Just four sentences into a lengthy report on the future of Chattanooga’s public housing in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, readers will find this bit of right-wing spin:
“for all the good [Chattanooga’s public housing] sites have done in providing numerous people with temporary shelter while they get back on their feet, large concentrations of public housing have become associated with generational poverty and crime.”
The right-wing spin is revealed by exposing the assumptions that underlie this statement.
Myth #1: Public Housing was created as a “temporary” safety net to catch people who have fallen onto hard times.
The economic system of the United States (state-capitalism) is centrally organized around the production of profits for the few at the expense of the vast many. Under this economic system, the market only provides housing when it is profitable to do so. And history has proven this fact out: in the United States, the market has never produced quality, affordable housing for the working poor. That duty instead fell to the United States government, which created public housing during the New Deal in response to both the failures of capitalism and the insistent demands of mass movements of poor and working people.
But don’t take my word for it. In their unanimous recommendation of support of the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act of 1937, the United States Senate Committee on Education and Labor wrote that ”No immediate aim of the American people” is “more widely supported and more insistently voiced that the desire to attack the social evils of the slums and to provide decent living quarters for at least a portion of the underprivileged.” The 1937 Housing Act passed and established public housing for the first time in the United States.
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also says as much in their official explanation of the purpose of public housing: “Public housing was established to provide decent and safe rental housing for eligible low-income families, the elderly, and persons with disabilities.” Temporary? Not quite. Again, according to HUD, “you may stay in public housing as long as you comply with the lease.”
Far from being a stepping stone between homelessness and entry into the private housing market, public housing was explicitly created for the purpose of providing low-income renters with quality housing in such a way that their housing does not rely on the market. And that is why it is so hated.
From its very inception in Chattanooga, public housing has been under constant attack from the Chattanooga Chapter of Associated General Contractors, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Chattanooga Board of Realtors, and other free-marketeers who have a vested class interest in ensuring that the “free market” maintains its mythical, divine status without the hindrance of any public or governmental alternatives.
Local news reports from April, 1950 recount a public meeting before the Chattanooga City Commission in which over 250 people showed up to voice their opinion on the creation of our city’s first public housing projects with federal money. James R. Chamberlain, chairman of the Chattanooga Board of Realtors, presented a petition allegedly signed by over 5,000 persons requesting that a public referendum on public housing be administered “to permit the voters to decide such an important controversial issue.” Chamberlain is quoted as saying “the move to oppose public or socialized housing is sweeiping over this country. Public officials and cities everywhere are joining the movement.”
At the time, public housing had the full-throated support of the newly-created Chattanooga Housing Authority, a representative of which replied by saying that “slum clearance means health, improved sanitation and the eradication of crime. If that is socialistic I plead guilty” and “the truth about public housing is that low-cost housing is for people of low-income who can never live in new houses.”
The Chattanooga Housing Authority was not alone in voicing their support of “Socialistic policies” that provide decent housing for low-income people. Speaking on behalf of organized labor, Stanton Smith, the secretary-treasurer of the Central Labor Union, declared that “as far as Socialism is concerned the Federal Government spends $155,000,000 a year to guarantee business loans, $160,000,000 a year to aid newspapers and magazines through postal rates that are less than the cost of handling the papers and magazines, $229,000,000 a year to aid aviation, $225,000,000 a year to aid the merchant marines, $452,000,000 for navigation aids, $990,000,000 to aid private housing. Whether its Socialism or not seems to depend on whether you benefit by the subsidy.”
The need for public housing is as great today as it has ever been, especially in a state like Tennessee, which leads the nation for minimum wage workers. Naveed Minhas, the Chief Financial Officer for the Chattanooga Housing Authority, is actually quoted in the paper as telling public housing residents to “Strive to get a job and get out of public housing regardless of what’s happening at the housing authority.” Never mind the fact that almost 40% of public housing residents are disabled. Never mind that a single mother working a minimum-wage job would still qualify for housing assistance. The condescending attitude of the current Chattanooga Housing Authority towards its own members is just another example of the gulf that exists between the agency and the very people it exists to support and is a far cry from the progressive advocacy the agency engaged in at its inception.
Myth #2: Large concentrations of public housing are associated with generational poverty and crime.
This myth goes something like this: poor people are poor because they live with other poor people and when poor people get together bad things happen (now add some deeply racist undertones). In this myth, public housing recipients are not placed within a historical context of segregation, over-policing, mass incarceration, housing discrimination, inequitable municipal development, institutional racism, gentrification, and systemic disinvestment of government programs of social uplift. This myth does nothing to address the dire need for living wage jobs, healthcare, culturally relevant community services, universal access to higher education and vocational education, or safe and healthy living conditions for residents facing accessibility challenges due to disabilities and persons in need of public transit, but instead places the blame solely on poor people for being poor together. By perpetuating false assumptions about public housing residents, this myth, and the policies based on it, fail to address the root causes of poverty. Not only that, but it completely omits the positive side of living in public housing, like the strong sense of community among residents who look after one another and support each other.
Scanning the articles on public housing in any major newspaper, you are likely to see the words “crime” and “drugs.” Public housing residents themselves are often subjected to the most intense and degrading over-policing imaginable and are prime candidates for being placed in the US penal system, the largest system of mass incarceration the world has ever known. The same is not true for banks (or bankers).
Wall Street was directly responsible for the “massive, systemic financial fraud in the banking and credit industry that triggered the 2008 financial crisis,” and yet, according to the press, crime is not even close to being as tightly associated with banks as it is public housing and public housing residents.
And while the press claims that public housing residents are commonly associated with drugs and the drug trade, we would be hard pressed to find many newspapers making the same claim about banks following the reporting by London’s Oberver which exposed how US banks, like Wells Fargo, were “at the centre of one of the world’s biggest money-laundering operations” and were directly involved “in swilling hundreds of billions of dollars – the blood money from the murderous drug trade in Mexico and other places in the world – around their global operations, now bailed out by the taxpayer.”
In fact, global banks like HSBC were found to be directly involved in money laundering for internationally recognized terrorist organizations, like al-Qaeda, and senior banking officials were explicitly involved in sanctioning these illegal activities. After all these revelations became public and the government was pressed into taking action, the US Department of Justice declared the bankers too big to jail. The bank instead agreed to a $1.9 billion fine, or “about four weeks’ earnings given the bank’s pre-tax profits of $21.9 billion last year.” Apparently, bankers can literally get away with aiding and abetting murder, as long as it makes a profit.
All of that, but I can’t even begin to imagine a journalist at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, or many other newspapers for that matter, saying that, whatever good they might have done over the years, the United States financial system has become associated with deep political corruption and crime.