The transformation, over months, of the elegant brutalist high-rise, with the skyward sweep so characteristic of housing design from the 1970s, was tantalizing to watch. Proceeding floor by floor, workers wrapped the beige-grey concrete bays in red and orange metal panels. Balconies with dark metal railings disappeared behind a smooth new facade. Clearly the apartment building, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a busy thoroughfare lined with modest family homes and local stores, was being painstakingly renovated. Yet there was no signage indicating the name of the project or the protagonists behind its transformation — no advertisement for “new luxury condos” with renderings of swanky amenities and aspirational lifestyles. What was going on here? Had Lacaton & Vassal finally arrived in the United States?
Not quite; but the association with the Pritzker Prize-winning French architects, who are committed to upgrading rather than demolishing social housing, was fitting. As it turned out, the project, Millers River Apartments, is a 300-unit, nineteen-story complex for the elderly and those with disabilities, owned and operated by the Cambridge Housing Authority, the municipal agency in charge of public housing. (Actually, it was previously owned by the CHA; but we will get to that later.) The building was designed by Boston-based Benjamin Thompson & Associates, in the same period the firm was achieving fame with the rehabilitation of Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and completed in 1972; its renovation, begun in 2019 and finished this year, has been carried out by Springfield-based Dietz & Company Architects.
The most exciting projects in the city — the buildings we stopped to admire in the course of running daily errands — were developed by the public housing authority.
Millers River inspired us to look more closely at the Cambridge Housing Authority. Soon we learned that the project was one of many exceptionally designed and maintained residential complexes we’d been observing around the city. A trio of high-rise buildings that had impressed us with the asymmetrical arrangement and color composition of their new facades: all CHA projects. A low-rise development with an articulated, fiber-cement panel façade and generous balconies, recently completed near the city’s main park: a CHA property. A renovated brick garden apartment complex from the late 1930s amidst the contemporary laboratories of Pfizer, Moderna, and Novartis: another CHA property. The sleek blue-green glass cube squeezed between a neoclassical bank and an office building designed by Josep Lluís Sert: a CHA project developed in partnership with the YWCA. In other words, the most interesting and exciting architecture in the city — the buildings we stopped to admire in the course of running daily errands — were projects developed by the public housing authority.
This was unexpected, and counterintuitive, given the degree to which public housing in the United States has been, for the past half century, socially stereotyped and politically attacked; “the most stigmatized form of rental housing in the United States,” in the words of urban historian Lawrence Vale. 1 In particular, municipal housing authorities, many of which were established to implement the Housing Act of 1937 — the nation’s first public housing law, enacted as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal — have seen their scope of action systematically curtailed, no matter which party has held power. 2
The past half century has seen a stunning history of diminishing commitment to social welfare.
These past 50 years, in fact, tell a stunning history of diminishing commitment to social welfare. In early 1973, the Nixon administration put a moratorium on direct federal funding for low-income housing construction; in late 1974, it introduced Section 8 vouchers, which substituted direct government funding with rent subsidies to be paid to private landlords. Under Ronald Reagan, the disinvestment intensified. During his first term, Reagan halved the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. During his second term, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program was created with the goal of incentivizing private developers; today the 1986 law remains the single most important federal source of capital for what is now defined as “affordable” housing.
HOPE VI, started at the end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency and implemented by Bill Clinton, was set up to eliminate “severely distressed” high-rise projects and replace them with low-rise, mixed-income neighborhoods created by public-private partnerships. It has been widely criticized as a foil for gentrification; as urban theorist Mike Davis put it, in an article for Mother Jones: “Originally conceived as replacement housing for the poor, HOPE VI quickly morphed into a new strategy for replacing the poor themselves.” 3 In 1998, Lauch Faircloth, a wealthy hog farmer serving what would be his only term as a Republican senator from North Carolina, introduced the Faircloth Amendment; a revision to the 1937 Housing Act, the amendment forbids the use of federal funds for any construction that would produce a “net increase” of public housing units. The signature housing initiative of the Obama years, the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program, or RAD, further encouraged the trends of privatization and deregulation by facilitating the conversion of public housing to either nonprofit or for-profit private ownership. 4
This history is by now familiar, but no less striking for that. The Housing Act of 1937 was passed to enable the state to do what the market has never shown any inclination to do — to build and operate “decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings for families of low income.” 5 Now, after decades of laws which have undercut that capacity, housing for people with low incomes continues to be produced, but largely through the private sector, and under the more general term “affordable housing.” The role of public authorities is mostly limited to oversight and administration and, sometimes, to land ownership. It’s estimated that the number of units owned and operated by housing authorities has decreased by more than a quarter-million in the past three decades, either through physical destruction or transfer to private ownership, from a one-time high of 1.5 million. 6 “No other major industrial nation has permitted the level of destitution and decay found in the United States,” writes housing scholar Peter Dreier, “and few have allowed decent housing to get so far beyond the economic reach of so many families.” 7
Given this historical context, it is all the more remarkable that the Cambridge Housing Authority has been able to build and operate projects like Millers River— projects that outshine market-driven offerings in the quality of their architecture and the proficiency of their maintenance. How has this been possible? To answer this question, we interviewed key protagonists, read annual reports, and researched the archives. 8 (Full disclosure: one of us was an intern at the CHA during the writing of this article, and is now a project manager at the organization.) What we learned about the CHA was revealing, and relevant beyond the particularities of a prosperous university town in a small northeastern state. But before we dive into the story, a word about politics, and the public, and why “public” matters.
This article is an attack on what has become political orthodoxy in the U.S. — the proposition that public housing is a failure.
We’ll get right to the point. This article is an attack on what has become political orthodoxy in the United States: the proposition that public housing has been a social, economic, and architectural failure, 9 and that the provision of housing for people whose incomes are too low to rent or buy through private markets should be entrusted to those very same markets. Not only is the logic contradictory; so too are the financing mechanisms — the significant public investment, often in the form of tax credits — that make affordable housing an attractive and lucrative proposition for private developers. Today, the inadequacies of this approach — the market failure, if you will — are everywhere apparent. This year’s report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies detailed the problems: rising costs, ill-maintained buildings, persistent race-based inequities, and an “ongoing affordability crisis.” 10 As Peter Marcuse and David Madden have written, “there is no U.S. state where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford to rent or own a one-bedroom dwelling.” 11 Clearly the system needs thoroughgoing reform. But that’s not enough; ultimately what’s needed is a new narrative about American housing — a narrative that reclaims “public housing” from its negative associations, that asserts the value of housing as a public good, and that establishes truly public housing — funded, developed, owned, and operated by public agencies — as beneficial not only to the residents who are directly served but to society as a whole. 12
Established in 1935, the Cambridge Housing Authority was, in its early decades, typical of municipal authorities across the country in both its approach and limitations. Its initial projects were clusters of walk-up and mid-rise apartment buildings, located on central sites made available through “slum clearance” or on vacant land at the edges of town. Construction was funded either by direct federal appropriations, by local bond measures, or, after the Second World War, by a state program set up to serve military veterans. Operating costs were paid for with rental revenue. By the early 1960s, the CHA owned and operated almost 1,500 apartments in ten developments scattered throughout the compact city (Cambridge is slightly more than seven square miles). Most properties were segregated by race.
In the mid-1960s, the CHA began to engage in public-private partnerships. Again, this was typical; in those years, the newly created Department of Housing and Urban Development, convinced that private-sector projects were more efficient and cost-effective, began promoting programs that reimbursed builders of low-income housing. It was just such a program that produced Millers River: the project was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in part to alleviate a housing shortage exacerbated by its students, and then handed over to the CHA to own and manage. 13 By the early ’70s, the agency’s portfolio had expanded to include 2,300 apartments in sixteen properties, one-third for the elderly. Yet despite this increase, the CHA was — again, like many of its counterparts in other cities — in trouble. Congressional appropriations were being cut; new policies required housing authorities to prioritize the very poor, and limited how much could be charged in rent, making it impossible to support operations through rental income. Meanwhile there were reports of nepotism in staff hiring and tenant selection. The state accused the CHA of “slipshod management” and, by late 1973, was threatening to take the authority into receivership. 14
Now, almost half a century later, the Cambridge Housing Authority is no longer typical; today it is routinely praised as “sophisticated” and “high-performing.” 15 According to this year’s annual report, the authority now serves roughly 5,000 households in Cambridge — about one-tenth of the city’s households — and an additional 2,300 in neighboring cities. 16 The CHA is sought out by peer agencies as a consultant, advises HUD on new policies, and acts as a developer and manager for its own properties as well as for those of housing authorities in nearby towns.
The story of the CHA’s remarkable rehabilitation came into sharp focus during our conversation with James Stockard. A widely respected advocate for fair housing, Stockard has taught for many years at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and is co-author of the 1996 book Managing Public Housing. He has also been a longtime ally of the Cambridge Housing Authority, serving eight terms, from 1974 to 2014, on its five-person board of commissioners. Asked to explain the agency’s emergence from near-receivership, Stockard describes a galvanizing moment at the 1970 Harvard commencement, “when Saundra Graham took the microphone.” 17 Graham was a young political activist who disrupted the graduation ceremonies to protest the displacement of tenants in an historically Black neighborhood to make way for new undergraduate residences. “We will not be pushed out of our homes,” she declared. 18 According to Stockard, it was the tenant organizing and direct action of Graham and other protestors that prompted the governor of Massachusetts to appoint him, then a 31-year-old planner with a new degree, to what became known as the “reform board” of the CHA. The reform board was soon calling for far-reaching changes, including the appointment of a new executive director, and these in turn led to what the agency itself calls its “ten transitional years.” 19
Jim Stockard remembers these years as exciting and experimental — a period when the CHA staff and board adopted a range of new strategies and approaches. To start, the board underscored the agency’s public mission, and insisted on setting clear lines of responsibility and eliminating patronage. In practice, this meant that municipal leaders no longer intervened in agency operations, and that board members no longer rewarded political allies with staff positions or solicited preferential placement for family members in CHA apartments. The board limited its role to setting policy goals, approving budgets, and appointing the executive director. As Stockard emphasizes, these practices are the very basics of good public administration, but had been too often ignored by the struggling agency and the city. In the early years of the new millennium, the CHA reflected on this relationship in an annual report: “One of the reasons the CHA has been able to provide quality housing for over a quarter of a century is that the administrative and political leadership of Cambridge has asked nothing of the Authority other than to do a professional job, and the City has supported that kind of work at every turn.” 20
In addition to improving internal operations, the CHA sought to regain the trust of tenants. To this end, the authority realized that architecture could itself be a valuable asset, and so it prioritized the “comprehensive modernization” of its oldest properties, which were so poorly maintained and managed that potential residents who had been on waiting lists for years were reluctant to move in. At Roosevelt Towers, a complex of mid- and low-rise buildings constructed in 1950, an eight-story tower had become so deteriorated and unsafe that it was shuttered. A 1973 account in the Harvard Crimson, titled “Roosevelt Towers Burns While Bureaucrats Fiddle,” describes hallways that “reeked of urine,” mailboxes “ripped from the wall, probably by thieves looking for checks,” and “rows of plywood windows — signs of burned-out apartments.” 21 Here the modernization process not only addressed the building’s physical decay, with new electrical and heating systems, new kitchens, and new windows; it also reconfigured the complex, with the tower reserved for small, mostly elderly households, and the adjacent walk-up apartments for families. 22
The CHA realized that architecture could be a valuable asset in regaining the trust of residents.
At Washington Elms, a low-rise complex constructed in 1942, the CHA proposed a renovation that would significantly reduce the number of units (from 324 to 175) in order to create larger apartments and a new community center. Realizing that the plan was controversial, the city consulted closely with tenants, even paying for their independent legal counsel. Saundra Graham, now a city councilor, led residents in a planning process that took more than a year, and reinforced the value of residents’ participation in decision-making about architectural, spatial, and programmatic issues, even if it meant extended schedules and higher costs. In its 1980 Annual Report, the CHA acknowledged the value of the new approach: “Effective tenant leadership which provides loyal opposition is important to the further improvement of public housing in Cambridge.” 23 In other words, the CHA learned that direct and sustained engagement was essential in order to earn the trust of residents, even (or especially) of those who opposed their plans; and more, that if public housing looked good and felt safe to neighbors, it would earn the public’s trust as well.
That public housing was not just last-resort shelter for the poor but also a vital component of the city’s diversity was a crucial argument in the CHA’s bid for broad-based support.
Another new strategy promoted by the reform board was strong public communication, and the CHA pursued this goal with energy and imagination. In 1976, three years after the threat of receivership, the authority published its first annual report in many years, which it released as an eight-page supplement to the local weekly newspaper. Not only did the report reach a far wider readership than it would have had it simply been filed in the records room in City Hall; it made the bold argument that public housing was an asset not just to residents but to all citizens — and that the broader citizenry had a right to demand that this be so. “It will take a long time to make every public housing unit in Cambridge a pleasant, comfortable, safe home where any citizen would be proud to live with dignity,” the report authors wrote. “Our residents have a right to expect us to pursue that objective and we are convinced the citizens of Cambridge will settle for nothing less.” 24 A few years later, in its 1980 report, the CHA went further, positioning its work as central to the city’s racial and socioeconomic diversity and emphasizing that this diversity was vital to the city’s future. “Because of economic pressures,” the authors wrote, “the distinct character of neighborhoods … is almost certain to change unless the City and the Housing Authority use available funds in creative ways to ensure that the traditional resident of Cambridge can remain.” 25 That public housing was not just last-resort shelter for the poor, but an essential component of the city’s ability to attract and retain a range of residents, was a crucial argument in the CHA’s bid to earn broad-based public support.
It is telling that the transitional decade of the Cambridge Housing Authority coincided with that pronounced policy shift — the federal disinvestment in public housing — described earlier; and for this reason, the CHA built few new properties in these years. Yet the agency initiated prescient strategies to expand its portfolio, including the purchase of newly constructed properties for conversion to public status and the adaptive reuse of historic structures. In these years, for example, the CHA acquired a four-story neoclassical building, dating to 1907, that had once been a convent, and a late 19th-century school, and converted both to congregate housing for the elderly and people with disabilities. 26 By the early 1990s, the CHA was operating more than 2,600 units. As it turned out, over the next decades, the agency would need all its newfound organizational credibility and administrative creativity to navigate the continuing waves of privatization and deregulation. 27
To learn more about the transformation of the Cambridge Housing Authority, we talked with Margaret Moran, the deputy executive director, who directs its planning and development work. Moran has spent almost her entire career at the agency, starting in 1983 after graduating from Boston College with a degree in history and economics. She is widely praised for her analytical prowess, her ability to parse the fine print of a real estate deal, and her unwavering dedication to public service; colleagues and collaborators describe her as “a force.” When asked to explain the CHA’s effectiveness, Moran’s response was unhesitating: what’s made the signal difference, she told us, is the agency’s designation within the federal housing system as a “Moving to Work” authority. 28
Moran explained the significance of Moving to Work, or MTW. Launched by HUD in 1996, at the end of Bill Clinton’s first term, the program aims to test whether loosening federal restrictions and protocols will enable local housing authorities to generate innovative and cost-saving practices while also providing more options to residents, including the ability to remain eligible for assistance even as their incomes rise — hence, the rubric “moving to work.” The CHA was one of just 30 authorities selected to participate in the first pilot program. In 1999, its MTW status became official, and has been renewed ever since; all of which is significant, for only “high-performing” agencies can qualify for the program. 29 “Moving to Work has uncuffed us as an agency,” Moran says. “Traditional housing authorities receive discrete pots of federal support: vouchers, capital funds, operating subsidies. Now, with MTW, we receive the money and have the flexibility to spend it as we see fit. We have even been able to add units.”
As an example of this flexibility, Moran described the ways in which the CHA made tactical use of HOPE VI funding. In most cities, HOPE VI grants were used to conform with the program’s goal of privatization, usually by selecting developers to demolish high-rise projects and construct new low- and mid-rise complexes that mixed income-restricted and market-rate units. (As Lawrence Vale wrote in this journal, the destruction of Cabrini-Green and other projects on the South Side of Chicago was arguably the most notorious episode of this controversial program. 30)
Rather than using HOPE VI to privatize its properties, the CHA doubled down on its mission to serve low-income tenants.
In contrast, the CHA used a $5-million HOPE VI grant, awarded in 1998, to take out $15 million in loans. It dedicated a portion of this funding to the renovation of John F. Kennedy Apartments, an eight-story tower constructed in 1963. A trio of firms — Tise Design Associates in collaboration with HTK Architects and BWA Architecture — transformed 83 small, uniform apartments into 69 larger units that accommodated both independent and supportive living for senior residents. The rest of the funding was used to acquire fourteen scattered-site condominiums and provide homes for young adults with disabilities. 31 With these projects, the CHA effectively upended the expectations of HOPE VI. Not only did the agency refuse to transfer some portion of its portfolio to private developers, who might have reduced the number of low-income apartments in order to make the project “mixed-income”; instead, it doubled down on its mission to serve “extremely low-income” tenants while also proactively exploring new service arrangements that enhanced its capacity to serve residents. 32
In theory, Section 8 vouchers offer choice and flexibility; in practice, the program is dysfunctional. The CHA’s response was adroit and creative.
The CHA has been just as strategic in its approach to Section 8 vouchers. Since the mid-’70s, HUD’s Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program has allowed low-income tenants to use federal subsidies to rent apartments from private landlords at what HUD defines as a “fair market rent.” 33 Under current rules, tenants pay 30 percent of their income; the subsidies, paid directly to landlords, cover the difference. In theory, vouchers offer recipients choice and flexibility; for instance, the ability to move from what HUD describes as “extreme poverty” areas (often understood to be urban) to “higher-opportunity” districts with better schools and services (often understood to be suburban). In practice, the program is dysfunctional. In many cities, especially in high-rent places like Cambridge, too few apartments are available at the HUD-determined rates, and often these apartments are located in those very same “extreme-poverty” neighborhoods. Section 8 holders face widespread discrimination and, due to limited funding, only about one in four eligible households gets federal assistance in the first place. Unsurprisingly, waiting lists for both vouchers and units are endless. “Getting a Section 8 voucher is hard,” according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report. “Finding a landlord willing to accept it is harder.” 34
To counter these problems, the CHA has kept its vouchers close to home. Many are attached not to people, but to properties, and dedicated for use in new affordable housing constructed by local non-profit developers. 35 In the late ’90s, for example, the CHA collaborated with Homeowner’s Rehab, Inc. to build Auburn Court, a six-story mid-rise surrounded by a cluster of three-story townhouses, all designed in a traditional idiom to blend into a neighborhood of 19th-century brick and clapboard houses. As is invariably the case with affordable housing in America, the financing was intricate: the CHA had access to vouchers; HRI had access to tax credits; the land was leased from MIT. Today, the authority provides vouchers for more than half the project’s apartments and, in so doing, participates, albeit indirectly, in mixed-income development. 36 But what’s especially significant is that the CHA remained an active partner throughout the project, and in the process honed its skills as a developer of new housing — skills that many public authorities have altogether lost in the past half century.
Moran shared with us yet another of the CHA’s innovative strategies. Starting in the late ’80s, the agency set up a series of nonprofit affiliates that have allowed it to expand its capacity and portfolio. 37 Though operated by the CHA, the affiliated organizations are, legally, separate entities; thus they can access funding that would otherwise be unavailable to a public authority. One of the most important of these subsidiaries is the Cambridge Affordable Housing Corporation, which was established in 1989 to enlarge the CHA’s portfolio through the inclusion of units that are not, strictly speaking, publicly owned. In practice, this means that the CAHC is able to buy existing apartments, which the CHA can then make affordable through Section 8 vouchers. 38
To cite one example: in 2001, with financing from the city and Harvard University, the CAHC purchased a four-story, red-brick, formerly rent-controlled apartment building in Porter Square, a neighborhood near Harvard Law School that’s popular with students; it then used vouchers to convert the 65-unit building to housing for very low-income tenants. De jure, the project is not public housing. De facto, the project functions as public housing. It is operated by the CHA; the apartments are subject to affordability restrictions; and a self-renewing housing-assistance contract is designed to keep them affordable in perpetuity. As a result of numerous similar projects with its affiliates, the CHA has, since 1999, added almost 400 dwellings to its portfolio through acquisitions both small and large, including several dozen apartments for assisted living and skilled nursing, and two in one of the city’s market-rate cohousing communities. 39 (In the process of adding all these units, the CHA has deftly subverted the intention of the Faircloth Amendment.)
The CHA’s negotiating skills can be seen in its agile cultivation of opportunities that arose during Barack Obama’s first term.
More recently, the CHA’s skill in negotiating partnerships can be seen in its agile cultivation of opportunities that arose during Barack Obama’s first term. In response to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the stimulus bill passed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis — the CHA applied for federal funding and was awarded four grants, totaling nearly $29 million. It then leveraged this funding, in combination with tax credits and state and local grants, to complete more than $80 million in renovations to its aging properties, including the extensive rehabilitation and energy retrofit of Lyndon B. Johnson Apartments, an eleven-story, senior-housing tower constructed in 1973. This same federal funding also supported wholesale demolition and new construction at Lincoln Way, a 60-unit, low-rise complex, opened in 1950. Completed in 2013, the new project comprises six energy-efficient, townhouse-style buildings that offer a range of apartment types for 70 households. The design, by BWA Architecture, is another instance of the CHA’s strategic deployment of architecture — from the overall expression to the smallest detail — as a central tool in the fulfillment of its mission.
The Rental Assistance Demonstration Program offered another occasion for the CHA to deploy its administrative ingenuity. Launched in 2013, at the start of Obama’s second term, RAD aims to facilitate the conversion of traditional public housing to privately owned, voucher-subsidized housing. The program has been controversial and criticized by social justice advocates for encouraging the further privatization of public goods. 40 But its framework has proven useful to the CHA; the program has provided the authority, through its nonprofit affiliates, with long-term stable funding, and also allowed it to borrow against assets and hold more substantial capital and operating reserves, which in turn have enabled easier access to private loans and equity for redevelopment projects. 41 Newly empowered, the CHA went all-in on RAD; or, in real estate jargon, it “repositioned” almost its entire portfolio of more than 2,100 federally assisted apartments, converting them over the course of several years to voucher-based housing. 42 To complete these conversions, the CHA partnered with major banks, as investors, and with its own nonprofit subsidiaries, as development partners. The agency has taken great care to structure its complex RAD contracts so that it continues to manage its buildings (rather than ceding this role to a third-party management company, which is typical in RAD deals). Even more crucially, the CHA has structured contracts so that at the conclusion of the partnership, it resumes (through its subsidiaries) ownership of properties. 43
The CHA’s stratagems testify to the needless complexities of a public housing system contorted by privatization.
The innovative approaches to HOPE VI, to Section 8, to RAD all testify to the managerial perseverance, the legal and financial savvy, of a housing authority that has become expert at writing grant proposals, dissecting the technicalities of real estate deals, negotiating with investors, contracting and collaborating with architects, builders, and developers. But these administrative stratagems testify as well to the unnecessary complexities that have come to characterize a public housing system that’s been contorted by decades of privatization. These complexities are indeed so absurd that we hesitated to describe them in detail — to burden our story with exasperating technicalities. 44 But the deeper we dug, the more we realized that these technicalities, the maddening minutiae, are in fact central to the system and to the political stunting of public authorities’ mission to provide housing for the poor. “The overarching theme in bureaucratic failures can often be traced back to political animus, aimed not at the bureaucracy itself but indirectly at the disadvantaged (often minority) populations it seeks to serve,” writes journalist Kohl Neal in Current Affairs. 45
We began to grasp the extent of the problem as we probed the backstory of Millers River, and came to realize that the project is not just a successful building rehabilitation; it is a case history in the calculated dysfunctions of the system. Margaret Moran was heroically patient as she described the series of contradictory rules — the absurdities — that the agency had to grapple with in order to renovate the property and maintain its status as housing for low-income elderly residents.
Here is an absurdity of the system: to preserve Millers River, the CHA had to declare it obsolete.
Here is the first absurdity: to preserve Millers River, the CHA had to declare it obsolete. Millers River was not, of course, actually obsolete. As Moran explained, the decades-old building required extensive renovations that were too costly to finance through the usual option; that is, a RAD conversion. 46 So, to close the funding gap, the CHA pursued a high-risk, high-reward strategy involving yet another federal program with a semi-enigmatic name: Section 18, or “demolition/disposition,” a 2006 amendment to the housing act that allows a public authority to remove a property from its portfolio by establishing its physical, structural, or environmental “obsolescence.” 47 Unsurprisingly, the process was protracted: in early 2015, the CHA submitted a 300-page Section 18 application to HUD, and, eighteen months later, received official approval that the project was indeed “physically obsolete.” Thus empowered (shall we say) to divest itself of a property that it wanted to retain, the CHA then “disposed” of Millers River; as it happened, the entity to which it was disposed was Essex Street Management, Inc., one of the nonprofit affiliates it had already created in response to the arcana of housing finance. Now reclassified as “privately owned affordable housing,” and being developed not by the Cambridge Housing Authority but by one its proxies, Millers River had access to pots of federal funding — specifically, Section 8 vouchers — that had been off limits when the project was called “public housing.”
All of which was absurd enough. But there is more: for as it turned out, the recategorized and privatized Millers River was able to receive significantly larger federal subsidies than it had before its Section 18 recasting. Newly eligible for a long-term government contract for vouchers, and also for access to low-income housing tax credits (more on these in a moment), Millers River was now generating for the nonprofit Essex Street Management approximately double the rental revenue that it had for the public Cambridge Housing Authority. 48 To put it plainly: to continue operating as low-cost housing for the elderly, Millers River had to cease functioning as a public good and be bureaucratically reborn as a reliably lucrative private property. Do we need to add that the original federal support was never calculated to cover actual capital and operational costs? Or that this is yet another refutation of the assumption that the private sector is more cost-effective?
It’s already clear, of course, that the activation of “demo/dispo” points to yet another absurdity of the system: to maintain effective control of the project, the CHA relinquished official control of the project. Here again, the agency was following the funding; in particular, access to the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program, or LIHTC, the Reagan-era legislation created to incentivize the use of private equity for affordable housing construction. The revitalization of Millers River was thus carried out by a partnership assembled for the project, consisting of the LIHTC investor, in this case Wells Fargo, and Essex Street Management.
Reclassifying the building and restructuring its ownership were painstaking processes, but as we learned from Moran, these were merely the preconditions that enabled the CHA to arrange the fiendishly intricate financing that would provide for a construction contract of almost $115 million to renovate a property that had become, in its own assessment, “brittle” and “antiquated.” For Moran and her colleagues, the goals of the project were at once architectural, environmental, and social. They wanted to modernize the building and improve the lives of residents — to upgrade plumbing, electrical, and ventilation systems; to remove asbestos; to update kitchens and bathrooms; to enclose balconies and thus enlarge interior spaces; to replace studios with more desirable one-bedroom apartments. 49
To achieve their social goals, the CHA needed to position Millers River as an appealing proposition for private investors seeking tax credits.
But to achieve these goals, the CHA needed to position Millers River as an appealing business opportunity for private investors seeking federal tax credits. To describe such deal-making as arduous is an understatement; as a recent study from the Urban Institute noted, “LIHTC deals are complex, involving private investors and partners spanning all levels of government as well as real estate finance specialists and legal and tax experts.” 50 In its local permit application, submitted in 2018, the CHA noted that it had been “working for years to assemble a funding path forward for this very expensive rehabilitation at this large property,” a path that would comprise “a mix of sources including private equity via 4% Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program, tax exempt bonds, long-term private debt, and loans from the CHA.” 51
This “mix of sources” exposes yet another absurdity of the system: although intended to reduce “wasteful” government spending and encourage “market” efficiency, the complexities of LIHTC partnerships almost invariably prolong project schedules and increase project costs. Architect Kerry Dietz, principal in charge of the Millers River renovation, emphasizes that LIHTC processes added significantly to the overall cost, given the attorneys, engineers, and architects retained by the tax-credit investor to review and monitor progress. As she said: “Everyone is passing the risk.” 52 Margaret Moran made a similar point: “There is a whole industry that has grown up around LIHTC and that wants a slice of the pie.” A report from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at Berkeley put it this way: “The multiple sources of financing that LIHTC properties often require to make the math work can impose inefficiencies that add to a development’s total costs in both direct and indirect ways.” 53
At Millers River, these imposed inefficiencies took predictably labyrinthine form: the CHA, which owned the land and the building, decided early on to sell the building at its highest assessed value to the LIHTC partnership — a seemingly counterintuitive move, since in most projects land and/or building acquisition is usually the single largest development cost. Why would they do this? Why relinquish ownership, usually an ideal condition for keeping costs down? Inevitably, the answer can be traced back to regulatory complexities: because the amount of tax credits depends upon the so-called “eligible basis” — that is, the costs that qualify for credits — and because the sale of the building maximized these eligible costs, Millers River was thus made that much more appealing to potential LIHTC investors. 54 In other words, to play by the rules of the game, the CHA sold an asset it already owned to a contractual version of itself, and then encumbered that asset with debt because doing so would ultimately produce more tax write-offs for the private-sector investor partner, which would in turn translate into more equity for the project.
Margaret Moran sighed and said, succinctly: “This is not the way I would do it. This is the most ineffective way you could do it. Direct grants would be more cost effective and efficient. But this is the only way available to us.”
As Jim Stockard recounted the struggles and achievements of the Cambridge Housing Authority, his continuing passion for public housing was apparent. Municipal authorities are, he emphasized, ideally suited to operating low-income housing precisely because they are set up to be accountable to the public. Their bylaws require board members to be elected by voters (which is typical in small towns) or appointed by elected officials (which is typical in larger municipalities, including Cambridge). Their budgets must be available for public review. Their hiring and procurement practices must adhere to fair labor laws and strict public bidding processes (which, as is well understood, usually increase the cost of public projects). 55 Just as important, public authorities are set up to last — to be responsible from one generation to the next and to manage their assets accordingly. As Stockard pointed out, all these practices contrast sharply with those of private developers, both for-profit and nonprofit, whose obligations are not to the public but to shareholders or trustees; whose internal operations are not required to be transparent and are often opaque; whose timelines are often determined not by the enduring human need for shelter but rather by the market-driven desire for a rapid return on investment.
The CHA’s public status and accountability have a direct impact on the architectural distinction of its properties.
The CHA’s public status and long-range accountability have a direct impact on the architectural distinction of its properties. The superior quality of the buildings that inspired us to pursue this story in the first place is a fortunate consequence of the agency’s keen awareness that it is responsible not just for design and construction but also for management, maintenance, and repair over decades. As a result, agency staff pay close attention to the myriad decisions that determine the durability of an architectural project, from programming and site planning to facade detailing and material selection. They are willing to spend more on architects’ fees and on higher-grade components and landscaping. And they devote significant time to engaging with tenants, many in vulnerable populations, to ensure their comfort, safety, and well-being.
In the year before construction began on Millers River, the CHA held “18 meetings, office hours, a Green Charrette, and other interactive events” with residents. 56 It was at these meetings that staffers and tenants debated the key question of whether to enclose the balconies. Some residents described the pleasure of sitting outdoors in good weather, while others recounted the nuisance of nesting pigeons. The ultimate decision — to enclose — was thus made through a sustained participatory process. Our own interactions with Millers River residents suggest that such efforts are appreciated. Charles Prater, a former chef and security guard in his late sixties, told us the CHA was sensitive to his (and other residents’) wishes to minimize the dislocations of the construction period. Lately he’s become a part-time building coordinator for the CHA; in that role, he ensures that packages reach their owners, that washers and dryers are working, that entrances remain secure. Another resident, Mac McLaren, a former crossing guard in his late seventies, told us that he was grateful to remain in Cambridge, where he’s lived most of his life, and he credits the CHA with making that possible.
Millers River can be understood as a success story for one hard-working, high-functioning housing authority. To be sure, there are local circumstances that have furthered its success. Cambridge, with 120,000 residents, is a midsize city; hence, more manageable than metropolises like New York or Chicago. The city has long self-identified as a stronghold of progressivism. (Not for nothing does U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren live here.) This progressivism can be seen in the establishment of municipal tools like the Affordable Housing Trust, set up in 1989, and the Affordable Housing Overlay, adopted in 2020, both of which are dedicated to expanding options for low-income residents. 57 It’s also significant that Cambridge is at once a university town and a boom town, its municipal coffers fattened by a growing cluster of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies attracted by Harvard and MIT. 58
Direct public action can produce housing that is better designed and maintained, more generous and humane, than that created by the under-performing system that now prevails.
The Cambridge Housing Authority may have benefited from a well-funded network of civic, institutional, and business actors; nonetheless, its recent history can be understood as a refutation of the longstanding political shibboleth that public housing is a failure. The time has come to reject this narrative; to dismantle what architectural historian Reinhold Martin called, in this journal, “the pervasive, historically constructed barrier that has increasingly prevented us, over the past 40 years or so, from using the word ‘public’ in public in anything like an informed, enlightened, and unapologetic way when it comes to housing.” 59 It’s time to take apart the maniacally convoluted system that forces public servants to perform what Margaret Moran calls administrative “acrobatics” in order to provide a young family or retired worker with an apartment that is — again, to quote the 1937 Housing Act — “decent, safe, and sanitary.” It’s time for the United States, for its voters and taxpayers, to embrace the proposition that direct public action — direct funding, development, ownership, and management — can produce housing that is not only more efficient, better designed and maintained, but also more generous and humane than that produced by the over-complicated and under-performing system that now prevails. 60
More than 80 years ago, Catherine Bauer, the lead author of the 1937 Housing Act, wrote her seminal book Modern Housing. Writing amidst the anxieties of the Great Depression, Bauer unsparingly assessed the dismal state of American dwellings in the early decades of the 20th century:
The combined efforts of speculative builders, building and loan associations, and individuals building for themselves, cannot supply a new dwelling at a price which even the half the population can pay. And the buildings which they do construct are for the most part either built-in slums, or so badly laid out and constructed as to constitute incipient “blighted areas” from the start. The net result is that the American Standard of Living today, even in times of “prosperity,” is one of the lowest in the western world with respect to light, air, facilities for group living, and even basic sanitation. 61
Bauer’s argument became, in the words of historian Barbara Penner, “a rallying cry for … government-sponsored, noncommercial housing in America.” 62 Alas, it’s a rallying cry that remains just as relevant today.
There are gratifying indications that a new housing narrative, with calls for stronger public authorities, is gaining ground.
Yet there are gratifying indications that a new housing narrative, including calls for stronger public-sector authorities, is gaining ground. In a 2016 essay in The Nation, historian Matthew Gordon Lasner deplored the failures of a “cumbersome” public-private system that had become too complex to function effectively. “What if, instead of tax credits, mansion taxes, housing trust funds, community land trusts, block grants, legal aid, and anxiety over gentrification …,” he wrote, “we fought for the one system that really works: deep government subsidies?” 63 In a 2020 white paper from the Urban Democracy Lab at New York University, sociologists Gianpaolo Baiocchi and H. Jacob Carlson argued that we are “at the brink of a generation-defining housing emergency”; in response, they call for the creation of a federal “Social Housing Development Authority” that would generate “lasting solutions for the housing crisis by purchasing distressed real estate … and financing its transfer to the social housing sector.” 64 Last year, in California, a state assembly member from San Jose introduced the “Social Housing Bill” to facilitate the creation of “functioning housing authorities” in cities and counties, as well as a “California Social Housing Council” that would “educate participants on the history and purposes of social housing.” 65 And earlier this fall, a report from the New York-based Community Service Society proposed “20 policies to shift from private profit to public good,” in order to “shield our housing from the worst aspects of speculative investment and put New York on a path to social housing transformation.” 66
The achievements of the CHA, its adroit negotiation of a misbegotten system, underscore that public authorities can be crucial drivers of the future of housing.
These scholars and activists support direct public investment in housing; but for the most part, the recipients of public investment would be private, noncommercial entities including nonprofit corporations, community land trusts, and mission-driven developers. Public housing authorities are mentioned rarely, and largely as a legacy to be managed rather than as a resource to be strengthened. Too often those who decry the current system cling to the old preconception that private-sector development is inherently better and more efficient than truly and unapologetically public housing. Certainly this assumption underlies a recent article in the New York Times by architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, on the RAD-financed renovation of a Bronx mid-rise public housing complex constructed in the early 1960s. In the story, which is largely appreciative of the project, the author seems unquestioningly to accept that public authorities will be “chronically underfunded and freighted by bureaucracy.” Not once does the critic point out that private developers have been able to renovate and manage the property — and make a profit doing so — only because of the generous public investment available to them through RAD financing; nor does he note that this investment was not available to the city’s public housing authority, whose role has been limited to oversight. 67
The chronic underfunding of public housing is unquestionable, as is the bureaucratic freighting. But these are not inevitable; these problems are the result of powerful political forces that for half a century have financialized and privatized the system. Over decades, one program after another — Section 8, LIHTC, HOPE VI, Moving to Work, Section 18, RAD — has been launched, each claiming to fix the problems of the previous program only to introduce new problems that will need to be fixed by the next program. In striking contrast, the sustained achievements of the Cambridge Housing Authority, its adroit negotiation of a misbegotten system, underscore the potential for public authorities to be crucial drivers of the future of housing — and to extend their purview to encompass not only the low-income households they have traditionally served but also the growing ranks of middle-class people who struggle to make rent in our current gilded age.