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A Frightening Parallel!
by David Stanowski
03 November 2011

Howard Husock is perhaps the most knowledgeable and insightful authority on Public Housing today! He is certainly one of our primary resources.

In September 2005, Salon magazine asked six experts to form a panel to discuss New Orleans' recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Husock was a member of that group. The highlights from that round table discussion are reproduced below. Links to the entire article are included.

Residents of the City of Galveston will most likely find Mr. Husock's comments on New Orleans' recovery efforts and the rebuilding of Public Housing helpful, insightful, chilling, and frightening! A great deal of the discussion centers on "mixed-income" development!

He also has very interesting comments on planning and permitting as well as corruption that may inform the situation in Galveston, too.

Learn Purchase Real Estate for Cents on the Dollar!

After the deluge, what next?
September 28, 2005

So we convened an e-mail panel of our own, a group of people working on poverty and opportunity issues from a range of institutions and ideologies, and threw them a set of questions about a real anti-poverty agenda in the wake of Katrina.

The conservative critique of government poverty programs summed up by Ronald Reagan’s now-cliché “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won” could have come from certain liberal critics of the programs, who had critiqued some of the same programs for putting money into bureaucracies and “professionals,” while not necessarily making things better for the poor. Two decades after Reagan, there’s broad agreement on several issues: that work is almost always better than welfare, that bureaucracies such as housing authorities are often a problem more than a solution, and that there’s a strong positive role for the market.

Should New Orleans' slums be replaced by mixed-income housing?

Everyone agreed on a couple of other things: that solutions to the problem have to be regional — no city, especially New Orleans, can solve its poverty problems alone — and that the wishes of those displaced should play a role in what our ultimate answers will be.

Howard Husock:

First, it’s important to appreciate the essentially correct impulse underlying the Bush proposals. The physical rebuilding of New Orleans should not be our central focus. Cities — and their built environments — exist for economic reasons. “Disinvestment” in New Orleans was not a conspiracy of indifferent capitalists. It was a reflection of the city’s failure to offer a healthy climate for investment. The combination of corruption and a failure to invest in essential public infrastructure let the oil industry, and much else, slip away to Houston. New Orleans ceased to be a magnet for new immigrants and those in search of opportunity went elsewhere, leaving behind “concentrated poverty,” disproportionately supported by transfer payments.

The White House is correctly seeking to do what it can to make New Orleans an attractive locus for new investment. As for what kind, hard to say. Tourism, indeed, is not much on which to build an economy. Spinoffs from the port? Better commercialization of its deep and rich music culture (which is not just nostalgia)? One wonders what entrepreneurial ideas have been still-born in years past. So a low-tax, non-corrupt environment must be considered a crucial first step.

Government clearly has infrastructure investments to make in flood control. But how far should that extend? Why not take the opportunity to make New Orleans a model for privately owned transit (sell off the ineffective bus system)?
Why not sell off public housing rather than going the deeply subsidized Empowerment Zone/HOPE VI reconstruction route? Let the market decide what the highest and best use of that real estate is.

Howard Husock:

Xavier makes a number of good points, especially regarding workforce development. It’s worth considering, however, what is specific about New Orleans that needs to be addressed, in contrast to low-income communities generally. And in creating a “success environment” we should keep in mind that local government plays a number of crucial roles. How difficult and/or how expensive was it to get a building permit in New Orleans? How often was it necesary to pay a bribe to do so? Similarly with business permits: How protracted is the permitting process from time of application to issuance of certificate of occupancy? Is New Orleans zoning appropriate or so draconian that variances and special permits are routinely required? How does the New Orleans tax rate compare to that of neighboring communities? All in all, don’t forget local.

Bruce Katz:
New Orleans has the opportunity to remake itself as a more competitive, vital and inclusive city. But that will require a much needed course correction on policy and practice. The starting point should be to get housing policy right. New Orleans did not just suffer from “decades of disinvestment”; the city actually suffered from “decades of investment” of the wrong kind. The neighborhoods of New Orleans hardest hit by the hurricane were, in part, “federal enclaves of poverty” — an almost mini-museum of every federal housing program in play since the 1930s.

The concentration of subsidized housing in a few neighborhoods set off a devastating chain reaction in New Orleans. Over four out of nine poor black residents lived in neighborhoods of high poverty, where the poverty rate exceeded 40 percent. Such neighborhoods exact a huge price on families, consigning them to places where schools don’t teach, jobs are scarce and crime takes a huge toll.

In rebuilding New Orleans, it would be tragic to repeat the mistakes of the past on housing.

Howard Husock:
I couldn’t agree more with Bruce that the many and various federal housing programs created their own poisonous brew in New Orleans. With that sobering history in mind, however, I cannot be sanguine about the prospects of success for the next version of same (mixed-income housing financed by tax credits, for instance.) We must not rule out the possibility that the problems associated with low-income housing in New Orleans were not owing to a so-called concentration of poverty but to the lack of individual ownership and poor management by either the government or not-for-profit groups. It is quite possible that a neighborhood of striving people of modest means can nonetheless be a good neighborhood, when supported with high-quality public goods (schools, parks, recreation). Large-scale construction of a new and better version of the Southern shotgun house (which, arguably, is what Habitat for Humanity is building), available for fee-simple ownership, strikes me as far better (and more practical) than another round of subsidized housing, even in a new flavor.

Howard Husock:
I completely agree that the urban homesteading proposal is thin gruel, something someone came up with to dress up the “HUD homes for sale” advertisements that can be found in every Sunday newspaper. That said, I don’t understand the commitment to the mixed-income approach. Where are the middle-class families going to come from? What would motivate their participation? Decent but simple new homes and the chance to own — or even to rent from a resident owner — is a far simpler matter and more likely to be sustainable.

Howard Husock:
“Mixing in” the middle class sounds simple — but becomes politically charged (if you’re trying to build mixed-income housing in otherwise affuent areas) and logistically difficult if you have to recruit middle-class families to move to lower-income areas.

Howard Husock:
But what’s the point? In effect, a mixed-income development provides significant subsidy to households that could afford housing anyway — in the belief that their example will somehow inspire their neighbors. Where’s the large-scale evidence that that works — and if not, why do it? I would argue that it is the desire to “move up” from a poorer to a more affluent neighborhood that helps motivate the poor to organize themselves and make good life decisions (work, save, marry). Thus, the so-called economic stratification of American neighborhoods strikes me as an important aspect of our social system that encourages upward mobility.

Howard Husock:
There has never been more concentrated poverty in this country than the Lower East Side of New York, circa 1900. And yet the desire to move up and out was clearly strong; by 1930, settlement house leaders in the neighborhood observed that density had been replaced by “empties.” It is not concentration of the poor per se that hinders upward mobility — indeed, the desire to move up and out can be a strong one. But without the chance to own, save and then sell to realize gain, the poor are unduly hindered. This has been the burden imposed on them by public housing and other forms of subsidized rental. It is worth bearing in mind when considering the developments to which Angela refers that old-style public housing, too, was opened with great fanfare. Individualized ownership of small properties offers a far more secure route to long-term maintenance. I do agree, though, that these need not be single-family homes. Multi-family homes — including some with rental units (with owner-occupancy encouraged) — are a vital component of replacement housing, as well.

Howard Husock:
It’s the hubris of “bringing people back in a different way” of which I’m deeply skeptical — i.e., that an agency, choosing among applicants and issuing a Request for Proposals, can somehow find the right combination of people to mitigate what are said to be a concentration of poverty effects. As for the success of mixed-income projects, again, there remains a Potemkin Village-quality to them — the planners’ idea of what an ideal community should be. Sure, public housing once had a greater economic mix — but that reflected the post-WWII housing shortage. Similarly, there has been a mixture in New York City — but that reflected the high percentage of total housing stock which public housing comprises there. If we pave the way for modest homes for those of modest incomes, these can be one of the tools they can use to improve their own lives and forge their own communities.

Salon September 28, 2005

Howard Husock:
The question of whether to encourage, and provide support for, poor New Orleans residents to return to the city is the most central that’s been raised. To this point, our conversation has verged on the generic — what, if any, low-income housing policy should we have — rather than focusing on the specific, and special, conditions that exist in New Orleans. Before we can join the question of the nature of the replacement housing which might be built (mixed-income? single-family?), we must face the question of whether it is practical or sensible to build new housing in areas below sea level and, if we were to decide to do so, how the details of financing and management would be handled: Should public flood insurance be provided in order to attract private developers? Should the local housing authority own and operate? Are there nonprofit groups with the capacity to take on such a job?

These are key questions which must be joined even before asking the question about whether residents should be supported in their desire to return (if they do desire to return). The complexity of these questions, however, at once makes it clear that it would be far easier to provide lump sum relocation payments to residents who want to move elsewhere — perhaps even elsewhere in metropolitan New Orleans.

But there’s an empiricial question here that we might want to ask those displaced: Do you want to move back to New Orleans or would you prefer to start over somewhere else? Let’s find out what the people think.

Edward Glaeser:
I’ll leap in on the question of encouraging the poor to return to the city, and of rebuilding the city more generally.
My basic view is that the goal here is to help the residents, not to rebuild the city, and that the sums involved in rebuilding New Orleans are so vast that this money could be far better used providing housing and education assistance, or heck, just plain cash, to the displaced residents.

A few facts:

New Orleans has been declining in absolute terms since 1960 and in relative terms since 1840.

Salon September 29, 2005


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