Exiles on Main Street
In the past two weeks, Opening the Window has described two versions of “social housing paradise:” Chicago Housing Authority and Montreal’s Benny Farm.
I don’t know much of the history of Benny Farm, but it seems to have been quite successful for 50 or more years. This seems to have been something of an exception, though. We’re all much more familiar with places like the Chicago Housing Authority which failed miserably, like much of the public housing in other large US cities and, of course, in places like Regent Park and other urban public housing in Canada.
Why did it happen?
In his comment from two weeks ago, Michael Shapcott suggested a lack of tenant control was a big part of the problem. He said,
“In the early 1950s, the housing expert Albert Rose warned that the exclusion of tenants from management and engagement in the newly developed Regent Park public housing project was setting the stage for a big problem downstream. He was very right. Public housing tenants should have resources to build and maintain independent tenant structures – and also to engage in the management of Toronto Community Housing. CMHC research shows that tenant-managed housing (ie – housing co-ops) are the most cost-effective form of social housing and also deliver many other benefits.”
I support resident control. I’ve lived in and managed a housing co-op, so I know first-hand their benefits. And I’ve been proud to help develop other co-ops. But I don’t think the real cause of the problems we see with CHA and Regent Park were caused by lack of resident control. I think the real cause of public housing’s decline was government policy.
Like the units managed by the Chicago Housing Authority, Regent Park ran pretty well at first. Its decline began in the 1960s, when Ontario imposed new access rules, just as the feds imposed similar changes in Chicago.
“A” housing problem or “the” housing problem?
Public housing was created to solve a problem: low-income, working families could not afford a decent place to live. Governments responded by creating affordable, well-maintained housing. An extensive support network (encouraged by management, but provided for the most part by either the residents themselves or by civic institutions such as schools and churches) was part of the package.
Ironically, the very success of post-WWII public housing in addressing a large – though narrowly focused – problem led both the Ontario and US governments to make the same logical error. (I’m not picking on the US and Ontario. I grew up near Glasgow and I’ve also heard of the stories from across the developed world. It’s just that we’re discussing CHA and Regent Park here.) Starting in the 1960s, policy makers began to believe public housing could solve not just “a” housing problem but “the” housing problem; that is, it could provide decent housing for any poor person no matter the cause of that person’s poverty. It’s true that many poor people have at least one thing in common – they can’t afford decent housing, especially in cities. But, as we now recognize, poverty has many causes: a changing economy, that has reduced the likelihood for many people that they will get a decent job (pick your own reason: export of manufacturing jobs to lower-wage countries, decline of unionization of blue-collar jobs, poorer educational standards, growing economic disparities created by changing tax structures); the closure of psychiatric hospitals and other institutions; reduced social cohesion; the list goes on. And the failure to recognize the significance of this causal diversity has had dismal consequences.
Access through victimhood
The new housing policy established a new access system, where applicants earned “points” for being victims. The system gave preference to people who were unemployable, abused, mentally ill, or homeless – the people that society at large had failed the most. But instead of trying to correct things by reducing the number of people who “fell through the cracks,” many governments decided, “Well, we can at least house these people in the units we already own, i.e. public housing.”
This new access policy, while perhaps well intentioned, meant that public housing no longer acted as a base for people to participate in the economy and society as a whole. Instead, it became a kind of “holding tank” for households that had nowhere to go, and were continually given that message. While public housing developments are literally in our midst, their occupants are effectively exiled from the rest of society, with almost no interaction apart from the kind that leads off the local news or makes the tabloid headlines. (The exceptions are recent immigrants, who moved to Regent Park as their first place to stay in Canada but are desperate to get out and have the skills to do so.)
The old point-rating system has been abandoned in Ontario. But the new access system that replaced it preserves many of the same flaws as the old one. In fact, you could argue the situation is worsening since the new provincial policy applies not only to public housing but to all social housing governed by the Social Housing Reform Act. Theoretically, the new system is based on chronology (“first come, first served”). In fact, the priority rules that allow some households to “jump the queue” mean that those who do get housed usually have more problems than just a lack of money. And just as governments in the 1960s ducked the problem of society creating “winners and losers” by offering to “warehouse the losers”, the current policy ducks the challenge of eliminating domestic violence by warehousing its victims in social housing without providing the supports they need.
In all of this, the governance structure seems less important to me than the factors I’ve set out. Co-ops, non-profits and public housing are all suffering from a dysfunctional access system.
Perhaps there’s a way to test my theory by comparing Regent Park with Benny Farm. Benny Farm stayed under Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Did CMHC impose the same kind of access policies that the Government of Ontario did on Regent Park? If so, did Benny Farm start to suffer from the same pressures that Regent Park did? If not, did a measurable difference in the quality of life in the two projects occur in the decades following changes to Ontario’s access rules in the 1960s?
To return to Michael’s original point, I’m not saying anything against co-ops. I just think it would be dangerous to propose they could be “the” solution. Society has tried to find one big solution to “the” housing problem before, and it was a disaster.
Let’s not burden the co-op movement with impossible expectations. Till we get the diagnosis right, let’s not go writing prescriptions.