An interesting experiment took place on the London street where I have an apartment. A few years ago, the borough council permitted a developer to build six apartment complexes across from my building, on the condition that he reserve three of them for “social”—what Americans would call public—housing.

The architecture of the buildings, while deeply undistinguished, is far from the worst of the genre and certainly does not suffer from the gigantism that was once the vogue. The street remains leafy, and edges on a fashionable area. A two-bedroom apartment in the private complexes now sells for $900,000. To all appearances, the apartments are identical in the private and public housing complexes.

In front of these apartments is a tiny garden, not more than 15 feet wide. As you walk along the street, you can tell from these gardens exactly at what point the private property ends and the “social” housing begins, in exactly the same way as, overflying the island of Hispaniola, you can tell where the Dominican Republic ends and Haiti begins.

The little gardens in front of the publicly owned apartments are overgrown and jungle-like; they look as if no one really cared for them since the construction of the housing. Litter and household detritus—from diapers to the packaging of fast-food meals—covers them, some of it festooned on the overgrown bushes. At a certain point, private property takes over. The little gardens are cared for and neat; not a single piece of litter clutters them. If one were to appear, a property owner would soon remove it. My apartment, I am glad to say, is opposite a privately owned building.

What accounts for this startling difference? Raw poverty cannot force someone—even someone almost certainly a single mother—to dispose of diapers in the front garden. After all, the council collects trash from the public and private sectors alike.

Could the tenants of the public housing feel hard done by? No doubt they could, given the human capacity for resentment, and perhaps they express it by little acts of nihilism, but surely it is the providers of the “social” housing—that is, the hard-working taxpayers of the borough—who have the right to feel hard done by. The rent that the public tenants pay would be derisory compared with the market rate, and furthermore many such tenants would be exempt from local taxes. Taxpayers are making an involuntary gift, extracted from them by legal force, year after year, and no doubt decade after decade, to people who probably despise them for it. Where, one might ask, is the justice in that?

What is clear from the distribution of litter in the street is that it is the private that is social, and the “social” that is not so much private as solipsistic, egotistical—and antisocial.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next