What should we strive to achieve in housing the poor?

By Landon Dickey

In developing countries, the aspirational objectives of housing seem clear. As in the case of Dharavi, individuals trapped in cramped living conditions with scarce clean water and hygienic facilities need their basic needs met first and foremost. But what should be the objectives of housing for the poor in a developed country like the United States? Since the 1930s there have been many efforts to house the poor—from public housing, to Section 8 vouchers, to relocation of low-income residents to more affluent areas[1]—and these efforts have done just that; they have housed the poor. That, however, should not be the final objective of low-income housing.

Government should view the objectives of housing the poor as threefold (ranked in order of importance):

  1. Enhancing the economic opportunities of lower-income individuals
  2. Creating more cohesive and responsible communities
  3. Furthering the social and economic integration of lower-income individuals with higher-income individuals

This contrasts with what I see as the main objectives of low-income housing in the United States now, specifically providing a safety net that keeps individuals off the streets and maintaining a degree of order in communities with economically disadvantaged citizens. Really, housing should be viewed as the first rung on a ladder of opportunity for citizens. In particular, ownership of property provides individuals collateral with which to secure loans for entrepreneurial endeavors, an asset to sell or lease, or simply a source of intergenerational wealth.

Several steps would need to be taken to realize the view of housing as a platform to wealth. A committee would need to be formed consisting of housing and economic development experts. As a starting point, this committee’s scope should first be limited to a single city and it should stand separate from a single politician’s office. This committee should be tasked with the dual mission of 1) transitioning tenants to owners of public housing units and  2) enhancing property values by stimulating economic activity in low-income neighborhoods.

Tactically, in order to achieve the first goal, the committee should solicit applications from current tenants interested in owning their unit. If selected, the objective of the committee would be to help quantify tenants’ earnings and counsel them in saving money towards purchasing a unit at a heavily subsidized price.[2] It is important that tenants pay some price for the unit in order to encourage them to personally value the property and incent them to serve as leaders in maintaining the public housing building as a whole (which affects the financial value of their individual unit). The committee could turn the first class of applicants  into a taskforce for the public housing building, encouraging them to create a housing oversight board with responsibility for recruiting more tenants as candidates for ownership and maintaining the building and surrounding land.

Simultaneously, the committee should work to identify the skills of community members and create opportunities for economic activity. The “Art Murmur” event in Oakland, California provides a model for local economic activity. At this monthly event, local artists and vendors come together to share their art and cuisine to Oakland and San Francisco residents in a developing neighborhood in Oakland. Nationally, other low-income neighborhoods could hold similar events or low-income entrepreneurs could pool income with their neighbors to create permanent and unique staples of economic activity (i.e. food trucks, performance theaters, museums). Unique cultural institutions have the potential to promote patronage from a broader economic class and incrementally increase land values.


[1] Hoffman, Alexander. “High Ambitions: The Past and Future of American Low-Income Housing Policy.” Housing Policy Debate, Volume 7, Issue 3.

[2] Harlem Children’s Zone. “Community Pride: Community Pride is a Meeting Place.” A Look Inside, Volume 2, Number 1, available at <http://www.hcz.org/images/stories/pdfs/ali_spring2003.pdf&gt;

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