Thursday, March 31, 2016

Public housing for the future

Four years ago I joined the board of commissioners for the Portland Housing Authority with a chip on my shoulder about the fact that it hadn’t built any new apartments for the city since the Reagan administration. So I'm pretty proud about this: we’ve torn out a parking lot on Oxford Street, and in its place we're building 45 new apartments with public housing offices and a Head Start classroom on the ground floor.

This is going to be Maine's greenest building when it's finished. It's aiming for "passive house" certification and we're putting solar panels on the roof. It will have a courtyard that treats runoff under the patio. Most significantly, it’s Portland’s first-ever affordable apartment building that prioritizes housing for car-free households, with no parking on-site, within walking distance of bus routes,  supermarkets, and thousands of jobs. We saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by not building the parking garage that city zoning typically requires, and that's allowed us to build more apartments instead. It’s already won a national competition for innovation in lowering the cost of housing.

Public housing doesn't get the appreciation it deserves. It's facile for liberals to blame it for the tragedies of structural racism in our cities; meanwhile, the right attacks it for its unapologetic Great Society socialism. And as a result we've had decades of bipartisan budget cuts for federal housing programs.

But public housing neighborhoods give millions of people the ability to live amidst the opportunities of our increasingly unaffordable inner cities. Without these neighborhoods, our cities would be even more dramatically segregated and impoverished places.

And if, instead of dismissing it, we can build even more public housing – a lot more, as the Portland Housing Authority hopes to do in the years to come – then the city will be more diverse, more successful and more egalitarian. It will be more like the city we want it to be.

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