The good: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth and Public Housing Myths are both excellent introductions to the basic problem with public housing in the United States: the funding model simply does not work. A reader/viewer of either will understand that public housing could work in the U.S. if it was given a viable model of funding.
The bad: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth skips does not cover some very important issues that contributed to the Pruitt-Igoe tragedy. Though it does cover issues missed by The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, Public Housing Myths was not written for a general audience.
Bottom line: Our organization insists that housing for all is an urgent and achievable goal. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth will leave viewers certain that reforming public housing is an urgent, moral imperative. Readers of Public Housing Myths will put the book down convinced that a great public housing system is an achievable goal. Thus, in tandem, these two excellent works have an effect greater than they do individually.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is available to stream for $3.95, with proceeds going to the film’s director.
Two ways to learn about the public housing death spiral
The most important fact about American public housing is that the financial model is not viable. Highly publicized public housing disasters like Cabrini Green in Chicago and Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis have become synonymous with public housing in the public’s imagination, but the real question is why there haven’t been more disasters like these. Most public housing in the US has been a resounding success, in spite of an untenable financial model.
By law, government money can construct but not maintain public housing. Once built, public housing must legally be financially self-sustaining. But public housing rents by law are limited to 30% of household income, and only people with low incomes are allowed to live in public housing. It’s not hard to see that this financial model is not viable. A building that can only house the poor and charge them an affordable rent will not be able to cover its costs.
This makes American public housing prone to a death spiral. Once a building of public housing enters a cycle of deferred maintenance and declining rental income, nothing can pull it from the brink. It will surely be condemned. As soon as the rents for a public housing complex fall below its maintenance costs, its managers have no choice but to defer maintenance: maybe trash goes uncollected for weeks, or maybe routine building repairs are skipped out of financial necessity. Whatever the case, once maintenance starts being deferred, inhabitants who have the means to move will decide to do so. They will have to pay more for renting a private apartment in better condition, but they can afford to do so and decide it is worth the cost. Once they leave, they are either replaced by someone with a lower income — who is thus desperate enough to live in deteriorating housing — or their unit remains vacant. Either way, the building’s revenue falls, leaving less money for maintenance, leading to worsening conditions, leading more people to leave, leaving less money for maintenance … in a cycle that ends with the building becoming totally dilapidated, demolition the only option.
Many things can cause a building to enter the death spiral, and as The Pruitt-Igoe Myth forcefully documents, this complex had numerous issues, any one of which could have started the death spiral. Pruitt-Igoe’s spectacular failure was inevitable from its start.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (directed by Chad Friedrichs)
The problem I had with The Pruitt-Igoe Myth was that it left out some extremely important issues that exacerbated Pruitt-Igoe’s death spiral. This is hardly a criticism of the film at all; in this format, it is impossible to cover as many issues in as great detail as would be possible in a book. For those who want to learn more about the issues of public housing, Public Housing Myths (reviewed below) is an excellent next step.
But viewers of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth will leave the film with a thorough understanding of the major issue facing public housing: the outrageous requirement that housing reserved for the poor be financially self-sustaining once built. Viewers will understand that Pruitt-Igoe fell because its funding model was untenable.
For example, the film points out that Pruitt-Igoe literally started out as luxury housing reserved for the poor; starry-eyed residents recount their happiness moving in, as well as the safety and close-knit community. They talk about friends, dancing to records in the hallway, and admiring Christmas lights. They describe their apartments as “penthouses.” According to a resident who moved in when it first opened, it seemed as though there were always custodial staff sweeping the common areas. The maintenance staff would hang quilted cloth on elevators when someone was moving in to keep them from getting scratched. Pruitt-Igoe had its own, large security team that patrolled regularly and kept order; security is necessary in any large housing complex. All these things were slowly phased out, then all but eliminated. The elevators would go out for days at a time, people stranded between floors. People had to learn to pull the elevator cables by hand to get out if stuck inside. The emergency call button alerted no one.
From the very first day, there was not enough money for maintenance. In other words, the death spiral started before people had even moved in. Simply put, the power brokers of St. Louis had an interest in Pruitt-Igoe being built, but no interest in whether or not it succeeded. Business and real estate interests supported Pruitt-Igoe’s construction because with it came slum clearance that opened up valuable land for redevelopment. Once the slums were cleared and the poor contained to a smaller geographic area, business and real estate interests didn’t care what happened to the slums’ former residents. Building and trade unions got well-paying jobs in construction, and had no interest in what happened once the buildings were built. The buildings of Pruitt-Igoe were large and state-of-the-art; as such they required expert ongoing maintenance; St. Louis’ powerful must have known that the building could never generate the revenue to support these costs.
The movie points to many factors, any one of which could have started the death spiral. St. Louis experienced a dramatic population collapse starting in the 1950s, with about half its population leaving in a short period of time. A housing shortage thus turned into a housing surplus throughout the city. As a result, there were housing vacancies city-wide — which meant plummeting rent revenues — and much of St. Louis started its own death spiral, Pruitt-Igoe included. The city experienced a crisis of joblessness which led to collapsing incomes; since Pruitt-Igoe’s rents were legally indexed to incomes, dramatically falling incomes meant rents fell apace, forcing further cuts to building maintenance. Similarly, as tax revenues collapsed from a shrinking population of taxpayers and evaporating incomes, the city had to cut back on services, accelerating death spirals throughout St. Louis, including Pruitt-Igoe. The complex was initially segregated, with whites and blacks in separate buildings; when Brown v. Board of Education forced Pruitt-Igoe to eventually integrate, many whites simply moved out. In sum, any one of these factors alone — a collapsing population and resulting housing surplus, evaporating incomes, massive cutbacks to city services, and white flight — could have started a death spiral.
Finally, one very cold winter night, some pipes in one building burst – hardly surprising in a housing complex with over 10,000 unrepaired, broken windows – and the flood of raw sewage rendered the entire building uninhabitable. Within a few years, every building of the complex had been demolished.
The film’s major strength is its ability to create outrage, and much of this is due to the in-depth, face-to-face interviews with former residents. A former resident discusses on camera how, as a young child, he watched his brother die gruesomely in their mother’s arms, his abdomen torn open by a shotgun. There is an archived clip of a newsreel where a grown man starts to cry while being interviewed on camera about his job search. You cannot leave this movie and not be totally filled with outrage and utterly convinced of the need to make fundamental changes to our housing system. We simply cannot allow a system to continue where people live in conditions we rightly would not allow our pets to live in.
But much more could have been done to present residents in a more sympathetic light. This is where those interested in more information will find many gaps filled in by Public Housing Myths.
Public Housing Myths (Edited by Vale, Bloom & Umbach)
Public Housing Myths is not written for a general audience. It was published by an academic press, and is written to be thorough — not engaging. That said, the book is extremely approachable relative to other books written and edited by scholars, and any reader with an interest in affordable housing issues will be engrossed by each chapter.
Unsurprisingly, a book is able to present more information than a film. One might expect that a book on public housing would do a better job presenting more technical information about economics, demographics, or finances, whereas the film, able to talk to past residents, would be able to portray the residents in a more sympathetic light. However, public housing residents actually come out far more sympathetic in Public Housing Myths.
For example, there was a great deal of discussion in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth about vandalism, but nothing that pointed out that vandalism was basically assured and not unique to that environment. One chapter of Public Housing Myths, on Chicago’s public housing, points out that a typical urban Chicago neighborhood had about 0.58 children per every 1 adult, and that Park Forest, a suburban community specifically planned to house a large number of young families, had 0.97 children per every one adult. Meanwhile, Chicago’s Robert Taylor public housing complex had a shocking 2.86 children per adult and Pruitt-Igoe a whopping 2.6(!). Like Pruitt-Igoe, Robert Taylor had unmanageable problems with chaos and vandalism, and the chapter details how simply having so many more children than adults was a guarantee for chaos, disorder, and vandalism. There were simply too many children to be supervised, and any large group of inadequately supervised children will inevitably engage in rough play and vandalism (“elevator tag” is cited as the main reason public housing elevators were constantly broken). Even when residents went to heroic efforts to get the children’s energy under control (eg, scheduling rotating shifts of volunteer elevator operators to cut down on elevator tag, setting up everything from daycares to marching bands to Boy Scout troops in order occupy youth in productive activities, forming volunteer patrols of hotbeds of mischief such as laundry rooms, etc), there were simply too many youths scampering around to be adequately supervised.
There were 1.04 children per adult in New York public housing buildings at that time, and those buildings were relatively calm and manageable. Research studies outside of public housing show a tight link between crime and youth density. While the film portrays residents in a very sympathetic way, Public Housing Myths takes greater effort to explain the issues; the chaos and vandalism become understandable.
Similarly, another chapter argues that people in poverty are more likely to be victims of crimes because they have limited ability to pursue justice. You are simply more likely to get away with a crime against a poor person than a rich person. Thus, by aggregating so many people with low incomes, public housing aggregates crime victims. Crime wasn’t necessarily the doing of residents, but followed them in from the outside.
Yet another chapter argues that public housing complexes are often compared to the general population, but because they house only low-income households, these comparisons make no sense. In fact, wealthier neighborhoods can boast of fewer challenges and better resources because of their exclusion of the poor. When compared to neighborhoods of private housing that house people of similar incomes, public housing looks as good as — and frequently, better than — residents’ private housing alternatives. This is true for issues of crime, joblessness, relationship with police, or deterioration of housing stock. Indeed, Pruitt-Igoe actually had a slightly lower crime rate compared to surrounding neighborhoods of private housing until the buildings were effectively abandoned and crime soared. Pruitt-Igoe was unfairly compared to St. Louis suburbs when it should have been compared to the surrounding neighborhoods, which were suffering even more greatly from issues caused by the collapse in population. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth would be stronger highlighting these comparisons.
Public Housing Myths also makes the Pruitt-Igoe disaster more understandable through other comparisons. For example, Boston and New York public housing thrived well into the 1980s. This was because these cities did not have the population collapse and attendant housing surplus of other cities, like St. Louis. As a result, Boston and New York public housing never entered a death spiral like Pruitt-Igoe.
Even when discussing topics covered in The Pruitt Igoe Myth, Public Housing Myths is naturally filled with more facts than could be squeezed into a film. The authors cite studies showing cost-cutting measures were another factor in Pruitt-Igoe’s demise. A chapter on public housing in Chicago is a story of corruption and bureaucratic hurdles that vastly surpass Pruitt-Igoe. Particularly in chapter 3, Public Housing Myths highlights the sloppy and dishonest social science research used by scholars, journalists, and the public alike to blame public housing itself for its problems; a reader who has seen The Pruitt-Igoe Myth will not be surprised by any of this nonsense.
One chapter points out that some journalists and scholars regularly state without citation that public housing has higher rates of crime, heaping scorn and derision on those who ask that they cite their sources. In fact, for technical reasons, outside of New York there is no way to know if public housing or private housing had more crime. Prior to the advent of GIS in the 1990s, it was only possible in New York to know which crimes occurred in public housing and which did not (because New York has a separate police force for public housing independent from the NYPD). In every other city, we will never know if public housing was safer or more dangerous than the rest of the city. New York’s public housing buildings were some of the safest places in the city through the mid-1970s, ranging from 42% to 78% lower crime rates compared to the city as a whole. Similarly, the vast majority of American public housing never descended into chaos and crime like Pruitt-Igoe did, and remain a far better option for low-income households than private housing.
The only area of disagreement is the issue of mismanagement. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth argues that there was indeed some mismanagement on the part of the St. Louis Housing Authority. Public Housing Myths holds that there was no mismanagement; there was simply no amount of effective management that could have held together a building that was not generating enough revenue to cover its costs.
The greatest strength of Public Housing Myths is that the editors truly thought long and hard about the most common and most pernicious myths surrounding public housing, and how to address them. For example, a chapter is devoted to the affectionate relationship between New York’s public housing residents and the New York Housing Authority Police Department (HAPD), which is totally independent of the NYPD. One resident interviewed described the HAPD as “family,” a sentiment echoed by many others. New York public housing residents actually organized numerous rent strikes to demand the hiring of additional HAPD officers. This stands as a strong counterpoint of the anti-police actions of Pruitt-Igoe residents, which has been generalized to all public housing residents in the public’s imagination. Indeed, this is a valuable chapter for our current moment; HAPD was majority minority staffed, the officers knew all the residents by name, and residents had significant say over how the police operated. HAPD officers knew their residents so well that, rather than take a troublesome teen into custody, they would haul her up to her parents to be grounded. If a minor needed to be fined, the entire family would show up to the HAPD offices to ensure the punishment fit the crime.
A single chapter is not set in the United States, but rather in Singapore, where 4 out of 5 residents — including fabulously wealthy people — live in public housing. We relied heavily on this chapter in making the Singapore section of the Housing for All podcast — it has excellent information — but it makes such a compelling case that there is an alternative to our broken model of financing public housing. Public housing in Singapore is so high quality that wealthy Singaporeans want to live in it — and are allowed to — neatly solving the fundamental problems of American public housing. This is a particularly important chapter because it shows that a radically different model of public housing is possible.
For those looking for an introduction to the issues facing public housing, either The Pruitt-Igoe Myth or Public Housing Myths is a great choice. Obviously, the book has far more information than the film, but the film is a better choice for a general audience.