Introduction: To What End?

6 min read

The racial disorders of last summer in part
      reflect the failure of all levels of government—
      federal and state, as well as local—to come to
      grips with the problems of our cities. 
Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, March, 1968

For 52 years, from the suburban house I grew up in, through four dorm rooms, a rent-controlled apartment, a condo and then two houses, there has sat on my bookshelves a thick densely printed small-print paperback. A few days ago, I pulled it down and read. Its sobering messages, now a half-century old, have recently taken on new resonance.

The journey of exploration and invention that has led to Health Secure Housing as the theme for this issue of Tax Credit Advisor has brought many of us in affordable housing to ask again our industry’s most fundamental question of all: To what end?

For those who make it a job, a career or a lifelong imperative, why are we here? Ever since the 1968 Commission report, my Boomer generation has answered,

To create quality affordable housing for those who cannot afford it.

Now a newer generation than we asks, with skeptical tone, Is that all?

For five months as health—individual, community and public—has been the dominant issue in American life, Health Secure Housing has moved from an aspirational phrase to a meme in the affordable housing conversation. Everywhere one looks, the impact consequences of Health Secure Housing become visibly larger. Where you live powerfully correlates with how much damage the virus does to your neighborhood, and potentially to your own health.

The residents of the racial ghetto are significantly
less healthy than most other Americans. They
suffer from higher mortality rates, higher incidence
of major diseases, and lower availability and
utilization of medical services. They also experience
higher admission rates to mental hospitals.

With inequality in infection and mortality rates a numerical fact, the urgency of Health Secure Housing has risen, because some live in safe housing and some do not.

The United States, and affordable housing, are both outputs of the Enlightenment: The 1776 Declaration of Independence, Bentham’s 1778 panopticon for prison reform, the 1787 Constitution, and Robert Owen’s 1799 workforce housing mill town New Lanark, were all invented out of the rational faith that human reasoning can transform society by creating new structures, governmental and physical.

These beliefs carried forward in America and its affordable housing through successive waves of immigration, urbanization and reform in both politics and housing, often spurred by technological innovation from wars:

  • The post-Civil-War settlement house movement of the Gilded/Victorian Age, “large buildings in crowded immigrant neighborhoods of industrial cities, where settlement workers provided services for neighbors and sought to remedy poverty.”
  • Post-WWI’s Nineteenth Amendment; the first Great Migration; the urban public-health campaign to clear out alleyway shacks and tenements; the first governmentally endorsed affordable housing initiative (the Washington Sanitary Housing Company); the invention, and widespread promulgation of residential zoning and in Britain the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919, which “provided subsidies for local authorities with the aim of building 500,000 houses within three years (Homes fit for Heroes).”
  • The GI Bill, the second Great Migration, white flightand the civil rights movement. When the National Housing Act of 1949 declared a national “goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family, thus contributing to the development and redevelopment of communities and to the advancement of the growth, wealth and security of the Nation,” that summoned resources and laws for sweeping slum clearance, FHA mortgage insurance and a new production burst of public housing.

Each of these progressive waves codified and raised the standards of minimum acceptable housing; broadened eligibility for such housing; and increased government involvement with affordable housing both in requirements (law, mandates, regulations and standards) and in funding (grants, loans, tax incentives). Each wave surged from the observable consequences of three forces:

  • Urbanization. The rapidly increasing human density of living and working, which overloaded the available legacy infrastructure;
  • Poverty. The rapid rise in cost of urban living and the visible dramatic widening of the intra-urban gaps between rich and poor in ever-closer proximity to each other; and
  • Public health risk. Vulnerability to structural disease and the concentration of illness, debility and death in poorer neighborhoods.

Of these three, the zeitgeist catalyst has always been public health, because disease touches everybody no matter how high or low. It travels faster after rapid urbanization: scarlet fever, tuberculosis, cholera, Spanish flu, diphtheria and our latest microbe visitor, all raced through cities before finding their way into the heartlands. Disease inflicts its greatest damage in the largest, densest, most diverse cities, and in their poor neighborhoods.

That brings us back to the intergenerational question: To what end do we strive so hard for affordable housing, if some conditions cyclically recur?

Each time around, we raise the standards, and society benefits. Compared with the generation fading away, each rising generation lives longer, with more choices, in better housing and cleaner cities. Yet there’s an inescapable side effect: rising standards arrive unevenly. Some get them first, some in the natural course of market dynamics, and some will be market excluded – unless we pay attention to the exclusion and intentionally create new responses that address the newly visible gaps in equity.

Grievances experienced often take on personal
and symbolic significance transcending the
immediate consequences of the event.
Inadequate sanitation services are viewed by
many ghetto residents not merely as instances
of poor public services but as manifestations of
racial discrimination.

Our work, therefore, always reduces social inequity, no matter how or for what reason it has arisen. Whenever infrastructure or living standards are upgraded, we must upgrade our industry’s objectives: from decent, safe and sanitary housing, now to places that enable healthy, inclusive, anti-poverty equality of opportunity.

Equitable housing is the foundation of a just society. Housing by itself will not solve poverty, homelessness, inequity or exclusion – but without housing, none of these larger problems can be solved. Recent events that made incontrovertible that Health Secure Housing for everyone is the foundation of equitable housing.

David A. Smith is founder and CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute, a Boston-based global nonprofit consultancy that works around the world (60 countries so far) accelerating affordable housing impact via program design, entity development and financial product innovations. Write him at