When Public Housing Is Erased

A new documentary produced by renowned filmmaker Ken Burns sheds light on the legacy of public housing in the U.S. and what happens when it disappears.
Queensbridge Houses in New York City. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The concept of public housing in the U.S. first began in 1936 in Atlanta, Ga., with the opening of Techwood Homes, the nation’s first government-owned housing development. Since then, the role of public housing in cities has changed dramatically, at times becoming synonymous with the idea of disinvestment, crime and poverty. 

“East Lake Meadows,” a new documentary by Sarah Burns and David McMahon, explores one public housing development in-depth, telling the story of how the project came to be, the people who called it home, and how it all fell apart. The 650-unit project was built in 1970 in Atlanta and later became notorious for drugs and crime in the early 1990s, before it was eventually torn down by the city and turned into a mixed-income community.

Portions of the film, which will air March 24 on PBS, were screened at an event hosted by the CUNY Graduate Center recently in New York City, where the filmmakers, former residents and executive producer Ken Burns, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker, spoke on a panel following the film screening. The filmmakers said they sought to tell the real story of the community and its chapter in the legacy of public housing in the U.S.

“The story of East Lake Meadows has been told before, but it’s often from the same perspective,” said McMahon. 

PUBLIC HOUSING IN THE U.S.

In many cities large and small, public housing authorities have played a big role in offering an affordable place to live that is partially subsidized by the government. Of the 3,400 public housing authorities in the U.S., New York City has the nation’s largest, the New York City Housing Authority. Founded in 1934 to help mitigate the housing crisis caused by the Great Depression, it was the first agency of its kind in the United States to provide housing for low- and moderate-income residents.

But in recent years, NYCHA, which has more than 175,000 units across five boroughs, has been plagued with problems ranging from a massive backlog of maintenance repairs and major budget shortfalls. Two years ago, a survey of properties owned and operated by NYCHA found that the organization needed $31.8 billion over five years to address repairs. That’s when the agency began considering allowing private developers to build market-rate rental towers on publicly owned NYCHA land in an effort to raise $3 billion to repair and rehabilitate NYCHA units.  

While New York City has maintained most of its public housing, many cities have torn down public housing developments. According to Carla Shedd, an associate professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, 250,000 public housing units nationwide have been torn down since the 1990s—nearly a quarter of the entire stock.

In Chicago, nearly all of the city’s high-rise housing projects were bulldozed between 1995 and 2011. Often, like in the case of East Lake Meadows, the housing is replaced with a new, mixed-income community.

TACKLING THE PROBLEM

The same day of the screening, news broke that NYCHA had struck a deal to put close to 6,000 units in Manhattan and Brooklyn under private management and raise more than $1.5 billion for repairs.

“The average NYCHA building is 60 years old, and many buildings and apartments need significant investments to improve the residents’ quality of life,” said New York City Deputy Mayor Vicki Been in a statement.

Programs have been launched to help repair and preserve affordable public housing at the local and federal level. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program, or RAD, was enacted in 2012 to increase the amount of Section 8 properties nationwide. The program allows public housing authorities to convert their units to Section 8 contracts.

In 2018, a portfolio of NYCHA properties with more than 1,000 units became part of the RAD program. The Betances NYCHA RAD portfolio, as it is known, will undergo renovations to all unit interiors and will give residents rental subsidies for a 20-year period.

The same year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a $24 billion program to sell unused development air rights to raise as much as $1 billion for capital repairs for NYCHA properties. The 10-year plan, dubbed NYCHA 2.0, aims to eventually make $24 billion in much-needed repairs for the housing authority’s aging housing stock.

However, some former residents have trouble finding housing in the newly built communities, which tend to be less affordable than their former home. Nationwide, of the 4.5 million people who need or qualify for housing assistance, half receive vouchers instead of outright housing.

“You can’t completely get rid of fully public housing,” said Shedd.