Nicholas Dagen Bloom. Public Housing that Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. 354 pp.p Illustrations + maps. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4077-1.
Reviewed by James Hanlon
Published on H-Urban (September, 2008)
Commissioned by Sharon L. Irish (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)
The Perseverance of Public Housing in New York City
With his monograph entitled Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century, Nicholas Dagen Bloom has made a useful and timely contribution to the debate over the fate of public housing in the United States. Meticulously researched and fluidly written, this book immediately stands as the definitive (and long overdue) history of public housing in New York City. Its lessons, however, reveal more about what public housing might have been than about why its fate is in question in the first place.
One could easily be forgiven for thinking that public housing in the United States has not worked. For years, sordid portrayals of the crime, vandalism, and crushing poverty that besieged many large urban housing projects were regularly featured in newspapers and weeklies. Meanwhile, the infamous demolition of St. Louis's towering Pruitt-Igoe housing project in 1972 not only symbolized public housing's perceived flaws but also foreshadowed what was to come. Since the mid-1990s, more than two hundred housing projects across the country have been demolished through a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program called HOPE VI. In their place are rising completely redesigned "mixed-income" developments that signify a dramatic departure from public housing's troubled past.
Public housing in New York City, however, has avoided this fate. This is quite remarkable, in that New York is home to more than 178,000 public housing units in 343 developments, including several dozen with 1,000 or more units--the same massive scale that is widely thought to have contributed to public housing's downfall elsewhere. The city's housing projects have experienced their share of problems over the years, but while housing authorities in Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, and other major U.S. cities have aggressively pursued HOPE VI's clean-slate approach, public housing in New York remains a reasonably well-maintained, safe, and satisfactory place to live.
It is also remarkable that, amidst abundant signs of the demise of public housing, an agency that competently operates around 14 percent of the entire country's public housing stock has received so little scholarly attention. Bloom's Public Housing That Worked aims to fill this lacuna and, in so doing, to shed light on how public housing has worked under seemingly unlikely circumstances.
The crux of Bloom's argument is that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) charted a distinctive course through its public housing experience that enabled it to avert, or at least effectively mitigate, many of the problems that have plagued other large housing authorities across the country. The NYCHA's earliest years, suggest Bloom, were perhaps its most crucial.
After a brief introduction that summarizes his key points, Bloom devotes the first five chapters--fully one-third of the book--to describing this formative period leading up to World War II. Chapters 1 and 2 recount the circumstances surrounding the establishment of the NYCHA, and here New York's ideological predisposition toward public housing figures prominently. Progressives and socialists not only had the ear of the city's liberal leadership but also occupied key positions in the newly formed housing agency, and this political bent enabled the city's housing program to proceed largely unimpeded over the next two decades. A favorable political climate also facilitated the creation of housing programs at both the state and city levels to complement the federally funded public housing program. This unique three-fold funding stream allowed the NYCHA to rapidly expand its public housing stock in spite of the vagaries of federal housing funds.
Almost from its inception, as Bloom describes in chapter 3, public housing in New York took the form of large high-rise projects rarely less than six stories tall. Such housing proved difficult to manage and maintain elsewhere, but the NYCHA adopted tenancy and management policies, which Bloom discusses in the next two chapters, that were well suited to the task before it. The agency upheld stringent admittance standards in an effort to maintain its housing as a desirable option for poor but stable and employed households, while a disproportionately large maintenance and management staff helped ensure that buildings and grounds were well kept and problems were addressed expediently.
The next five chapters continue the storylines of the preceding five from the end of World War II through the 1960s. The 1940s and 1950s were the "boom years" for the NYCHA, according to Bloom. The agency built tens of thousands of public housing units during this time, but more importantly, the seeds for success planted in the 1930s--effective management, responsive maintenance, careful tenant selection, and ongoing political support--yielded palpable results. As signs of crisis began to manifest themselves in other major U.S. cities, the NYCHA remained a well-run and efficient housing authority.
New York City's public housing could not avoid many of the problems associated with public housing more generally, however. For example, Bloom describes in chapters 6 and 7 how New York's endeavors were inextricably tied to slum clearance and urban renewal, which always resulted in massive displacement and frequently entailed the destruction of still-viable neighborhoods. Meanwhile, as recounted in chapter 9, the dual burden of discrimination and poverty contributed to the growing concentration of poor minorities in the city's housing projects. And as urban decline began to take its toll, crime and vandalism grew increasingly commonplace. To its credit, however, the NYCHA undertook concerted and proactive efforts to address these issues. Most notably, it had the foresight to create its own police force in 1952, and by 1966, according to Bloom, it had grown to become the 24th largest police force in the country. Meanwhile, efficient management practices allowed the NYCHA to finance security, upkeep, and community programs in generous measure compared to other housing authorities.
As detailed by Bloom in chapters 11 and 12, the true test of the NYCHA's managerial acumen came in the 1970s and 1980s. During this time, public housing across the country served an increasingly impoverished and troubled clientele; violent crime, drug-use, vandalism, and disrepair escalated at an alarming rate; and housing authorities faced the mounting crisis in a state of unprecedented fiscal duress. Public housing in New York was hardly immune to such problems, but as Bloom explains, the NYCHA was in a better position to cope with them than its counterparts in other cities. Rather than becoming an extension of the welfare system, the NYCHA maintained a tenancy mix that included a substantial proportion of the working poor. Crime, vandalism, and maintenance problems were responded to persistently and aggressively. And the NYCHA's longstanding status as a high-performing authority translated into increased federal funding that helped it weather the storm.
The two decades that preceded the creation of the HOPE VI program in the early 1990s effectively ensured the demise of most of the country's large urban housing projects. As Bloom observes, however, over the course of this pivotal period in the history of public housing, the "NYCHA lost ground, but unlike other authorities it did not lose its footing" (p. 201). Today, fiscal concerns remain a pressing concern for the NYCHA. The service it provides is an expensive one to maintain, and cutbacks in federal spending on public housing have not helped. But Bloom's book leaves one optimistic that, for the foreseeable future, the agency will continue to house more than 400,000 New Yorkers in a manner that builds on decades of experience capably and efficiently operating the country's single largest inventory of public housing.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from Public Housing That Worked is that, while large-scale, high-rise housing projects are certainly more difficult to manage and maintain, it is not impossible to do so. The existing literature on the failures of public housing in the United States exhibits a tendency to give undue consideration to physical design, at the expense of social, economic, and political factors. Yet, simple two-story public housing developments in New Orleans, Atlanta, Detroit, and other cities have fared far worse than New York's high-rise edifices. That public housing in New York has dodged the wrecking ball, while so many other cities across the country have unflinchingly unleashed it upon their housing projects, is by itself a testament to its comparative success to date. But no one before Bloom has sought to explain why public housing has worked in New York, and the case he makes on its behalf is powerful and convincing. His narrative is richly detailed and utilizes a multitude of archival sources, and he leaves little doubt that good management, concerted attention to maintenance and security issues, and the financial resources to adequately underwrite such efforts are far more important factors than the physical form that public housing takes.
As persuasively argued as Bloom's work is, however, one is left to wonder about the broader applicability of New York's public housing experience. The city's consistently tight and atypically expensive housing market, as Bloom acknowledges on a few occasions, was an important precondition for enabling public housing to remain competitive with the low end of the private rental sector. Although New York was hardly immune to the postwar urban crisis, it did not undergo depopulation and disinvestment on the same scale as cities like Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, or Baltimore. For the working poor in such cities, alternatives to public housing, while considerably less affordable, were more readily available, which rendered public housing more prone to serve as a housing option of last resort. To be sure, it took efficient and effective management on the NYCHA's part (not to mention unparalleled political support for its efforts) to make the most of such an advantage. But all the same, it was an advantage that few other cities could be said to have enjoyed.
Bloom does not ignore questions of applicability and context entirely. On several occasions, he briefly draws upon secondary sources to provide contemporaneous progress reports on the trials and tribulations of public housing in cities such as Chicago and St. Louis, which in turn serve as vivid foils for his protagonist. But this exercise points to a larger weakness of Bloom's book. Its unwavering focus on local circumstances, be they the achievements of the NYCHA or the failings of housing authorities in other cities, draws attention away from America's stubbornly tepid and desultory commitment to public housing, the culpability for which extends beyond the local, upward through the federal agency level, and into the halls of Congress. In his introduction, Bloom asserts that, "what appeared as endemic problems of public housing, particularly in its high rise expression, looks more like local, albeit widespread, administrative failure" (p. 4). Local mismanagement may go a long way toward explaining why public housing has failed in some cases, but numerous other housing authorities across the country with respectable management records have also borne witness to the country's public housing crisis. Bloom's thesis neglects the fact that a long history of inadequate federal funding, along with legislation and policies suffused with compromises, fostered systemic shortcomings in resources and oversight that have also helped sow the seeds of public housing's demise. (See, for example, the work of R. Allen Hays and Alexander von Hoffman.) That the NYCHA overcame such obstacles attests to Bloom's central argument that good public housing management is a necessary condition of success. But good management alone is not a sufficient guarantor thereof.
Thus, the exceptional nature of Bloom's subject matter prevents his book from offering much insight into why public housing has so often not worked in the United States. Nonetheless, the story of public housing in New York City is one that has not been told until now, and Bloom does a praiseworthy job of narrating it. Whatever the future holds for public housing in the United States, Bloom's Public Housing That Worked is a welcome palliative to the conventional wisdom that casts it as an inherently failed enterprise, and his book presents a tantalizing tale about how public housing might have worked beyond the boroughs of New York City.
. R. Allen Hays, The Federal Government and Urban Housing: Ideology and Change in Public Policy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995); and Alexander von Hoffman, "A Study in Contradictions: The Origins and Legacy of the Housing Act Of 1949," Housing Policy Debate 11 (2000): 299-326.
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James Hanlon. Review of Bloom, Nicholas Dagen, Public Housing that Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century.
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