Public housing has had an embattled history in the United States. It’s been a constant site of political struggle, from its heyday in the Thirties to its erosion under the Reagan Administration in the Eighties. In the June issue of Harper’s Magazine, Ian Volner explores that struggle through one of its principal characters: his grandfather Kelsey Volner, who began his career in public housing and ended it in disgrace in the private sector. In telling his grandfather’s story, Volner finds a parable for the fate of affordable housing in this country.
But there has been a sea change in recent years. Responding to rising discontent with skyrocketing real estate prices, advocates have renewed their efforts to build affordable developments. In the face of a myriad of obstacles—“from local opposition to byzantine funding requirements and state-level interference,” as Volner writes—they have employed a variety of canny tactics to piece together their projects. Volner tells the stories behind new affordable housing complexes in Queens, Austin, Texas, and Jackson, Wyoming, to illustrate the way that “designers and developers have learned to adapt, grafting an entire subeconomy onto a warped bureaucratic rootstock.” In this episode, Harper’s web editor Violet Lucca and Volner delve into the broader issues surrounding the contemporary housing crisis, epitomized by the condo boom and brought to a boil by the coronavirus pandemic. They discuss public housing’s aesthetics and socioeconomic demographics; its stigmatization at the hands of the right; and where we go should from here to guarantee housing for all.