America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy
By Howard Husock Ivan R. Dee, 2003, 256 pp., $26. When President Bush proposed eliminating any new money for the HOPE VI program, he was following a recommendation of Myron Magnet, editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, and of Howard Husock, the journal’s chief writer on federal housing programs. A recent book by Husock, drawn from his articles in City Journal, calls for ending HOPE VI and for scrapping or vastly curtailing most federally supported housing programs. New urbanists would do well to acquaint themselves with the arguments of Husock, director of public policy case studies at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, because his ideas, and Magnet’s, wield great influence with Bush and campaign strategist Karl Rove. In America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake, Husock contends that mixed-income housing — if it’s created through government subsidies — harms vulnerable neighborhoods and striving families. Both HOPE VI and the Section 8 rent subsidy program operate in the belief that poor families who are given a government-subsidized opportunity to live among better-off people will benefit from the improved environment. They will cease being dragged down by a degraded physical and social habitat and will instead become more productive — in school, in the workforce, and in other aspects of daily life. Journalists have reported on families that seemed to do much better after they were subsidized to move from blighted Chicago neighborhoods to housing in middle-class suburbs. Husock will have none of this. He claims “it is far more likely that disordered families will drive good families to despair through their anti-social behavior than that good families will improve the behavior of the disordered.” If there are careful or comprehensive studies showing how extensively this kind of damage occurs, Husock fails to cite many of them. Mostly he alternates between scattered examples (interesting but inconclusive) and broad generalizations about undisciplined poor people bringing down the neighborhoods that subsidies helped them move into. This failure in Husock’s argumentation is a shame, because he raises critically important issues, which many advocates of subsidized housing would prefer to lie dormant. When I looked into declining rowhouse neighborhoods inBaltimore a couple of years ago, Baltimoreans told me that HOPE VI’s demolition of high-rise public housing projects sent a wave of problem tenants — some of them drug-addicted or criminally inclined — into other neighborhoods in that city, causing some of those neighborhoods to deteriorate. A public official in Yonkers, New York, told me the Section 8 program had overburdened certain neighborhoods in his city with renters who turned out to be less responsible than the established residents. The magnitude of the problem is unclear, but there’s no doubt that subsidized housing sometimes damages the receiving neighborhoods. New Urbanism preaches the desirability of diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods. To a large extent, new urbanists try to achieve this mix by fostering a broad range of sizes and kinds of dwellings in a neighborhood or community — big houses, little houses, rowhouses, apartments, accessory units, and live/work units among them. But subsidies and government intervention are sometimes part of the strategy. Husock claims such a strategy is bound to fail because “housing subsidies do not reward achievement; they reward need.” They undercut the importance of personal effort, the sense that “you earn your way to a better neighborhood.” In the current political climate, it’s essential that Husock’s arguments be addressed.