Half-Right on Public Housing

New York Times, May 20, 1997

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The House passed a bill last week sponsored by Representative Rick Lazio, a New York Republican, that is supposed to transform public housing, turning crime-ridden welfare warehouses into respectable havens for the working poor. This is a good idea. But the Lazio bill also has serious problems. In its present form, it could end up doing more harm than good.

The Government has two housing programs for low-income tenants: public housing and Section 8 vouchers, which provide rent subsidies for low-income families in private housing. The House Republicans' proposals would change both these programs in precisely the same way, cutting the number of slots for very poor families and raising the number for moderate-income families. While this change is a good idea for public housing, it is a terrible idea for Section 8. The two programs are completely different, and a "one size fits all" solution to their problems makes no sense.

Public housing dates back to 1937. The idea was for Washington to give local housing authorities money with which to build low-income housing. Tenants would then pay enough rent to cover maintenance costs. Later, however, Congress ignored the requirement that low-income tenants' rents had to cover a project's maintenance bills and passed rules requiring local authorities to fill the projects with the poorest applicants. Rent receipts fell, and maintenance deteriorated. Local housing authorities kept asking for Federal help, but most didn't receive enough.

Worse yet, when cities concentrated their poorest and most troubled families in a handful of projects, the rule of law often collapsed. In the late 1960's, when crime rates soared everywhere, many big-city projects were taken over by gangs.

In an unforgettable moment, St. Louis decided in 1974 that its big Pruitt-Igoe project was beyond redemption, moved everyone out and dynamited the buildings. The picture ran on front pages around the country, and political support for public housing vanished.

Congress has not authorized any new public housing, except for the elderly, since the early 1970's. But it has not given up on most of the old projects. To do that, Congress would either have to give current residents new Section 8 certificates so they could move elsewhere, or it would have to put a lot of very poor families out on the streets.

So public housing has staggered along. Today about 1.3 million families live in public housing. About half are on welfare. Most of the rest live in projects for the elderly, which work pretty well. The projects that mainly house welfare recipients vary in quality. Some are surprisingly good, while others are unimaginably awful.

Since 1974, the Federal Government has focused on making private housing more affordable for the poor.

It now provides 1.5 million poor families with Section 8 vouchers, which make up the difference between the market rent of a family's housing and what Congress thinks the family can afford (currently 30 percent of a family's cash income).

Instead of concentrating very poor, troubled families in a few projects, Section 8 spreads them around. This is supposed to encourage poor tenants and their children to behave more like everyone else -- though there is not much hard evidence to prove or disprove that belief.

Recent debate about Federal housing policy has focused almost exclusively on public housing. House Republicans want to tackle public housing's problems by letting local housing authorities cut the number of units they rent to very poor families on public assistance and increase the number they rent to the working poor.

Despite the Clinton Administration's objections on behalf of poor families, this proposal makes a lot of sense. Raising the proportion of tenants with jobs would improve the social environment in most projects. If tenants could pay more rent, local housing authorities could also better maintain the buildings.

Many of the workers who would benefit from the Republican plan are likely to be single mothers whom the new welfare law will soon push into low-wage jobs. Most of these mothers will be earning between $10,000 and $15,000 a year. That is more cash than they would get on welfare. But unlike welfare recipients, most of these working mothers will have to pay for their own groceries, medical bills and child care expenses.

A recent book, "Making Ends Meet," by Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at Rutgers University, and Laura Lein, a researcher at the School of Social Work at the University of Texas, shows the result: Low-wage mothers are currently as likely as welfare mothers to suffer serious material hardship. That will be even more true in the years ahead; so giving the working mothers top priority for public housing makes sense.

But what will become of the mothers who still get public assistance, either because they have just had babies and have not yet hit their time limit to start working, or because they have such serious problems that they are exempt from work requirements?

The obvious solution would be to set aside more Section 8 vouchers for such mothers. But that is not what the House Republicans have proposed. Instead, the House bill allows local housing authorities to redistribute Section 8 certificates from the unemployable poor to the more affluent.

This part of the Republican proposal is a terrible idea.

Some Republicans claim that redistributing these vouchers to working families would give the jobless poor more incentive to find work. That is a plausible argument when the head of the family is really employable and the family lives in a community where jobs are available.

But no amount of tinkering with incentives will insure that every last single mother can find a steady job. There really are people whom no private employer will hire. There are also communities where not enough jobs are available.

Reluctant as the Republicans are to admit it, these families need our help. If we want them to work, we will have to give them "community service" jobs.

But that is expensive, especially when we also have to provide child care for a worker's children. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are sufficiently committed to the work ethic to pay for this solution. Even if they were, such families would still need housing subsidies.

Affordable housing for the poorest of the poor has long been in desperately short supply. That is why so many families are doubled up with relatives, and why some families keep showing up in shelters.

If Congress wants to reduce the number of very poor families in public housing, it should make it easier for such families to get Section 8 certificates.

Even if all future vouchers were reserved for families in which no adult is currently employable, there would not be enough to go around. A housing law that simply denies the existence of such families could easily turn out to be worse than what we have now.

Christopher Jencks, a professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, is the author of "The Homeless."