The Housing Question

The MoMA exhibition Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, ignited strong debate, with some labeling it elitist and paternalistic, others defending it as powerful and ambitious. Here Reinhold Martin, co-organizer of Foreclosed, and Raphael Sperry and Amit Price Patel, of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, continue the debate — in a virtual roundtable — along with designer/urbanist Liz Ogbu and urban planner Tom Angotti.

Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012.

REINHOLD MARTIN: About Forty Years Ago…

You can’t say we weren’t warned. For more than a generation, architects, urban planners and activists have challenged the legitimacy of large-scale urban intervention, particularly in the case of housing. Advocacy planners have emphasized participatory, community-based decision-making. Architects have suggested that suburban Main Street is “almost all right,” at least as an antidote to paramilitary “urban renewal.” And critics have observed the complicity of modernist utopias with capitalist development, the progressive intentions of architects and policymakers notwithstanding. In short, ever since the early 1970s, efforts to reimagine housing and the city through architecture have appeared to be — to many — mere distractions (or worse) in the face of the related phenomena of urban crisis and profit-oriented “revitalization.” Not by chance, those same years saw the emergence of financial derivatives and other precursors to today’s mortgage-backed securities. They also saw the first episode in an ongoing epic of mass repression — a willful sweeping under the rug of history — featuring the highly theatrical erasure of postwar public housing, with the nationally televised partial demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis in 1972.

That was 40 years ago. So when well-intentioned observers suggest that Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, an exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “takes design back ten years,” they are off by about three decades. I am a co-organizer of the exhibition together with MoMA architecture curator Barry Bergdoll. The exhibition is based on the research summarized in The Buell Hypothesis, produced by Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, which I direct. I write here in this capacity, to further our overall goal of helping to convene an informed, critical conversation around the subject of housing and suburbanization in the United States and beyond, a conversation that has itself been “foreclosed” by the ongoing recession. I also write as an independent intellectual, perhaps in tension with my institutional responsibilities.

Foreclosed features five large-scale design proposals by architect-led interdisciplinary teams, in five distinctly different suburban municipalities across the United States. These municipalities — in New Jersey, Florida, Illinois, Oregon and California — were selected as study sites representative of the wider housing crisis in the American suburbs; the selection criteria used both quantitative and qualitative data, including but not limited to foreclosure rates. Hence, the design teams were not asked to propose solutions to the foreclosure crisis; instead they were asked to propose hypothetical interventions in suburban settings that could model alternatives to developer-based design and construction.

Installation view of Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream at The Museum of Modern Art, 2012. [Photo © Jason Mandella]

More specifically they were asked, gently but persistently, to design public housing on publicly owned or supported land identified in The Buell Hypothesis: not “affordable housing,” or housing provided by “public-private partnerships,” but genuinely public housing that learns even from notorious precedents like the Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green “experiments,” as well as from far more successful examples that still endure in cities and suburbs across the country and around the world.

It is a sign of the times that this exhortation has proved controversial not because it reminds us of the economic inequity, the structural racism, and the gender violence that has marked every stage of so much welfare-state public housing, from inception to management, even as it challenges the apparent inevitability of such results. It is controversial because it suggests that the state, or the public sector — conceived along with civil society in terms of multiple, overlapping, virtual and actual publics — might play a more active, direct and enlightened role in the provision of housing and, by extension, of education, health care and other infrastructures of daily life in the United States. In other words, it is a direct challenge to the now-dominant paradigm of privatization. That the design teams did not entirely take up this challenge is, in my view, at least as interesting as what they actually did propose, and is perhaps symptomatic of how deeply the politics of privatization has shaped design culture. Simply put, can we no longer imagine architecture without developers?

It is equally interesting, and maybe troubling, that the overwhelming majority of the projects did not take up practices of participatory design that also date back to the 1970s and even earlier. Still, it is worth noting that the more recent codification of “bottom-up” approaches to housing, particularly in Latin America, has coincided with neoliberal “structural adjustment” in the global economy. In the case of sites-and-services and other models of user-generated, low-income housing — in which municipalities provide only minimal financing and basic infrastructure (e.g., water, electricity, sanitation) and depend upon residents to construct their own shelter — this has often meant, among other things, offloading the material cost of that housing onto the backs of already dispossessed residents. This reality in no way delegitimizes vital efforts to empower residents in the provision of housing; it merely marks one of the potential contradictions — the fact that residents are often compelled by implicit, seemingly horizontal power relations to participate in processes that validate and perpetuate their own dispossession. And it suggests that empowerment from below must center on developing the political resources with which to contest — intellectually and pragmatically — the very structures by which this occurs.

In this light, the “housing crisis” currently afflicting the United States reflects yet another dimension of what social critic Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism,” or the enforced privatization of key economic sectors under the conditions of an artificially produced socioeconomic “disaster” prototyped a generation ago in Latin America and Africa. (Witness Greece today.) The particular version of the “disaster” that has consolidated the near-full privatization of the American housing system has been slowly unfolding for at least four decades, spurred on if not exactly driven by the spectacularly real and metaphorical demolition of the project of public housing, contradictions and all; witness the incessant replaying of the Pruitt-Igoe “movie” both in the collective imagination and — literally — on the ground.

Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, April 1972, St. Louis, Missouri. [Photo by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research]

From the point of view of The Buell Hypothesis, that actual and metaphorical movie is a key “site” of the Foreclosed exhibition. Its mirror inverse is the equally imagistic and equally forceful ideal of the “American Dream.” That is why the Hypothesis is structured as a philosophical screenplay. It is also why the design teams were challenged to “change the movie.” Now you could rightly object that this merely reproduces architecture’s ideological role as a regressive image-machine by emphasizing “dreams” over material or economic processes. But the point is not that a collective fantasy or narrative like the “American Dream” defines or produces the single-family house and its all-too-real plumbing, wiring, driveways, roads, subdivisions, and so on.

Instead, the dream is conjured out of these material things and fed back into them as a guiding norm. Similarly, architectural projects, no matter how fanciful or abstract, are real, material things (models, drawings, and videos, in this case) that put ideas (and maybe dreams) on the table for detailed debate by interested parties. Yes, this too could be a distraction, and the still unmet challenge is to assemble all of the parties, from residents to public officials to investment bankers, in an agonistic yet equitable setting. Nevertheless, the large models of large-scale proposals sitting on tables in a MoMA gallery represent a deliberate curatorial decision, since models have a way of generating discussion and assembling publics around themselves. The tables on which the models sit might even foreshadow our efforts with this online roundtable, which the Buell Center has convened in collaboration with Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility to explore the contours that configure the debate surrounding housing and suburbanization itself.

Within these contours you can detect 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. Changing the conversation is a necessary but not sufficient part of changing the practical reality. I therefore ask all participants in this debate — which of course may ultimately include not only those whose responses follow but also readers who wish to comment or contribute — to consider how we might, perhaps with the help of Foreclosed, reclaim the project of “public housing” in some form.

Further, I ask that we seek new and effective ways to connect this challenge to the challenges of unemployment, racial and gender discrimination, and other interconnected processes, including the ongoing proletarianization of the middle class, and the emergence of a global “precariat” living and working in a state of near-permanent precarity. I do so not from some misplaced nostalgia for the failures and conflicts that the very phrase “public housing” has come to evoke. On the contrary, I do so to highlight and to challenge the inequities that it has tended to embody rather than ameliorate, since the reproduction and maintenance of structural dispossession has now become a key function of markets assisted by states and other instruments of governance. In this respect, public housing does not represent a solution but instead a line in the sand that stretches from Athens, Georgia, to Athens, Greece, marking the limits of what we do and do not allow ourselves to discuss publicly, and the language, concepts and practices with which we do so, including the political actions and built realities these might entail.

Think of Foreclosed, then, as a highly controlled laboratory experiment, a mapping of constraints and a documentation of erasures. It represents one contribution that a university and a museum can make together, as participants in the public sphere, or the multivalent space in which public opinion — and “common sense” — is formed and contested. Whether it contributes to anything like a shift in the dominant paradigm remains to be seen. Thus far, indications are that it has touched a nerve. Whether that translates merely into a nervous reaction or into strategies for structural transformation from below, from above, and from the sides — this is our mutual challenge to take up in this discussion, and beyond.

Top: The Garden in the Machine project for Cicero, Illinois, by Studio Gang Architects. [Image courtesy of Studio Gang] Bottom: Architectural model for The Garden in the Machine. [Photo © 2011 James Ewing]

AMIT C. PRICE & RAPHAEL SPERRY: Human Rights Housing

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
— Article 25, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations

Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility is pleased to participate in this forum — to consider whether the projects now on exhibit in Foreclosed at the Museum of Modern Art are effective responses to both the immediate foreclosure crisis and the ongoing challenge of housing affordability, and also to debate the role of the public in the provision of housing.

Reinhold Martin posits that reclaiming the project of truly public housing — housing created not as a result of public-private partnerships or of laws that mandate a percentage of subsidized units in private development, but housing directly built and supported by the government — is a key strategy for addressing not only the provision of shelter but also the “challenges of unemployment, racial and gender discrimination, and other interconnected processes,” especially in the long wake of the foreclosure crisis. Prof. Martin also notes that although the Foreclosed participants were invited to consider such truly public housing, none of the five teams took up this invitation; all stuck to the familiar formula of public-private partnerships, and largely failed to propose any process of community design — i.e., a participatory process in which architects and planners meet with local residents to identify and meet community needs. In this sense the “public” was missing in both product and process. Martin sees this as further evidence of the “erasure” of the very idea of the public, and as such one more result of a 40-year trend toward neo-liberal privatization, the individualization of social problems and the undercutting of the social functions of the state.

At ADPSR we agree with much of Prof. Martin’s analysis. As an organization — and also as individual practitioners — we too are dismayed by the unceasing rollback of social welfare programs (to cite just one example: here in cash-strapped California, the epicenter of the taxpayers revolt in the 1970s, legislators have recently eliminated all of the state’s almost 400 redevelopment agencies) and by the right-wing and libertarian attack on the idea that government can be a locus of collective action and shared values. The steady and intensifying dismantling of American public housing — as exemplified not just by the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe but also by the wholesale destruction in the past decade of Chicago’s postwar high-rise public housing — is certainly part of this rollback. And we would go even further: we believe it’s important to restore the perceived worth of public housing in order to validate and implement the fundamental human right to housing. Understanding the project of public housing within the larger human rights framework will advance Prof. Martin’s position and help architects (and civilians) appreciate the value of Foreclosed as well. It will also expose the misbegotten faith in “individualism,” which has distorted the politics of human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights — which the newly founded United Nations adopted in 1948 — affirms that everyone has the right to housing, among other “necessary social services.” Within the framework of international law, the ultimate responsibility for the protection of human rights rests with the public sector. But if it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that housing is universally provided, it is not necessarily the role of the state to build and operate housing directly. As with food aid (including food stamps), government-run programs implement the right to food, but do not require the state to own land and farm it. Similarly, government programs could implement the right to housing by strengthening existing mandates or incentives for inclusionary zoning, collective ownership, rent subsidies and regional housing plans — none of which requires public-built housing on public-owned land.

Prof. Martin argues that these kinds of strategies are often limited and even defined by the “now-dominant paradigm of privatization.” But many of these housing strategies are effective in creating low-cost housing and in fact are tightly linked to government action. For example, “affordable housing” — with or without the scare quotes — would not exist without the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, which was created in 1986. Similarly, inclusionary zoning puts private resources to explicitly public purposes, requiring developers to provide a fraction of newly-built units to low-income residents on or off site. In California, until recently, tax increment financing (generated by private businesses) allowed redevelopment agencies to provide the pre-development and gap funding that led to the creation of thousands of units of high-quality affordable housing.

On this note, we were encouraged, in Foreclosed, to see some of the design teams propose innovative forms of financing and ownership. In “Simultaneous City,” which focused on the Tampa suburb of Temple Terrace, Florida, the team led by Visible Weather calls for a Real Estate Investment Trust, in which, unlike most REITs, “publicly owned local land remains a public asset, and the income derived from development is shared with citizens.” In “The Garden in the Machine,” for a site in Cicero, Illinois, Studio Gang Architects envisions a limited equity cooperative in which “residents own their individual spaces, but land and shared amenities are jointly owned by all, in a private trust, a kind of micro-governmental cooperative structure, where the local residents participate directly in determining the qualities of their neighborhood.” These sorts of small-scale, alternative mash-ups, based on shared ownership and responsibility, can help ensure that the projects maintain a public dimension yet operate with greater flexibility than traditional public housing.

Another salutary aspect of the exhibition was the designers’ recognition that both old and new suburbs fail to meet the growing diversity of housing needs — e.g., extended families, granny flats, home offices, group living, etc. Both “Nature-City,” designed by WORKac for a site in Oregon, and “Property with Properties,” by Zago Architecture for a site in Southern California, feature units of different sizes, types and densities. Niche demand (including dispersed rural communities, and supportive and transitional housing) can be more nimbly met by entrepreneurial non-profits working with government support than by top-down housing authorities. But even so-called traditional families would benefit from having more choice with regard to housing providers — with government serving as a watchdog against discrimination and retaliation. When public housing is the only housing provider — the provider of last resort, as it often is today — government itself can become the agent of discrimination, as is the case when it imposes “zero tolerance” rules for minor drug possession — the kind of rule that often results in poor families being evicted. While Reinhold Martin wonders whether we can any longer “imagine an architecture without developers,” we would argue that to substitute “government” for “developers” seems an insufficiently nuanced proposition, and that government can have more impact by promoting a diversity of public-serving private developers than by commissioning architecture itself.

That said, public-sector officials can help to encourage both for-profit and non-profit private developers to actually make diverse and inclusive housing — housing for all. Let’s say that we — we the people, via our elected representatives — insist that housing be provided for 100 percent of the population (and actually none of the Foreclosed teams addresses this most basic goal). As a robust player in the housing market, public housing would not only ensure that everyone has adequate housing; it might also spur other housing sectors to better performance. In other words, if the private sector cannot meet the large social goal, then public agencies will develop housing and in this way make the market more competitive. (In the ongoing medical insurance debate, it’s become clear that that the one thing both private and non-profit players will do almost anything to avoid is government competition, which in the case of health care might extend the proven success of such popular programs as Medicare.) It is important to acknowledge that housing is a tool of political power. Just as high jobless rates work to drive down wages (thus hurting workers and helping employers), so too high rates of homelessness, as well as overcrowding and substandard housing, serve to inflate the profits of real estate developers and mortgage bankers. At this most fundamental level, the threat of homelessness gives the 1% greater leverage over the 99%. If we guarantee that as a nation we will uphold the right to housing codified in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then we will empower the poor — a class which these days is expanding to include many who once felt secure in the middle.

But why should empowerment stop with the provision of shelter? We salute Prof. Martin for recognizing that none of the Foreclosed projects included, in the design process, any of the ostensible beneficiaries of the new housing. But is promoting public housing the best way to bring these groups back into the process? In the experience of many ADPSR members who practice community-interest design, it is generally the non-profit affordable-housing organizations — which reach out to marginalized populations — that are most able to galvanize true participation. And more, in ADPSR’s efforts to challenge the norms of prison construction and mass incarceration, we’ve gotten to know communities whose faith in government has hit bottom due to struggles with the entrenched racism and violence of the criminal justice system. These groups are more willing to trust local activists – housing developers, social agencies, et al. — than government, even while they recognize that public funding will be a crucial component of the services. We’ve also found that many people really want to develop the skills and resources they’ll need to solve ongoing life problems, rather than over-relying on government.

The ongoing assault on the public sector relies upon a chorus of hackneyed themes: government is the problem, not the solution; welfare is socialism, etc. Reinhold Martin is advocating a direct response: strengthen the public sector in order to stand in solidarity with the poor and dispossessed. We would like to reframe the debate with a related but different emphasis: the public sector is essential to the protection of human rights, and housing is a human right.

Top: Nature-City project for Keizer, Oregon, by WORKac. [Image courtesy of WORKac] Middle: Thoughts on a Walking City project for Orange, New Jersey, by MOS. Bottom: Street view of residences in Orange, New Jersey. [Images courtesy of MOS]

LIZ OGBU: New Synthesis

Should the United States once again sponsor a large-scale public program to ensure housing for all? This question of public housing is fundamental to the Foreclosed exhibition at MoMA — but more broadly it is a question that goes to the heart of the social contract between the government and its citizens. There is no doubt that the increasing dominance of the private sector in all aspects of our lives is challenging the very nature of this contract — a challenge brought literally home as the foreclosure crisis has spread from coast to coast and set struggling homeowners in opposition to politically influential corporate banks.

As we look for solutions to the problems of affordability and homelessness, one clear direction would be to fully reinvigorate public investment in benefits like housing. Yet I would argue that in the U.S. today, public and private have become too deeply intertwined — economically, politically and socially — to make that a realistic goal. I do believe that public can be the driver of housing reform — but that the most promising approach will involve a creative new synthesis of the public-private hybrid.

Too often public and private are positioned as opposites, as extremes that lead to nothing less than different systems. (The right-wing rhetoric that’s branded President Obama as “socialist” is only the latest example.) In this schema, high public good is equated with high government spending, high public debt, and ultimately low private value; likewise high private value is equated with high profit and minimal public good. But no matter its political uses, this sort of either/or thinking is unproductive; the rise of both the corporate social responsibility movement and the non-profit social enterprise sector underscore that public good and private value not only can coexist but can also be mutually reinforcing.

So I believe the hybrid approach is the likeliest way to achieve real innovation in housing as well as in real estate development practices. What might be the role of architects in this effort? The South African architect Iain Low has described a building as a manifesto, a declaration of what is possible. (“I work within the possibility of significantly transforming reality, as opposed to reinventing it,” he said.) And indeed, the five projects in Foreclosed show us the possibilities of dreaming big.

Some of the most compelling elements of the collective visions ranged from increasing the size and quality of the public sphere (e.g., the “suburban promenade” created by the walking paths interwoven among buildings in Simultaneous City, the 225-acre proposal for Temple Terrace, FL, created by Visible Weather) to tweaking financial and legal structures to enable physical change and enhance flexibility (e.g., the limited-equity cooperative land ownership model proposed for The Garden in the Machine, Studio Gang’s project for Cicero, IL). Yet ultimately the projects seem incomplete — even hollow — because the deeply imagined and well-rendered design proposals were not accompanied by proposals for new processes — for how we might begin to bridge the gap between the envisioned progressive futures and the current difficult realities.

That is a daunting challenge, a generational challenge. So it is helpful to recall that mantra from the startup world: Think big, start small. Thinking big will allow us to reimagine the possibilities of the house, the neighborhood, the city. Starting small will allow us to devise the nimble strategies that can begin to tangibly test the elements of a big vision on a more human-centered scale. Rather than aiming for a wholesale transformation of housing infrastructure, we can start right now to undertake shorter-term community-serving propositions that meaningfully advance the larger vision.

One of the largest visions is housing for all. From WORKac’s attempt to bring a five-fold increase in densification through high-rise building to MOS’s decoupling of ownership and place through the mechanism of portable mortgages, the projects in Foreclosed seek to meet this goal through various new strategies. But what about small-scale strategies that have already proven successful? Here’s one example: Accessory Dwelling Unit programs, which flourished in the last decade, have added density, diversity and connectivity to existing communities, and in the process made them more sustainable. In 2006 Santa Cruz, California, started one of the most progressive ADU programs in the U.S., largely to enhance housing affordability in an affluent city where less than 10 percent of the population could afford to buy even a median-priced home. The program included loan financing and technical assistance, and it hired design firms to create prototypes for likely “accessory” conditions. Today it’s one of the city’s most popular programs, with an average of 50 new units every year.

Another big vision involves developing ways to measure value beyond the metric of economic growth or financial profit. Rating systems such as LEED ND and SEED are beginning to do this; for instance, they are devising principles and standards for evaluating the effects of green technologies (e.g., renewable energy, material recycling, water conservation), progressive land-use decisions (e.g., locating near existing commercial centers or transit systems), and social engagement (e.g., including participatory input from the community, incorporating social gathering spaces into projects). Is there a start-small opportunity here, perhaps a pilot program that would link public funds, tax incentives and community investment capital with these emerging design-based evaluation systems?

One more example of starting small. Modern architecture might have advocated the rational separation of activities, but one unfortunate outcome was the single-use zoning that’s shaped our low-density suburbs, with their long commutes and lack of diversity. Can we begin to kickstart new opportunities and enhance diversity by incentivizing new urban programs on underused parcels, perhaps replacing foreclosed houses with small commercial businesses or community spaces? A 2010 General Accounting Office report estimated that between January 2008 and March 2010, there were between 14,500 to 34,600 abandoned and foreclosed properties nationwide.

These are just a few examples of thinking big/starting small. Central to all is the belief that design matters. For decades now, we have waged a battle between Architecture (high design) and architecture (social design). But as with public and private, this is a false debate. Ultimately good design must be aesthetically engaging, economically viable, environmentally responsive and socially just. There is no either/or. If we are to meet the goal of housing for all, good design must be part of the process. This is why Foreclosed is compelling; regardless of the criticism they’ve inspired, all of the projects grappled with the power of good design to reshape housing. And yet they all neglected one final quality of good design: the ability to be actionable. Let’s pair them with more agile, smaller-scale innovative processes, as a first step in realizing their big-scale visions.

Top: Architectural model for Property with Properties project for Rialto, California, by Zago Architecture. [Photo © 2011 James Ewing] Bottom: Simultaneous City project for Temple Terrace, Florida, by Visible Weather. [Image courtesy of Michael Bell, Eunjeong Seong: Visible Weather]

TOM ANGOTTI: Creative Politics

Foreclosed is provocative and filled with many good ideas — alternatives to sprawl and auto dependency, and the mindless proliferation of detached single-family homes — but it has fallen into the trap of physical determinism — the occupational hazard of the design and planning professions. The problem is that we can’t design our way out of the foreclosure crisis, or suburban sprawl, or global climate change, or the deep class and racial divides that all these at once underscore and perpetuate. We need to stop looking for the next technological or spatial fix, because it will inevitably reflect and reproduce the entrenched economic and social inequalities that have led us to our current crisis. Design and planning must be part of the solution, but to find durable solutions we need to organize around strategies that get to the root of the problems.

The epidemic of sub-prime mortgages and the foreclosures that followed, the widespread displacement and homelessness facing the U.S. and other nations: these are all the products of a global capitalist system that has aimed to financialize and commodify just about everything — even basic necessities and the natural environment, including land, water, atmosphere — and concentrated wealth in the hands of a small minority — the 1%. Carbon trading, for example, is based on the idea that what will rescue the earth from global warming is the deployment of new investment vehicles. Almost always housing is constructed for profit, not to satisfy the basic need for habitat. The Occupy movements are trying to counter this commodification, to get to the core of the matter, and many activists have refused to be seduced by the “fixes” that elected officials, business leaders and professionals put on the table — for instance, the development of yet more public-private partnerships like the one that created Zuccotti Park, or the construction of more green buildings for corporations, or the creation of more green jobs for those who are already employed.

Architects and planners who want to act effectively — to get to the heart of the matter — will have to stop changing the subject and moving the discussion into the familiar territory — the design studio — that they can control. In my view, a strategy to address the foreclosure crisis as well as the problems of the broader housing system should consist of three basic elements.

First, we need to struggle to establish a basic right to housing and a right to the city for all. Eviction and displacement should never be allowed as solutions — they are “solutions” only for landlords and bankers, and they invariably happen at the expense of tenants and homeowners. As amply defined by UN-Habitat and in international covenants, the right to housing is much more than a roof over one’s head; it is a right to a decent quality of life in a viable, sustainable community. Groups like the New York City-based National Economic and Social Rights Initiative and the Habitat International Coalition, which has members and allies worldwide, are strongly advocating for this expanded definition of rights.

Second, contrary to the myth that ours is a “post-racial” society, the foreclosure crisis has disproportionately affected communities of color, as did the housing crises that have recurred throughout U.S. history. For more than half a century, U.S. housing policy, with bipartisan support, has supported the “American Dream” of individual homeownership as the answer to the exclusion of African Americans from access to decent housing. But lately the dream turned into a nightmare when predatory lenders targeted the very populations that had been excluded, when greenlining led to gentrification and displacement in many cities, and when disinvestment in public housing began to eat away at one of the last of the mid-century social safety nets. All of these trends have reinforced structural inequalities and for the most part left intact neighborhood segregation.

Finally, we need an open, democratic approach to long-range planning. I don’t believe it when planners and designers talk about “smart growth,” “retrofitting the suburbs,” and “transit-oriented development.” These seem to me the new mantras for professions that lack the courage to confront the real problems and challenge the dictatorship of developers. The urban planning profession fully endorsed and helped create suburban sprawl when it chose to collaborate with the homebuilding industry and accommodate itself to the highway system. It is now obediently following the market trend towards denser development without critically engaging with and supporting the widespread movements that place quality of life over growth.

In MoMA’s home town of New York City, for example, the city’s planners undertook the largest upzoning campaign ever in the last decade, promoting “transit-oriented development” in response to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s call for a “Greener Greater New York.” Presumably intended as an antidote to sprawl, this new effort actually fed speculative fever and ultimately the displacement of many communities of color from the heart of the city. At the same time, in outlying areas such as the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, African American and West Indian homeowners are struggling with disinvestment and foreclosures. Planners need to move beyond short-term fixes and abstract design principles and start planning for the seventh generation; beyond a bankrupt electoral democracy to a truly participatory democracy; and beyond creative design to creative politics. This will mean developing and strengthening close working relationships with local and national movements for social and environmental justice so that our professional expertise can be organically linked to and support them. The Right to the City Alliance is attempting to forge these ties and is just one example that it can be done.

Editors' Note

“The Housing Question” is part of our ongoing exploration of the complex dynamics of public and private in contemporary politics and culture, and how these dynamics influence the design and production of buildings, landscapes and cities. Please see our Call for Articles on this topic.

Debate: Reinhold Martin, Raphael Sperry, Amit C. Price Patel, Liz Ogbu, and Tom Angotti, “The Housing Question,” Places Journal, June 2012. Accessed 22 Mar 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 06.26.2012 at 14:51

    I posted this article on Facebook, and a friend who is not involved in planning or architecture commented on the theme of forgetting history, and how it is similar to the themes of the book "1984". The theatrical erasure of Pruitt Igoe has become a stand-in for the failure of modernism and public housing- I remember taking undergraduate planning classes at a very liberal university where public housing was being taught as being synonymous with failure. Everyone has bought into this fabricated history, and also to the new reality of public-private partnerships. That being said, I commend Amit Price Patel for taking a nuanced stance and recognizing that the fundamental goal is to provide housing and to recognize it as a right, rather than to quibble over the funding and ownership mechanisms.

    We need more effective ways to build housing quickly and cheaply, and this requires both a design solution and a policy solution. Even in cities like San Francisco where there is a push by the local government to create housing for people at all income levels, the process works too slowly and leaves too many people out. Housing policy is a failure when there are thousands of people waiting for a home that they can afford.

  • 07.05.2012 at 02:52

    As a non-design professional, for whom I would assume the exhibit and Mr. Martin's statement might be aimed at, I find the discussion interesting, but somewhat baffling. Mr. Martin's use of language and terminology is inherently exclusionary to those who are not of the academic/professional of which he is a part. The other essays here are more readily understandable to a layperson.

    The disappointment expressed by Mr. Martin, that none of the teams used a public process to inform their entry is legitimate. Based upon lectures at the Alaska Design Forum, it appears that many designers have little interaction with the end users, whether it is housing stock or another product. The most apparently successful designers are those who engage the end users, whether it is residents of Medellin, Colombia, Aboriginal Australians, or buyers at Sacks 5th Avenue.

    Mr. Agnotti accurately summarized the problem, that we cannot design ourselves out of a problem, whether it is sprawl, foreclosures, or racial divides. The faith in design to solve problems is similar to the faith in technology to solve our problems. Perhaps it would be useful to step out of the the world view that seems to inhabit these conversations and look for a different one. Take as an example that of social work, where they ideally look for and base their work on the clients' strengths and desires. Lecturing or telling society to change, without asking why it should or what currently drives the actions, will just result in frustration and a smaller and smaller audience.

  • 08.16.2012 at 01:45

    I am so sympathetic to the many of the goals of this exhibition - and find it so difficult to follow the argument, either in words or in the designs.

    I can say similar things about Mr. Angotti's arguments. In the end, if the places are not well designed, the policies will get us nowhere. That is another lesson of the last 50 years.

    It is clear what Angotti dislikes, but impossible to tell where he thinks a good job has been done.

    I will attempt to read these again another day to see if I can get farther, because I do believe in the goals and the ambitions.