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Reason Foundation

Repairing the Ladder

Toward a New Housing Paradigm

Howard Husock
July 1, 1996

Executive Summary

This report examines the reasons why housing policy for the poor has arguably been troubled and ineffective, and sketches both an overall vision and specific details of an alternative policy, one based on ongoing, already-successful initiatives. Among the key points in this guide:

  1. The problems of public housing and related subsidy programs are less the result of poor maintenance and design than a fundamental misunderstanding of the role which housing plays in social and economic life.
  2. Replacement policies which emphasize subsidized rentals, whether in renovated buildings or through individual housing subsidies (“vouchers”), risk creating a new generation of problems and complications, including the further undermining of the social structure of civil society in poor neighborhoods.
  3. Housing must be seen as more than a physical good. Instead, it must be viewed as part of a social system, a system which this report calls the housing ladder. The concept of the housing ladder is based on the notion that to best serve the most people, the fullest possible range of privately-owned housing types must be built—ranging from single rooms which may not even have a full bath to mansions on large acreages. The combination of striving to move up the ladder from one type to another, and the need to protect the value of one's housing investment, play a key role in maintaining the social fabric of neigbhorhoods, especially very poor ones.
  4. The concept of the housing ladder is based on a reading of historical data which shows that private, owner-occupied or “owner-present” housing has played a key role in the lives of those of modest means.
  5. The report identifies initiatives–private, public and nonprofit–which have begun to “repair”: the housing ladder–that is, to build, or facilitate the construction of types of housing which regulation or a preference for deep subsidy programs had in recent decades made difficult to build. These examples are chosen to point the way toward a new housing vision.

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