After 40 days, 40 nights, 10 cities and about 15,000 miles, I’m back from my US housing odyssey. This is a post-sized summary that I’m hoping to expand on in an article for the London Review of Books and a book for Pluto Press (details to follow). As ever, I have to balance my (perhaps misplaced) affection for the country and people with the reality of what I saw, which can be conveniently summed up in seven words beginning with ‘D’.
Displacement – Everywhere I went there was evidence of people losing their homes. Whether the result of deliberate government policy or the caprice of the property market, the slogan ‘Homeland Security Begins with a Home’ resonates with millions of Americans in the age of the Great Recession.
Demolition – Like its UK counterpart, the US government wants to see the end of public housing. A variety of policies have been used, over many years, to achieve that goal, the least subtle of which is knocking it down. Since the famous demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe development in St Louis in 1972, US public housing has been at risk of being razed to the ground for ideological reasons. The Chicago Housing Authority has laid waste a huge chunk of the Southside, causing untold (literally) social damage which it appears to have no plans to repair. Similar things are happening across the country. Besides destroying buildings and communities portrayed as ‘a problem’, US public housing authorities are engaged in a process of artificial ‘clean slate’ creation by expunging a pre-existing, but marginalised population in order to replace it with a new one – a replica of America’s original sin.
Disinvestment – Everywhere I went, public housing and other essential features of working class communities were being starved of resources. Roads, public transport, retail areas and most shockingly, schools are crumbling or closed. Scenes of urban dereliction create a jarring contrast with the forces recolonising the city and recreating it in their own image. This seperate and unequal metropolis was most apparent in Seattle and San Francisco (but I also see it at home in Tower Hamlets).
Denigration – If you want to displace and destroy a community you need to denigrate it too. The stigmatisation of US public housing and the people who live in it has been going on for decades. Again, this is very familiar from a UK perspective, but in the US carries distinctly racist undertones. In both countries the tension between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor has long been a feature of public and housing policy, but the ideology of full citizenship only being conferred by home ownership is even more powerful in the US and provides political cover for allowing some places to become wastelands.
Discrimination – It didn’t take the Charleston atrocity to show that the US is still deeply troubled by its relationship with African-Americans. Barak Obama hasn’t changed this, or the overall direction of US housing policy which institutionally discriminates against people with similar colour skin to him. Throughout my trip I was constantly made aware that ‘minorities’ (including Hispanic and Chinese communities) are more likely to be the victims of neoliberal housing policies. In one sense, this is axiomatic because they are also more likely to be poor, but it’s still very sad to see a country founded on genocide, slavery and immigration creating a new generation of people who aren’t able to feel at home in America.
Disadvantage – Housing inequality is really only a proxy for systemic socio-economic disadvantage. While many aspects of US housing policy didn’t surprise me, the visibility and extent of urban poverty did. Perhaps it’s a cliché, but the inscription on the Statue of Liberty couldn’t be more apposite or ironic:
‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe fee,
The wretched refuse of your teemig shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’
Death – Such lofty ideals are a long way from the America I’ve been in recently. People and places are dying from neglect, bringing to mind Lou Reed’s alternative rendering of Lady Liberty:
‘Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor I’ll piss on ’em
That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses
Let’s club ’em to death
And get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard.’