Bubble Opportunity: A New Life for Public Housing?


The globalization of housing markets stood at the center of the vast, now unraveling, economic change of the past decade. The creation of new investment vehicles in the 90s diverted vast amounts of capital into housing markets around the world. The results were many and varied. Design features began to converge, with gated communities following shopping malls into cites in Latin America, China, Turkey and most other countries. Home prices began to rise, with The Economist even publishing a table of global house prices, indicating those with the most inflated costs (Spain and the UK usually led this undesirable ranking).

It’s been clear for the last few years that housing was becoming the primary investment vehicle for many American families, who otherwise had a negative savings rate. Everything that happened up to 2007 was built on that premise. So here we are in 2008, facing an unraveling not just of the housing market and its financial networks, but much more besides. As the cliché has it, the devil is in the details, and those are getting much less attention. Obsessed with design features and public-private contrasts, it is hard for many urbanists to return to the old-fashioned concern for what is happening ‘on the ground’. Long gone are the days when researchers tramped the streets; now Google and GIS have replaced shoe leather.

This is unfortunate, because there is a ‘new geography’ emerging from the wreckage. During the bubble, home buyers would purchase larger and more expensive homes because that was how they maximized the returns on their investment. And, for several years, that worked. Now, as I roam around in my neighborhood, I see that it’s the newest and largest homes that are standing empty.

Why? In large part these were speculative constructions, and the speculation went awry. Elsewhere in this relatively affluent part of Phoenix, small subdivisions are standing virtually idle, the construction workers long returned to Central America. But this is one of the costlier parts of town. In the blue-collar West Valley, the impact has been hardest on the new master planned communities of relatively affordable homes. These were examples of what is sometimes termed in the trade ‘qualifying by driving’—that is, the homes are cheap because they are a long way from job concentrations. Many first time buyers were lured into home ownership with the teaser rates that have been replaced by higher monthly payments, along with higher gas prices. The result: whole developments with a forest of ‘for sale’ signs.

Most discussion of the mortgage crisis has been at the elite level --- where it impacts banks, Wall Street investment houses, interest rates, liquidity. But on the street level, there are other, less obvious, consequences. Animals are abandoned as owners decamp; untended swimming pools breed mosquitoes. Abandoned dwellings in far suburbs don’t attract vagrants but they do get used by human smugglers as drop houses, since there are few neighbors to notice. Owners stop paying their HOA dues and maintenance is neglected, even as the dues escalate for those who stay behind. And much of the time there is no-one to do the work, due to the disappearance of the Latino labor-force.

So what happens now as the current crisis blows through suburban neighborhoods and some form of federal bailout comes into place? If a new Resolution Trust agency begins to buy up hundreds of thousands of single family homes, we could find ourselves face to face with a new form of public housing that hasn’t been seen since the end of the First World War. In the UK, for instance, local government built many thousands of duplexes, in what are now inner suburbs, for returning soldiers. These were high quality dwellings which provided excellent accommodation for decades, until they were sold off, at suitably inflated prices, by the Thatcher government. Over time, this design experiment was forgotten, as public housing across Europe and the US became associated instead with the construction of vast apartment complexes that turned into visions of hell, strewn with burned out cars. Only in Singapore was this kind of failure avoided, for very specific social, political and cultural reasons.

So, we may be on the verge of reconnecting with that original vision of public housing, one that emphasized homes in neighborhoods rather than vast and anonymous apartment blocks. For this to happen, the impulse to scoop up these bad mortgages and dump them back on the market at fire-sale prices will have to be avoided.

Instead, the Federal government should venture back into the public housing sector by keeping these bad mortgages and re-letting the properties that it accumulates. There are two good reasons for this. First, they are, in the main, desirable homes of acceptable quality, so there will be no stigma attached to public housing. Second, because no-one will be building publicly-owned houses from scratch, they will not be concentrated in public housing enclaves. Rather, they will be diffused across the city, concentrated in some neighborhoods to be sure, but not to the exclusion of other forms of tenure. Of course, some existing owners will be less than pleased to find renters living next door—but at least the grass will be mowed and the pool will cease to stink.

How to prevent this crisis from reoccurring when things get better? Rules need to be observed. Three times your income dictates your mortgage, and you can’t buy a home in an HOA if you aren’t going to live in it. This would greatly restrain speculative frenzy. And let’s take advantage of this crisis by making affordable homes available to families in a variety of forms—as permanent rentals, as leases, or as leases-to-own. And most important, this new public housing will not be concentrated in the inner cities, far from most employment opportunities, or in dense Stalinesque apartment complexes. For years, planners have been wringing their hands about how to get low-income housing into desirable neighborhoods. Perhaps fate has now shown them the way forward.

Andrew Kirby is the editor of the interdisciplinary Elsevier journal “Cities.”This is his 20th year as a resident of Arizona.