Bringing Back Housing Diversity
Among the greatest experiences of my life was the time I spent serving in one of America's lowliest political offices. For three terms in the 1980s, it was my honor to represent Precinct Six at the town meeting of Brookline, Massachusetts. In contrast to the classic open town meetings that characterize New England, where any adult resident may attend and vote, ours was a "representative" version — a 240-member citizen legislature of 15 members from each of 16 districts. All were volunteers. Our jurisdiction may have been small, but our votes were consequential: We decided the annual budget appropriations for a municipality of nearly 60,000 people.
In a town with both dense urban neighborhoods and post-war suburban areas, debate could be intense. How much money should we allocate to the public schools, and how much to the town for police, public works, and more? Should we raise the tax rate? Should we relax the long-standing ban on overnight street parking? Should we permit more rooming houses and bed-and-breakfasts? There was no hiding for a town-meeting member — roll-call votes could occur at any time. Members' interests and the issues discussed ranged widely. During my tenure, we voted to phase out rent control. Since I left, they voted to permit the retail sale of marijuana.
As engaging and heated as such debates and town-meeting elections could be — I won office once by a single vote — they were not, in retrospect, the most important aspect of this intense form of local democracy. What mattered more was the socioeconomic range of those gathering at least twice annually in the high-school auditorium to debate the "warrant articles" and vote. Members included teachers and doctors, firefighters and lawyers. There were anti-war members pushing to pass resolutions condemning some military action while the local American Legion member defended the tradition of saying the Pledge of Allegiance before sessions. During my tenure, members included both one of the most prominent geneticists in the world and a local elementary-school custodian.
The true diversity reflected in these town meetings was not the consequence of some policy design; it was the natural result of the wide range of neighborhoods that comprised the town. There was Pill Hill for the doctors, lined with historic Victorian-era mansions. At its bottom was the Point, packed with two- and three-family homes of Irish American blue-collar workers. There were strongholds of New England Yankees, including the managing partner of a law firm with colonial-era roots who served as longtime chair of the finance committee. There were neighborhoods of middle-class Jews whose extended families had made their way up and out of their Boston ghetto — among whom I include myself. Though inhabiting distinct neighborhoods, these assorted Brookline residents did not actually live all that far from one another.
What was unusual then (and all the more rare now) was not the diversity of those present, but the fact that this range of social classes was working together in a shared civic polity. Such circumstances were possible only because of the town's assortment of housing types — and, in particular, the fact that it had what we used to unblinkingly call a "poor side of town": districts and pockets of three-decker homes with nicknames such as the Point, the Alley, and the Village. These low-income neighborhoods were packed with corner stores, schoolhouses, parish churches, excellent hockey players (including some Olympians), and working-class homeowners who rented to extended-family members and friends.
But beneath the relative comity of local democracy, other trends were undermining the diversity of the town's neighborhoods. The poor side of town had once been much bigger — hundreds of homes and dozens of blocks bigger. Then in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Brookline, imbued with progressivism, went in big on federally subsidized urban-renewal policies. Town meetings of that era voted to demolish what had come to be characterized as "slum housing." Whole neighborhoods like the Farm and the Marsh were torn down, and their residents were paid a nominal sum to move — often to newly built public-housing units.
Gone were some 300 homes in which landlords lived among and knew their tenants. Where privately owned cold-water flats once stood, government-subsidized high-rises took shape. Though nothing prevented them from doing so, tenants of this new public housing were unlikely to run for the town meeting.
What can be called a kind of "war" on the poor side of town was hardly confined to Brookline. For decades, America has combined the demolition of low-income neighborhoods with regulation and attitudes that impede their replacement. Two key factors contribute to this state of affairs.
The first — zoning law — has prohibited multi-family structures from being built on single plots of land. At the same time, low-income housing has become synonymous with government-subsidized housing — including both the failed experiment of public housing and more recent, equally dubious efforts to disperse "affordable" units within higher-income areas as an antidote to public housing's difficulties. This has resulted in housing policy particularly injurious to low-income Americans on two fronts. First, housing is limited to single-family homes on large lots, which makes housing more expensive. Second, incumbent residents of higher-income areas, fearful of an influx of low-income neighbors, have come to resist efforts to create subsidized rental housing in their neighborhoods.
The time is ripe for new versions of the poor side of town. If local zoning boards can be persuaded of the benefits associated with privately owned low-income housing and neighborhoods — and assured that they won't be forced to construct more ill-fated public-housing experiments — Americans of lesser means will finally have the opportunity to return to towns in which they haven't been able to afford to live for decades. Those towns, in turn, will gain from greater diversity and the stronger sense of common purpose that comes with it.
The conventional wisdom is that the privately built, low-income neighborhoods developed to house the immigrant and African American poor in the first half of the 20th century were densely packed hellholes wherein rapacious landlords milked the poor. In The Pruitt-Igoe Myth — a film about the origins of public housing and the ill-fated Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis — Robert Fishman, an urban historian at the University of Michigan, points to the dangerous conditions in private slums as the impetus for public housing:
You really had these people called slum lords who took advantage of the fact that the poor had to live in the center of cities close to where their jobs were. You had acres and acres of housing that was unsafe and unsanitary. The slum lords knew that they could just jam as many people as possible into it. It was a very profitable system, but it was also completely destructive, not just for the people who were stuck in the slums, but for the whole urban community. And there was a despair that private enterprise could ever deal with this issue.
This view provided the political and moral momentum for urban renewal and taxpayer-financed "affordable" housing, which continues to buoy support for such measures to this day. Private housing markets are said to inevitably fail the poor. A reconsideration of this narrative tells a much more nuanced story — one that should prompt us to re-examine our assumptions about, and current approach to, low-income housing.
Census data — specifically national housing data, which the government began to collect in detail in 1940 — reveal that low-income neighborhoods, the kind that were declared "slums" and cleared, were characterized by significant percentages of owner occupancy and what I call "owner presence." These neighborhoods featured small, multi-family structures in which the owner lived in one unit and tenants lived in the others.
The number of owner-occupied structures in these areas consistently exceeded the number of single-family homes. This was the case in Brookline's Farm neighborhood — an Irish American enclave that town-meeting members voted to demolish in the 1950s and '60s. According to town records, the 121 homes in the Farm had 348 units, and more than half of those were either occupied by an owner or by a tenant whose owner lived in the same house. Owner presence, in other words, was common in these privately owned structures.
Census data for parts of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis that were cleared to make way for public housing tell a similar story. In Chicago, 32% of structures in areas that would later be demolished were owner occupied; in Detroit, that number was 29%. In Cleveland, it was 49%, and in St. Louis, it was 38%. In two all-black census tracts in St. Louis, 21% of properties (828 homes) were held by non-white owners, and there were only 721 single-family structures.
Private ownership in these neighborhoods was important for several reasons. The homes that were condemned may not have been in ideal physical condition — they could be without hot water, they may have had to rely on coal heat, and they may have had outdoor privies — but they were nevertheless economic assets. Owners of these homes — and even their tenants, as sociologist Michael Ullman has observed — had the option to rent rooms to boarders or extended-family members, or even to sell their homes to make ends meet. This is not an option for those living in public or otherwise subsidized housing.
Private ownership also allowed for owner presence in these structures, which in turn made for increased social cohesion. Owners knew and were accountable to their tenants. The tenants, meanwhile, had to be careful not to alienate on-site owners. In the public housing that replaced these multi-family homes, there was no private ownership. Indeed, since public housing is subsidized by taxpayers, there is no corporeal "owner" to speak of — meaning there can be no owner presence.
More broadly, landlords and tenants living in these multi-family dwellings were part of larger neighborhoods replete with all sorts of local businesses and institutions, with elected officials taking part in the larger local polity. These vibrant, self-sustaining communities stood in stark contrast to the public-housing communities of today, where residents are, in effect, supplicants dependent on a government owner for services.
Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood — named originally for the color of its soil, not its racial character — provides a powerful example of the vitality that once characterized poor sides of town. The community was once legendary for its Hastings Street, lined with black-owned businesses and blues and jazz clubs. A social history notes that, before the neighborhood was cleared away,
blacks owned 350 businesses in Detroit, almost all located within the boundaries of Black Bottom. The community also had 17 physicians, 22 lawyers, 22 barbershops, 13 dentists, 12 cartage agencies, 11 tailors, 10 restaurants, 10 real estate dealers, 8 grocers, 6 drugstores, 5 undertakers, 4 employment offices, a few garages, and a candy maker.
Ultimately, more than 300 of these businesses were seized through eminent domain to make way for government-subsidized housing. Those who wonder why African Americans have fewer assets than other groups today can look to this sad history of the loss of both black-owned homes and enterprises when searching for answers.
Oral-history accounts of these lost communities are revealing, even if perhaps colored by nostalgia. A former Black Bottom resident recalls the neighborhood before it was demolished: "The whole sense of family and neighborhood — and legacy of sports and involvement in our community — it all comes from that time." Labor leader Frank Moloney, who grew up in Brookline's Farm neighborhood and still lives in the nearby Point (which was spared the wrecking ball and has since greatly appreciated in value), looks back on the Farm with a similar sense of loss: "Here we were, living our lives. We had a very close-knit community, like a family, and they just wanted to take it down."
Moloney recalls without bitterness neighbors who lacked hot water but walked to the town gym to take showers, the corner stores that extended credit to residents, and all the "guys" with whom he grew up who eventually "made good." The social capital in the Farm was so thick that Moloney still takes walks almost daily with his boyhood friend Ronnie Kilgallen. Both acknowledge that conditions were not ideal, but they question why politicians did not aim to upgrade the neighborhood rather than clear it away, and thereby retain its positive communal elements.
Housing policy since the United States Housing Act of 1937 has been grounded in the idea that these relatively dense lower-income neighborhoods with multi-family homes do not meet the "safe and sanitary" standards of the act. But limiting our housing goals to reducing density overlooks the ways in which tight-knit, privately owned housing can help forge a sense of community — and the ways, per my experience in Brookline, a combination of housing types in a given municipality can help create a healthy, cross-class civic culture, even when low-income areas are set off from those of higher income. This sense of community, in turn, fosters a civil society rooted in concern for one's neighbors and one's locality — an element that is crucial to a neighborhood's success.
There are thus many communal and cultural benefits to preserving the "poor side of town" in those localities that still have them. A similar case should be made for building new ones.
For decades, progressives have criticized suburban municipalities for what is described as "exclusionary zoning" — regulation that keeps housing prices high by limiting density. This criticism is not entirely misplaced. Robert Ellickson of Yale Law School refers to these rules as a "zoning strait-jacket," finding that "local zoning politics typically freezes land uses in an established neighborhood of detached houses." Census Bureau data indicate that the median square footage of a new single-family home in 1973 was 1,525 square feet, compared to 2,301 square feet in 2019. As a result, neighborhoods are limited to large single-family homes and are unable to meet the demand for new housing. Housing prices have risen in recent decades largely because there are fewer and larger homes to buy. As a result, many families have been priced out of the market altogether.
The left-of-center response to exclusionary zoning focuses on a dual-pronged approach of regulation and litigation. In the left's view, local and regional governments should be coerced into accepting "affordable housing" — subsidized, low-rent housing for the poorest households. As part of the Obama administration's efforts to implement a provision of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that sought to eliminate housing discrimination, the Department of Housing and Urban Development threatened local governments with the loss of federal community-development funds unless they accepted housing for low-income households. (The Trump administration subsequently repealed this regulation and made much of having done so.)
Low-income-housing advocates have attempted to use litigation to force similar outcomes. This has led to housing construction in some instances but also to intense controversy — most notably in places like suburban Westchester County, New York, where a Republican candidate critical of such coercive tactics was elected county executive in the predominantly Democratic locale. Similar examples abound. In Washington, D.C., the use of housing vouchers to relocate the formerly homeless into a middle-class Cleveland Park apartment building led to a backlash by incumbent tenants alarmed at the behavior of the newcomers. Even if such issues as drug dealing do not surface among all or even most subsidized tenants, fear of such activities drives much of the resistance to subsidized housing.
This should not be surprising. Any policy meant to diversify the income mix in a community must be cognizant of one of the cardinal principles of American housing patterns: Households sort on the basis of socioeconomic status. As the geographer Philip Rees, then at the University of Chicago, put it in 1979, "socioeconomic status is a universal sorting principle in American cities." Michael White, professor of population studies at Brown University, has spelled this out in more detail:
Poor neighborhoods with residents who work in lower status occupations and have lower levels of education are found to be separated from the high status neighborhoods in the urban mosaic. Educational attainment and occupation are good overall indicators of a neighborhood's status. The level of income, correlated with these two characteristics, is the most direct indicator of a household's ability to..."purchase" status, or at least purchase a residence in what is regarded as a high status neighborhood.
Given the status-based sorting patterns of American housing, using government to pressure communities to accept households of significantly lower socioeconomic status is a recipe for conflict. And since this approach relies on federal subsidies — such as housing vouchers and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit to support construction costs — it's also expensive and limited in its impact.
Developing a new poor side — or at least somewhat poorer side — of town offers a way around these problems. It takes into account the fact that, in our system of federalism and local control, expanding lower-cost housing options on a large scale can be accomplished most effectively through persuasion.
Those who want to broaden the range of housing offerings must accept the fact that communities control what is built within their borders, and they are unlikely to favor coercive methods. Instead, these advocates should give private developers a chance to provide lower-cost housing options on their own. Developers of these new poorer sides of town can look to the Farm and Black Bottom neighborhoods as examples — not in terms of building new cold-water flats, but in emphasizing smaller, multi-family structures with on-site owners. Ownership in these communities should not be restricted by explicit income limits; rather, the homes built will likely be less costly simply through the economics afforded by modestly increased density. A dozen two-family homes on two acres of land hardly resemble a public housing high-rise sure to be resisted, but they would provide far more residences than a large, single-family house.
How such arguments are worded matter. Housing advocates should find language other than "affordable" or "subsidized" to sell communities on their ideas, as such tainted euphemisms will convince no one. If they frame their ideas as "fair-share" housing in which affluent areas take on the burden of housing the poor, they will alienate people who might otherwise be persuaded to take their side. Instead, they must cast their efforts as providing housing for police, firefighters, nurses, paramedics, and teachers — occupations for which local presence is a benefit. The terms "workforce housing" or "missing-middle housing" help communicate this message. In short, local planning and zoning boards must be convinced that it is in their communities' self-interest to make such housing possible.
Selling even a modest increase in density will not be easy; advocates must be prepared to answer doubts from current residents about newcomers in private low-income housing. Some will resist housing expansion based on the costs of an increased school population and other city services. But it's possible for districts to incorporate a relatively small number of new children without building new schools or even hiring new teachers. Another counterargument is that the children of lower-income home-buyers can become the next generation of affluent community members. After all, offering more naturally affordable housing will help their families build the equity they need to purchase the more expensive homes of older residents when it comes time for their children to buy a home. This was the appeal of such legendary post-war housing as Long Island's Levittown — where homes were just 750 square feet and had no basement. A serious design competition to develop a contemporary version would be an excellent philanthropic project.
What about the lowest-income Americans who may not have the means to purchase even a small home or to pay the rent in a new two- or three-family structure?
It remains true that most low-income Americans now residing in public or voucher-based housing, other than the elderly and the disabled, are single parents and their children. Aside from providing these families with generous subsidies — which risks encouraging more such families to form — there are few ways to help them afford to rent their own apartments. The best option may be to encourage them to double up with parents and grandparents in the short term, and to offer resources to help them make critical life decisions — those involving employment, saving, and marriage — that will make housing more affordable for them over time.
Here, too, rebuilding poor sides of town — complete with multi-family homes — can facilitate a solution. Not all of these new neighborhoods would be built in the most affluent communities; those constructed in less-affluent communities would be relatively inexpensive, since land values in such areas are comparatively low. Modest expansions of multi-family homes in lower-middle-class communities would not only provide new homes for low-income families, they would also help free existing units for those of lower incomes — a process economists have long referred to as "filtering."
In parallel with rediscovering the idea of a healthy poor side of town, we need to find ways to gradually extricate ourselves from existing public- and subsidized-housing programs. In doing so, we need to recognize that housing policy is intimately joined with social policy. To the extent housing policy "rewards" those with the lowest income, it discourages bourgeois norms and upward mobility. This is especially true in public and subsidized housing where rent is set at a percentage of income — an arrangement that punishes increased income. Far better to let the market provide the steps for striving than to use public policy to accommodate poverty, making the deleterious assumption that it's likely to be permanent. (As matters stand, this has proven to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: Public-housing tenants in New York City average more than 23 years in such housing.)
Many public-housing sites in places like New York are located in prime development areas, and tenants in these programs might actually prefer to use the dollar value of income subsidies for purposes other than housing. Taken together, these facts suggest that public-housing buyouts, financed by the sale of the land on which projects now stand, may be feasible. Subsidized tenants might also choose to live with extended families if they could set their sights on a small home that was within their means — made possible by revitalized poor sides of town.
To be sure, the Covid-19 pandemic has increased concerns about densely populated housing creating a petri dish for disease. Similar worries were raised over the New York slums of the late 19th century, as documented by photojournalist Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives. Though there's good reason to believe Riis, a longtime police reporter, sensationalized conditions and overlooked the ambition at work, the general concern is a valid one. Fortunately, reasonably sized poor sides of town would have nowhere near the density of city high-rises. Nor would residents of these communities be forced to rely on fixed-rail mass transit that has proven problematic during this pandemic, as buses and rideshare-style car services could solve the long-difficult problem of finding ways for those of modest means to reach jobs even as employment patterns shift.
The poor-side-of-town idea could also mitigate what might appear to be race-related resistance to the addition of lower-income housing in more affluent areas. The Obama administration's Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule generated controversy because it emphasized not just lower-cost housing, but racial desegregation as well. As Herbert Gans, the dean of American sociologists, noted long ago, residents who have social class in common are more willing to accept racial diversity than those who do not. Conflating concern about status differentiation or social class with racism misunderstands the dynamics of American housing markets. The newcomer who can buy or pay a market rent is not likely to inspire the same sort of racial backlash as one who cannot.
Modest relaxation of zoning at the local level will be difficult to achieve. The advent of zoning in the early 20th century was the result of a long campaign led by an important but obscure historical figure named Lawrence Veiller who, as the head of the National Housing Association, successfully pushed municipalities around the country to adopt a model zoning code based on the idea that residential and industrial uses should be separated.
Notably, however, Veiller believed that zoning and planning should accommodate a range of housing types, even in affluent communities. Shaker Heights, Ohio, a privately planned 1920s-era suburb that was considered the wealthiest community in the United States at one time, is the perfect example. The town includes districts of both two-family homes and commercial-area apartment buildings. It has also remained racially diverse over time.
If progress is to be made on the low-income housing front, local planning and zoning boards need to be persuaded of the benefits of building additional private, low-income housing options, not coerced into building them. Increasing the number of inexpensive multi-family structures would enable low-income Americans to return to housing markets they have been priced out of for far too long. This will give them a chance to own more assets, build equity, and improve their economic mobility. Even if these new low-income neighborhoods are somewhat separated from more affluent ones, they will still provide more opportunities for cross-class interaction and the development of community ties in towns across the country.
To be sure, the phrase "poor side of town" sounds like a pejorative. But it's worth keeping in mind the lyrics of the long-ago hit song of the same name by Johnny Rivers which, like Frank Moloney, kept in mind all those who used such neighborhoods as a launching pad from which to "make good":
Oh, with you by my side
This world can't keep us down
Together we can make it baby
From the poor side of town.