Can we retire the whole “public agencies aren’t real estate developers” myth soon?

Ok, I am violating my sabbatical commitment to read books and look at roses, but this piece from Dr. Jenny Schuetz at Brookings crossed my desk, and I want to talk about one part of it. First, in the interest of full disclosure, I think the world of Dr. Schuetz; I think she’s right about a lot of things and is a wonderful policy analyst. And I also understand the pressures of putting together blog post after blog post.

This one, I just disagree with. I’ve lived in cities where public housing was fine, but I don’t actually have a sense of what role public housing should play within the larger portfolio of American housing strategies. I haven’t thought about it systematically. I’m sure she’s right in that it’s not “the solution” but even upzoning, which would be a boon, doen’t strike me as “the solution” because housing, like most important things in life, is not a single-solution policy domain. I’ve never heard anybody say public housing is “the solution.” It’s a tool among many other tools. How that tool should be deployed, I don’t know, but I won’t dismiss it out of hand because I’ll take any tool I can get.

But one argument from the Brooking piece slapped me in the eyeball and we need to talk about it, and that’s this:


Proposals for “the government” to build public housing are often vague about which agency or department they mean. While funding for public housing originates at the federal level, the properties are operated by more than 3,300 local housing authorities across the country. And most of them don’t have recent experience with new construction—a long, complicated, risky business under the best of circumstances. Public agencies operate under more rigid rules and processes than private sector companies as well; for instance, procurement and labor requirements that make construction substantially more difficult and more expensive.

I get that we are now in the era of real estate specializations at universities where real estate is a very specialized thing that only certain people with certain qualifications supposedly do, but this argument is wrong the minute you step outside of housing. It MAY be that local governments do not develop much *housing*, but if there is one thing governments in the United States do as a matter of routine, it’s develop land and buildings. From bus garages to courthouses to libraries to police stations to animal shelters, etc., subnational governments maintain large real estate portfolios. The idea they are somehow incapable or less capable of managing a construction project simply ignores all the real estate that governments DO build and maintain. Governments can build bridges and dams that stand up for a century and a space program AND all the transit for the T part of TOD, but nope, an apartment complex next to the T is somehow just not something that governments can do.

The US is not called a settler-colonial state for nothing.

But let’s get to housing. Every single college student living in a dorm at a state university, from Fresno State to Applachia State to all those students at snooty UCs….all of them are living in housing constructed and maintained by public agencies. Jails, even though we all hate them, are routinely built and maintained by governments (as well as private entities, sure), but they house quite a few people. There is at any given time in the Indian Ocean at least one Nimitz class aircraft carrier that houses 8,000 people *on a boat*, which is a tiny fraction of what the US military does to house its members.

Now, all of these things are, I guess, outside the realm of “housing” but that doesn’t mean we should assume that governments are just bad at developing housing or that they don’t do it. Governments develop buildings in concert with private companies all the time, and quite often, entirely competently.

My WordPress is acting wonky so I shall stop as I’ve made my point. We could argue that private sector entities would be ever so much better at doing all the development that governments do in all sectors, not just housing, that’s fine, but let’s not act like American governments can’t develop real estate. They do it all the time.