Demolition privilege: Another perverse effect of a mostly privatized housing authority

Photo: Jack Grauer

Photo: Jack Grauer

By Jack Grauer

It’s not news that the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) has been reducing its public housing stock since the 1990s. However, recent inspections of public housing sites show that PHA doesn’t demolish the complexes in the worst condition first. That’s at least kind of news.

Government authorities since Nixon have rebuked public housing as an antiquated, ineffective counteraction to poverty and segregation by race and class.

Critics charge that public housing exacerbates the problems government initially intended it to fix: the structures fall into disrepair; they’re depressing; they’re hard to police; residing tenants form socially glaciating subcultures; the structures endanger tenants’ health and safety, etc.

Building and maintaining low-income housing also proved more costly than government authorities projected it would.

Low-income housing policy has since shifted both nationally and locally. The new objective is to make low-income housing a profitable and appealing industry. This ideally encourages private real estate developers and landlords to get involved.

Housing policy scholar Ed Goetz found that Philadelphia has since 1990 demolished more public housing than any other American city barring Chicago.

Public Housing Units in PHA’s Inventory by Year

1995 2013
21,697 14,989

PHA reportedly plans to demolish 1,470 public housing units during 2015.

Amidst dust clouds and political officiations, inspection documents obtained by way of FOIA show that Queen Lane, Norris and Blumberg Apartments—all either recently, or soon-to-be demolished—received relatively few health and safety citations compared to other inspected sites.

Results from those documents appear at the bottom of this post. But what are we looking at, exactly?

The US Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) inspected 13 public housing sites in Philadelphia during FY ’13 and ’14. To compare the frequency of cited health and safety violations across sites, HUD uses the number of violations documented per 25 units at a given site as a sample. From that sample, they project the total number of violations present at each site.

Mentioned by name in the documents were Norris, Norman Blumberg and Queen Lane Apartments. HUD labeled 10 others only as “scattered sites.”

PHA demolished Queen Lane in late 2014 after years of vacancy. Norris’s high-rise was demolished in 2011 and its flats will face demolition before 2016. Two of Blumberg’s three towers will be demolished in the near future. Again, these sites contained low numbers of health and safety violations compared to the other 10.

Blumberg and Norris bookend Temple University’s expanding campus to the east and west. Developers have received a respective $20 million from PHA and $30 million from US HUD to redevelop them.

This relatively small dataset suggests that while health and safety don’t drive decisions regarding which public housing complexes get demolished, when and in what order, grant opportunities and development interest do. This suspicion should be tested on a larger scale and also controlled for variables other than health and safety: crime rates, median income, etc.

Results from 13 Physical Inspections of Public Housing Sites in Philadelphia, FY ’13 and ’14 

Site Name Inspection # # of Units Inspected Health & Safety Violations Projected Violations Total
Norman Blumberg 522315 26 54 519
Norris 522525 23 56 295
Queen Lane 523418 12 36 57
Scattered Sites 524140 25 24 362
Scattered Sites 524145 25 18 289
Scattered Sites 524149 26 24 388
Scattered Sites 524144 24 24 382
Scattered Sites 524135 25 29 610
Scattered Sites 524161 25 51 886
Scattered Sites 524150 25 21 259
Scattered Sites 524142 26 43 787
Scattered Sites 524147 25 17 324
Scattered Sites 524155 26 28 481

Source: US HUD. Freedom of Information Act Request #15-FI-RO3-000007.

Austin Nolen at The Declaration helped prepare this FOIA request.

This post first appeared on and was republished with the author’s permission.

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