Bernie Sanders and his New York acolyte, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are urging a return to one of American progressivism’s signal failures: public housing. In an article for MSNBC, the two wrap their support for this dead-end idea in the fashionable cause of climate change.

They propose a “Green New Deal for Public Housing” that would invest $234 billion in America’s projects, much of that going to “electrify” and “decarbonize” our public-housing stock. They argue that switching the projects’ power from fossil fuels to electricity would be “the equivalent of taking 1.2 million cars off the road,” while helping America develop “the skills and technology needed to decarbonize all housing in our country.” What’s more, they claim, the effort would “cut residents’ bills by up to $613 million a year.”

Sanders and Cortez rightly acknowledge that many of the nation’s more than 900,000 public-housing units are in terrible shape. They note that the projects have “a maintenance backlog of tens-of-billions of dollars.” The two lawmakers overlook, however, that government mismanagement is responsible for those delays, such as the New York City Housing Authority’s $80 billion capital-repairs backlog.

Government’s maladministration of these units often has devastating effects on residents. In a 2023 class-action complaint, for example, tenants at the Harlem River Houses assert that NYCHA failed to maintain their units’ plumbing and electrical systems, and to remove mold and mildew. Yet Sanders and Cortez propose entrusting such failing public authorities with a multibillion-dollar investment.

The bill’s problems extend beyond its misguided faith in government. Even assuming the proposed new “green” infrastructure works, it’s unclear where the power to generate that energy transition will come from. The Biden administration continues to thwart the development of gas- and coal-powered utility plants. New York, for its part, closed the Indian Point nuclear plant, which once provided a quarter of the city’s power. An unreliable grid poses a huge obstacle for any project of Sanders and Cortez’s scale.

The two socialists also claim that their proposal will somehow redress how “The U.S. has lost 1 in 4 public housing units to privatization, demolition and underfunding over the last decade.” But public housing is far from an unalloyed good, and its social costs cannot be ignored. Many of the residents in these developments are single mothers prioritized for apartments because of their low incomes. In this way, public housing enables and facilitates single parenthood. Worse still, steering low-income households into new public housing maintains families as renters, rather than homeowners, preventing them from accumulating wealth through property ownership. Tenants on average spend more than 20 years in NYCHA housing, illustrating how many public-housing residents become long-term dependents.

The Sanders–Cortez plan is deeply misguided—but we do have an obligation to maintain existing public housing as long as it continues to stand. In New York, that involves such crucial tasks as repairing the roofs and brick facades that let water seep in, accumulating mold and mildew and causing asthma. The best way to ensure such work gets done is not to recommit ourselves to public ownership, as the two socialists would, but to turn to private management, as NYCHA, to its credit, is doing in 61 of its properties.

The two lawmakers are not wrong to assert that the nation faces a housing shortage. But the best way to serve those of modest means is to clear the way for the construction of modest homes. New York has shown the way with the Nehemiah Homes in the South Bronx and Brooklyn—small one- and two-family houses that have served those moving directly from public housing. Encouraging upward mobility through the housing market, not long-term government dependance, should be the goal.

It’s a well-worn cliché by now that insanity is repeating the same mistake and expecting different results. But by proposing to expand our national investment in public housing, that’s exactly what Sanders and Cortez have in mind.

Photo: Busà Photography/Moment via Getty Images


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