Nicholas Dagen Bloom

 

On his book Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century

Cover Interview of May 18, 2009

A close-up

Anybody interested in social policy should take a look at Chapters 11 and 12 in the book.  These chapters show that New York’s housing managers faced and overcame many of the same social challenges that destroyed public housing in cities elsewhere—welfare concentration, crime, vandalism, etc.  These chapters indicate that it wasn’t luck that kept New York’s towers alive, but the application of decent management practices even as the challenges mounted.  During the most troubled years of the New York City Housing Authority, the 1970s and 1980s, employees still collected rents, mopped hallways, picked up trash, repaired elevators, arrested criminals, replaced broken windows, and cleaned graffiti—and they do so today.


rorotoko.comVladeck Houses on New York City’s Lower East Side.  Photo Nicholas Bloom.

New York’s public housing, both then and now, may not have been the utopia housing advocates dreamed up in the 1930s.  But most people are surprised by how well kept New York’s public housing is, especially in light of all the negative press coverage public housing attracts.  The buildings and grounds in New York are regularly maintained and the apartments much loved by long-term residents.  Public housing in many other cities, meanwhile, has been completely abandoned by government officials.

Those who would abandon the poor by arguing that nothing can be done for them should consider the strategies of control and maintenance that, while not always popular or soft-hearted, kept public housing alive in New York.  The old fashioned, often paternalistic, system of control pursued in New York has pretty progressive outcomes: lots of cheap housing for working people in one of the country’s most expensive cities.