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Nov. 17 2009 - 9:20 am | 14 views | 3 recommendations | 10 comments

Free market enthusiasts plot to destroy public housing

Image from The Exile

You would think during a time of vast unemployment, wealth disparity, and economic instability that great minds would unite in order to imagine and build a new tomorrow in which the suffering of the masses could be lessened. Of course, that fantasy includes the provision that The Smartest Guys In The Room are also The Most Moral Guys In The Room, which is rarely the case.

Enter T.A. Frank, a New America Foundation think tank lackey, who believes the solution to horrific living conditions in the ghetto is to privatize Section 8 housing and ship black people out to the subprime suburbs.

This is a bad idea for obvious reasons laid out in The Exile by Yasha Levine. First, the area where Frank wants to ship poor black people isn’t that great, according to Levine.

My adopted home of Victorville, California, a McTractHome paradise on the edge of the Mojave Desert 100 miles east of LA, has a buttload of crime, non-existent employment options, racial isolation and a gestapo police presence—just like the real ghetto.

If men like Frank were truly acting in the spirit of altruism, wouldn’t they want to improve the preexisting communities of poor black people, say, by increasing police presence, creating job programs, fostering small businesses, and rebuilding public schools? Frank’s idea to “help” poor people is the same strategy negligent pet owners employ when they want to get rid of an unwanted dog. Drive to the city limits and dump the mutt in the woods. Then drive away as quickly as possible.

Second, unless the government is also willing to supply cars for this newly created diaspora, I have no idea how these people are supposed to get around. L.A. isn’t exactly known for its wonderful public transportation, so I doubt there is an efficient bus fleet. Of course, these are all minor details. The main goal is to get the black, poor people the hell out of the way so that Frank and Associates can get their fingers on that prime real estate. As for the black people, it’s like Levine says:

Outta sight, outta mind.

That’s the best kind of charity!

Third, this is just another way to reinforce class and race divides in our country. The wealth disparity and racist policies of the United States has already been well documented, but I do want to share this chart, which simultaneously illustrates the rise in poverty and unemployment across the board, but also the magnified impact the trend has on the minority communities.

I have no idea how any economist, after looking at these figures, doesn’t run screaming from the room. Clearly, an economic system in which these are the “success” figures is very broken. Perhaps now is the time to rethink hyper-Capitalism, and not tear down public housing, the last refuge of the dispossessed.

If this seems like the sad, racist fantasy of one free market jackal, it’s not. This is already happening. Last summer, the New York Times ran a story about Atlanta’s public housing woes. [emphasis mine]

[C]ritics of the demolitions worry about the toll on residents, who must qualify for vouchers, struggle to find affordable housing and often move to only slightly less impoverished neighborhoods. Especially in a troubled economy, civil rights groups say, uprooting can lead to homelessness if more low-income housing is not made available. Lawsuits have been filed in many other cities, generally without success, that claim that similar relocations violate residents’ civil rights and resegregate the poor.

The federal government has advocated variations of this approach for several decades, particularly since President Bill Clinton began the Hope VI program in the 1990s to disperse residents from centralized projects. Atlanta may be the furthest along, but its plans to demolish buildings, relocate residents and work with private developers to gentrify destitute neighborhoods are being mirrored across the country in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Miami and New Orleans.

Over all, 195,000 public housing units have met the wrecking ball across the country since 2006, and over 230,000 more units are scheduled for demolition, according to the Housing and Urban Development Department.

This seems utterly insane. During an economic crisis, and spiking unemployment, why the hell would any Great Mind look at this mess and think — You know what? Let’s tear down the affordable housing!

Beyond being cruel, this is dangerous. Poor people rely upon urban geography for their very survival. They need cheap public transportation and nearby stores (including the frequently understocked and nutrition-lacking Bodegas) in order to eat and get to their jobs. If the poor get pushed to the outskirts of cities and towns, not only is that a step backward into a more segregated society, but it threatens the survival of these human beings.

And when rich people want the outskirts — what then? Where will the poor go then? Will it even matter?


10 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand


    When the Soviet Union collapsed, many of its state run systems continued to function. For example, most Soviets lived in public housing, fueled by public utilities, and they got around using public transportation. When their economic system went down, even though few people had much or any usable cash, their homes were still heated and not boarded up, the lights stayed on, and they could still get around using buses and trains. Here in America, the free market and privatization makes ours a very different story. When we stop paying our bills, the lights go out and the banks take our homes.

  2. collapse expand

    This is exactly what people say is happening in Chicago too, Allison. Chicago’s “Plan For Transformation” demolished over 35,000 units of public housing, with the promise that some of them would come back. But most of those people have been shipped out to comparable or worse neighborhoods than where they came. In fact, here in Chicago, residents and advocates sued a few years ago, saying that the placement of Section 8 residents was discriminatory and segregationist, and they won.

    Talk to Carole Steele, who’s lived at Chicago’s Cabrini-Green since long before the Plan began, and she’ll tell you. “Ain’t nothing but a land grab,” she says.

    Section 8 is the future of housing policy in this country, and yet, the whole idea is based one one very tiny program that worked well – sort of like how Headstart worked well until they made it a national program and took away everything that made it work. Section 8 has a lot, A LOT, of problems, and we are blissfully trying to pretend they’re not there.

    Have you read Hanna Rosin’s piece in the Atlantic last year – American Murder Mystery?
    It’s something I think you’d find very very interesting. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/memphis-crime

    I’d like to do a similar study in Chicago. If only I was a criminologist and had lots of funding :)

    Great post.

  3. collapse expand

    Unfortunately, he’ll probably be able to do it. I know that anyone who sees public housing in New Orleans, and then hears that there is a plan to move these people to “better” places, will probably assume its a good thing. They just assume any change would have to be for the better. Of course they never actually follow up to see if that assumption is right or not. All they know is that they have really cool boutiques where that dirty housing project used to be.
    As for spending money on neighborhood improvements, it’ll never happen. There’s no profit in it.

  4. collapse expand

    The least you could have done is actually read the article you linked to. You say that T.A. Frank “believes the solution to horrific living conditions in the ghetto is to privatize Section 8 housing and ship black people out to the subprime suburbs.” He suggests, as one possible solution among others, selling the complex to a private builder. He also suggests creating a tenant-owned cooperative or buying each resident of the housing project a $150,000 house—in Watts. Nowhere does he mention shipping black people to the “subprime suburbs,” or anywhere else for that matter.

    You also say, “If men like Frank were truly acting in the spirit of altruism, wouldn’t they want to improve the preexisting communities of poor black people, say, by increasing police presence, creating job programs, fostering small businesses, and rebuilding public schools?” But again, you obviously didn’t read the article because it addresses every single one of these issues.

    Lastly, you compare the “free market enthusiasts” who want to tear down these buildings and relocate the residents (never mind that it’s the LA Housing Authority that wants to get rid of the housing projects—unless this is who you mean by “free market enthusiasts”) to neglectful pet owners. But what about the neglectful treatment of the buildings and the residents by the public housing authorities, not to mention the omnipresent corruption, that Frank also mentions in the article? And that was pretty tame stuff. I’ve read and seen accounts on TV of housing projects that blew my mind—we’re talking shit and piss in hallways and stairwells, leaking pipes that were never fixed so that the residents were effectively without running water, broken or burned out light bulbs that were never replaced, and the dead bodies of kids found at the bottom of elevator shafts. And this is on top of the rampant crime, to the point that a maintenance man for one facility wouldn’t even enter the building without carrying a gun. If these places actually were housing animals, they’d be condemned and knocked down. Yet they’re okay for people?

    I was going to say, before I read the article, that I agree with you about these “privatization” scams. But then I read it and realized it was just an excuse to take a few easy shots at that old “free market” bogeyman.

    • collapse expand

      Hardly a bogeyman, Joe. And I must say, I’m rather confused by the rest of your response. I did read Frank’s article, but I’m not sure you did. Or if you did, I fear you missed the point. Any attempt Franks makes at altruism i.e. the half-sentence mention of increasing police presence is window-dressing for more Free Market nonsense like:

      As for Jordan Downs itself, the city could help plug its deficit and get additional residential units into Watts by selling the complex to a builder who comes up with a blueprint for pleasant, affordable, market-rate housing.

      And that’s the heart of the matter. Let’s get rid of public hosing for market-rate housing poor people won’t be able to afford.

      Franks also suggests turning the land into a park. Anything to avoid the “straightjacket our public housing has become.” Also his words.

      Better to look at a tree than a black kid, I guess.

      Right-wing loons like Frank are very good at making the systematic gutting of public programs look like responsible fiscal solvency. They just neglect to mention the human suffering side of things.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand


        The sentence you quote above is the only reference in the entire article to anything that could be construed as a privatization scheme. And it’s followed by this: “Or it could help create tenant-owned cooperatives, much like what the nonprofit Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation has been doing in San Diego.” And he also suggests placing people into preexisting but uninhabited single homes, in Watts, as a cheaper and better alternative. Now, maybe this is just more “window dressing” and Frank is in fact a right-wing loon. I have no idea—never heard of the guy before. I just think it’s disingenuous to portray this article as some kind of privatization hack piece.

        The point of the rest of my comment was that these housing projects are basically cesspools, and I don’t see how anybody could be much worse off than living in one of them.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          It’s the only mention of privatization because the rest of the article is a smear piece against Maxine Waters and the Jordan Downs project. By the time Frank gets to his main point — the privatization meat — he’s wasted half a page explaining how these darn social projects never seem to quite pan out right. And I’m sorry, a half-hearted mention about some nonprofit center (with no additional details) hardly qualifies as a serious alternative. In my opinion, the privatization is Frank’s goal.

          I agree that housing projects need help, but the solution isn’t to just tear them down and build unaffordable housing. Stating that housing projects are bad is really just pointing out the obvious, but rarely does the statement, “therefore, we need to spend more money on the projects,” follow that platitude. Rather, privatization enthusiasts take the opportunity to talk about how the community needs to be bulldozed and privatized instead — as though that’s some kind of magic panacea.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            Privatization may actually be Frank’s goal. Like I said, I’m not familiar with him and have no idea what his agenda is. However, the point of the article, in my opinion, isn’t privatization, but rather it’s about not wasting any more money on a failed endeavor. There’s a good reason these social projects never pan out—because they’re unworkable. Housing authorities are never going to be anything more than elaborate patronage systems, and the projects themselves are never going to be anything more than crime-infested human warehouses. Pouring more money into them isn’t going to change any of this.

            If the goal is to give people houses, then give them houses. Tear down the concrete block monstrosities and build some serviceable town homes or something. Make the residents the actual owners, either individually or collectively, rather than having them rely on a political system that’s always going to have more important priorities, and then leave them alone. The only reason this may not seem like a serious alternative is because it doesn’t take the feeders at the public trough into consideration. Remember, it’s basically the LA city government that wants to tear down the project, not “free market enthusiasts.” You don’t suppose there’s something in it for them, do you?

            In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I co-host Citizen Radio, the alternative political radio show. I am a contributing reporter to Huffington Post, Alternet.org, and The Nation.

    My essay "Youth Surviving Subprime" appears in The Nation's new book, Meltdown: How Greed and Corruption Shattered Our Financial System and How We Can Recover beside esssays by Ralph Nader, Joseph Stiglitz, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Naomi Klein, who I'm told are all important people.

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