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Prentiss Dantzler On The Concept Of Who Deserves To Have Access To Public Housing

  • Prentiss Dantzler
  • February 04 2022
  • PC108-2022

Prentiss Dantzler
Prentiss Dantzler

In this episode, we hear from Professor Prentiss Dantzler about how perceptions of who lives in public housing—and who deserves that type of support—have developed over the past century, and how that has affected the urban poor and particularly people of color. His research includes reviewing the congressional testimony around the issue of providing housing for returning World War II GIs. Dantzler is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and a former IRP Visiting Scholar.


Judith Siers-Poisson [00:00:00] Hello, and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Judith Siers-Poisson. For this episode, we’re going to be talking about how perceptions of who lives in public housing and who deserves that type of support have developed over the past century and how that has affected the urban poor and particularly people of color. Prentiss Dantzler is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and a former IRP visiting scholar. Prentiss, thanks for joining me today.

Prentiss Dantzler [00:00:32] Thank you for having me.

Siers-Poisson [00:00:34] When did the idea of government supported public housing first emerge in the United States?

Dantzler [00:00:40] so we can trace this back to the early nineteen thirties, around nineteen thirty three during Roosevelt’s kind of Public Works administration. So we had some sites across the country, but it really didn’t get to the size that we kind of know today. And so the Wagner Steagall Act of 1937. So that provided a fundamental national housing program by which the government was supplying, fully supplying, permanent housing subsidies or subsidized developments.

Siers-Poisson [00:01:09] So in that first phase, the smaller phase of public housing in those early years of the 20th century, what was the impetus for creating it then?

Dantzler [00:01:18] Yeah. So at the end of the 1880s, early 1890s, we just had a lot of housing issues, right? We had growing amounts of tenements across the country. You know, back in the day, there weren’t like the building codes and other restrictions and limitations that we have. So one way is to kind of deal with the housing crises within urban centers to establish some type of standard guidelines and some type of affordable housing for workers living in those spaces. But then you get this kind of switch where those affordability issues translated to larger swaths of the population. So we were in a desperate need, especially given the time here right around the Great Depression. We were in special need of housing for families.

Siers-Poisson [00:01:58] So it was families, workers I’m assuming, who are living in a lot of those, then fast forwarding a little bit to the immediate aftermath of World War Two. You focus in on the debates around public housing then. why was that such a critical moment in the history of public housing?

Dantzler [00:02:15] Yeah. So within the urban studies literature, you always see this kind of influx of World War Two being this point where you had a lot of returning veterans coming back to the states and as a result, we were in a housing shortage. So with the growth of the public housing program and the new occupants from returning veterans, and then they were also using their GI bill to buy houses that were really designed as a temporary mode of housing for some people who didn’t have the GI Bill or who didn’t get access to some of these other financial products. These became permanent communities. So I really was interested in looking at that like post-World War Two pre and post World War Two era to really tease out why this was a momentous occasion, but also to kind of tease out these debates that have been there from the origins of public housing in the first place.

Siers-Poisson [00:03:02] I thought it was really interesting that you actually reviewed the congressional testimony around this issue of providing housing for returning World War Two GIs. What did you learn from looking at that record?

Dantzler [00:03:15] Yeah. So I’ve had these documents for years now. I first started looking into them when I was doing my dissertation back at Rutgers, but I was just interested if a lot of the discourse that we had today or in the modern times around housing assistance is new or are these just reproductions from age old debates. So I drew my attention to just how policymakers recorded themselves write congressional testimony as a piece of evidence to support or deters arguments about deserving this, or whether or not we should be doing public housing in the first place. Because I do think that there’s, you know, that popular discourse that happens. But we can use congressional testimony to actually look at policymakers and their attitudes about some of these policies and the implementation of them.

Siers-Poisson [00:04:02] Who was speaking in favor of maybe a more robust public housing system versus those who thought that it was not the job of the government to do this? Maybe there was more agreement in the short term given this large influx of GIs coming back and their families, but in the long term, whether government should be in the business of providing housing?

Dantzler [00:04:25] Yeah, that’s a really kind of that’s a great question and very much complicated. I think part of the issue is that when you look at some of the congressional testimony, you have policymakers describing this as wartime housing, right? Very much temporary spaces by which veterans returning home can occupy these places and then go off into the private market. You had private interests who were fighting against it because they thought it was going to disrupt the housing market overall, and they think it should have been left to the devices of the private market to solve the housing issue. So very much in that kind of neoliberal ideology. And then you had community kind of organizers, particularly people that were working with workers and unions at the time and fighting for more long term, sustainable solutions to the housing crisis for low income and working class families. So like you had, the government on one side say we should do a policy program, but even disagreement within that, whether it’s long term or short term, but they knew they should do something. You had private interests saying, no, we shouldn’t do this at all because it would disrupt the market. And then you had community organizations saying, no, you have to do something. So this kind of these this good intersection of different diverging points about the role of the government in the space.

Siers-Poisson [00:05:37] You mentioned the concept of deservednesss and actually the title of your paper is “Constructing Identities of deservedness: public housing and post-World War Two economic planning efforts.” And I think that idea of deservedness is so interesting—who was considered deserving of this kind of support, especially in that immediate aftermath of World War Two?

Dantzler [00:05:58] Yeah, I always use this kind of theoretical lens from Snyder and Seagram’s idea of the social construction of preserving this for target populations. And a lot of that was based on this idea of like how we actually characterize or construct identities or these kind of conversations actually leads to how we design, implement and evaluate policy so far for policymakers, even as discussion around housing. One of the big influences that the returning veterans and farmers would actually get a lot of subsidies or housing subsidies or money for housing subsidies. While working class families were not in that conversation or they were seen as being undeserving in that conversation. And even I remember reading the congressional testimony where one of the policymakers that the congressmen are saying, “we don’t want to repeat the social ills of our urban cities.” Right? And it goes in line with a lot of the, you know, the kind of age old historic debates around cities being this kind of containers of social ills and urban crises without thinking about the people or maybe more intensely think about people of color living in that space and the stigma that is associated with those communities.

Siers-Poisson [00:07:09] I thought that was really interesting because there were obviously white returning veterans, but there had to be also returning veterans who were people of color. And so where did they fit into that, that system of who deserves it and who doesn’t it? Is it is it their military status or is it their racial identity?

Dantzler [00:07:30] Yeah, I think part of like looking at this as a more kind of intersectional lens tells you, like their veteran status allowed them some resources, right? But their racial identity undercut any of those resources just based on that. And given that kind of historic way in which we stratify people in the U.S. context, even other places across the world based on my racial and ethnic lines. It was just another form of another institution or another area of concern by which, you know, people of color were not in those conversations or even when resources were directed. There were kind of racist, undercut policies that excluded them from participating fully in those programs.

Siers-Poisson [00:08:11] So the GIs and their families moved into this public housing, but it was considered kind of a temporary support until they were able to progress into kind of the rest of that American dream, right? What happened when they did leave the public housing? What was the debate about what to do with it and who should be allowed access to it?

Dantzler [00:08:34] Yeah. Within their congressional testimony, a lot of policymakers said that the temporary housing would be disposed to the purview of local government. And if local government is also participating in a lot of these kind of racist policies, you can start to get the sense that a lot of them will probably undercut that program overall, right, even for the long term, as we see today. But what happened was that you had a lot of returning veterans kind of getting the GI Bill, buying houses in more suburban communities. So you also have this growth of the highway, the suburbanization of urban cores, but those who didn’t get access or couldn’t fully use those programs were left in public housing. Right. So they were left in these kind of inner cities that were starting to become deplete. Right. You had this kind of massive housing construction, but a lot of housing construction was beyond the bounds of the core cities or the center core of the cities. So now you have these kind of where you had no mixed kind of units anymore. They became like communities of color for those of like lower income status.

Siers-Poisson [00:09:36] I grew up in Chicago. I was born in the 60s, grew up in Chicago until I went off to college in the 80s. And you knew where the public housing projects were. You knew them by name. You certainly knew them by reputation. At what point was there a shift away from those very concentrated locations of public housing to more household- or family-connected supports that they did? There were terms like “cleaning out the slums” and and this decentralization, when did when did that shift happen?

Dantzler [00:10:12] Yes. There’s a few points, I think one that it’s always funny because the original design of public housing was supposed to be small scale. It was supposed to fit more into the intimate character of those surrounding neighborhoods. But as we know, especially in like cases in Chicago, they were just tall buildings, these super structures. You have the period in the 1980s known as urban renewal, by which all these slums were getting cleaned up and there will be replaced. A revitalized. And a lot of times the same thing happened. There was a displacement of people. New buildings came in and then further issues our concentration of poverty and segregation. And then even in the 90s, you have this kind of assessment like this national assessment about the conditions of public housing stock across the country. And given that process, you had hope six money, another federal program that was designed to revitalize these communities. So I do think like public housing has been through these five different waves of renovation or remodel or just rethinking what it is. But you have these periods in terms of the 1980s where urban renewal of the 1990s with the concentration of poverty that lead to these kind of decade’s cyclical approaches of divesting or disinvesting into those communities.

Siers-Poisson [00:11:23] Overall, do you see it as a positive or a negative that these public housing supports have been decentralized and not concentrated in the ways that they were maybe before the eighties?

Dantzler [00:11:36] Yeah, this is this is like a dual problem. I think it depends on who you ask, right? For a lot of people, this has been good in terms of concentration, but those constantly traded issues associated with poverty. Right? So you had this idea that you didn’t concentrate people of lower income status in one place, and as a result, you can kind of diversify their access into other communities. But at the flip side, something that always sticks to me is like a few years ago, I did a talk in the city of Memphis, where that housing development department and one of my fellow panelists, who was a former resident of public housing, said “I grew up in public housing and after I left, I’d been searching for community ever since.” And I think we forget that there’s a social aspect of the built environment that we largely ignore. And for a lot of those people, the kind of dismantling and disruption of their life was a shock to their system, right? There was a what we call this kind of rude shock to there, and there’s a psychological trauma that does to see your neighborhood being razed. And I think that’s part of the issue where when you ask people, for some it’s been beneficial. For others, it has been very detrimental to their long term trajectories. And we can see this in other spaces like gentrification, kind of the deep concentration of poverty in other spaces, desegregation, all of these things, while they’re they may have some good intent. They also have very much nefarious effects that come as a result.

Siers-Poisson [00:13:02] It really seems like there’s a never-ending debate about who is responsible for dealing with the housing crisis, and it seems like there always is when it might have various shades, depending on the cultural and political context. But it seems like there’s always a housing crisis and how it should be addressed. Prentiss, do you think we’re any closer to an answer now than 50, or maybe 100 hundred years ago?

Dantzler [00:13:28] I think the answer is pretty clear. I think the bigger issue is if we have the will to do it. And for me is if the government was one of the big actors in designing segregation and racist housing policy, exclusionary zoning and all these other ills that it needs to be that big actor in addressing or redressing those conditions as well. So for me, if you leave it to the private market where there’s not feasible that they will build enough housing for every class individual across this country. Right. So that’s why you have to mandate or build it on your own. And I think definitely the government has a role in doing that. And without doing that, if it’s not advantageous for a private developer to build low income housing, then they just won’t do it. Right. So that’s why we have all these initiatives now try to incentivize developers to build affordable housing, and a lot of times it just doesn’t work there, rather build more market rate stuff. So if we if we really are trying to buy into this idea that we should be diverse communities, that we should all be living together, then the government has a pivotal role in shaping how these communities should change.

Siers-Poisson [00:14:32] I’d like to circle back to that concept of deservedness and what that looks like today. What kind of terms or buzz words are currently used in the public discourse that you right away see as related to that idea of who deserves this kind of support?

Dantzler [00:14:48] Yeah, I mean, outside of, you know, vouchers have overtaken public housing as a major housing assistance program. But as a result, you still have those same stigmas that are associated with people that have vouchers, right? There is always this idea of them as like the problem poor that’s going to, you know, tear up your housing unit. That’s not going to stay there that long. That’s they’re going to have issues paying their 30 percent, typically their 30 percent portion of the rent. I think those same stigmas just carried for even at the debate around housing affordable housing tends to remake this idea that affordable housing is going to have an issue or affect on our property values. And this was the same in terms of the public housing. And while people don’t say it, I think when people kind of recall affordable housing, they kind of get the sense of public housing. I think they get the sense that that’s what they’re talking about when they’re actually building it, even though it’s a fundamentally different program. But for the everyday person, they may not know all the ins and outs of a policy program and how this might be different from the former. But for them, they’re seeing like, Oh, government housing. This is going to affect my property values, right or affordable housing or anything else or just kind of NIMBYism that goes around. All these kind of coded language tends to reproduce the same type of issues that we have about just addressing a house. The issue, particularly for lower income populations, because when it’s for higher income populations, we we’ve never had these kind of disagreements or we rarely do. So yeah, that tends to be how we’re framing these kind of contemporary housing programs. It’s very much suited our in relation to the age old question of public housing and the role of the government in supplying those as well.

Siers-Poisson [00:16:22] A little earlier, you mentioned some of the initiatives that are going on to try to address the housing crisis as we see it today. Given your research, what do you think policymakers and legislators need to keep in mind when they’re considering for whom and how public housing should be provided?

Dantzler [00:16:41] Yeah, so being in Canada right now they just have like a national housing strategy, and one thing I do commend them on doing is thinking about a holistic housing system. And I think that’s something that’s largely missing from the U.S. context because when it comes to housing, the one that the we always have is just build a more affordable housing where there are so many other ways that people live across the world. We’re talking about co-ops. We’re talking about, you know, Community Land Trusts. These are some of the programs and policies and strategies that I do think we need to kind of increase and build up and also realize that our kind of broad and salient focus on homeownership has not produced the type of democratic communities that it was that is thought to do. A lot of times it does the complete opposite because people are competing with each other and conflicting with each other about who’s going to live where and at like something I always tell all my students the two most like pivotal people in detracting or debating policy when it comes to housing issues are parents and homeowners. These two kind of situation, these two kind of positions will make you think because one, you’re protecting your wealth and the other one, you’re protecting your family. And we know those are intimately tied to each other. So a lot of ways in which we’re thinking about these spaces. I do think that the government needs to broaden its focus and think about a spectrum of housing options all the way from like low income to wraparound services to immediate emergency shelter programs all the way up to housing and homeownership. So there are ways in which you can kind of piggyback or focus in on pivotal points in the system versus thinking about affordable housing, solving it at all. And we know that even if we did build enough affordable housing, it won’t address the issues that we have today. So, yeah, we have to think more holistically about short term and long term programs, but even in a holistic housing system and not one just made up of homeowners and renters.

Siers-Poisson [00:18:38] Thanks so much for sharing your research and your thoughts on the housing topic, it’s really important and very timely.

Dantzler [00:18:44] Thank you so much for having me and I hope we can keep this conversation going.

Siers-Poisson [00:18:48] Thanks so much to Prentiss Dantzler for sharing his work with us. He’s an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and a former IRP visiting scholar. If you’d like to learn more, check out the paper that he coauthored with Professor Jason Rivera titled Constructing Identities of Deservedness: Public Housing and post-World War Two Economic Planning Efforts. You can find that in the Minnesota Journal of Law and Inequality. This podcast was supported in part by funding from the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the office and any other agency of the federal government or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music for the episode is by Poi Dog Pondering. Thanks for listening.


Economic Support, Housing, Housing Assistance, Means-Tested Programs, Place, Place General