No Housing Ladder [Heritage Foundation journal article] FWD

Tom Boland (
Wed, 1 Apr 1998 00:31:32 -0800 (PST)
FWD    Policy Review: Journal of American Citizenship 
       March-April, 1998
       Number 88
       Published by The Heritage Foundation 

[excerpt from] Broken Cities: Liberalism's Urban Legacy

By Steven Hayward


       What liberals did to the public schools through forced busing, they
repeated for urban neighborhoods through housing policy. For a certain cast
of the liberal mind, it is always 1933, when one-third of America was
ill-nourished, ill-clad, and ill-housed. (A 1962 book by a former head of
the President's Council of Economic Advisers was titled Poverty and
Deprivation in the U.S.: The Plight of Two-Fifths of a Nation. Two-fifths!)
But the low-income housing market of the early 1960s was not characterized
by the appalling tenement conditions described earlier by writer Jacob

       Liberal reformers had no appreciation for the way in which a freely
functioning housing market acts as a ladder, helping the working poor as
they rise out of poverty. Howard Husock of Harvard's Kennedy School has
detailed the large amount of low-income housing produced by the private
marketplace in the first half of the 20th century, a substantial part of
which consisted of owner-occupied homes and small multi-family units.

       But by the 1960s, the housing market had not been freely functioning
for a long time. The increase in restrictive zoning and building
regulations, along with the early efforts at urban renewal beginning in the
late 1940s and 1950s, took its toll on the inner-city housing market.
Martin Anderson pointed out in The Federal Bulldozer (1964) that between
1950 and 1960, urban renewal efforts tore down 126,000 homes and built only
28,000 new units in their place. The average rent in the new units was
three or four times higher than the units they replaced. Anderson found
that "it was virtually impossible for any person displaced from an urban
renewal area to move back in." By 1965, Anderson later estimated, a million
people had been displaced. Most were simply relocated to slogan that "urban
renewal equals Negro removal."

       During these same years, the private housing market built 12 million
new housing units and halved the amount of substandard housing. Today the
private market for new housing in central cities is virtually nonexistent.
Were it not for Habitat for Humanity and other small nonprofit housing
groups, many cities might resemble Detroit, which in 1996 issued a meager
86 new residential building permits.

       In addition to treating entire neighborhoods and their residents as
playthings for social engineering, the expanded housing programs that began
in the 1960s ignored the elements of older public housing programs that
made them relatively successful. Above all, "the nation's first public
housing projects,"  Siegel observes, "carefully screened incoming tenants."
Troublemakers and criminals were swiftly evicted. Housing authorities
favored the working poor; many would not accept single parents. Mothers
were given instructions in child care, and all tenants were tutored on
personal and civic responsibility. Cleanliness rules were strictly

       On the other hand, the new housing projects of the 1960s, often huge
high-rises, admitted all comers, and imposed "due process" requirements
that made it difficult or impossible for local authorities to evict
troublemakers and criminals. In some cases, perverse rules required poor
people who got jobs to move out of public housing. Low-rise slums gave rise
to high-rise slums that were usually separated from functional
neighborhoods. Hence they lacked the small elements of poor
neighborhoods-the corner grocer, the local priest or pastor, the cop on the
beat-that gave them a fighting chance of stability and improvement.

       A 1993 study found that crime rates in Los Angeles public housing
projects are three times higher than crime rates in surrounding high-crime
neighborhoods. In light of this finding, it is not hyperbolic to think of
public housing projects as de facto adjuncts to prisons, in which parolees
keep law-abiding residents hostage. In short, federal policy has done to
the housing market what the minimum wage has done to the job market: It has
cut off the bottom rungs of the housing ladder, disrupted the social
function of the housing market, and made it more difficult for many poor
people to improve their housing conditions.


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