America's Affordable Housing Crisis

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Public Housing Unit

A partially demolished public housing development in New Orleans. Getty Images hide caption

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With nearly half of the country's lowest-income families at risk of homelessness, the nation faces an affordable housing crisis. Xavier de Souza Briggs and Lawrence J. Vale, professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discuss why the availability of affordable housing is decreasing and explain the drawbacks of — and advantages to — mixed-income housing projects.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the staff with your help shows some of the most fascinating people of 2007. Today, you'll hear the story of an upstart college football team out of Hawaii. They're on their way to the Sugar Bowl, and the (unintelligible) is sweet.

But first, TELL ME MORE wanted to find out more about the demolition of public housing units in New Orleans. Hundreds of protesters stormed the locked gates of city hall there last week. Many are still wondering where they're going to live and when.

We're talking now with MIT Professor Xavier Briggs, a key player in shaping housing policies and practice, and also joining us Professor Larry Vale, head of the Department of Urban Planning at MIT.

That's coming up on TELL ME MORE.

The numbers speak for themselves - 5.1 million people are stranded in a, quote, "worst-case scenario," according to a congressional report on housing. Our nation faces unaffordable housing crisis. It's not something new. A 2003 report from HUD said over 30 million people face significant problems when it comes down to having a place to live.

And we turn now to Xavier de Souza Briggs, an associate professor of sociology and urban planning at MIT, and Professor Lawrence J. Vale, also at MIT.

Gentlemen, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor LAWRENCE J. VALE (Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Good to be with you.

Professor XAVIER DE SOUZA BRIGGS (Sociology and Urban Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Good to be with you.

LYDEN: I think you heard a wee bit of our conversation with our activist from New Orleans. And obviously, things there have been extremely rancorous and provocative. The contention being that housing for the poor is being reduced and that mixed-income housing isn't a sufficient replacement. Maybe we could just open with that as a theoretical and see what you both make of that.

Prof. VALE: Well, if - the first thing to say is that mixed-income housing isn't in itself a problem. That problem is that it tends to be mixing out the poor people from a public housing stock without mixing in poor people into enough of the other housing stock in order to make more of it affordable.

LYDEN: This is Professor Briggs, right?

Prof. VALE: No, that's - Larry Vale.

LYDEN: And thank you very much. You both - just tell me who you are for a moment or two. That would be great. So…

Prof. DE SOUZA BRIGGS: And this is Professor Briggs. To add to what Larry was saying, you know, we've been losing affordable housing stock for the better part of the generation. And this is what underlies the crisis you pointed to, Jacki, with those multimillion numbers. And mixed-income housing accelerated in the '90s mainly as a public housing replacement policy in - it has a lot to speak for. New Orleans is an extreme case of what we've seen play out around the country where the fear is - in some case the reality too - that you'd be displacing people, rebuilding mainly from market (unintelligible) tenants and to please them and removing some of the things that made public housing give it a reputation for (unintelligible) but without necessarily meeting the housing needs of the worst off. I think as Larry says it, it doesn't have to be that way, but you need to install safeguards.

LYDEN: Well, why do you think things in New Orleans have become as polarized as they have been? There's obviously a lot of fear and anger that's drawing housing activists from around the country. This is obviously a scenario that is not desirable, but the fear must be real.

Prof. DE SOUZA BRIGGS: Well, you know, the media reported in the short weeks - in the early weeks, I should say, after Katrina that there was talk of Katrina having done with decades of public policy couldn't, in other words, wipe out public housing and displace the ghetto poor and so on. And I think that perception stuck that what we had was the beginning of a land-grab that could lead to substantial redevelopment.

In some cases, public housing in New Orleans as in other cities is very, very well located. It's on prime land. And there was this perception that it was a tremendous amount of development interest, private investor and developer interest in being able to redevelop now that this had sort of been cleared out in a way that wouldn't have been politically possible before a real redevelopment of the city along the lines that the activist in your prior segment described. And I'm simply saying that's why the perception, I think, was so strong and so immediate.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. VALE: It is certainly something that would have been there as a perception and a level of mistrust long before Katrina struck. The track record of public housing in New Orleans before the flooding and before this latest catastrophe was not good and the level of support for low-income people was not good. And you have these kinds of protest going around in many cities that have thought about replacing large segments of their public housing stock. But in particular, when you have a situation where there is this little trust and a little sense that the situation is going to get better for the least advantaged, it can only get worse. What seems to be…

LYDEN: But - go ahead.

Prof. VALE: What seems to be happening is the sense of the larger picture of affordable housing crisis is coming in direct competition for - with the people who need housing the most at the lowest income. And so competing for affordability and housing are the upwardly mobile working poor, the people that are seen and described as workforce housing and the people who have been in public housing as a kind of last resort before homelessness - were a first step back from homelessness who also feel that, in many cases, they're part of the workforce and are being squeezed out deliberately.

LYDEN: I'm shocked by some saying, which just said that the need for some kind of political trust and leadership. I started my career in Chicago where obviously large downtown public housing projects were a part of the political landscape and were torn down.

Professor Briggs, you worked on that transformation. What was some of the lessons from that?

Prof. DE SOUZA BRIGGS: Well, I think on one hand it was in Chicago as there is to a different degree in New Orleans. Perceptions aside for the moment, there was something of a window of opportunity to dramatically transform public housing in a city that had, you know, built more of a concentrated and particular blocks, in particular areas of the city that became racial ghettos than anywhere else on earth. And they daily recognized that opportunity. Thanks to changes in federal policy and the city worked out with HUD, with the federal government in agreement for transforming public housing bringing down all of the high rises, all those infamous ones that were in the headlines especially…

LYDEN: Robert Taylor Homes, Henry Horner Homes, Cabrini Green.

Prof. DE SOUZA BRIGGS: Exactly. And it was bumpy. I mean, it was a difficult transformation. Mistakes were made. There were families who fell between the cracks that didn't get out of quick counseling to rent up in private apartments using rental housing vouchers from the federal government. The redevelopment, however, has picked up steam. There have been successes. I think it's misleading to say mixed-income development doesn't work or there aren't examples of it. I think there are some very good examples but, you know, it depends in part on how you define success as well, but Chicago has made tremendous progress, but it has come at a real cost to the most vulnerable families.

Prof. VALE: The easier part seems to be the demolition. It's easier to eliminate public housing, but to do so is not to solve the problem of housing the lowest-income segments of the public. So, really, the package that has to happen in New Orleans and elsewhere is a larger vision for how the - what the government's role can be as a partner in housing a diverse population, diversity by income. And all of that should be seen by all people in cities as necessary to support the kind of growth in the economy that everyone would like to see happen.

LYDEN: Does there need to be an (unintelligible)? Is New Orleans missing an opportunity here to assure people that they'll have this other housing ready by not providing more affordable units right now?

Prof. VALE: Well, I think on one hand, you know, you think of FEMA trailers, right, as temporary housing. And it has a mostly poor reputation transitional housing. It doesn't have a great history except for the well-designed stuff that houses the formerly homeless and whatnot. But New Orleans ought to commit to replacing the affordable housing supply reduced through any redevelopment of public housing, even if they - the units aren't rebuilt on site and there was if you do an income mix and there would be some compelling reasons to do that.

I think it does need to assure families, and this is certainly a mistake that we made in Chicago, we've made in other cities assuming that if the private apartments are out there somewhere, these families will be able to rent them. And we've learned the hard way that's not the case. Landlords don't have to accept the federal subsidy. There is discrimination, pervasive discrimination in the market not only by race but against families with children and on other bases as well. So I think that interim assurance, Jacki, would be very important.

LYDEN: All right. Well, listen. I want to thank both of you for being with us. We've been talking with Xavier de Souza Briggs, an associate professor of planning at MIT and Professor Lawrence Vale, head of the department of urban studies and planning at MIT. Thanks both of you very, very much.

Prof. DE SOUZA BRIGGS: Thanks very much, Jacki.

Prof. VALE: Thank you.

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