Public v. Private Good: Social Housing and its Transformations

We are looking for 1 or 2 more participants for our roundtable, “Public v. Private Good: Social Housing and its Transformations.” If you are interested, please send an email to Georgia Hartman and Pablo Landa with a short description of your interest. No formal abstract is required.

Many countries that built public housing complexes in the mid-twentieth century abandoned them decades later: projects were defunded, maligned and, in some cases, demolished. In their place, governments implemented elaborate housing programs premised on extending homeownership via mortgage finance. Programs in Mexico, Brazil, Turkey, China, and elsewhere opened credit lines to millions. This shift in the logic of housing policies reflects a broader paradigm shift wherein goods long deemed public were transformed into private assets. The rationale for this transformation was not just economic, but also political. The free circulation of private goods was celebrated as a key tool for democratization: shifting power from the state to the market promised to put corruption and clientelism in check. It also was assumed to convert “subjects” into “citizens” by providing homeowners security and autonomy.

 Years later, the utopian promises of free market housing programs have begun to show their limitations. Housing delivered through these programs is often poorly constructed and distant from services. Low-income homeowners often find themselves ensnared in 30-year mortgages with high interest rates, associated with a property worth less than the value of their debt. Nor has the political promise of democratization panned out. Far from ending clientelism, critics argue that marketized housing programs have merely shifted the power center of clientelist practices from labor unions to private companies. In this context, government officials, residents, and scholarly critics have turned a nostalgic eye toward mid century public housing. Is the contemporary romanticization of modernist projects a product of selective remembrance? These complexes did in fact emerge together with paternalistic and often authoritarian practices. The construction of public housing razed entire neighborhoods, separated families, and cut residents off from established forms of belonging. Yet the privatization of public goods from housing to parks to vital infrastructures is also clearly problematic. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we propose evaluating what is gained and what is lost within each paradigm. How do their associated technical arrangements reconfigure social, political, and economic ties? In this roundtable discussion will explore these questions along with the following: 

  • What is the role for “the public” as a contingency and beneficiary of goods and services?
  • What do ethnographic investigations of housing reveal about the relationship between public and private?
  • How are individuals and families shaped as political agents by housing and housing policies? What is the role of housing in identity practices and narratives?
  • What lessons about clientelism, corruption, and the relationship between public and private power can we take away from each policy paradigm? What might these lessons tell us about enduring relationships between political power, private interest, and the state?
  • How does housing–its particular histories, its materialities and its role as a symbol–relate to the construction of solidarities both local and national?
  • What are the geographic effects of these policy paradigms?