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Sun Nov 29, 2015, 06:51 PM

In Defense of Public Housing

Imagine a future in which many of us live in, and thrive in, quality public housing.

When people on the Left think about solutions to the housing crisis, few of us think about public housing. Faced with the twin problems of overinvestment, leading to gentrification and displacement, and underinvestment, leading to substandard housing and foreclosures, we tend to think about locally based solutions, which makes sense. Many of these problems are caused by the state in collusion with the real estate industry, and it seems impossible to imagine a future in which the government plays a different role. But Id like to imagine a future in which many of us live in, and thrive in, public housing.

Any discussion of the future of public housing must begin by understanding its origins. Public housing in the United States first emerged in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, when there was an enormous shortage of housing following the Great Depression. The federal government began by making loans to nonprofit corporations to build housing. This program produced very few housing units, due both to the lack of qualified builders and to the inefficiency of channeling public funds through the limited-dividend corporations.

As a result, under the Public Works Administration, led by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the government decided to enter the housing business: rather than paying companies to build government-subsidized housing, the state would build and maintain housing through local housing authorities.

As soldiers returned from World War II, their expanding families created a boom in demand for housing, both private and public. The vast public housing programs undertaken in the postwar period, however, suffered from the racism and disinvestment that would become endemic to government housing, and to nearly every other public institution through the present day.


Karen Narefsky is a community organizer based in Somerville, MA and a contributing editor at Jacobin.

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