A Literature Review of Power and Affordable Housing
Housing in America holds a unique position within our collective psyche. It is more than shelter, more than the pixels that together compose our neighborhoods and cities. It is a deeply held conviction woven into the fabric of our national identity; housing plays a pivotal role within the American Dream. That dream, however, has often become obscured amidst severe fiscal discrepancy and a slew of invisible barriers. The debate over “affordable housing” frequently slips into muddled territory between public and private realms, the differing dynamics of renters and homeowners, and the difficulty in gauging trends amidst multi-dimensional variables. While few scholars deny that there is indeed a shortage of affordable housing, the conversation broadens when analysis encompasses the source of the problem and where the strings of power are held.
A contemporary debate hinges upon the implementation of government housing assistance and the coercively pluralistic structures surrounding these endeavors. However, another conversation reaches back to the catalyst of affordable housing shortages, unveiling a highly centralized power framework that unwittingly devastated a stable economic condition. Taken as a whole, the literature suggests a problem with deeply systemic roots.
Housing affordability as a basic concept is most widely defined as housing which does not consume more than 30% of a household’s income. Today nearly half of renters and a third of owners with mortgages cannot afford their housing by this metric (Schwartz & Wilson, n.d.). Though the problem is apparent and wide-reaching, connotations of affordable housing in America touch a sore spot within public perception. Failed housing projects, their accompanying concentrations of poverty, and the fear of their construction within middle-class neighborhoods create a montage of uncomfortable memories and public discourse beneath the umbrella of “affordable housing”. The role of the public sector has become central to our schema of affordable housing in the modern era.
Government Solutions & Resident Opposition
Much literature has been dedicated to the relationships between community sentiment and the implementation of public housing. Concerns of property value, crime rates, and racial discrimination have all been considered to contribute to a culture of NIMBY-ism.
(Duke, 2010; Quigley & Raphael, 2004). Galster (2003) shows that property value insecurity is an inciting characteristic of opposition to public housing; more affluent communities dismiss such development as an affront to property values, while more vulnerable areas are more opposed on this basis. His empirical analysis exposes this reasoning as unfounded, since public housing construction has no negligible impact on surrounding property values. Studies by Ihlanfeldt and Scafidi (2004) have, among others, concluded that white communities preference for racial homogeneity has a considerable impact on the resulting racial compositions of such communities. In response to these more visible catalysts for residential resistance, Duke (2010) points to ideological clashes of residents’ beliefs regarding liberty, spatial rights, and government assistance as an equally strong factor of opposition to subsidized housing. Beneath this lens, deeply held convictions of government’s proper place within society turn public housing and dispersal programs into a perceived moral dilemma beyond concerns of more tangible variables.
As history has shown, these community sentiments can prove a powerful force against the perceived threat of public housing. According to Gordon (2008), the very of existence of Black Jack, a small municipality within St. Louis County, Missouri, can be traced back to a public housing proposal within the community. In reaction to the proposal, citizens swiftly incorporated and implemented exclusionary zoning ordinances, effectually barring the project. The failure of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in nearby St. Louis City was directly cited by residents as justification (Gordon, 2008). NIMBY resistance from small communities has proven to be an effective force in derailing efforts for public action in a variety of settings (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, & Speck, 2000).
Contemporary Implications for Power
Though the social fractures and effectual coercion of community resistance possess the trappings of elitist power theory, the mechanics of the situation resemble anything but elitism. There is no business elite controlling policy behind the scenes and no political monopoly seeking to restrict access of low-income families to better neighborhoods. Rather, communities that engage in battles against public housing provide a textbook case of pluralism in which the voice of the people (or at least a sizable number of them) prevails. Varying interest groups - low-income families, politicians, and neighborhoods where projects are proposed - are jockeying for power amidst a highly decentralized framework of influence. Despite the inherently chipper tone of Dahl’s (1961) normative implications, pluralism hardly insures that minority interests will be given weight. Pluralism holds the potential to embolden those interest groups with clout over the less well off - not as a consolidated group of long-term power holders, but as victors amidst a multi-party competition of self-serving beneficiaries.
Dahl (1961) himself acknowledges the implications of pluralism for affordable housing construction. A similar narrative to that of Black Jack is illustrated in his seminal work, set in a working-class neighborhood of New Haven. The proposal to construct low-cost tin houses by two brothers, the Lebovs, led to a drawn out political battle pitting residents against the would-be developers. Though the deciding factor came down to the votes of political representatives, Dahl (1961) clearly displays the extent to which these leaders bent to the will of their constituents. Those who did not lost impending elections. Ultimately the working-class residents succeeded in barring construction of tin houses from their community. This resistance of working-class residents towards housing for only moderately worse off families supports Galster’s (2003) finding that more economically vulnerable neighborhoods find particular threat in low-income housing. Parallel anecdotes from Chicago, Minneapolis, and a variety of other metro regions conclude with triumphant lawsuits and political retribution for those attempting to construct public housing in middle class neighborhoods (Goetz, 2000; Hamilton; 2003). Time and time again we see the framework of pluralism bolstering the common man against the propagation of affordable housing.
This dilemma challenges deeply held American principles: public input, representative democracy, and an underlying faith in pluralism. The mechanisms we’ve created under this light are supposed to reflect the interests of the people, yielding the most equitable and just results. Some scholars have argued the trouble of the situation lies within its scope: public participation in the urban sphere generally occurs at a hyper-localized level, giving heightened prominence to selfish interests in the face of regional progress (Duany, et al., 2000). The case for political regionalism amidst municipal fragmentation in American cities is in some ways a means of neutralizing the strength of pluralistic units. This view requires a power structure that takes into account regional prosperity over the parochial interests of sectarian power actors.
Lowi (1969) derides this real-world manifestation of pluralism as little more than “interest-group liberalism,” that has eroded the basic ethics that American government was founded upon into a lion’s den of petty factions (p. 36). Given the ongoing vacillation of public sentiment and the nature of pluralism to favor these whims in place of meaningful standards, interest-group liberalism tends to produce contingencies rather than firm policy. He furthermore characterizes the brand of pluralism embodied in the public housing debate as “sponsored pluralism,” by which interest groups acquire power and use it to cultivate themselves as independent oligarchies (Lowi, 1969, p. 60). The result is a systematized preference for the privileged and an abduction of popular control.
The power structure of subsidized housing and its placement resembles the theoretical framework of pluralism, but not its theoretical outcomes. By allowing narrow interest groups powerful opposition on the basis of mostly faulty arguments, pluralism has allowed an explicitly class-based exclusion of low-income families from place-based opportunities. This multi-dimensional balance of control is made starkly apparent by the struggle of government agencies - both local and federal - to implement successful housing programs.
Structural Explanations for Public Investment
The aforementioned discourse has focused primarily on instances of government support for public housing in the face of community opposition. Of course, it is naive to assume that local governments naturally oblige themselves to invest in affordable housing regardless of the political climate. Basolo (2000) addresses the circumstances under which a given city may be more inclined to bow to the economic power formulas asserted by Peterson’s (1981) public choice theory, or engage in the redistributive policies of his distaste. The competition between economic development and affordable housing serves as the chief example.
While Basolo (2000) acknowledges urban scholars who’ve studied the existence of distinct “political cultures” that lead to policy trends, her study quantifies and correlates the variables that lead to political cultures endorsing affordable housing or economic development (p. 321). Median income and unemployment both correlate positively with municipal favoring of affordable housing spending over economic development, suggesting government’s attention towards housing is heightened with need and/or increased fiscal capacity. Inter-city competition between neighboring municipalities tends to pull government attention towards economic development instead of affordable housing
. While these variables point to systemic powers, among the strongest correlations was structural; “...cities with a strong mayor-council form of government are approximately 54% less likely to expend more on economic development than affordable housing compared to cities with a council-manager... government,” (Basolo, 2000, p.327).
Basolo’s (2000) work refutes Peterson’s (1981) public choice theory as a descriptive power model; while many cities do pay considerable attention (and funds) to economic development, there are contextual circumstances in which cities find reason to shift focus towards affordable housing despite its redistributive properties. That municipal government format would have such an immense and measurable impact on housing policy suggests that structural elements hold power in the face of economic rationality under public choice theory.
Though Basolo (2000) does not speculate upon the reasons for which mayor-council governments approach affordable housing more favorably than a council-manager format, the latter is commonly framed as more professionalized than the former (Trounstine, 2008). This reformist tone and architecture, accompanied by calls for more ‘business-like’ government, may be a prime influence for preference towards economic development. Mayor-council formats may be more political, but this is accompanied by higher visibility and therefore potentially more accountability among voters. Polls in recent years have found 70 percent of Americans desiring a high priority for affordable housing from their local governments (Feig, 2004). Basolo’s (2000) findings signal a broader responsiveness to constituent demands under mayor-council governance - only to be opposed by splintering interest groups of communities where affordable housing is actually proposed.
As a direct foil for Peterson’s (1981) public choice theory (in which economic rationality serves as a guiding principle for urban governance) Duany et al. (2000) propose equitable principles by which urban leaders should govern to promote the greater good and keep NIMBY-ism in check. Among the central tenants; “Affordable housing must be fairly distributed,” (Duany et al., 2000, p.226). Whereas economic growth guides urban power units under public choice theory, this principle suggests adherence to the qualitative well-being of the urban citizenry as a more effective approach.
A Government-Induced Shortage
Today’s debate over affordable housing largely assumes a necessity of public sector intervention in any variety of formats. In reaction to shortages, academics seek understanding of factors contributing to municipal attention, and of power structures controlling successful implementation of public housing. Yet another set of scholars decry this approach as convoluted, addressing a series of symptoms with the same medication that induced the disease (Hordon, 1973; Norquist, 1998, Quigley & Raphael, 2004). They analyze historical roots of the affordable housing shortage problem and conclude that the source is the same as today’s solutions: government intervention in the housing market.
The situation possesses a crude irony. Norquist (1998) is unreserved in his biting critique of “How the government killed affordable housing,” (p.99). The history reveals a hierarchical pattern of governmental intervention that dramatically reduced the supply of low-income housing through regulation and the clearance of naturally forming low-income neighborhoods. The result was a distorted housing market that widely disenfranchised the least well off in American urban centers and eventually increased housing costs for everyone, particularly renters (Quigley & Raphael, 2004).
At the turn of the century, affordable housing was a commonplace fact of urban life. Developers added small apartments above retail shops, incurring extra revenue for a small additional investment. Immigrants with means built multi-family homes, or let their basements to boarders. Neighborhoods were dense, living quarters were tight, but amenities were close and housing was attainable. Even after World War II, accounts of apartments for eight dollars a month in New York City were common - adjusted for inflation, these rents equate to a mere hundred dollars today (Norquist, 1998). The market-based equilibrium of supply and demand provided ample affordable housing through organic means, but was soon effectually abolished by government regulation. Cities, mistaking problems of public health and crime as symptoms of density rather than the “primitive state of medical and municipal services”, began setting minimums for lot coverage of housing units (Norquist, 1998, p. 104). Requirements of new construction to comply with codified standards led to housing prices beyond many families’ means.
Quigley and Raphael (2004) demonstrate the continuing decrease in affordability of rental housing
and analyze factors contributing to this trend. Given the wide cross-section of variables at play, they set out to measure the influence of each while controlling for others. After dismissing the possibility of decreased incomes for renters, the study finds that the rise in rental costs can be directly attributed to improvements in housing quality. The proportion of rental units with four or more bedrooms rose by over 10% from 1960 to 2000, and housing without plumbing nearly vanished (Quigley & Raphael, 2004, p. 204). On nearly all fronts, from square footage to the smallest of amenities, the standard of rental housing increased and brought rising prices along with it.
This would seem to support the notion of free market principles following an increased demand for better housing among low-income, but further research suggests differently. Measurements of housing demand do not meet the burden of increasing rent on the poor, and outstrips the possibility of income elasticity. Quigley and Raphael (2004) point to the influence of government restrictions and standards as the primary culprit. Housing that could once be shared was no longer deemed suitable for more than one family by law. The minimum legal lot size had grown considerably. In trying to raise standards, the federal and municipal governments worsened the situation of the poor. Those families who can not meet these increased prices run the risk of homelessness.
Before this regulation, Norquist (1998) posits, the housing market was in a state of economic equilibrium. Government regulation of what the housing market could and could not provide - regardless of consumer’s actual housing needs - created a severe imbalance. The basic economic laws this housing policy provokes are referenced by Quigley and Raphael (2004), who write, “...to the extent that cities make it difficult to build new housing, any type of new housing, the availability of low-cost housing will be reduced and the affordability of all housing will decline,” (p. 205). The implications for affordable housing expand well beyond the lowest rungs of the socio-economic spectrum.
The federal government compounded the problem in 1930 with the introduction of separate-use zoning, a policy adopted by most cities (Norquist, 1998). As a result, low-income families already struggling to afford their homes had to meet increased transportation costs as well, since routine errands and commutes came to require an automobile. Low-income families’ cost of housing rose considerably while any discretionary spending took a major hit. With similar effect to that of minimum lot sizes and density limits, separate-use zoning further decreased the supply of housing by barring land from residential development (Quigley & Raphael, 2004, 206).
However, Norquist (1998) argues that no development diminished the opportunity of affordable housing more than the widespread epidemic of urban renewal. The nationwide demolition meant a drastic decrease of supply and therefore skyrocketing prices of what little remained. Writing only a few short years after urban renewal began to subside, Hordon (1973) openly suspects what most scholars now regard to be true:
In fact, urban renewal may have worsened the housing situation of the poor. As of June 30, 1967, 400,000 dwelling units were demolished in urban renewal areas, the vast majority of which were substandard. Of the 195,999 dwelling units planned for these same sites, only 18,766: less than 10% - will be public housing. More than 63% of the total new units planned will be for middle- and upper-income residents. ...urban renewal actually reduced the supply of housing for lower-income families. (Hordon, 1973, p. 78)
Affordable housing was regulated out of existence and demolished using government subsidies. The result of urban renewal, especially once subsidized public housing entered the picture, was “a distorted housing market” (Norquist, 1998, p. 111).
An embryonic sign of this phenomena can be traced as far back as the inter-war years with the New York State Housing Law of 1926, in which housing was declared a “public use” by the New York legislature, thereby rendering it susceptible to eminent domain (“Legislative Housing Relief”, 1926). The law was among the first reactions to the aforementioned conditions of low-income families. Once condemned, the law instructed public officials to transfer land to private corporations for development (“Legislative Housing Relief”, 1926). Only six years prior, the Supreme Court upheld a state constitutional amendment in North Dakota to authorize government provision of housing in Green v. Frazier (1926). Mechanisms for the impending rise of urban renewal were in place well in advance, procured by federal and state governments.
Given the consequences of urban renewal on affordable housing supply decades later, academic commentary at the time is unsettlingly ominous:
If [the New York State Housing Law] succeeds, it will be followed in other states. Thousands of unfit dwellings and plague spots through the country will be destroyed. People of small means will no longer be restricted to a choice of “cast-off” apartments in old and insanitary dwellings. The success of the plan will mean that they can hope to live in bright, cheerful, modern dwellings with sunlight, play space, and gardens. (Pink, 1928, p.107)
Pink’s (1928) prediction was only partially correct. These final words of optimism would come to embody the modernist sentiment that eventually led to high-rise public housing projects in Chicago, St. Louis, and cities across the country. Many of these would quickly deteriorate into concentrations of crime and racially segregated poverty, raising alarm amongst residents in communities where they were proposed. The stage was set.
Historical Implications for Power
Though Dahl (1961) specifically portrays the trend of urban renewal as one of democratic pluralism, other scholars have exposed the voices of communities demolished in the frenzy. These accounts, neglected by Dahl, suggest that at best, urban renewal was a pluralism of the elites. Whereas the contemporary programs of public housing dispersal are met with powerful resistance from strong suburban communities, the communities affected by urban renewal had little say in the matter (Zipp, 2009).
The late 1950’s witnessed the burgeoning power of Robert Moses and his ambitious urban renewal program to eliminate the ‘slums’ and ‘blight’ from New York City. Among his most notorious projects was that of Lincoln Square Title 1, a 48-acre plan featuring the Lincoln Center, luxury apartments, and a campus for Fordham University. It was staged to remove a vast swath of tenement housing. Traces of Dahl’s pluralism are indeed found in the coalition amassed by Moses, which included, “hospitals, universities, unions, private real estate developers and various civic and non-profit organizations...” (Zipp, 2009, p. 411). Notably missing, however, are the residents of the neighborhoods slated for the wrecking ball.
It is tempting to describe Moses’ coalition as pluralism; a disjointed array of interest groups convening and ultimately prevailing in a democratic manner. However, Zipp (2009) explains that these groups were indeed “New York’s elites”, and that Moses - perhaps America’s most powerful urban leader to never receive a public vote - worked closely with John D. Rockefeller III (p. 412). This was a classic elite power structure, led by a man who casually quipped in response to criticism, “You cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs” (Zipp, 2009, p. 420).
Though hardly amassing a cohesive coalition strong enough to compete with Moses, protesting residents were in good company; many New Yorkers opposed the project for fiscal reasons, political reasons, ideological reasons, and moral reasons. Residents and businesspeople alike fought the demolition (Zipp, 2009). For two years, protests, picket lines, and packed City Hall meetings became a regular occurrence receiving media attention. Residents fought hard and set precedents for resistance against urban renewal projects elsewhere. In 1957, however, “decisions were made behind closed doors,” and the Board of Estimate followed the City Planning Commission in unanimously approving Lincoln Square Title I (Zipp, 2009, p. 429). In this case as well as many subsequent projects, newly constructed housing meant for dislocated residents was far from affordable (Muzio, 2009).
Despite urban renewal’s central role in Dahl’s thesis, the story of Lincoln Square and the powerful forces behind it indicate a power model much more closely resembling that described by Floyd Hunter’s (1953) analysis of Atlanta than by Dahl (1961). Especially when one broadens the scope of power to acknowledge the federal government’s involvement in urban renewal, the framework of power is thoroughly hierarchical and often heavily centralized. The destruction of so many affordable housing units during the era of urban renewal was the direct result of elite power holders - tightly knit groups between private and public sectors - and their wholesale disenfranchisement of low-income families. Urban renewal and its effect on the market supply of affordable housing was the direct product of prototypical elitist power structures.
Holistic Consideration of Affordable Housing Power Analysis
It is the intention of this paper to identify the structures of power surrounding housing affordability. In doing so, it has dissected literary analysis into two components; that regarding contemporary subsidized housing debates and funding, and that studying the roots of the affordable housing shortage in government regulation and urban renewal. The former describes a pluralistic framework with structural influence, while the latter indicates an elite power controlling the urban sphere. Despite the contrast, both instances have led to extensive subjugation of low-income families. Neither Hunter’s nor Dahl’s theories of power can adequately characterize the broader political situation of affordable housing alone.
The paradoxical fact of pluralism and elitism’s clear coexistence within the same political history, alongside factors of structural influence, lead to conclusions resembling faceless power theory from today’s perspective. Throughout the history of affordable housing - its destruction and artificial recreation - a grand assemblage of actors have left their mark. None of them acted alone, and given the scope and complexity of the narrative, none can be held responsible alone. The Supreme Court, the state government of North Dakota, the New York legislature, Robert Moses, the Federal Housing Administration, countless mayors, municipal bureaucrats, suburban residents, private developers, the Department of Housing and Urban Development - all of these bodies and more acted under the influence of rational self-interest and systemic pressures. Many sought detrimental policy despite sincere intentions. Even the immediate consequences of these programs were not intended by those who proposed them (Lowi, 1969). Though the history of affordable housing tends to implicate government programs, the resulting metropolitan condition is acceptable by neither liberal nor libertarian concepts of justice (Swanstrom and Hayward, 2010).
It is even true that traces of pluralism (as an ideology more so than as a power structure) exist in the government-led depletion of affordable housing during the mid-century explosion of regulation. Because the pluralist views government policy outcomes as the equilibrium of an open public competition, government is legitimized in its use of coercion (Lowi, 1969). In some form or another, a number of power theories could be properly applied to any given facet of housing policy’s history.
The full picture of housing affordability is impossible to discuss within a vacuum. Objective consideration invariably leads to factors of schooling, white flight, political fragmentation, automobile dependence, institutionalized racism, bureaucratic inefficiency, political machinery and other pervasive influences interacting within the urban sphere. The narrative of the modern American city is deeply complex. Though inconvenient for the study of power theory, it requires holistic understanding.
Though perhaps less satisfying, the honest answer is that described by Hayward and Swanstrom (2010); the sum of urban power has no discernible face. This theory of power encapsulates the longitudinal analysis of affordable housing: “Metropolitan injustices are like the layers of the earth... If we are to understand contemporary injustice, we must dig down, like geologists, to reveal the layers that mark its historic origins” (p. 13). Explanations of power surrounding affordable housing, as with many subsets of urban political challenges, are not as cut and dry as they may seem on the surface. A system constructed by no single entity has developed a power of its own and assumed a nearly unstoppable inertia.
Regardless of power structures then and now, immense political influence is calcified into the bedrock of today’s societal and spatial mechanisms. Its systematized biases are difficult to trace, as to do so leads to a lattice pattern of factors too numerous and complex to separate. The story of affordable housing in American cities leads to a natural conclusion of “thick injustice,” as the spatial element of the affordable housing problem, “helps naturalize and obscure unjust power relations,” (Hayward & Swanstrom, 2010, p. 24). The grand problem of affordable housing in America is one set in a heavy stone, subject to the developed physical makeup of our cities and the beneficiary of considerable collective investment. Its power is held within a system.
The debate over affordable housing will continue, but it will not simplify. While some argue that compassionate governance is vital to the well being of low-income families, others counter that such intervention provided the initial catalyst for their mounting hardship. Though government programs have failed to provide the quality of life promised - and their attempts at self-correction have spawned even further regulatory influence - government has never held the reigns of power alone.
Varying angles and eras of housing in America lead to contrasting conclusions of community power models. Though current political conflicts suggest an even playing field for multiple interest groups, their precursor is a history of centralized elite power. Both have held a propensity for coercion. Accepted alongside a series of power sub-structures and auxiliary influences, these conclusions provide no clean resolution for power implications. Taken as a whole, they signify a deeply embedded power structure attributable to no single source. Actors have behaved in rational and generally acceptable self-interest, sometimes even with altruistic intentions. It is an embellishment to paint these individuals and organizations as victims alongside the families whose struggle to attain housing has been at their hand, but all have acted within the confines of a pressurized system.
Today, Black Jack remains a municipality. The Pruitt-Igoe housing project remains a memory of failure. Dahl’s New Haven neighborhood remains out of reach for poor families. New York rents remain sky-high and ever-rising. The Lincoln Center remains standing as a tribute to culture, but not the community that once stood beneath its footprint. Progress will require an honest conversation of historical and contemporary power. Only by these means may the literature of tomorrow tell a different story for affordable housing.
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