Saturday, March 5

Public housing revisited

St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project was once regarded as the finest example of public housing. But just 16 years after its completion the project had become so crime-plagued and vandalized that the city's housing authority blew up three of the most vandalized buildings--and demolished the rest a couple of years later.

Alexander von Hoffman of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard claims the huge project was seen as a way to revive the ailing city. It was thought that by building gleaming new high-rise apartments for the poor, spreading urban decay would be halted and the city reinvigorated. It was so logical that it just had to work; government money would make magic happen.

In 1951 Architectural Forum [magazine] praised [the architect’s] original proposal as “the best high apartment” of the year. … Architectural Forum praised the layout as “vertical neighborhoods for poor people” … “Skip-stop” elevators stopped only at the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth floors, forcing residents to use stairs in an attempt to lessen congestion. The same “anchor floors” were equipped with large communal corridors, laundry rooms, communal rooms and garbage chutes.

On completion, the world's architectural journals praised it as a beautiful example of International Style housing, which many architects of the time believed was just the way to alleviate and even end poverty and to cure society's ills. Some residents, on moving in, said it looked like a dream come true.

But as with all such liberal illusions, nothing worked out as planned. The stairwells--intended to reduce elevator congestion--became places where muggers routinely lurked. Corridors, staircases and other public spaces were quickly vandalized in every possible way. As one architect put it, "I never thought people were that destructive.”

The project never reached more than 60% occupancy, as potential residents concluded that the dangers of the place outweighed any possible benefits. By the late 1960s--just 15 years after the project's completion--only one of the buildings was occupied.

After the project was demolished a few inquisitive souls tried to determine the cause of the failure. No one wanted to believe public housing itself was unworkable, since that would raise questions about the wisdom and effectiveness of a whole range of social programs. Thus the problem must have been in the kind of housing provided. It must have been a bad design.

It must have been. According to some intrepid social theorists the problem was that the project just wasn't nice enough. They considered it an insult to human dignity, and believed the vandalism and crime could be attributed mainly to having too many apartments per floor, or making the units too small, or having too many floors, or...something. As one of these theorists put it:

If you don't give people nice things, they don't care about what's around them and won't take care of it. Put poor people who know they’re poor in cheap-ass-looking public housing and don’t even give them adequate space and for the love of Philip Johnson, you don’t even have the elevator stop on each floor…well, you’ve made it pretty clear that you don’t think very highly of these folks. And they will behave accordingly and treat their building that way.

It’s also a matter of scale. [Animal studies show] that if you put too many of any mammalian species in a given area, they react poorly and engage in destructive behaviors. a project with better amenities and more square footage per unit and hopefully it would succeed. Yet the track record of public housing projects is far from encouraging. Most are disasters. The problem is that bureaucrats, politicians, social workers and planners believe the quality of housing drives behavior instead of vice-versa.

As it happens, I had a bit of experience with high-rise management as a college freshman. The brand-new building--with only a few spacious units per floor--was constantly vandalized, in ways we wouldn't have thought civilized people would actually do. It was thuggish, mindless destruction--the kind you'd expect to see in drunks or people totally lacking in manners or impulse control.

To this day I'm still appalled at the extent of the destruction inflicted in just a few months. And this wasn't even public housing, but a private building with only a handful of low-income tenants.

While there's little doubt that the quality of one's environment has an effect on behavior, it seems to me that to a great extent the ghastly features of a slum are driven by the choices made by its residents. Example: the choice to litter, or to spray-paint graffiti on walls. But this observation won't make a dent in the certainty of politicians, bureaucrats and social "scientists" that building public housing projects with larger apartments and more amenities will change human nature for the better.

After all, after virtually every household in the U.S. got a color TV and air conditioning, the nation saw a big drop in inner-city crime and a big boost in highschool graduation rates, right?

What's that? You say that didn't happen? Hmmm....

Maybe if the government gave all urban poor a 50-inch flat-screen and high-speed internet...

(h/t Wretchard at Belmont Club)

Update, from a commenter at the BC link above:

A criminologist was studying changing crime patterns in Memphis. By chance he was married to a housing expert who had been evaluating the impact of one of the government’s most ambitious initiatives--the demolition of the city’s public-housing projects as part of a nationwide experiment to free the poor from the destructive effects of concentrated poverty.

Memphis had demolished the first of its "projects" in 1997, giving former residents federal rent-subsidy vouchers ("Section 8") to enable them to move to individual houses and apartments. According to liberal theory, the reason public-housing projects turned into hell-holes was simply that the poor--often drunk, druggie and unemployed--were too concentrated in one place. Disperse them over the wider city and "the problem"--that is, the problem of visibly ghastly liberal failures--would be resolved.

Two more waves of demolition followed over the next nine years, dispersing tens of thousands of poor people across the city.

The criminalogist noticed his computerized map of crime patterns strongly resembled his wife’s map of Section 8 renters. In fact, when they merged the data sets the match was nearly perfect.

Looking at the merged map, the housing expert recalls how uncomfortable she was to see how perfectly the two data sets matched. She recalls thinking that this would be hard to write about, because no one in the antipoverty community or city leadership would want to hear that the great experiment they’d been conducting on the city for the past decade had simply spread crime from the projects to the wider community.

Another commenter noted that Singapore has public housing far more dense, with smaller units, than American projects, yet they have virtually no crime, graffiti, drugs or other behavior problems. Reason? The government doesn't tolerate it. Singapore is infamous for its hard line on anti-social behavior.

While Singapore may not be an ideal model, it does seem that continuing to reward bad behavior by anyone simply encourages people to be destructive and irresponsible.

Still another commenter noted:

Public-housing projects are the physical result of all Leftist dreaming. All the damage done by Leftist policies pools up in such places. As the projects started to take off in the 60s, so did all of the following.

* Explosion of crime rates due to Liberal crackdowns on policing and punishment.

* Elimination of the death penalty (of course later reversed)

* Liberal romanticizing of criminals (remember all the articles praising graffiti vandals as “urban artists”?)

* Feminist denigration of men and the male role in the family

* Attacks on the nuclear family by Leftists--particularly Leftist females--as "bourgeois" and "repressive"

* Denigration of the value of work by the Left

* The welfare state and its wide variety of rewards

* Romanticizing and legitimizing “black rage” and a general culture of resentment, as opposed to teaching the benefits of personal responsibility, education and work.

Seems like the guy's got a point.


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