A prized asset of the left is what might be called willing amnesia. Americans tend to have limited memories. Except for cataclysmic events like 9/11, anything that happened more than five years ago recedes into the dim mists. For instance, most have only hazy recollections of President Obamas’ statement, “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.”
This deliberate forgetfulness is also a hallmark of a group of leftists who describe themselves as “urbanists.” Merriam-Webster defines that term as “a specialist in city planning.”
The Planning Talisman
Planning is a favorite term of the left. It is a simple word whose meaning can be distorted.
In real life, planning is a component of any successful venture, however simple. Such providence, however, is not what urbanists mean when they use this talismanic term. They are talking about imposing their will on others. They look at a city and see a canvas upon which they can construct their visions. In the world of their minds, they can move streets, buildings, business, services, and people at will through planning.
The Planners, their Background, and their Qualifications
Two such urbanists write for the “People’s Policy Project” (3P). They spin their dreams supported by small monthly donations. 3P claims support by over 1,800 donors, each donating five to fifteen dollars each month. This method enables them to work without “being compromised” by “corporate money.”
3P is radical. On its cover page, for example, there is an endorsement for a young woman campaigning to defeat “the conservative Democrat Joe Kennedy III.” How far left does one have to be to look at Rep. Kennedy’s record and brand him a conservative?
A glimpse at 3P’s plan for America’s major cities is found in an April 2018 document titled “A Plan to Solve the Housing Crisis Through Social Housing” written by Peter Gowan and Ryan Cooper.
The report cites Mr. Gowan’s primary qualification as “a Dublin-based researcher.” He has been published in The Jacobin and has worked for the Irish Democratic Party. Mr. Cooper is the “National Correspondent at TheWeek.com.”
The Report and the Plan
The core of the plan is relatively simple. Cities, assisted by the federal government, will use their bonding power to construct ten million housing units, mostly in apartment blocks. The apartments will be available to all, regardless of their means. Better-off tenants will pay higher “solidarity rents” than their impoverished neighbors. The urbanists assert that this will ensure the buildings economic feasibility without needing further infusions of public funds.
This proposal would also provide “supportive housing” for ex-convicts; as well as “permanent supportive housing” for “those who suffer from substance abuse issues.” These provisions presumably, “do more to address anxieties about criminality and drug abuse in public housing than the present failed strategy.”
The plan concludes with lots of charts and graphs that purport to prove that the “ten million houses” could be financed “simply by repealing the Republican tax plan.”
There is far more in this plan than this outline describes. It oozes with confidence that the urbanists can prevent the mistakes of the past. All they want is a chance to improve people’s lives.
That optimism is reflected by the urbanists’ American Planning Association (APA), whose slogan is “Creating Great Communities for All.”
The APA defines its mission on its website:
“The goal of planning is to maximize the health, safety, and economic well-being of all people living in our communities. This involves thinking about how we can move around our community, how we can attract and retain thriving businesses, where we want to live, and opportunities for recreation. Planning helps create communities of lasting value.”
Mr. Gowan, Mr. Cooper and the APA would do well to consider that a previous generation of planners was no less optimistic.
In 1949, Congress passed, and President Truman signed the Housing Act. In large cities from New York to Los Angeles, optimistic planners got the power to demolish “blighted” neighborhoods and build their visions of “fair housing” for the poor. Whole books1 have been written about those disastrous projects, which harmed both displaced residents and the eventual occupants.
Mr. Gowan and Mr. Cooper have probably read some of those books. Sprinkled throughout their report is language indicating that they would not repeat those mistakes. They never consider that such problems may be inherent to the nature of public housing.
The socialists who write such proposals never realize that their plans are as vulnerable as earlier programs. No urbanist can overcome human nature.
One critical fault of their program is that there is no provision for private ownership, now or in the future. People could live there for fifty years and possess no rights to continued occupancy. People’s homes would only be theirs as long as the city saw fit. A new generation of more market-oriented planners could put them out on the street.
With no ownership stake, many tenants would not care about any major infrastructure repairs. As happened in the past, the buildings would deteriorate over time. Even if the city did make a profit, there would be nothing that would force a short-sighted city administrator to spend that money to maintain the buildings.
The plan also has nothing that takes into account individual needs and desires. Ralph and Emma want room for a growing family, while Tracey and Phillip want something small and easy to clean. Margaret “needs” an exercise room and a pool, which would be a waste for Christopher. Bill’s mechanical interests require a garage, while Henry wants a place with abundant bookshelves. Charles eats alone while Susan’s family gathers every Sunday for a big dinner. There is no way to plan for individual tastes in 3P’s standardized housing.
Socialists never understand that you cannot avoid human nature. Free people will act as they want, despite their best-laid plans.
1. The author especially recommends Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities to those who are interested in a detailed account of the effects of these programs, especially on the people of New York City. Although it premiered in 1961, it remains commonly available. An excellent short film about one demolished neighborhood is available at https://reason.com/2011/09/28/the-tragedy-of-urban-renewal-t/ .