On November 15, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act. The bill contains several “purposes,” most notably “to transition the entire public housing stock of the United States, as swiftly and seamlessly as possible, into highly energy-efficient homes that produce on-site, or procure, enough carbon-free renewable energy to meet total energy consumption annually.”
In other words, Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders want to renovate every single public housing unit in the United States into energy-efficient “green zones.” The bill would allocate (at least) $180 billion over the first decade to retrofit the nation’s 1.2 million public housing units.
Once again, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have identified a serious problem (although they may not have identified the right solution): public housing units throughout the country are dilapidated. Even worse, far too many of these places are plagued by violence, crime, illicit drug use, and all other sorts of societal scourges.
In Ocasio-Cortez’s hometown of New York City, public housing authorities cannot even provide hot water and other essentials. How about this headline from November 19, 2019: “More than 10,000 New York City Housing Authority tenants were without heat and hot water on Tuesday, marking the largest unplanned one day outage of the season.”
Sadly, the pitiful public housing situation in New York City is more the norm than the exception. In Chicago, the infamous Cabrini Green public housing units (built in the 1940s and 1950s) were so gang-infested and crime-ridden they were demolished in the 1990s. The equally notorious Robert Taylor homes met the same fate.
If public housing authorities are unable to deliver basic services, how confident should we be that they can “greenify” 1.2 million government housing units? Answer: Not very.
Unfortunately, the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act would do absolutely nothing to address the deep-rooted and pressing problems that seem to be so prevalent in most urban public housing developments.
This begs a question: Why are public housing units so prone to these problems in the first place? Well, this is certainly a complicated issue with many contributing factors. However, one very likely reason for the deplorable conditions could definitely be what is known as “the tragedy of the commons.”
In short, the tragedy of the commons is a “situation in a shared-resource system where individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling the shared resource through their collective action.”
Put another way, so-called “public spaces” (i.e., public bathrooms, the office fridge, and definitely public housing) are especially vulnerable to shoddy maintenance and other destructive/negative behaviors because of lack of ownership.
Think about it, do you treat the office fridge or public bathroom the same way you treat your own fridge or bathroom? I bet not. Well, the same principle applies to public housing.
Of course, this is not the only reason public housing projects tend to become cesspools, but this lack of ownership is surely a major factor. Instead of doubling down on decades of government-provided housing failures, maybe it is time for a much different policy strategy.
There are all sorts of potential solutions that would likely avert the tragedy of the commons conundrum in public housing. For example, housing vouchers, relaxed zoning development rules, and tax breaks would incentivize more home ownership and reduce rents.
However, it is unlikely Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders would support these policies. Why? Because these solutions empower individuals, not the government. In essence, the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act is another trojan horse to expand the size and scope of government.
By nature, most politicians (especially self-identified democratic socialists like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez) believe more government involvement means better outcomes. If the history of public housing in the United States has taught us one thing, it is that more government involvement has made these places worse for those who live in them.
Maybe it is time for a different approach. Instead of doubling down on decades of public housing policy failure by retrofitting every single housing unit to become energy-efficient, perhaps the government should get out of the business of public housing altogether. At the very least, it would avoid a $180 billion boondoggle that will almost assuredly end in tragedy.