Mary Rowe on ‘Subsidizing dwellings’

Jacobs entitles the fourth and final section of Death and Life “Different Tactics”, and begins with a chapter on Subsidizing Dwellings.

This is an important chapter, because it uncovers some basic Jacobs’ principles (gleaned by me: nothing authoritative here, just my observations) that thread though her subsequent work.

It’s the economy…

In cities there are people who can’t afford to pay for the full costs of the housing they need. Jacobs observes this, and immediately observes that government took on not only the financing of affordable housing, but also the creation and management of it. Why, she asks? Private enterprise is just as capable of providing housing for people with lower incomes: there is nothing ‘peculiar’ about the housing they need. They just can’t pay for all of what it costs.

Photo by Flickr user “”

Jacobs states plainly that this is an economic issue, and could be addressed by various financial tactics. She suggests a guaranteed-rent scheme for property developers/owners that would make it attractive to builders to create units affordable to people with lower incomes.

Her proposal would encourage small adaptations in neighborhoods, in old and new buildings, and would not require land clearances using eminent domain: something Jacobs vigorously opposed throughout her life as an activist and writer. If properties must be taken for public purpose they should be bought out at market value with compensation that offsets costs of unexpired leases and relocation costs. This would guard against the destruction of successful enterprises.

Utopians do more harm than good: Cities evolve organically.

This chapter shows Jacobs’ consistent suspicion of large, well-intentioned public schemes to solve other peoples’ problems. The decision by government to build and operate housing for people with lower incomes results in “this statistical group becomes a special collection of guinea pigs for Utopians to mess around with.”

Image by Yau Hoong Tang

Plonking down large scale, standardized housing complexes in one fell swoop is not organic. It’s ‘cataclysmic’, distorts the private housing market, creates uniformity when cities thrive on diversity, and institutionalizes a paternalism between the state and ‘tenants’ which is not appropriate or productive.

A general suspicion of subsidies, and how they are applied

In general I think Jacobs rejects public policies and mechanisms that obscure the realities of markets: of supply and demand, of economic (im)balances, of what things really cost. As this chapter suggests, that doesn’t mean she didn’t put a priority on finding ways to offset income disparities that prevented people from securing adequate shelter. But she is creative in finding ways to bridge the gap between what housing costs and what people can afford.

Her suggestion is to provide incentives to private industry to supply appropriate housing in a variety of ways, guaranteeing the developer monies to offset the gaps between what lower income tenants can provide and what the units cost.

Further, she urges measures to ensure affordable housing units remain in general commerce, so that they contribute tax revenue to city governments, and can be flexibly adapted if the means of their tenants change (and they can pay more, or even purchase, these properties.) Taking public housing off the municipal tax base, and directing resources towards services and amenities within the housing complexes, rather than collecting tax revenues to be invested in shared public amenities, reinforces the segregation of uses and users.

Diversity: cities are about increasing choice, and standardization inhibits innovation

City diversity is all about all kinds of people having all kinds of choices, including where they choose to live. We often choose to stay within the same neighborhood, moving to some place different when our tastes or circumstances change.

Photo by Steve Hoang

In the Regent Park neighborhood in Toronto, the dominant housing form was public housing in towers and multi-unit buildings owned and operated by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) until a few years ago, when its redevelopment began. One of my colleagues lived there and then moved into a co-op on an adjacent street, Oak Street. In addition to finding larger spaces to house her family, the fact that the Oak Street co-op was still in the same neighborhood meant that she didn’t have to uproot her kids or travel any further to work.

Often these kinds of market variations aren’t possible adjacent to public housing: they crowd out the competition. With the redevelopment of Regent Park underway, the intended effect is to provide more housing choices which allow residents to move within the neighborhood, and to offer a range of dwelling options to newcomers.

Neighborhoods with a variety of housing choices are chosen by a variety of people: families, singles, older retirees and young hipsters. And people become quite imaginative, creating dwellings in laneways or abandoned assembly shops (I used to be able to see both out my back balcony). But this can’t happen in public housing communities (even if residents want it to) because of the rules, and the uniformity of the stock.

Flexibility and capacity to adapt

Near the end of this chapter Jacobs cautions her readers to not think her suggestions are the only ways to improve access to housing. She cites several other approaches and urges readers to re-examine approaches every eight to ten years, and try different ones depending on the circumstances.

The scale of investment in large scale housing communities make this kind of reexamination next to impossible, as any of us knows who live in large cities where these communities have existed for decades. But Jacobs is a tireless empiricist: pay attention to what is working, and when it’s not, find some other ways.

“The point behind guaranteed-rent dwellings would be to build further on whatever success, or potentiality for success, already exists”. (Pg. 332).

Beware of city amenities that rely on federal/national money

In both Canada and the US, federal governments underwrite significant portions of capital costs for housing and transportation. Jacobs saw the risks associated with cities being dependent on remote governments for essential services. This meant cities would be subjected to ‘one size fits all’ solutions, and would not have the autonomy to make decisions that best reflected their particular needs.

Public housing and highway spending are two glaring examples of the perilous situation federal funding can put cities in. I spent five years in and out of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In the 1970s federal highways bisected the city’s most culturally and economically prosperous neighborhoods (predominantly African American, of course) and after Katrina the federal housing secretary ordered all the public housing demolished, leaving thousands of evacuees with no place to return to (and no option to even collect their belongings).

Yet what city is willing to step away from federal resources? Will we see the tax reform that Jacobs (and so many others now) advocated for, to let cities surrender less of the tax revenue they now send away to ‘senior’ levels of government, empowering cities to be responsible (and accountable) for more of their own spending and policy decisions?

Here in 2012 we have public housing communities galore in cities around the world, with the challenges those monocultures of any kind pose. 51 years ago in this chapter Jacobs quoted Stanley Tankel, from the Regional Plan Association:

“…We will have to admit that it is beyond the scope of anyone’s imagination to create a community. We must learn to cherish the communities we have; they are hard to come by”. (pg. 337).

Hear hear.

There is lots of smart thinking about how to value the communities that consist of subsidized dwellings, and encourage their organic evolution into more diverse places, with more choices, more autonomy, and more flexibility. One example is the Brownsville Partnership, working in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which is home to the largest concentration of public housing units in the country. Another is Joy Connelly’s blog, Opening the Window, where you can find thoughtful reflections on the importance of public housing and potential for reform.

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