As someone who has lived in the Boston area for the past two decades and often searched for affordable housing, the news that the Boston Housing Authority is “teaming up” with private-sector developers to maintain and upgrade its housing stock left me with mixed emotions. “Yet another stealth rollback!” I murmured to no one in particular. But I have moved on from that initial gut reaction. Reflection did not bring calm, however. Instead, I felt more upset the more I thought about it.
Here we are in one of the most prosperous cities of the most prosperous country in world history and we are being told that there are no real alternatives. (Ironically, this is at the same time that the Pentagon’s F-35 fighter program becomes operational and will cost $1.5 trillion dollars over its lifetime.) The nearly 50,000 people waiting for affordable homes must continue to wait; 50,000 more residents served by the Boston Housing Authority must depend on the private sector to ensure that their units are maintained and upgraded. As importantly, the rest of us not in public housing or not entitled to it must continue to shovel oversized parts of our paychecks over to the investor class. “Hold your horses!” Remember that the mystical “market” rates are shaped by “supply and demand” some may reply. This is only true to the extent that government is forced to tie its hands behind its back and not supply housing on the necessary scale to shape the market in favor of most residents. More and better public housing benefits all residents by reducing competition.
How did this situation come to be? Listening to WBUR’s explanation, one supported by most policy wonks, the federal rollback in its commitment to fund public housing is to blame. Triggered by the Great Depression, some 90 years ago, the federal government originally intervened to save a failing capitalism and to quiet working-class rebellions by both funding public housing and promoting suburbanization—restructuring our lives in the most profound of ways. The secret history of our white “middle class” begins in this era. Restructuring should also be read as “racializing” and “engendering” our lives as well since suburbanization created very specific gender roles and urban-suburban relationships. The Housing Act of 1949 promised “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.” It would be all too easy to narrate the dramatic dismantling of this dream that began with Reaganism.
However, much more interesting is the absence of a generalized revolt against this rollback—forcing each to their own devices, each finding or eking out their own niche in an otherwise hostile city. Many of us tried to cash out each time the market boomed and then buying in as the market went bust, but the dollars invariably flowed upward. Come the 2007-08 crash, Boston activists, led by City Life/Vida Urbana, kept sheriffs at bay and challenged the big banks. That moment for a generalized revolt, however, fizzled as urban struggles never quite connected with the unorganized ones in suburbia.
If the structuring urban-suburban divide helps explain why the feds under Obama failed to bail out Main Street the way they did Wall Street, more puzzling is the relative passivity of the Boston mandarinate of university researchers, housing experts, and public officials. Why didn’t they follow the lessons of the 1930s and demand more federal intervention? To be sure, they didn’t sit on their hands; they merely stayed in their lanes trying to do good where they could.
Things may be changing, though. The Green New Deal is compatible with massive new intervention by the feds in housing markets. Now those who kept their heads down looking for pragmatic solutions have no excuse for “teaming up” with the private sector. Instead, they should be looking at how to renew the federal commitment to the communities and then to shape that commitment.
Boston, home to the US’s first land trust with the power of eminent domain, should aim high. But there are powerful global sources of inspiration too. Perhaps the most interesting is the one that emerged in the 1920s out of Vienna, Austria. Then the rump capital of disappearing empire, Vienna was ruled by socialists. They overcame their own philosophical objections to private homeownership—one poorly grounded in socialist theory—to spearhead the building of some 60,000 housing units to provide for their working class. Their initiative is the opposite of much of what one assumes socialist housing to be. Merging arts, crafts, and industry they produced livable homes that prioritized individual needs, and they did this on a scale that met demand… until, after more than a decade in power, a fascist coup and later Nazi takeover dispersed their movement across Europe.
But we need not cross the pond for inspiration. If the stories of DNSI and CLVU are insufficient, we can turn to history. On Saturday, I will be leading a walking tour of downtown Boston; the first stop will be the site of the Manufactory House. Resting on the work of Richard Archer, who has chronicled the history of the British occupation of pre-revolutionary Boston, I will tell the story of Boston residents who defended their public housing against eviction by the occupying army; depending neither on governor nor council, they barricaded their home, rallied locals to their cause and forced the British and the governor to back down.
Suren Moodliar is a co-author of the forthcoming book, A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.