By Zach Mortice
The founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) started off with a bang. The small but influential cadre of advocates for walkable and traditional-looking urbanism began meeting in 1993—the first big gathering was held at the historic Lyceum in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, with its “enormous entablature,” as the historian Vincent Scully noted in his opening remarks. The CNU’s beginnings dovetailed with the passage of a piece of legislation that enshrined the group’s approach to city building as federal policy: the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOPE VI program. After decades of crumbling, dysfunctional government-built-and-managed public housing projects, housing would instead be at least partially constructed and controlled by private developers and management companies. They would build lower-density, “mixed-income” communities of row houses and garden apartments. By the numbers, the lower density was made easier because Congress, in 1995, ended what had long been the “one-for-one” replacement rule for any public housing to be demolished. Housing vouchers, to be used to pay private landlords (who are not required to accept them), were considered sufficient for tenants not accepted into newly built units. At any rate, the policy change posed no obstacle to architects and planners.
But the 2016 election of Donald Trump was a tidal wave that washes over every corner of government—public housing design guidelines and funding policy included. HUD and the New Urbanists’ HOPE VI legacy is, pending a likely confirmation, in the hands of Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and GOP presidential primary candidate, who is neither an expert nor even a novice in affordable housing policy or design. So what does the future of affordable housing and New Urbanist development look like in the Trump administration?
The CNU declined official comment; the group has been all but silent on the transition since the election. But several of the organization’s founding members see limited upside for public housing from the nation’s first real estate deal-maker president. There is one exception: Andrés Duany, of DPZ in Miami, who could be called the godhead of New Urbanism.
Duany is pleased to see a HUD secretary from the private sector, with experience in institutions driven by quantitative metrics that define success or failure—in Carson’s case, medicine. “As opposed to government bureaucracy, which has no need to monitor itself,” he says. But Duany says Carson’s “number one” qualification is that he grew up in low-income (but not publicly subsidized) housing. “The fact that he grew up in housing like that, for me, counts for more than anything.”
Duany’s colleagues are less sanguine. “On every level, I see us losing ground,” says Peter Calthorpe, an architect and planner and founder of Calthorpe Associates in Berkeley, California, who is a CNU cofounder.
Calthorpe is concerned about a rollback of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule established in the Obama administration. The rule, which Carson attacked in a Washington Times editorial as a “dangerous” failed socialist experiment, would require municipalities to seek out and document housing segregation proactively. Bills in the House and Senate have already been introduced to nullify the rule and to bar federal funds from being used to gather data that measure housing segregation.
Additionally, there’s a “twofold threat” facing the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit used to finance the vast majority of affordable housing built nationwide, says Marion McFadden, the vice president of public policy at the affordable housing nonprofit Enterprise. First, it could simply be eliminated amid draconian budget cuts. Or, if corporate taxes are reduced in a tax reform bill, private companies will have a smaller tax burden overall, and less need to relieve tax pressure with credits.
As some CNU founders argue, any affordable housing losses will stress an already overburdened system. HOPE VI (for which funding ended in 2010) and the similarly privatized programs that followed it opened up new ways to fund housing via the private sector. HOPE VI alone built 111,000 units, according to the CNU, and gave out $6.7 billion in grants. But the housing crisis has grown worse. And CNU does not generally advertise the numbers of units its work did not replace once they were demolished. Enterprise estimates the nation’s current need at $26 billion for renovations of existing properties alone. And only one in five eligible families nationwide receives housing assistance. In Chicago, 282,000 people signed up for housing assistance the last time waiting lists were opened up, in 2014. Fewer than half this number made it to the list.
“The scale of the need far, far [exceeds] the scale of resources that have been dedicated to it, and I don’t see that improving under the Trump administration, and the fear would be that it would get much worse,” says Daniel Solomon, the architect and planner who is also a CNU cofounder and now a partner at Mithun in San Francisco.
By contrast, Elizabeth Moule, a CNU cofounder and partner at Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists in Pasadena, California, hopes that Trump can use his business acumen to take advantage of the recent history of privatization in HUD policy. “Since Trump is a developer, he might see some unique public–private partnerships with developers,” Moule says.
Ed Gramlich, a senior advisor at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in Washington, D.C., says he’s “cautiously optimistic” about Carson, after seeing his positions evolve from his time on the campaign trail to his Senate confirmation hearing last month. But he says he doubts that Trump has much interest in applying his real estate expertise to making housing more affordable and equitable.
“There’s nothing Trump has said that would suggest that’s a priority at this stage,” Gramlich says. HUD’s current policies give strong preference to mixed-income housing that comingles people of different colors and tax brackets. But Trump’s campaign drew harsh lines around who may or may not qualify for the government’s help, or for fair treatment. In fact, Trump first entered the public consciousness in 1973 as the defendant in a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit for refusing to rent apartments to African Americans. For these reasons, Calthorpe says he doubts that inclusive, mixed-income public housing is anything the new administration would meaningfully support. “I don’t think you can paint it in a color that makes it attractive to him,” he says.
Duany’s excitement about Carson stems in part from his hope that he and his boss will be able to cut down on the “stratospheric, indescribable, unbelievable” red tape hindering the industry, allowing more (and smaller) developers to get involved in building public housing. A shift to decrease regulation in ways that lead to more and better public housing would be contrary to the past two decades of policy results. A key part of HOPE VI was to deregulate and diffuse responsibility for public housing to the private market, yet that approach to date has done little to even approach levels of demand.
A report by the Urban Institute, A Decade of HOPE VI: Research Findings and Policy Challenges, finds in the HOPE VI program an inability to adequately help residents through the demolition of old public housing projects and the construction of new homes, long lag times between demolition and construction, and persistent issues in housing the most vulnerable and disadvantaged residents. Sometimes the public housing units being demolished were already vacant, but this was often a symptom of managerial neglect rather than a lessening need for public housing. There’s also little evidence so far that new mixed-income public housing is helping residents leave poverty behind by connecting to new networks of cultural capital through their mixed-income, market-rate neighbors. HOPE VI “wreaked tremendous havoc for public housing residents,” Gramlich says. “It harmed a lot of people.”
And there’s still the most significant issue with HOPE VI, which even Duany concedes: “The problem was that it reduced density,” he says. Stung by high-rise, high-profile public housing failures like that of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, design guidelines emphasizing low-density town houses and small apartment buildings mean that it’s nearly impossible (and no longer required) to build back all the units lost in a given tower demolition. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that there has been a net loss of 200,000 units since the mid 1990s, when Congress changed the replacement rule. Some of this slack has been taken up by the Section 8 voucher system, which gives those eligible a voucher to pay rent in a privately owned apartment. But these vouchers are often only enough to live in the poorest, most segregated neighborhoods, which runs counter to HUD’s own goals with mixed-income development.
Gramlich says many of the HUD administrative and communication issues with residents have been much improved. But with HOPE VI, housing agencies were “quick to demolish and not at all quick to replace,” he says.
Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. Listen to his Chicago architecture and design podcast A Lot You Got to Holler, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram. He wrote in 2016 about the privatization of Chicago’s public housing for Curbed here.