An April 1972 demolition at St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, designed by Minoru Yamasaki.
An April 1972 demolition at St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, designed by Minoru Yamasaki.

There’s an unsettling statistic in “Redesigning Lathrop,” Zach Mortice’s forthcoming story for ARCHITECT about a New Deal–era public housing project in Chicago: From 2000 to 2015, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) has demolished nearly 19,000 public housing units, and only 2,600 affordable units have been built in their place. This abysmal replacement rate epitomizes the slow-motion disaster [PDF] of low-income housing in the U.S.: Starting with the Clinton-era HOPE VI program and continuing under every administration since, the government has eliminated funding for public housing and been transferring property to the private sector.

A major shortfall of privatization is that the market isn’t keeping pace with demand—not even close. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the majority of America’s poor families devote more than half their take-home pay to rent. They have no alternative: The coalition estimates a nationwide shortage of 7.2 million “affordable and available” units for a population of 10.5 million low-income renters. In 2012, The Washington Post reported that there were 66,297 households on the D.C. Housing Authority wait list, and a wait time of 43 years for a studio apartment.

The CHA claims to be “rehabilitating or redeveloping the entire stock of public housing in Chicago.” The statement, from the agency website, is misleading. Like other local housing agencies, the CHA is no longer in the business of building public housing, any more than it is replacing the “entire stock” of affordable units one for one. Instead, the CHA has spent $1.5 billion in federal funds on what amounts to slum clearance, to make way for private developers to build market-rate housing.

In such deals, developers do have to include some affordable units, the idea being that cleaner, safer living conditions and prosperous neighbors will have a salutary effect on those lucky enough to get a spot. If the social experiment goes awry, no worries: The deals are generally brokered so the affordable units revert to market rate, sometimes in as few as five years.

Most displaced residents and newcomers to the system are given vouchers that subsidize their rent on the private market, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 8 program. Which usually means the displaced are moving from badly maintained public high-rises to badly maintained private apartment buildings.

In today’s political climate, advocates of public housing might as well bear a biohazard warning label. Ben Carson, Donald Trump’s pick to run HUD, is a retired surgeon with no track record in housing to indicate what his policies as secretary would be. But his books and speeches suggest limited affinity for government assistance of any kind, and some pundits suggest the appointment is the start of a purposeful effort to further degrade the agency and its mission.

“Based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous,” Carson wrote of U.S. housing policy in a 2015 op-ed in The Washington Times. Few would deny that by the 1970s, the government’s top-down approach was in need of reform. Sadly, the privatization strategy that followed is proving equally flawed: Those who need help most seem to be deriving the least benefit from it. Our nation can and must do better.

An older version of this article appears in the January 2017 print issue of ARCHITECT. It overstated the shortage of affordable units as 10.5 million and misrepresented the CHA's ongoing role as a building manager. We regret the errors.