Do architects have the answer for distressed public housing?
The New York Times recently touted the shiny retrofit of a Paris public housing tower.
Hard by the noisy highway, overlooking a cemetery and a former garbage dump, La Tour Bois-le-Pretre glimmers on a spring morning. Sheathed in a fresh cloak of glass balconies and corrugated aluminum panels, it rises on the edge of this city amid a landscape of decaying cement-and-brick blocks.
Source: The New York Times
Is it really that easy? All it takes is an architectural makeover to transform a distressed and dangerous housing project into a dignified and livable home for poor people?
No. In cities across the United States, we’ve learned from bitter experience that warehousing low-income families in huge apartment projects is a mistake, no matter how great the design might look at the ribbon-cutting. Too often, these projects are sited in poor neighborhoods that lack jobs, good schools, decent grocery stores, and safe places to play, isolating residents from economic opportunities. Over the years, unemployment, social alienation, crime, and violence exact huge costs—for management and maintenance, for the life-chances of children, and for the surrounding community.
A better solution is to integrate affordable housing into thriving communities, where residents can buy healthy food, send their kids to good schools, and venture outside without fear. That means building smaller-scale apartment buildings, subsidizing some landlords to make units in their existing properties more affordable, and letting families use vouchers to cover the rent for regular homes and apartments. It also means replacing failed high-rise projects and improving the distressed neighborhoods around them, bringing services, amenities, and opportunities that attract and serve residents well.
At first blush, a cosmetic retrofit may look like a bargain. But in fact, the long-term cost to taxpayers of leaving high-poverty housing projects in place exceeds the cost of an effective redevelopment effort. I’d far rather see decent, affordable housing in a thriving, opportunity-rich neighborhood than an architectural landmark in a still-blighted community.