The Space of Local Control in the Devolution of us Public Housing Policy
Sweeping changes in national policy aim to radically transform public housing in the United States. The goal is to reduce social isolation and increase opportunities for low income tenants by demolishing ‘worst case’ housing, most of which is modern, high-rise buildings with high vacancy and crime rates, and replacing it with ‘mixed-income’ developments and tenant based assistance to disperse current public housing families. Transformation relies on the national government devolving more decision-making power to local government and public housing authorities. The assumption here is that decentralizing the responsibility for public housing will yield more effective results and be more efficient. This paper explores the problematic nature of decentralization as it has been conceptualized in policy discourse, focusing on the underlying assumptions about the benefits of increasing local control in the implementation of national policy. As this paper describes, this conceived space of local control does not take into account the spatial features that have historically shaped where and how low income families live in the US, including racism and classism and a general aversion by the market to produce affordable rental units and mixed-income developments. As a result, this conceived space of local control places the burden on low income residents to make transformation a success. To make this case, Wittgenstein's (1958) post-structural view of language is combined with Lefebvre's view of space to provide a framework in which to examine US housing policy discourse as a ‘space producing’ activity. The Chicago Housing Authority's Plan for Transformation is used to illustrate how local efforts to transform public housing reproduce a functional space for local control that is incapable of generating many of the proposed benefits of decentralization for public housing tenants.
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