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June 2020 Issue [Report]

Grand Designs

Can the affordable-housing movement redeem its past failures?
“167th St. at Anderson Ave., Bronx, New York, 2015,” by Kris Graves © The artist. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Projects, New York City.

“167th St. at Anderson Ave., Bronx, New York, 2015,” by Kris Graves © The artist. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Projects, New York City


Grand Designs

Can the affordable-housing movement redeem its past failures?

In the annals of American subsidized housing, the building at the corner of 161st Street and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx merits little more than a footnote. Currently a low-income senior residence operated through a public-private partnership, its only recent-ish claim to fame is a cameo in The Bonfire of the Vanities: “At the top of the hill,” wrote Tom Wolfe (who often fancied himself an architecture expert), “the sun had broken through and had lit up the limestone face of the Concourse Plaza Hotel.” This is wrong; the façade is almost entirely brick, and the sun never strikes it in the morning—the time when the scene is set—but only at dusk, when it can turn the structure a dazzling salmon.

I know this because I can see the building directly across the street from my dining-room window. Once the hotel of choice for ballplayers and bigwigs visiting nearby Yankee Stadium, the old Concourse Plaza has been sponsored in some form by the government since the late 1950s, when it was commandeered by a company responsible for housing Bronx residents displaced by urban renewal. It was then, as it happens, that my grandfather Kelsey Volner helped manage it.

By the time he arrived in the Bronx, Kelsey had already cut a zigzag path through the world of affordable housing. Born in 1908, he had grown up in a family of Jewish immigrant strivers in central Brooklyn, earning occasional money posing as a Shabbas goy, performing errands for observant Jews on the Sabbath. His father was a housepainter, a still somewhat profitable trade in a city where aging clapboard buildings were common. Most of the city’s housing stock, in fact, was old and substandard, and the dwellings of Kelsey’s childhood were “crowded, airless,” as he described them to my father—the stuff of Will Eisner cartoons, if not quite of Jacob Riis photographs. They were exactly what Kelsey would spend his life campaigning against, first with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), and later in the private sector.

Kelsey’s preoccupation with “the housing question,” as it was then often called—the debate about how to best provide quality dwellings for the masses—is what led him to the Concourse Plaza, and to other projects, some of which I can see from the same window. To the west lie the neat, pink stacks of the Harlem River Houses—completed shortly before Kelsey joined the staff of NYCHA in 1939—which are often considered the agency’s finest achievement. Farther off, to the north, are the Sedgwick Houses (1951)—identical slabs of brick, usually counted among NYCHA’s less successful efforts. I can also see other, newer buildings that have sprouted up all over the West Bronx in the past decade: twenty-first-century affordable-housing developments, some with semi-decorative brickwork, others topped with solar arrays. Whether or not my grandfather would have recognized them as such, he would have understood them as the products of the same forces that first brought him to the world of affordable housing—private enterprise and the public good, institutional struggle and pressing human need.

In those times, the late 1930s, the federal government began taking bold action to build up the stock of affordable housing nationwide. For the next three decades, advocates and other “Housers” like Kelsey had the wind at their backs. But their efforts faltered after the 1960s, casualties of the postwar suburban explosion—itself the product of gargantuan subsidies, albeit indirect ones—and of the troubled legacy of projects like the Sedgwick Houses that the Housers had helped bring into being. The flawed design and problematic management of those looming brick towers, along with racist attitudes about the people living in them, conspired to turn the projects into symbols of decline, crime, and decay. In 1973, President Richard Nixon announced a moratorium on new public-housing construction. As neglect turned into official policy, the very principle upon which the towers were built—that housing represents a fundamental human right—came to seem like a radical, even dangerous, notion. By the 1990s, subsidized housing appeared headed for the political ash heap, an idea whose time had come and gone. “Public housing,” declared presidential candidate Bob Dole, “is one of the last bastions of socialism.”

Yet quietly, largely out of the public eye, a change has been underway. Today, a growing cadre of American designers, developers, and officials is confronting a housing problem that has been steadily mounting in scale. With the onset of our current, virus-induced downturn, that problem now threatens to balloon to proportions not seen since my grandfather’s day—and for the first time since the Nixon freeze, housing advocates and builders may be in a position to do something about it. Arrayed against these new Housers are a host of obstacles, from local opposition to byzantine funding requirements and state-level interference, as well as a presidential administration that offers them little alternative but to face these challenges on their own. The question facing pro-housing forces is a daunting one: not only how to forge a new path for housing amid an escalating financial crisis, but how to avoid repeating the mistakes of my grandfather’s generation.

A 1922 architectural rendering of the Concourse Plaza Hotel. Courtesy Special Collections, Leonard Lief Library, Lehman College, City University of New York

Admittedly, any analogies between my grandfather’s time and ours are inexact, making his experience an imperfect allegory for America’s housing story. He was a big-city bureaucrat in an age when cities thought big—a promoter of low-cost housing long before the current ecosystem of NGOs, industry symposia, and niche publications had sprung up around the subsidized-housing market. Still, the path that Kelsey followed in the world of housing traversed terrain that seems increasingly familiar, and which will only become more relevant as the country pitches headlong into what promises to be a sharp economic recession.

When Kelsey—the first in his family to attend college—graduated from NYU in 1930 with a degree in real-estate management, he entered a housing market that had been stalled for years. Even before the Depression, and amid an otherwise thriving economy, low-cost housing production had broken down. As Gail Radford documented in her landmark study Modern Housing for America, housing stock for the wealthy grew during the 1920s, while cheaper housing became scarcer and scarcer, and rent increases far outpaced rising incomes. “Ironically,” Radford writes, “it was prosperity, high building rates, and profitability for the real estate industry” that worsened the plight of most Americans, eventually contributing to the complete collapse of the American economy after the market crash of 1929. A housing sector that had become wholly reliant on borrowing cash for big-money projects could no longer secure financing. For Kelsey, unable to find a job as a developer, the moribund construction industry meant working instead as a building manager—a job with the ancillary benefit of free housing, a precious commodity when so many were struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

In recent years, a comparable trend has seen housing prices—particularly in larger urban centers, but elsewhere as well—steadily increasing despite stagnant working-class wages, leaving a huge share of Americans severely cost-burdened by housing. According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, around 30 percent of owners and renters now spend a third or more of their income on housing, and 15 percent spend more than half. While the pace of home construction is well off its Great Recession lows, there is still an annual shortfall of 150,000 newly built homes. With achingly slow multi-unit construction on the one hand—expected to rise by just 1 percent this year—and a glut of oversize luxury homes on the other, millions of Americans find themselves caught in the middle, a predicament bound to worsen over the coming months.

The current crisis has come at a moment of singular ferment for affordable-housing advocates, following decades of what the Columbia University historian Richard Plunz has called “a huge hesitation to justify subsidizing housing.” Joe Biden—following the lead of his rival Democrats—has advanced a dramatic housing proposal, with a special focus on the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF), a potentially powerful tool that has existed for over a decade but has never received meaningful funding. Financed by dividends on the Fannie- and Freddie-backed mortgages that have long underwritten suburban real estate, the NHTF’s all-purpose grants would be awarded directly to local housing authorities and other builders to ac-quire, construct, or repair low-cost housing. The idea has more than a whiff of New Deal nostalgia about it, harking back to the dream, as Kelsey once put it, of “the permanent elimination of blighted communities.”

A fresh direction for housing policy would also be bolstered by a housing-industrial complex that, unlike the flat-footed builders of the midcentury, is better poised to prevent new subsidized housing from turning into subsidized blight. From daring sky-scrapers (including, in New York City, low-cost apartments designed by headliners Daniel Libeskind and Sir David Adjaye) to simple but sound suburban mid-rise buildings, today’s low-cost housing looks nothing like the outdated stereotype. The perceptive, light-touch approach of the people behind these buildings has helped make them more politically acceptable than ever before, stoking demand for new construction in rich and poor communities alike, and amplifying a conversation previously confined to academia and select quarters of the real-estate trade. “It’s a hard thing to calculate, but I think the national conversation and awareness around affordable housing has increased,” says Sarah Brundage, senior director of public policy at the nonprofit housing group Enterprise Community Partners. The numbers that pollsters have found are encouraging: one recent survey showed that 68 percent of Americans support expanding government action to combat the high cost of housing.

As in the early days of Kelsey’s career, most of the architects, advocates, and builders combatting our current housing problem are working at the local level. When the Depression struck, remedy came first not from Washington, but from cities such as New York, where Mayor Fiorello La Guardia launched NYCHA in 1934. Its debut project, the aptly named First Houses in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, followed scarcely a year later. Without federal support, however, NYCHA’s capacities were necessarily limited, and left many would-be builders on the sidelines—more or less the same place they’d been for over a half-century, given that earlier reform efforts had focused on experimental projects that were either too small or too poorly financed to make a difference.

Latter-day reformers now find themselves in much the same fix: Peter Dreier, a housing expert and professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College, points out that every major city in America has dozens of nonprofit groups dedicated to providing low-cost housing, but that most remain underfunded. Even so, municipal agencies and their nonprofit partners are managing to do quite a bit with very little. In Minneapolis, for instance, the city council voted in December 2018 to eliminate single-family zoning, which is expected to lead to higher density and a potential boom in lower-cost apartments. In Denver, city council members succeeded in doubling the annual budget of the city’s housing trust fund last year, making $30 million available to preserve and create below-market-rate housing in the fast-growing state capital. Voters in San Francisco recently approved a new tax on large employers to help construct housing for the city’s burgeoning homeless population. As with a similar measure in Seattle, the tax was met with fierce resistance from the business community, but the city is still pushing ahead with related plans, such as suspending fees on the construction of auxiliary (or “in-law”) units to increase density.

Jackson, Wyoming, provides another good illustration of local resourcefulness. In February 2019, the resort town endured a record twelve consecutive days of snow. Before the end of the second week, the mountain passes leading to the surrounding bedroom communities were blocked, prompting rumors that the hospital would have to close or that doctors and nurses would have to be helicoptered in. “Everything came to a screeching halt,” recalls Anne Cresswell, the executive director of the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust (JHCHT), a four-person organization that builds and manages low-cost housing. To Cresswell, the crisis wasn’t simply a snow problem. The issue, she says, was more fundamental. “We don’t pay a wage that will allow public employees to buy a house here.”

At the end of 2018, the median listing for a single-family home in the Jackson area stood at $3,750,000. Those who can afford such prices (sports-team owners, tech titans, Cheneys of assorted vintage) require clean streets and adequately staffed restaurants, demands that have driven up wages, but not fast enough to keep pace with housing costs. Even Jackson mayor Pete Muldoon has admitted that the local economy is “not working.” (Driving the point home, the mayor works part time as both a musician and a construction worker.) Complicating matters, almost all of the land surrounding Jackson is federally protected wilderness, and local sentiment and long-standing zoning ordinances make taller, more densely populated buildings incredibly difficult to get approved. The town won’t build up, it can’t build out, and, as more and more workers seek cheaper accommodations beyond the mountains, the roads leading out of the valley are frequently choked with traffic. The predicament in Jackson, as in most U.S. cities, is multipronged and mutually reinforcing: gentrification, NIMBYism, economic ine-quality, insufficient transportation options.

The JHCHT’s efforts to address the city’s plight have been no less complex. For Redmond Street Rentals, a twenty-eight-unit development that was completed in 2018 on Jackson’s east side, Cresswell cobbled together financing from her group’s modest taxpayer-funded budget, private donors, and the local library and sheriff’s office, both of which received guaranteed units for staff. The greatest challenge was assembling the property and navigating the approval process: “It was almost a game of Tetris,” recalls one of the project’s architects, Arne Jorgensen. Seasoned by their work on earlier developments, Jorgensen and Cresswell knew to anticipate a variety of concerns from elected officials and neighbors, about everything from the likely residents to the type of housing being built—apartments rather than freestanding homes, the standard typology of the American dream.

Jorgensen’s architectural solution was a modish alpine village, a collection of simple duplex and triplex structures clad in dark wood and scattered in artful array around an open green space. Inside, the apartments are comfortable though petite, with ingenious details throughout, like built-in cubby storage and carport roofs that double as decks for the apartments above. The design offers maximum spatial economy and minimal institutional drear. Completed at a cost measurably below the local standard, the one- and two-bedroom units are available to renters for $1,150 to $1,650 per month—roughly a thousand dollars below the market rate for similar apartments in Jackson. As with the first housing built under her watch eighteen years ago, Cresswell’s latest project was “an all-hands-on-deck community effort,” she says. It stands as tangible proof, if any was needed, that a town like Jackson can make subsidized housing that works, and that looks little like the drab towers of yesteryear.

A photograph of the Polo Grounds Towers, in Manhattan, by Gertrude Livingston. Courtesy the artist. From Project Lives, published by powerHouse Books

The bewildering process by which Jackson has managed to build its modest crop of subsidized housing has become the norm for American cities, but this wasn’t always the case. If the midcentury towers-in-the-park projects were simple in design, so too were the mechanisms by which they were built. In 1937, two years before my grandfather joined NYCHA, the Roosevelt Administration decided to capitalize on the fledgling efforts of the nation’s cities, debuting a powerful suite of programs aimed at the “one third of a nation” that FDR had decried as “ill-housed” during his rousing second inaugural address. Ushered into law through the efforts of Catherine Bauer, the most influential of the Housers, the Housing Act of 1937 provided $800 million (more than $14 billion when adjusted for inflation) for the creation of more than 170,000 low-rent dwellings, and it did so as efficiently as possible. At NYCHA, for example, Kelsey—who by the early 1940s had risen to lead the Manhattan, Bronx, and Staten Island divisions—would identify sites, draw up proposals, and then apply to the United States Housing Authority (USHA)—where Bauer was a director—for a construction subsidy. A straight line, easy to trace, ran from taxpayer to Washington to concrete in the ground, and on to the beneficiaries in the boxy buildings that cropped up in city after city.

Nowadays, that line is nowhere in evidence. “There’s no two housing projects in the entire country funded exactly alike,” says Dreier. He likens subsidized housing developments to ships in a bottle, each one a unique and meticulous assemblage. Even within a single project, the money trail can be nearly impossible to follow. The Delson, a new development in Jamaica, Queens, is a case in point. Designed by Amie Gross Architects, a local firm specializing in affordability, the building’s forty-four units house exclusively low-income residents, with thirty-three of those units intended for occupants with psychiatric disabilities. Art therapy is central to a treatment regimen provided in-house, and indeed to the building itself. “We’ve found using brick, ceramic, fiberglass—just making it well-built—allows us to celebrate how things are made,” says Amie Gross. The façade is buff brick with wide, multipaned windows, and it sports a streak of col-orful tiles along the base and up the full height of the building: an abstract snake with pastel scales, its tongue licking the cor-nice.

To build the Delson, the Queens-based nonprofit Transitional Services for New York was obliged to jump through an astonishing number of hoops. The primary funding instrument was the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), a federal program that incentivizes private developers to build below-market units by allowing them to recoup a substantial percentage of their investment under select conditions. The three-decade-old LIHTC (pronounced “lie-tech”) has grown to become the biggest-ticket item on the federal agenda for low-cost housing construction. Its operations are amazingly involved: The program is administered by the Treasury Department, but benefits are doled out by local agencies, augmented in some instances by other forms of tax credits or bond financing. Moreover, LIHTC can be claimed only by select kinds of investors, each of whom must abide by assorted varieties of certification and compliance. “The labyrinth is extraordinarily complex,” says Douglas Guthrie, president of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. According to Larry Grubler, the CEO of Transitional Services for New York, one LIHTC provision requires him to perform a specific clerical task fifty years in the future.

And that’s just one program. Buildings like the Delson in Queens are also home to beneficiaries of Section 8, a program established under the 1937 law that now helps more than two million low-income households pay their rent. Section 8 vouchers can also be “project-based,” however, promised to builders by public-housing authorities in order to spur affordable construction. These vouchers can be used to build new developments or to redevelop dilapidated public housing in conjunction with an initiative established by the Obama Administration called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). And then there are programs aimed at specific groups—veterans, Native Americans, young people, the homeless—as well as countless state and local measures such as inclusionary zoning ordinances (which mandate a set percentage of affordable units in market-rate buildings), local trust funds (small-scale versions of the NHTF), and subsidized conversion of private-sector buildings. All of these approaches and more can come into play on a single project, a mulligan stew sam-pled from what Plunz calls a “menu of mechanisms.”

The shift that ushered in this clunky à la carte methodology was in progress even before Nixon’s 1973 moratorium. As early as 1968, politicians were arguing that the housing created under the 1937 law, in Ronald Reagan’s words, “fail[ed] to meet the social and physical needs of the people living in it.” (He would go on to state that it was impossible to develop “pride” in one’s neighborhood when the “lawns are mowed” and “the garbage is taken out” by a public-housing employee.) Whatever motivated them, Reagan’s complaints pointed toward the serious, though often overstated, flaws of first-generation public housing: shoddy construction, the absence of amenities like stores and health care facilities, and the creation of inhospitable pseudo-parks surrounding the projects, which were perilously lacking in what the architect Oscar Newman termed “defensible space.” Compounded by persistent underfunding in the post-Nixon years, these conditions turned the buildings into totems of urban decline, what one Chicago housing official called “warehouses for the poor.”

By the time Reagan reached the Oval Office, the equation of social housing with social failure had become sufficiently ingrained as to breed a kind of cognitive dissonance, with policy makers pursuing more “efficient,” market-driven schemes while moving further and further from the actual efficiency that Bauer and Kelsey once enjoyed. “We’re getting out of the housing business,” said one senior Reagan housing official, and within a year, LIHTC was signed into law. Since then, reform has followed reform, and designers and developers have learned to adapt, grafting an entire subeconomy onto a warped bureaucratic rootstock. Buildings like the Delson are the result—a beautifully executed right turn, accomplished by making three lefts.

Almost half a century after the federal government’s abandonment of housing initiatives, the straitjacket of conservative policy is still felt acutely at the state level. In Texas, the population of Austin has grown by roughly 150 people a day for the past decade. This breakneck expansion has helped fuel a major housing problem, as well as considerable social tension between native Austinites and newcomers. But even more than the Keep Austin Weird crowd frightened by creeping overdevelopment, or local builders keen to cash in on the boom, the most serious resistance to low-cost construction efforts comes from the statehouse.

“Every good idea we have gets shot down,” says Greg Casar, a city council member, referring to a yearslong legal fusillade unleashed by state representatives dead set on blocking any and all progressive housing legislation. In the face of local property taxes that unfairly burden poorer households, Casar and other council members would like to raise taxes on large-scale commercial landowners; under Governor Greg Abbott, the state has capped property taxes, tying the city’s hands. The city would also like to bar landlords from discriminating against Section 8 recipients, but a 2015 state law prohibits municipalities from doing so. Austin—often described as “the blueberry in the tomato soup”—is a Democratic city in a Republican state, and its options are limited.

Even in Texas, however, city agencies have found ways to wriggle free. The Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA) is one of the country’s oldest public-housing agencies. It owes its creation to a young congressman named Lyndon Baines Johnson, who, according to legend, saw to it that the subsidies created by the Housing Act were doled out to cities in alphabetical order—thereby putting his constituency at the top of the list. Today, HACA uses different, though no less resourceful, tactics, an example of which is only twenty minutes from the capitol building: the Bridge at Asher is a residential complex indistinguishable from hundreds of privately built projects around the region. In fact, it is one.

“We’ve been investing our dollars heavily into private real estate,” explains Michael Gerber, HACA’s chief executive officer. The property, with a kidney-shaped pool, well-pruned hedges, and gabled roofs, was purchased by the agency last summer, and 15 percent of the units were made available for Section 8 renters, who can be shut out of private-sector dwellings under the 2015 law. HACA has changed almost nothing about the Bridge since assuming ownership, and its Section 8 tenants enjoy all the same amenities as their market-rate neighbors. Buying an existing building can be expensive, but as HACA vice president Ron Kowal points out, it allows the agency to “have an immediate impact on affordable housing,” escaping the time-consuming process of new construction and affording the agency (and residents) a degree of camouflage from a hostile state government.

This use of extant housing stock has managed to evade the scrutiny of Texas’s Republican lawmakers, at least for the time being. “Ideally, we’d have a massive marshaling of resources,” says Casar, “but it’s all quickly blocked in the state legislature.” The sway of industry groups has compelled communities in other states to perform similar maneuvers. In Memphis, Tennessee, for example, one of the city’s largest and most troubled public-housing projects, the former Foote Homes, has been converted into the larger mixed-income South City, partially by way of investment authorized by RAD, the controversial Obama-era initiative allowing private capital to be used to transform aging public-housing projects into new subsidized, privately managed developments with comparable rents. “We’ve seen huge support for this . . . going all the way up to the state level,” says Ellen Eubank, who managed the South City project for the Memphis Housing Authority. RAD acts as a sweetener, making subsidized housing more palatable to conservative lawmakers.

RAD—which entails no increase in actual funding of any kind—is also the only housing initiative for which the federal government has appeared to demonstrate any enthusiasm. For as much as state legislators have obstructed cities’ efforts, perhaps nothing is more daunting than the sheer indifference of the Trump Administration. But while Republicans at the national level have not lifted a finger to build investment in subsidized housing, or to help local authorities surmount the endless logistical hurdles (or the ensuing waste of time and money, or the relatively limited number of new units) that currently plague them, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has seen fit to dramatically expand RAD. In 2018, the program covered some 103,000 units.

The problem is that the federal officials who advocate for the shift view RAD as a step away from government involvement rather than a promising new subsidy. This belief is especially strong at the very top of the administrative ladder. “We have to give people the tools to climb out of dependency,” says Ben Carson, the HUD secretary and former presidential candidate. When Carson’s name was first floated for the appointment in 2016, the reaction among many in the housing field was less than enthusiastic; indeed, Carson had previously questioned his own suitability for any Cabinet-level position, telling reporters that “having me as a federal bureaucrat would be like a fish out of water.”

Nonetheless, the secretary now claims that he was more than familiar with his new métier before he started. In his previous life as a surgeon, he says, “I treated such a broad spectrum of patients,” including some whose health was negatively affected by substandard housing. To his credit—despite reports of politically motivated hiring, the lax enforcement of anti-housing discrimination statutes, and the occasional gaffe (most memorably during congressional testimony last year, when he confused the term REO, meaning “real estate owned,” for the Oreo cookie)—many city and state housing experts describe Carson’s HUD as basically functional. Carson, who has announced that he will step down at the end of the current presidential term, sees his accomplishments as mostly managerial. He has attempted to make the agency “look more like a business” by, for instance, appointing its first chief financial officer. The changes at HUD over the past three years have done little to help cities’ efforts to increase the housing stock, but they’ve also done little to hinder them.

It is not exactly for want of trying. Originating mostly from the policy and personnel maelstrom of the West Wing, there have emerged at intervals dozens of radically regressive proposals for public housing, including rent increases, work requirements, and crackdowns on undocumented residents and their families. In a now familiar pattern, most of these schemes have yet to be codified, as members of Congress (including many Republicans), the courts, and myriad technical hurdles have effectively thwarted the administration’s efforts to gut the subsidized-housing sector. Inept as its implementation has been, this regressive agenda remains a concern for social-housing advocates, and Carson—brought into the Trump fold as part of a largely forgotten “New Deal for Black America”—remains its most prominent spokesman.

“We want to change the focus . . . from how many people can we get into this program, to how many can we get out in a state of self-sufficiency,” Carson says. By no means does he deny that an affordability crisis exists; he simply declines to assent to any policy that involves “just pouring more money” into affordability efforts. Everything points to a need for more nonmarket housing; the only barrier, it seems, is ideology.

A photograph of Redmond Street Rentals, by David Gonzales. Courtesy Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust, Jackson, Wyoming

After four decades of disastrous public disinvestment, and with the government scrambling to inject stimulus money into an economy in panic over COVID-19, the faith that Carson maintains in the for-profit market might seem perverse—though it is certainly a very old faith. In 1948, returning veterans were crowding the nation’s cities, and Congress was considering housing legislation that would expand on the 1937 housing law. Conservative forces and wealthy developers lined up to pillory the proposal. One housing advocate, addressing a Jewish community center in Brooklyn, put the matter succinctly: “This bill is not popular with the real estate boards and the builders,” Kelsey Volner said. “They cry, ‘Let private industry solve the problem!’ ”

My grandfather warmed to his theme. “I want it understood that I definitely am a proponent of private industry,” he told the crowd, as reported in the Brooklyn Eagle. “However, at no time in the history of our country have we built [enough to] overcome the positive dwelling need.” Public action was necessary, he concluded, even to “just scratch the surface.” Kelsey’s argument carried the day, not just in Brooklyn but around the country, and the 1949 Housing Act dramatically enlarged the country’s stock of public housing. What it did not do—at least not in the way Kelsey might have hoped—was deliver on the promise he made to another Brooklyn community group: to bring “light, air, sunshine . . . space for children to play without danger of death or injury,” and buildings “planned so as never to deteriorate into slum dwellings.” A visit to the Sedgwick Houses, or to any of the other projects around New York, is enough to show how far short of that goal NYCHA has fallen.

My grandfather, in his own problematic way, labored mightily to avoid this fate. In the years following the passage of the 1949 bill, according to my father, Kelsey grew anxious that new federal mortgage subsidies were drawing prospective white tenants to the suburbs, leaving only black applicants, who were trapped in the city by redlining and restrictive covenants. Convinced that public housing would lose popular support if it were perceived to be exclusively for non-whites, Kelsey took extraordinary (and extraordinarily dubious) measures to seek out white renters even when qualified black families were applying for apartments. However objectionable his actions, the fear that motivated them proved justified, and by the early 1950s—as enthusiasm for quality public housing was displaced, among whites, by racist cries for “slum clearance,” and as more and more political meddling led to lower standards in construction—Kelsey became fed up and left NYCHA to become a housing advocate in the private sector.

If the first half of Kelsey’s career serves as a loose parable for the promise and perils of early public housing, what happened next seems almost like an augury of things to come. This was the travesty of the Concourse Plaza Hotel: in 1957, Nassau Management, the real-estate company for which Kelsey worked, assumed control of the impressive old Bronx building, part of a multipart city-funded arrangement to house borough residents displaced by the construction of Robert Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway. Months later, it was discovered that Kelsey’s partners had misappropriated millions of dollars, and that few if any rooms in the hotel (or any of the company’s other properties) had been used as temporary housing. Deposed by a city commissioner, my grandfather faced possible jail time, and a newspaper account of his testimony mentioned in passing that he had “entered a private sanitarium near Ossining.” According to my father, Kelsey had suffered a nervous breakdown.

Questions remain as to the extent of Kelsey’s culpability. On the one hand, as my father points out, he was a cofounder of the company, and could hardly have been entirely in the dark; on the other, his management portfolio included a number of other properties, and much of the skullduggery at the Concourse Plaza does seem to have been carried out by his partners. But for Kelsey—whose career eventually recovered, and who continued as a pioneer of privately built affordable housing for another thirty years—the essential misstep was latent in the very model he had embraced. “Private enterprise,” notes Plunz, “is interested in profits and in maximizing profits.” That much is obvious, though it tends to be masked by the lofty rhetoric of the low-income marketplace. More so than its ideological or operational flaws, the prevailing public-private model suffers from intrinsic moral hazard: a natural consequence of a system that sanctions the lining of private pockets with public money. It was in this hazy ethical twilight that my grandfather lost his way, and it is there that the whole affordability apparatus is still more or less stuck.

Getting it unstuck will take some doing, with or without an expanded NHTF, as Biden has proposed. The cumbersome machinery of LIHTC, Section 8, RAD, and so forth is “the only game in town,” as Guthrie, the Los Angeles housing chief, puts it. He sees the current system as so deeply entrenched that despite its manifold drawbacks, any future president committed to affordable housing will be obliged to “expand and improve” on it, rather than dig new rails altogether. The housing-policy ecosystem—advocacy groups, conferences, industry journals, and niche websites—has offered countless proposals, from universal rent control to prefab modular housing; yet whatever emerges will not only have to build on the current infrastructure, but must somehow be squared with the housing movement’s historical ideals. That dream could yet be pursued, and that history redeemed, if millions of Americans who have grown accustomed to crushing costs and widespread homelessness came to believe that things could be different: that the current housing system is in no way inevitable, and that subsidized housing is in no way exotic. This was always Kelsey’s view, as he explained in 1940 when called upon to tell a community group what life was like in a public-housing project. It was, he said simply, “the normal life of an American citizen.”

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November 2012

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