Does Public Housing Have a Future?
Everybody hates public housing, except the low-income people who live there and the people on the long waiting lists to get in. After years of neglect, the Obama administration wants to save public housing for future generations. Let’s let them.
By Peter Dreier Posted on October 17, 2010
One would imagine that housing advocates would herald PETRA, the Obama administration’s initiative to inject billions of dollars into public housing to make long-deferred repairs. But they’re not. Instead, the proposal, because of its use of private capital, is being viewed as a scheme that will privatize public housing, lead to rising rents and evictions, and eliminate scarce affordable housing.
A recent memo written by some radical urban studies professors (see page 12) makes it seem like Obama wants to hand public housing over to Goldman Sachs or turn it into luxury housing. In an article for Huffington Post, UC-Berkeley professor George Lakoff warns that the administration is trying to “privatize all public housing in America” and “give conservatives a victory they could not have anticipated.” It is, Lakoff wrote, evidence of Obama’s “move to the right.”
The critics raise some important concerns, but their attacks on the Obama administration’s motives and objectives are misguided. They are playing into the hands of most Republicans, who would like nothing more than to destroy public housing. In 1996, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole said that public housing was “one of the last bastions of socialism in the world,” calling local housing authorities “landlords of misery.” After Hurricane Katrina, Congressman Richard Baker (R-La.) was overheard telling lobbyists, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
In the face of these attitudes, liberal critics–including some tenants groups, anti-poverty lawyers, and academics—need to stop the scare tactics and figure out how to seize this rare opportunity of having a president who actually wants to preserve public housing for the long term.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and director of the Urban and Environmental Policy program at Occidental College. He is a member of the boards of the National Housing Institute and the Southern California Assn. for Nonprofit Housing, and chair of the board of the Horizon Institute, a progressive think tank in Los Angeles.