Why even discuss the flaws in public housing during a pandemic?

Simple. Black people are more vulnerable to this dread disease than whites for several reasons. They are poorer, and “wealthier is healthier.” African-Americans suffer to a greater extent from other medical maladies which weaken immune systems, such as diabetes, obesity, heart conditions, etc. Also, they tend to congregate to a greater extent in large cities, and population density is one of the dimensions implicated in Covid 19.

And, proportionately fewer whites are found in public housing than blacks, and this is likely true even in absolute numbers. Black lives matter. The sooner we eliminate this housing scourge, the more precious lives will be saved.

At the outset, public housing sounds like a good idea. After all, we have a homeless problem. Better these people have a roof over their heads than not, even if there are difficulties with this initiative. A society is properly judged in great part by how well it treats those at the bottom of the income distribution, and this type of residence presumably plays a role in their support.


But compared to what?

How were the poor housed before the advent of this institutional arrangement? Not too well. It was tenement housing. If you look at the two purely from the point of view of the physical plant, the projects have it all over the prior system. Public housing features high rises, with great views from the upper stories, hot and cold running water, private bathrooms, elevators, etc. The private variety could not boast of any of that. But this is an unfair comparison. Scads of taxpayer money went in to the one, not the other. No tenement ever had to be blown up by government authorities, but this was the fate of the Pruitt Iago projects in St. Louis. Nor were they the only rat-infested, feces-filled, crime ridden, hell-holes in this system. Pruitt Iago was only the tip of the ice-berg for this type of housing. As for running water, bathrooms, this describes tenements of a century ago, not at present.

Why the failure of public housing? In the view of Jane Jacobs, a leading critic of this program, it is due to safety; that is, the lack thereof. These residences are dangerous for two reasons.

First, the leaders of the community, around whom the populace ordinarily coalesces, are systematically weeded out. Initially, only those in dire poverty accepted, and such people are not likely to take on leadership roles. Later on, if a resident is awarded a promotion or a salary increase, an indication of increased guidance ability, they are summarily booted out of the projects as their income no longer qualifies them for retention. In other words, the cream is taken out of the milk at first, and, as it rises in the bottle, it is continually siphoned off.

Second, “eyes on the street.” The creators of public housing have an inveterate hate for commerce. Nary a store, restaurant, repair shop or pharmacy is to be seen anywhere on the premises. Most if not all private high rise edifices place such commercial enterprises on the ground floor. There is a continual movement in and out of these places of business, and some people hang out in front of them. This makes it interesting for people in the floors above to look down and keep their eyes on the street. Criminals are a shy lot. They do not relish being seen as they perform their dastardly deeds. If the tenants have little or no reason to look out onto the street as they did when there were tenements, criminality rises. In the no-businesses projects they have far less of an incentive to do so.


What, then, is the solution?

If we can abstract from the immorality of seizing money from some and giving it to others, then the funds placed in these buildings should be instead given to the recipients. This would allow them to enter into the private real estate market with an advantage they would not otherwise have. In other words, modern up to date tenements run by private enterprise would be preferable to the present system.

How can we relatively seamlessly make the necessary switch? Margaret Thatcher offered one proposal: give these apartments to their present owners, or charge them a nominal $10 fee for them. Then, allow the new owners to sell their residential units, or convert them into private condominium associations. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” will do all the rest. The quest for profits will turn these hell-holes into viable residences.




Walter E. Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans.