Ben Carson Thinks Public Housing Should Be Less Comfortable. America Already Made That Mistake Once.

Another American unlikely to look for a pool cue in the private sector.

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Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson is on listening tour of subsidized housing, a national meet and greet that advocates hoped would open the bootstrap-loving surgeon’s eyes to a nationwide affordability crisis.

Instead, the experience seems to be reinforcing Carson’s belief that the problem with government benefits is that they are too generous.

Here’s what New York Times reporter Yamiche Alcindor wrote of her trip with Carson to a project in Columbus, Ohio, that is partially funded by HUD:

Compassion, Mr. Carson explained in an interview, means not giving people “a comfortable setting that would make somebody want to say: ‘I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.’ ”

That’s ironic: It was a version of Carson’s attitude—the fear that government housing would be too good—that helped create the nation’s midcentury public housing debacle, as the federal government bowed to the real estate industry’s insistence that government housing not compete with the private sector’s own offerings. (Prior to that, wartime government housing was only allowed with the assurance it would later be demolished, which it was, even as the housing shortage persisted.)

We know how that went: Shoddily built, segregated projects were designed and managed to house only families with no other options, resulting in clusters of entrenched poverty and ensuing social ills. Most have since been bulldozed.

“It reflects what he doesn’t know about housing policy, which is that from the 1930s to the 1980s, American housing policy was primarily about creating uncomfortable housing,” explains Nicholas Dagen Bloom, a historian of New York City’s public housing. “They built housing that was in another category of uncomfortableness. And then they were surprised that only people who had no choice were staying.”

The backlash began almost immediately. As early as the 1950s, New York stopped trying to get higher-income tenants to leave the projects, realizing that their presence contributed to fiscal and social stability. By the 1970s, public housing in most cities was considered a resource of last resort, and the federal emphasis began to shift toward new models.

The projects that Carson is touring now represent a response: neatly kept buildings with amenities like pool tables, each one an architectural demonstration of how American housing policy has evolved since Carson’s childhood.

The subsidized housing of today doesn’t look like 1950s housing projects, and that’s a good thing. It might look “comfortable” because it’s designed for families of mixed incomes, in an effort to foster socioeconomic integration. That’s the case with Poindexter Village in Columbus, which Carson visited at the end of last month.

“You don’t want to create housing that’s solely for the poorest of the poor,” says Chris Herbert, managing director of Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. “The design of public housing has been widely criticized for creating an environment that was both socially and physically deteriorating. Good design feeds into good performance of the property—and a better social milieu.”

It might also look that way because low-income housing developments built with tax credits, like the project helmed by Alonzo Mourning in Miami, in whose elevator Dr. Carson got stuck last month, are supposed to have a positive spillover effect in low-income neighborhoods. They’re supposed to improve the neighborhoods in which they’re built.

Finally, it looks that way because affordable housing planners increasingly consider familial stability, not departure, the goal. In many cities, market-rate housing is so far out of reach it doesn’t make sense to consider affordable housing a stepping stone. “While transitional housing can be an important tool in managing homelessness, we’re encouraging communities to offer permanent housing solutions to an even greater number of persons and families who are experiencing homelessness,” HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan told the L.A. Times last year.

In short, Carson is resurrecting an old and discredited idea about affordable housing: that its low quality should encourage residents to leave. In fact, what has worked best, for tenants and for their neighborhoods, is the opposite: housing that low-income residents want to live in.

Carson may still be right that comfortable housing discourages residents of means from seeking private apartments. (Though the presence of successful, working families helps set an example.) A study of turnover in NYCHA projects found that residents were less likely to leave larger apartments, for example.

On the other hand, rundown housing only forces families to leave when the private market provides better options. “A lot of public housing was horrible and people didn’t leave,” Herbert observes. “The real issue is: ‘Where can I get housing that fits my budget?’ ”

In too many cities, the answer is: nowhere.