On January 5th, three adults and nine children died in a Philadelphia rowhouse fire. A Bronx high-rise caught fire four days later. Ten adults and nine children perished, the youngest just three years old (USA Today). Philadelphia Housing Authority owned the rowhouse (NBC 10). The Bronx high-rise was constructed as “innovative” public housing in the 1970s. Purchased by private companies in 2019, three-quarters of its now-displaced survivors depended on Section 8 housing subsidies (MSN). Both disasters befell public housing recipients. All of the victims were Black (New York Post). To grapple with these deadly affordable housing fires, we need to understand the American public housing system.
• Donate to survivors of the New York and Philadelphia fires.
• Support the development of low-income housing in your area. Find a local community land trust, tenants’ rights organization, or tenants’ union to support, too.
• Consider: What do you think of when you hear “public housing”? Who is responsible for public housing conditions? What factors should determine the safety of a family’s home?
When Did U.S. Public Housing Start?
Unlike 72 countries, from Afghanistan to Vietnam, the U.S. doesn’t have a constitutional right to housing (OHCHR). The U.S. government started public housing in the face of poverty and protest movements during the Great Depression (National Park Service, N.Y. Times, The Nation). Many early developments were built to “extraordinarily high-quality standards” (N.Y. Times).
But after the war, urban public housing projects became poorer and less white. Black families moved in from demolished slums; white families moved out to government-sponsored, white-only suburbs (EPI). Public housing received less funding. New developments faced more opposition.
By the 1970s, disinvestment, deindustrialization, and the crack epidemic had taken their toll on government-owned public housing (N.Y. Times, George Washington University). Housing projects became “sites of racial isolation and control” (Georgetown University, 103).
What’s Section 8?
Resources shifted to Section 8, a program that provides rental vouchers for use on the private market. With Section 8, the government pays landlords instead of providing housing directly, though landlords are free to discriminate against voucher recipients and often do (Vox).
With resources diverted to Section 8, public housing construction dried up. Many housing projects were demolished. Others were sold off, like the Bronx apartments (Congressional Research Service).
What’s public housing like today?
Section 8 is so underfunded that 8 million families qualify for a voucher but can’t get one. One in three voucher recipients can’t find a landlord who will accept it (Shelterforce). Citing negative beliefs about Section 8 recipients or concerns about getting paid by the housing authority, landlords reject or impose more strenuous conditions on voucher holders applying for a rental (HUD).
Large-scale public housing hasn’t been built in a generation. New developments are much smaller than the buildings they replace, so the number of affordable housing units is dwindling. These developments are “mixed-income,” meaning public housing money is used to build housing designed for mostly affluent people (The Conversation).
Since there isn’t enough funding to maintain existing buildings, 10,000 more public housing units are declared unlivable each year (Truthout). Up to that point, their residents live in increasingly uninhabitable conditions: leaking rooves, broken sewer lines, inoperative heat, and air conditioning.
Instances of shocking corruption make this worse. A decade ago, the Philadelphia Housing Authority spent $1,200 hiring belly dancers for a staff diversity training and $500,000 to fend off sexual harassment claims against the executive director (ABC News).
And public housing residents have “few [legal] safeguards” against over-policing. Police train K-9 units in housing projects (Georgetown, 103-106). Residents have been arrested for loitering outside their own buildings (LCCRSF). Housing authorities or landlords taking Section 8 reject or evict residents for even minor crimes (Community Legal Services).
With public housing shrinking each year, 14 people lived in a single Philadelphia apartment with no fire escape, sprinklers, or working smoke detectors. When disaster struck, 12 died (NBC 10).
What’s the Solution?
It would cost $80 billion to repair existing public housing, around 11% of this year’s military budget (Defense News). Every funding decision’s a trade-off: in 1949, President Truman cut public housing construction rates in half to supply the Korean War (CRS). Unless we insist that dignified housing for all is non-negotiable, families of color will continue to mourn. We need to support public housing because when fully funded, it works (NLIHC).
We should also support community-controlled non-market housing: land trusts, real estate cooperatives, and tenant defense. These models also separate the right to shelter from the demands of the private market.
59% of Americans are one paycheck away from facing houselessness (CentSai, Charles Schwab). Given housing market racism and a staggering racial wealth gap, depending solely on privately-owned, market-rate housing is a recipe for reproducing racial inequalities (Federal Reserve). And when market-rate housing is inaccessible and public housing is neglected, affordable housing fires and other catastrophes will only continue.
Today, Cuba, Jordan, and Helsinki, Finland have effectively eliminated homelessness by supporting public and social housing — low-cost housing not owned by a private landlord (The Guardian, BBC News). Racist housing precarity isn’t inevitable or acceptable. Neither are the deplorable conditions that took 31 lives.
• Recent affordable housing fires are caused by underfunding and neglect of public housing.
• Large-scale low-income housing developments haven’t been built in decades.
• Public and community-controlled housing are crucial to addressing houselessness, unsafe living conditions, and racism in the housing market.