In defense of public housing

Children ride their scooters in Woodland Terrace, a public housing complex in Southeast Washington on Aug. 3, 2015. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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Public housing was a victory of the massive labor upsurge of the Great Depression that won the “New Deal” in the 1930s. Owned by the public, this housing is non-profit and the government is answerable to the community for how it’s run.

Originally, public housing was available primarily to whites, and strictly segregated. Thanks to the Civil Rights movement, it was integrated in the 1960s.

The government started to guarantee affordability by limiting rates generally to 30 percent of renters’ income.

Help families stay in their homes

Eighteen-month-old Josefina Ochoa joins her father in protesting home foreclosures in Sacramento, Calif. PHOTO: Rich Pedroncelli / AP

But no sooner were these reforms won than politicians started to undercut them. Home ownership programs mostly for whites were introduced along with privatization that paid profit-making landlords to provide low-income housing. This is called Section 8 housing.

As many whites moved to the suburbs, the percentage of people of color living in both publicly-owned and subsidized private housing went up. This shift, along with rising poverty levels of recipients, was used to create racist and sexist stigmas against them. People started to be blamed for their own poverty and the social ills that naturally result from it.

They were even blamed for the housing becoming run down due to chronic underfunding. Worse, need has far outstripped availability.

Public housing is still the best solution to the housing crisis. It puts downward pressure on private rents, countering removal of low-income people from urban areas and homelessness. It supports rent control and rent stabilization where those exist. It gives security to tenants, who are not subject to landlord whims.

Well-funded public ownership and management of low-income housing is more efficient than private subsidized housing. Building maintenance decisions can be based solely on need. The staff are union workers with job security, not property managers, whose job security lies in keeping costs low and profits high.

Ways to improve and support public housing include providing free social services like childcare, counseling, job training, and community recreation. Discrimination must be ended against the formerly incarcerated, refugees, undocumented immigrants, and LGBTQ people, which blocks whole families from public housing. Residents need decision-making power to shape their living spaces, resolve tenant disputes and maintenance issues, and implement security measures free of police.

Also see: Gimme shelter — A radical, practical plan to address the housing crisis

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