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The Case for the “Poor Side of Town”

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The Case for the “Poor Side of Town”

10 Blocks podcast September 17, 2021
Economy, finance, and budgets

Howard Husock joins Brian Anderson to discuss the problems with urban renewal, exclusionary zoning, and public housing. Husock’s forthcoming book, The Poor Side of Town: And Why We Need It, is a history of housing policy in America.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Howard Husock. He's a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a longtime contributing editor of City Journal. Howard is the author of a brand new book called The Poor Side of Town: And Why We Need It, which will be out on September 21 from Encounter Books. Howard, thanks for joining us.

Howard Husock: Great to be with you, Brian.

Brian Anderson: Let's get right into it. Your book, which is imminent, combines public policy and a lot of stories proceeding from the notion that home ownership can be an important source of wealth and rootedness and stability for poor Americans. You document the ways that misguided housing policies from slum clearance to urban renewal to exclusionary zoning made home ownership very, very difficult, if not impossible for too many Americans. So tell us a bit about the structure of this book and sort of what the main takeaway is.

Howard Husock: Well, that's a challenging question even for an author, Brian, but I'll give it my best shot. What I've tried to do is to describe the trajectory of American housing policy in ways that tended to and have diminished the types of housing that we have, types of housing that accommodated the poor, allowed them to own modest homes to accumulate wealth and to advance through upper mobility. Well, how did that happen?

I focus a great deal in a way that I don't think has been done before on a series of individual progressives. I go back as far as Jacob Riis, who's the famous muckraker who exposed housing additions on the Lower East Side of New York and started the ball rolling toward the idea that we needed to replace private housing. It was going to demean and place poor people in execrable conditions. And what I demonstrated is that Riis never actually talked to, for his famous book How the Other Half Lives, never talked to the people of the Lower East Side. How do you experience this neighborhood that you find the author so abject? And a lot of poor people in the Lower East Side were going about their normal lives and they didn't live there that long, they moved up and out. And that's the template for a lot of the book, that there were neighborhoods that were not wealthy neighborhoods, that were modest neighborhoods, but that afforded poor people the chance to own or rent or rent out to lodgers, modest dwellings, and accumulate wealth.

Well, how did that get unraveled? It got unraveled as progressives from Riis on worked not only to replace private housing with public housing, but to pass zoning laws all over the country that made it more and more difficult to erect various forms of modest housing.

So who are some of my targets, I guess you'd have to say? One of them is a woman named Edith Abbott, who was a University of Chicago sociologist. She believed that home ownership for the poor was a bad idea, that they were going to waste their money and that the private market was inevitably going to fail them. Her crusade was then taken up by a woman, these are obscure people who are very influential and people live today with the legacy of their ill-considered ideas in my opinion. Her mantle was taken up by a woman named Catherine Bauer who wrote a book in 1936 called Modern Housing. She literally had photographs in the book of Soviet high-rises and extolled them as the future of housing. She took an important job in the Roosevelt Administration in the early Federal Housing Administration and set the country on this track to demolish these so-called slums.

Were there neighborhoods in which there were no bathrooms inside and you had to use a shared bathroom in which there were public baths rather than private? Yes, there were such neighborhoods. But even in neighborhoods like that, black Detroit, Black Bottom, they called it. DeSoto-Carr in St. Louis, the Farm in my own town of Brookline, where I lived for many years, all of these were places where there was a high degree of property ownership by poor people. Once these neighborhoods were leveled, literally demolished for public housing, what happens? Private ownership becomes a contradiction in terms. And so you have these two tracks, the progressive track to limit private ownership and at the same time the progressive track to spread more and more tougher and tougher zoning across the country that made it possible to replace these kinds of neighborhoods of modest homes with new versions of them.

And so we're left today with the idea that the only way that the poor could be accommodated in the United States is through deep subsidy programs, which does them little good in terms of wealth accumulation.

Brian Anderson: You mentioned the Black Bottom neighborhood in Detroit, something you've written about in City Journal. Black Bottom was not a wealthy place, as you know, but it was a hub of African-American entrepreneurship, of culture. Many of its residents were invested in the neighborhood through their homes and businesses. So it's really the story you tell a kind of classic tale of the Le Corbusier–inflected philosophy of urban renewal sweeping in and destroying a community that had its own viability and pattern of life. So tell us a bit more about that neighborhood and why you focused on it, and what did the reformers who tore it up actually envision? What happened after their plans were implemented?

Howard Husock: Yeah. So Black Bottom was not named Black Bottom because of its racial makeup. It was back when the French controlled Detroit, they thought it had deep black soil and so it got that name. But over the years it became one of the most prominent African-American neighborhoods in the country, and what I think is really important to focus on is that many of the virtues that frankly a lot of conservatives think African-American culture lacks, entrepreneurship, property ownership, I think public safety as well through Jane Jacobs, eyes on the street, Black Bottom had all this. I mean, Aretha Franklin's father had his church there. It was cleared for urban renewal. I'm not making that up.

The high property-ownership levels, and not just individual people owning their own homes, they had multi-family structures. So you had these networks of people who had landlords who lived in the same home as they did. This was . . . and there were a whole array of mutual-aid organizations. The Urban League in Black Bottom was one of the most active in the country helping to resettle southern migrants and find them jobs and find them places to live. This is the kind of immigrant neighborhood that we discuss in terms of other groups, but we minimize when it comes to African-Americans. They had it too, but it offended the sensibilities of progressives. They thought it was a slum.

I toyed with naming this book In Defense of Slums and I was convinced that that was a little too provocative. The title Poor Side of Town: And Why We Need It is already a little provocative, but the idea that slums weren't the bastions of exploitation that we see them as. These were lower working class neighborhoods where there were high degrees of property ownership.

So Black Bottom, there was kind of a conspiracy. There were racists in Detroit who did want to level it, who saw it as a place that was a threat. There had been literal race riots in Detroit in 1942 and they involved fights between blacks and whites bordering on Black Bottoms. So Mayor Cobo in Detroit ran on the idea that we're going to get rid of this slum, it's a blight. Of course, it was more a blight because it was black. And then the progressives, led by Eleanor Roosevelt and others in Detroit, she literally cut the ribbon on the first replacement public housing for a portion of Black Bottom, the Frederick Douglas houses. The idea that they would be named for a paragon of the idea of African-American independence and self-respect and you'd get a high rise public housing project in his name.

Over time, much of the demolished area was not even replaced with housing at all. The Chrysler Freeway can be found there today. Other parts of it were replaced with modernist upper-middle-class housing, super modernist upper-middle-class housing.

Brian Anderson: Le Corbusier–style buildings, yeah.

Howard Husock: Towers in the park. The offensive thing about Le Corbusier and his acolytes, the architects who thought they could plan not only buildings but plan people's lives, they suppressed the spontaneity, the self-organization of neighborhoods like Black Bottom and so many others across the country that were demolished for urban renewal. And ultimately in Detroit, in Black Bottom, those replacement public housing projects within 40 years were themselves demolished.

Brian Anderson: Now the spirit of the great urban thinker Jane Jacobs runs through this book. Jacobs as a writer and as a thinker was a pioneering critic of urban renewal, and her argument was that the local ties that constitute the stuff of urban neighborhoods are not easy to restore once they're dissolved as happened in Black Bottom and other neighborhoods you describe in the book. Those eyes on the street, as she calls them, they won't always be there. So Jacobs could also be an opponent of development, believing that new housing construction sometimes could disrupt city life just like top-down central planning schemes.

So in this book, you criticize exclusionary zoning policies for constraining the housing supply and keeping it unaffordable, arguing that new construction is generally a boon, a good thing. Is there a neat way to reconcile Jacobs as a defender of organic vitality in cities with her perhaps unwise opposition to certain forms of urban growth?

Howard Husock: Well, first of all, I think Jacobs has been too often reduced to eyes on the street. She understood urban neighborhoods to be a constellation of self-organized plans. She criticized progressives for allowing as she put it nobody's plans but the planner's. I think, and I met Jacobs a number of times and corresponded with her, and for instance, when the Faneuil Hall Marketplace was built in Boston and this old commercial structure was refurbished as a festival marketplace, it was being denounced as a form of gentrification and serving the rich. She said, "No, wait a minute. Look at it with your own eyes. People are gathering here. All sorts of merchants are working here. This is a good thing." So I don't think she was necessarily against development. I think she was against top-down development. I have a chapter on her in the book as the anti-planner, if you will.

But I think what we need to do is to . . . and this is a really, really hard thing politically, we've got to convince, and progressives don't want to be involved in the business of convincing, they want to hammer local zoning boards, local planning boards across the country to relax strictures so that the same sort of small builders who built so many parts of our cities, the row houses of Philadelphia, the brownstones of Brooklyn, these weren't planned. Architectural styles took root and builders built and they weren't guided by master plans. That's what Jacob's objected to is the master plan. Let's make it possible to build, have zoning, sure. You want to keep industrial away from residential, maybe, but it turned out to be a terrible idea to keep stores away from residential. We're rediscovering, those neighborhoods are popular today, the ones that survived.

Brian Anderson: Mixed-use, as it's called.

Howard Husock: Mixed-use, it's coming back. So I think what we have to do is somehow persuade all these local planning boards across the country, you need a poor side or at least a poorer side of town where the adult children of people, those who grew up in your towns, they can have a place for a starter home, police, fire, teachers, people who serve towns won't necessarily have to commute from far away and feel no tie.

One of the points I really want to make in this book is that by having a spectrum of income types within communities, not a spectrum based on subsidized housing which is artificial, but a spectrum based on households, buying houses within their means because you have small homes on small lots, you're going to have people working together in a shared polity. It can be better for democracy. It can break down some of our social class divisions and it used to be that way. It used to be that way. And we've opted for large lot zoning and the effect is exclusionary. Whether the intent was exclusionary, I think varies.

Brian Anderson: Your book contains a lot of interesting observations and wisdom really about the policy failures of mid-century housing reformers. But as you note, these lessons have really not been fully internalized at all. So today's urban leaders continue to rely on the ideal of public housing and subsidized affordable housing. Government programs to solve the problem of housing affordability. If an Eric Adams who may be the next mayor of New York or Eric Garcetti were to read your book, what lessons would you hope for them to take away?

Howard Husock: Well, I don't know much about Garcetti just a little bit, but I followed Adams closely and he seems like a very open-minded person. I'm optimistic about his mayoralty at this point. And first of all, I would urge him . . . public housing in New York is not going away anytime soon. There's 176,000 units of it. It's vast, 600,000 people are estimated to live in it. Nobody really knows how many people live in it. I think it's got to be reconceived, at least as we have understood it so that you've got to bring in private money and private management to rebuild it. It's a complete wreck.

The original progressive idea that it would be self-sustaining because there wouldn't be any profit, well that turned out to be completely wrong-headed and the kinds of housing that it was meant to replace is valuable today. If they hadn't torn down the Lower East Side to build the Jacob Riis houses, which is the third most dangerous place in Manhattan according to one study I read, those row houses and so-called tenements would be valuable today because they're desirable forms of housing.

So what I would tell Adams is, first of all for all, you got to change the culture of public housing as much as the physical form of it. All new residents should be short-term. You can come here five years, save money, get on your feet, and plan on moving out. There are housing authorities around the country that do this. Oh, what will happen to people after five years? Where will they go? They'll figure it out. Maybe they'll have to double up. It's not the end of the world.

Brian Anderson: To make it analogous to welfare reform.

Howard Husock: Exactly, exactly. We need housing reform analogous to welfare reform. The median time in public housing in New York City today is 19.6 years. And there are 10 percent of the population that have been there for 40 years or more. This is a sad state of affairs.

And we have . . . I would personally, my most radical idea is some of it, some of public housing, and this is true in Los Angeles too and all over the country, stands on extremely valuable, very developable land. I would offer to buy out tenants based on how long they've lived in a place and sell the property. You can realize funds that could repair other properties or could buy out other tenants. So I think we need a radical rethink of what was a failed idea, and we should not be looking for more and more clever forms of subsidized housing, which believe me, benefit developers more than they benefit poor people. The low-income housing tax credit is a complicated subsidized housing program which is now the favorite in the federal government. The average cost to build such a unit in California is more than $400,000 a unit for poor people. That's nuts. So we have to rethink this subsidized housing. We have to back away from it and we have to find ways to adjust that which we're left with as an unfortunate legacy.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Howard. The book is called The Poor Side of Town, the subtitle, And Why We Need It. It's out very, very soon from Encounter Books. I encourage everyone to pick up a copy and read it. It's filled with very provocative arguments. And as I mentioned at the top, filled with stories as well about real human beings. Thanks again, Howard. Don't forget to check out his other work on the City Journal website. We'll link to his author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_MI. And if you like what you've heard on today's podcast, please give us a nice ratings on iTunes. So thanks very much, Howard Husock.

Howard Husock: Brian, thank you, and I'll just add quickly. This book could never have been written without working for you as a great editor at City Journal and for all of the thinking that you allowed me to do in City Journal's pages. So thank you.

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Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

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