What are the benefits of the tenements?
April 3, 2013 5:41 AM   Subscribe

I've noticed in some of my neighborhood blogs and list serves there is a lot of bias against publicly assisted multifamily housing. You know, "the projects." What are some of the arguments, evidence and research in favor of keeping this kind of housing? What happens to families that are displaced when projects are torn down or converted?

Has anyone studied the externalized costs of this displacement? Increased homelessness or more subtle bad outcomes from increased family transience? Does housing density produce savings to society? We always hear the horror stories, but certainly there must be success stories of a building coming together and creating community?

I'm not interested in the "against" argument, since that territory seems pretty well covered in the discussions I've seen. (That is to say, "there are no benefits," is not a useful answer to me.)
posted by Skwirl to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
While most of the literature is coming up against the idea of warehousing the poor in dense separated areas (which it seems you've been seeing), and there isn't much "for" the idea, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that it isn't that simple. Take this story of Memphis, Tennessee, for example.
posted by General Malaise at 5:58 AM on April 3, 2013

That Atlantic story is deeply flawed. HUD sponsored a rigorous academic study in 2011 that found "little evidence that an increase in the number of voucher holders in a tract leads to more crime" and another study based in Chicago that was released yesterday found the same thing.

Low income people who rely on housing vouchers often have few choices of where to live and tend to cluster in high crime neighborhoods for that reason. They are not the cause of high crime in their neighborhoods.
posted by fancypants at 6:14 AM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

There have been some serious critiques of that Atlantic article. This pretty much sums it ip:

...when you control for the effect of general crime trends—by including crime data from 2000 and citywide crime statistics as independent variables in the model— the impact of HCV households on neighborhood crime rates is significantly reduced. Moreover, the research suggests evidence of reverse causality: HCV residents are relocating to neighborhoods where crime is already on the rise, but they themselves are not the cause.

In other words, HCV (Housing Choice Voucher--that's what they call Section 8 these days) users may be moving out of high-crime, dangerous neighborhoods. But the only neighborhoods they can move into are neighborhoods in the process of decline (neighborhoods with rising crime rates and declining property values). One reason is that in most cities, it is not illegal for a landlord to deny a HCV user a rental unit, simply because they are an HCV user. This means that HCV users have a hard time finding rental units in safe, healthy neighborhoods.

If you are talking about the types of huge public housing projects built in the 1950s and 1960s, then few people will defend those as being beneficial for the residents or the surrounding neighborhood.

But if you are talking about newer forms of subsidized housing, then studies have shown them to be pretty much benign. That's because instead of huge high rises, planners and builders are a lot more careful these days to build units that fit in with the neighborhood. These usually take the form of townhouses or garden apartments.

Most studies have found that these new types of affordable housing will have no effect on surrounding property values, and may even increase property values, since new construction indicates a healthy neighborhood. This article sums up the recent research.
posted by mcmile at 6:20 AM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

You might find the Urban Renewal wikipedia article to be helpful and point you along some useful paths.

Similarly the Affordable Housing wikipedia article, mostly the US section, since that focuses on voucher programs.

Finally, the National Affordable Housing Management Association -- NAHMA -- may have some resources for you. They're a trade group, so their job is to promote voucher and tax-credit associated multifamily housing.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:21 AM on April 3, 2013

"Has anyone studied the externalized costs of this displacement? Increased homelessness or more subtle bad outcomes from increased family transience?"

A great deal has been written about the effects of tearing down Chicago's Cabrini Green and displacing those residents, due to its notoriety.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:27 AM on April 3, 2013

I'm upper middle class and I live in a tenement. It's a nice place to live. In many parts of the country, "dense multifamily housing" and "poverty" are deeply entangled concepts, but this isn't necessarily the case. Living in a tenement, near a bunch of other tenements and townhouses, means there are tons of people living on every block, and thus there are 3 supermarkets, and innumerable shops, bars, and restaurants within a short walking distance.

What's happening in your neighborhood? Is a early-postwar housing project likely to be torn down? Are people moving in on Section 8? Is there a HOPE VI-type mixed income development proposed? Because those are very different things.

Essentially no one likes midcentury "towers in a park"-style housing projects-- they generally don't produced safe urban spaces to walk through: read Jane Jacobs for thoughts on why. They also haven't been built for 30 years or so. New York City's are generally considered the most successful of the breed, though still not particularly pleasant places to live. I still get the willies when I have to walk through one at night, whereas later low-rise townhouse-style housing projects feel far less ominous.
posted by akgerber at 6:45 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not speaking for the US here, but when a lot of the now-denigrated high density public housing was built in the UK, it replaced vast tracts of slum housing with what was a relatively higher standard of living, where every family had a private indoor bathroom and a modern kitchen and so on.

The replaced slums were already extremely "high density" from the point of view of the tenants.

Of course that doesn't speak to the benefits of the setup now when compared against modern alternatives.
posted by emilyw at 6:53 AM on April 3, 2013

publicly assisted multifamily housing. You know, "the projects."

Actually, no. Most publicly assisted housing does not fall into what anyone would call "the projects" these days, i.e., large, concentrated groups of public housing, frequently in high-rises. Those efforts, mostly originating in LBJ's Great Society (HUD was created in 1965 as part of this), have largely been discredited, and many such projects have been dismantled or even demolished. We're still dealing with the unintended consequences of essentially destroying communities that have existed for fifty-odd years at a single stroke, but the externalities of crime and concentrated poverty were so extreme that there are only a very few people who will defend "the projects" as such.

These days, public housing is everywhere, mostly unnoticed. Some of it is still in dedicated apartment complexes, but a lot of it is accomplished by what's called Section 8, referring to 42 U.S.C. 1467, which happens to have been the eighth section of the statute which created it. These are basically housing vouchers. There are some buildings which are entirely Section 8, particularly in larger urban areas, but private landlords can make their properties available for Section 8 tenants. This includes single family housing. So while most of these rentals are going to be in poorer areas of town--Section 8 doesn't pay very well--these days it's pretty hard to tell whether any given rental in a poor part of town is occupied by a Section 8 tenant or not. Lots of multi-family housing does not accept Section 8 vouchers at all, and many single-family homes are occupied by Section 8 tenants.

So while it's a general rule of thumb that the crappier the rental, the more likely it is to be Section 8 (and, conversely, that luxury apartments are pretty much never so), it's only a rule of thumb and far from reliable. The place I live in now is definitely on par with some Section 8 housing I've seen, but my landlord doesn't want to deal with HUD (or HUD tenants) and so hasn't signed up for the program. And there's a complex in the south part of down that is unbelievably crappy that doesn't take Section 8 either, probably because HUD imposes more requirements on landlords than state law and local ordinances do. And there's actually a fairly decent complex--nothing fancy, but well-maintained--on the west side which is entirely Section 8. So it goes.

So I think your basic question may be a bit misguided. In the US anyway, we're not doing "projects" anymore, and the market for public housing isn't that different from the market for low-end housing in general. It's all over the place, quality varies widely, and it's no more or less concentrated than the housing stock in any particular area.
posted by valkyryn at 6:56 AM on April 3, 2013 [7 favorites]

What are some of the arguments, evidence and research in favor of keeping this kind of housing?

From the linked-to Atlantic article, the main benefit is something like this:
Betts’s latest crusade is something called “site-based resident services.” When the projects came down, the residents lost their public-support system—health clinics, child care, job training. Memphis’s infant-mortality rate is rising, for example, and Betts is convinced that has something to do with poor people’s having lost easy access to prenatal care. The services remained downtown while the clients scattered all over the city, many of them with no convenient transportation
People in "the projects" are people who need access to social services. The benefit of the projects is that all those people are in one place and social services can set up shop near by and have have easy access to their clients, and vice versa.

The thing is that it's likely possible to do this without the other attendant problems related to "high rises of poor people in an empty lot."

Other arguments like "community building" are things that don't account for opportunity costs-- yes, there are non-negative events and interactions that occur in large subsidized high-rises, but they could just as easily exist elsewhere in different circumstances. It's like saying that life in the Soviet Union wasn't all bad. Obviously, it wasn't, but those good things can also exist without a communist dictatorship.
posted by deanc at 7:05 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you see way more of the positive when you actually talk to the residents who live/d there. The documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, for example, which was on Netflix when I watched it, weaves in the personal narratives of its residents, many of which are positive (the film argues that the decline was mostly due to outside factors). I've seen similar sentiments in the current discussions surrounding the Lathrop Homes community here in Chicago.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 8:46 AM on April 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Jane Jacobs answered all of these questions in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (considered a founding text of New Urbanism, however far New Urbanism has since strayed). You should really read it if you're interested in this conversation, she covers a LOT of ground. One of the reasons I love that book is that she really looks at how people actually live, and goes to meet them, rather than theorizing about what's best for poor people from a removed perspective, or just looking at studies and analysis of stats (though she does have stats in there as well). The book is impossible to summarize, as there are so many amazing little insights. It'll really change the way you think about how people exist within cities.
posted by 100kb at 10:00 AM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There are several kinds of assisted housing in the US, here are the most common types.

Public housing - This is conventional public housing where units are operated, maintained, and leased by a local housing authority. The housing authority collects rent and HUD provides additional funds for operation and improvement. These days there is not a lot of new public housing development going on and what development there is bears little resemblance to old style public housing you might be familiar with - high-rise apartments in urban areas and 1 story brick duplexes in more rural areas.

Tenant based voucher (Housing Choice Voucher or HCV) - This kind of Section 8 program is where the family can choose a unit from any private landlord and their rent is partially subsidized. The voucher is obtained from a local housing authority and the subsidized portion of rent comes from the housing authority and goes directly to the landlord. The tenant is responsible for paying remaining rent to the landlord and that landlord is responsible for lease enforcement and repairs.

Project based voucher/Multi-family subsidized housing- This kind of Section 8 is where the assistance is tied to the unit but the unit is built, maintained, and owned by a private developer or a non-profit. These assisted properties are sometimes mixed income, where some units are subsidized and the rest are market rate and have no income restrictions.


That said, the impact depends on which program you are talking about. There is so much research available, here are some places to look.

The Urban institute has been studying assisted housing for a very long time and has some great reports about the impact of different types of subsidized housing programs. The Urban Institute

You can look at the resident characteristics report for conventional public housing and tenant based vouchers on the HUD website, it's a collection of demographic information. (To understand this report, you need to know that a 50058 is a form that is submitted for each family - one per family, not per individual) The reason I'm pointing out this report is that you can see the average incomes and the ages and household composition. You might note that a large percent of residents are elderly or under 18.

I'd like to 2nd the recommendation of the Pruitt-Igoe Myth as a good beginning for understanding why these programs exist and how they have worked/not worked.

The HUD secretary made statements about how sequestration would affect HUD programs this year. You might also find this helpful in answering your question.
Sequestration Impact

There are an absurd number of scholarly papers on this topic, search for things like Deconcentration of Poverty, Mixed income developments, and Impact of Subsidized Housing
posted by birdbone at 10:38 AM on April 3, 2013 [7 favorites]

I'm upper middle class and I live in a tenement.

I think you're using the term differently from the way the OP did (which seemed mostly for effect in the title rather than as a synonym for "housing project", anyway).

"Tenement" is an architectural term. In NYC it refers to a low-rise apartment building built in a particular style, often 4-6 stories tall with a shop on the ground floor and between two and four apartments on each upper floor.

In my understanding, tenements were not "public housing" -- they predate that concept and would have been the type of dwellings that people who later moved into the big postwar "housing projects" were vacating.

I suppose it's possible that some tenements are section-8 or HCV "subsidized" housing, in that a tenant could presumably use the voucher to live in any type of residence, from a literal tenement to a single family home.

Not speaking for the US here, but when a lot of the now-denigrated high density public housing was built in the UK, it replaced vast tracts of slum housing with what was a relatively higher standard of living, where every family had a private indoor bathroom and a modern kitchen and so on.

This is somewhat also true for the US, but probably depends on the specific city, and even the specific neighborhood.

A lot of the old tenement buildings in NYC were modernized around the same time that the big housing projects were going up, so you could either have a neighborhood like the Greenwich Village Jane Jacobs praises in The Death And Life..., or you could have something like Stuyvesant Town or Peter Cooper Village (huge Corbusier-style modern housing developments). Whereas after a certain point you would not find slums with privies and no running water.

My guess is that neighborhoods full of buildings that could not be brought up to 20th century standards were the ones slated for "slum eradication", whereas areas where landlords were able to meet the new standards were left alone.

New York City doesn't have anything like the British "bedsit" or Los Angeles' "bachelor unit" which may or may not have a private toilet or kitchen facilities. At least not for ordinary non-transient residents.
posted by Sara C. at 10:42 AM on April 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also the Moving To Opportunity demonstration has produced a lot of data on outcomes when people receiving housing assistance are able to move into "high opportunity" areas with higher education levels, higher income, etc. The demonstration had flaws, but overall the program showed good results. Keep in mind that it was a limited study and has not been tested nationwide or in non-urban areas.

HUD's final publication
Here are some Urban Institute reports
Short UI report on benefits
posted by birdbone at 1:34 PM on April 3, 2013

http://www.archdaily.com/151227/ad- classics: Trellick Tower, Erno Goldfinger
posted by glasseyes at 2:08 PM on April 3, 2013

OP, you might find Sudhir Venkatesh's American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto an interesting read. His book is specifically talking about a project in Chicago - The Robert Taylor Homes - and it's been a long while since I read it, but IIRC it does address in a general way why public housing was developed, what it was supposed to accomplish, what it did accomplish, and then of course goes on into all the ways it failed in that specific case. I can't speak to the exact sources he refers to, but his book wasn't the first time I'd read that there were some specific "positive outcomes" attributed to public housing - coursework on urban planing usually addresses this as well.
posted by sm1tten at 6:59 PM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you're using the term differently from the way the OP did (which seemed mostly for effect in the title rather than as a synonym for "housing project", anyway).
Yep, because using "tenement" as a universally negative term is part-and-parcel with a lot of Americans' knee-jerk reactions against high-density housing construction, and even against anything that isn't inefficient single-family detached housing. That's bad for the environment, as high density housing is generally very efficient with heating, materials, and leads to a walking-friendly built environment, and bad socially, as high-density housing can allow people of lesser means to live in areas with expensive real estate.

Of course, in New York City, a lot of tenements that were built as affordable/low-end housing are now "luxury" housing due to restrictive historical preservation and zoning laws restricting new housing supply. In fact, in many tenement-heavy neighborhoods, it'd be illegal to build a new tenement, with parking requirements being an especially large problem.
posted by akgerber at 7:47 PM on April 3, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. This is a lot of great starting points. To clarify, I am mostly interested in everything that is not voucher-based since vouchers are pretty invisible from the sidewalk view (although I have heard about a lot of landlord bias). Everything else that is PHA or privately owned buildings that are set aside are easy to spot at first glance. I wasn't necessarily thinking only of high rises but that history is interesting. I think a lot of laypeople lump it all together.
posted by Skwirl at 8:37 PM on April 3, 2013

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