made me the person I am”.

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