How the Other Half Still Lives

October 13, 1996 -- The New York Times is to be congratulated for last week's series of articles on the urban housing crisis, "Barely Four Walls." The series brought home the horrible conditions in which huge and growing numbers of poor people are compelled to live. For many those conditions are no better than the appalling slums that photographer Jacob Riis made infamous in the 1890s. The most compelling thing about the Times series was its comprehensive look at the economics of affordable housing in today's cities (for the conditions it describes in New York City can be found in any major city in the United States and, indeed, in the world, with very few exceptions).

It is hard to miss the blocks upon blocks of abandoned housing that stand in today's cities - buildings that have been abandoned by their owners because they cannot profitably renovate and rent the spaces. What this series of articles showed, though, was the ongoing process through which those buildings become abandoned: landlords and tenants hanging on, while buildings crumble, fines and litigation pile up and neighborhoods surrender to violence and crime. Many of their residents, single-parent families who barely scrape by, now face the additional pressures of welfare reform. And on an even lower social level live a growing population of illegal immigrants who, packed like sardines in tiny apartments, risk deportation if they complain.

Some landlords callously ignore their tenants' needs, sending armed guards to gather rent checks. Others attempt to provide some sensible level of service - such as the Bronx building owners who kept erecting ever-stronger barriers to repel drug dealers from their rooftops. Either way, the economics of affordable housing are against them, in good times and in bad. When local economies are booming, developers hope for local decline to make for the kind of bargain-basement property values than can lead to highly lucrative gentrification. When recession hits, unemployment soars and tenant courts are jammed with eviction proceedings.

Although the Times did an exemplary job of illustrating the problems, the remedies it proposed in today's lead editorial were lackluster. All the editors could think of to propose was increased regulatory vigilance, further incentives for non-profit involvement in housing renovation, and to "rally the private sector," whatever that means.

The thing that rallies the private sector, as everyone knows, is profit - but it has long been known that there is no profit in providing affordable urban housing for the working poor (or even the middle class in many cities). No, editors of the New York Times should have known better, for they have published editorials and letters to the Editor over the last twenty years that propose a workable reform to make the provision of affordable housing by the private sector viable.

"The Mayor cannot alter economic reality," says the Times. Well, not singlehandedly, perhaps. But the economic reality of urban housing markets can be altered, profoundly, substainably, for the better. Would you like to know how?
- Lindy Davies