Public Housing, Politics and the Need for New Strategies
At this time, some 5.4 million families living in HUD-subsidized housing are in grave danger. HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) currently assists the residents of public housing, project-based Section 8 housing, tenant-based Section 8 voucher holders, and residents of various programs for the disabled, elderly, and homeless. The 2012 presidential election is unfolding as a battle between one major candidate who says he favors elimination of HUD altogether, and another who is slowly strangling it through step-by-step elimination of funding.
“Things like Housing and Urban Development, which my dad was head of, that might not be around later,” said Mitt Romney at a Florida fundraiser on April 13. In the meantime the Democratic administration has proposed reduced funding for project-based rental assistance, rolling over the $26 billion shortfall of public housing capital funds, and raising minimum rents for HUD’s most destitute residents. The Budget Control Act of 2011 ensures that these cuts will get steadily worse in the years to come.
We cannot fight this bipartisan assault on housing rights if we do not step back and examine what is causing it, who is driving it, and who and how we can organize to stop it. Public housing and HUD-subsidized housing were born during our last Great Depression, and are apparently being destroyed in this one. What accounts for the difference?
The Era of Automated Production
The difference is that we are entering an entirely new epoch. Despite its unusually massive scope, the depression of the 1930s was essentially a cyclical crisis of capitalism in the industrial era. The capitalist class had to ensure some minimal housing for its workforce and found ways to profit while doing so. In California, for example, the first public housing was for workers who moved there to work in shipyards and aviation in World War II.
Today that era is over. Now we have entered the era of robotics and automated production. As industry is increasingly powered primarily by computers, the ruling class has little use for workers, so it has no intention of spending money to provide for them. The history of Cabrini Green in Chicago is an important case study. Public housing began with the passage of the Housing Act of 1937. Residents in Cabrini Green will tell you that the projects were originally built for veterans of WWI and soldiers returning home from WWII.
The military promised WWI veterans a bonus in the early 1920s, but the government told them they had to wait 20 years to receive it. By 1931, when the country entered the Great Depression, many veterans’ families became destitute. Calling themselves the “Bonus Expedition,” they marched on Washington DC from all over the country and set up a tent city near the White House. Groups of soldiers lobbied Congress and demanded their bonus right then and there.
Embarrassed by this, the President began a media campaign calling the veterans a bunch of tramps and communists. He called them reds because they refused to exclude Black soldiers and openly signed up all veterans regardless of color. The protesters won the support of retired General Smedley Butler, who pointed out that no one called them tramps while they were catching bullets for the rich during the war.
Congress voted down the bonus for the starving and homeless vets, and Hoover sent out troops led by General MacArthur. Bulldozers and tanks destroyed their tent city and many of the “Bonus Marchers” and their families were machine-gunned and bayoneted, with some dying. The ensuing public uproar affected the 1932 presidential elections. When Franklin D. Roosevelt won, he brought in public housing as part of the New Deal, and veterans’ families were moved to the top of the waiting lists. The first public housing was built in New York City, and construction began on the Cabrini Homes (row houses) in 1937, finishing a little after WWII started.
After the war the Cabrini Extensions (high-rises) were built across the street from the row houses, with the William Green Homes (high-rises) built adjacent to them, and the Green Home Extensions (low-rises) a few blocks away. Together they became known as Cabrini Green and housed some 23,000 people. Such a high concentration of the poorest proletarians on less than 3/16 of a square mile provided capital with a golden opportunity. Cabrini Green sat in the middle of large-scale industry and manufacturing companies like Montgomery Ward, Oscar Meyer, Seeburg Corporation, and Turtle Wax, and was surrounded by industrial parks.
Workers who live in public housing pay only 30% of their income for rent. This benefit for workers is simultaneously a very real subsidy for industrial capitalists who can pay workers in public housing wages so low that these workers would be unable to survive if they had to pay market-rate rents. Workers coming from the South during the “Great Migration” accepted this because it was far better than picking cotton; and in fact many were driven off the land by the mechanical cotton-picker and forced to migrate to Chicago, where there was a shortage of workers; the saying was “if you can’t get a job in Chicago, you can’t get a job nowhere.”
In the 1980s, however, the application of the electronics revolution to the forces of production, industry left the area, downsized, or went out of business altogether. An industrial park area just south of the projects gained the name “Ghost Town” because of the blocks and blocks of empty buildings that once were factories. The workers had nowhere to go. To keep from becoming homeless, public housing was one of the few choices of last resort, especially for the workers most hard-hit by the layoffs.
The New Deal Coalition
The other main HUD housing programs were also born in the industrial era from the 1950s through the 1970s. HUD-subsidized mortgages and long-term rental assistance contracts benefited tenants and developers alike. Developers found they could get a HUD loan to build apartments with very little capital of their own, collect government-subsidized rental payments, and then leverage new loans to develop market-rate properties. Created in 1974, the tenant-based rental assistance program provided support for millions of private landlords by enabling them to rent out apartments even in times of high vacancies.
As the modern State increasingly merges with the large banks and corporations, it is reorganizing HUD to squeeze out higher profits and reduce the subsidies to workers (tenants). The current spike in expirations of rental assistance contracts and HUD-subsidized mortgages is leaving residents vulnerable to market-rate rent and eviction. HUD attempts to mortgage public housing in order to finance maintenance costs poses a grave threat to privatize the entire system.
The housing movement born out of the “Bonus March,” unemployed councils, and other unionization and anti-poverty movements of the 1930s, in coalition with New Deal politicians, created public housing and HUD-subsidized housing sufficient to end “Hooverville” style homelessness from 1940-83. During the neoliberal Reagan era, however, capitalism began to retrench around the new electronic means of production, and the housing programs that once served industry were sharply curtailed. They were no longer adequate to meet people’s needs, and homelessness like the 1930s returned to the streets of America all over again.
Because the new forces of production have qualitatively transformed the economic base, the old forms of the housing movement cannot possibly be effective today. Resurrecting the 1930s-style coalitions, no matter how militant, will not address the problem. Business benefited handsomely from government housing programs from the 1930s-70s, which were also a lifeline for an important section of the working class. As a result, in those days housing programs could be effectively defended by the scattered resistance of loosely organized coalitions of workers under the auspices of the Democratic Party.
Class Unity, Political Struggle
Today we have to go beyond coalitions and toward real class unity and political struggle. As the ruling class jettisons its commitment to HUD tenants, alliances with Democratic Party politicians are losing their clout. Too many special interests have a financial stake in HUD to permit its total elimination right now, but the government is definitely moving to strip tenants of their rights, step up evictions, reduce subsidies, and privatize the housing stock.
The 1930s movement made the deadly error of acquiescing to the New Deal’s insistence on maintaining strict segregation of African Americans in most of the new public housing of the time. The result was public housing deliberately designed to fail because it isolated the poorest workers both racially and economically. Not only the housing itself failed, but the housing movement foundered because it was segregated and never overcame the media lie that HUD housing was an African American issue and therefore of no consequence to the broader working class. Workers of all colors are paying the price now.
The government has worked to further marginalize and fragment the movement by passing anti-immigrant restrictions and the “one strike” policy for evicting families. The result is a weak and divided movement that is unable to adequately defend itself at the very moment the government and corporations are going on the attack.
The only way to save our homes is to organize and educate ourselves along class lines. HUD housing residents alone do not have the power. The old coalitions with unions do not have the power. Organizing along color lines does not have the power. What is needed is political unity based on a common understanding that in the era of robotics, the workers have no rights that the system is bound to respect. We either learn to band together to force the government to take over the corporations, or we will step by step lose everything we have. The corporations have no use for us or our children. They are systematically planning our eviction, homelessness, and death. We can either accept that fate or stand up and fight for the better future we all envision and deserve.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011