Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Public Housing

Hylan Houses in Bushwick, Brooklyn

As long as people have been traipsing along on the surface of this planet, they have sought out shelter. Over the years domiciles have evolved and changed, ranging the gamut from simple, natural caves to extensive, multi-roomed edifices decked out with tons of amenities and everything inbetween. The climate might dictate the basic design with the wealth of the individual or family affecting the comfort level. Rich or poor, a vast majority of people people agree they need a place indoors where they can keep their things, be protected from the elements and others and relax surrounded by those they choose to include or by themselves if they see fit.

Public housing is a type of residence dictated not by dimensions but by whom the property is owned by. As opposed to owning one’s home or renting from a private company, public housing is owned by a government authority, whether that be local government, state or bigger. The general goal of public housing tends to be the same: to provide affordable housing for those who cannot afford market-rate apartments or their own homes. Allocated for the poor or to accommodate sudden shifts in population, there are generally criteria for qualifying that is dependent on income and family size. Depending on the economic situations, immigration patterns and number of units available per applicant, there can be a very long waiting list in order to get into public housing. With anything related to the government, there is always a bit more legwork to be done in order to obtain the final goal.

The units made available by public housing can vary wildly. From small homes built in the latest architectural trend to looming brick hulks constructed for volume, the only defining factor is really that to government owns them. Sometimes privately owned buildings are bought by the government, other times they are built by the government to try to meet the needs of the population. In the modern day United States, public housing is generally reserved for low income individuals or families but in other countries public housing was established after houses were demolished in war or for public servants. In still other locations, it’s the norm for the government to own and therefore regulate most of the housing.

And did you know that apartments have been around since Ancient Rome? Apartment buildings were also popular in 10th-11th century Egypt, with gardens build on the roofs. If you’re running a game set in a fictional history, don’t think a ten story building is out of the question.

With the government planning, financing and regulating this type of housing, a lot of things can happen. Changes in government can stall or embolden these projects, depending on how much the ruling class cares about providing a safe spot for their citizens to rest their collective heads. If the government wants to encourage the residents to work, they might build the housing close to major throughways and streets to make sure the tenants can get to work easily and quickly. If they care about the population’s safety and health they might also put in public parks, schools or marketplaces to increase the general satisfaction of the area. If they worry about the crime they might put in more guards or police officers or in terrible circumstances, walls or checkpoints to monitor who is going in or out. Certain people such as criminals might not be allowed government housing. Alternately, criminals might automatically be allowed government housing as those who can afford private property might not want undesirables living across the street from them. And in places where owning a home is desirable, regulations might make this harder than one might think. If rent is based on a certain percentage of one’s wage instead of a flat number, saving money can be difficult and generations can reside in population regardless of changes in gross income.

Government involvement in the everyday life of the average citizen, classism, architecture, bureaucracy, urban planning? Hmm. Are your wheels turning?

For GMs:

  • Does some sort of public housing exist?
  • Who oversees and regulates the housing? Local government? Regional? National?
  • What type of housing exists? Groups of small houses? Apartments? Is the public housing mostly in the rural areas or the urban areas?
  • Why were the public housing projects started? In response to population growth/destruction of homes? A need to modernize? A desire to control the housing situation by the government to protect against inflation? Or to cash in on a basic need?
  • What types of amenities do publicly owned homes have? How does this compare to privately owned homes?
  • Who qualifies for public housing? Are there income restrictions? Only for families? Only for public and civil servants (soldiers, city workers, garbage men, policemen, etc.)? Only for citizens? Only for immigrants?
  • Are there situations that would disqualify someone from being eligible for public housing? Criminal record? Country of origin? Marital status?
  • How is rent determined? Is it a flat rate? Based on number of residents? Number of able-bodied residents? A percentage of the gross income? How does this affect family make-ups? How easy is it to move out of public housing?
  • How to the residents feel about the public housing? Are they grateful they have a place to live? Angry because circumstances forced them to move there? Indifferent because of the volume of people living in Public housing?
  • What are the determining factors for deciding where a public housing project should be built? Who builds the houses? What is the demand for these types of residences? Is there a waiting list?

Plot Hooks

  • A public housing project collapses, resulting in many fatalities. The PCs are part of a task force hired to investigate the collapse in order to determine its cause. Who has hired them to investigate the scene? Who lived in the building? What do they find? Is the building safe to investigate?
  • An impoverished neighborhood is ordered to relocate in order to make way for a new housing project. The government claims the project will benefit those displaced once it is complete. However, the people currently living on the land don’t want to give up the houses they own. The PCs must negotiate between the government and the current residents. How long is the project to take? How long will the residents be displaced for? What amenities would the new buildings provide? Are there any populations of people without housing that are in support of this housing project? What is the government willing to do or give in order to get what they want?
  • When the residents of several public housing units all complain about infestations or an amenity no longer working regularly, it is up to the PCs, all government employees, to get to the bottom of the issue and solve it. What is the issue? What is causing it? How do the residents feel about the PCs? Do the PCs also live in the public housing? What caused the amenity to go on the fritz or the infestation?
  • With the local government’s budget not doing so well, a private company offers to buy up several housing projects, planning to renovating them. However, they will also raise the price of the housing significantly, most likely resulting in the displacement of a vast majority of the residents. The PCs must rally the residents and stop this from happening. Why does the private company want these specific housing projects? What say do the residents have in this happening?
  • The PCs are sent to scout out and survey an abandoned part of the city, recently devastated by war for a public housing project. A local political group claims that several new species have made their home in the rubble and therefore the location must be left undisturbed to allow nature to take its course. What do the PCs find? Are they in favor of the housing project? Who is waiting for the housing to be built? What waits for them in the rubble?
  • The PCs are government workers who must make periodic surprise visits to public housing dwellers in order to make sure the living situations match what is on paper and to be sure no one owns anything they’re not allowed to have. The last domicile of the day contains much more than they bargained for and something that is definitely not allowed. What do they find? Are they allowed to enter the homes if no one answers the door? Do they have a quota to fill? How does the resident react to their presence? What do they do to remedy the situation?
  • When a huge shift in government brings the public housing project to a grinding halt, the PCs are left to defend themselves and their families in a mass of displaced people. What was the shift in government? How do they protect their families? Do they try to fix the problem and get construction going?
  • The PCs are all on the waiting list to receive public housing and they all decide to break into the office where the list is and change their names, giving them higher places on the list. How do they break in? Why do they all think they should get in earlier?   Do they find anything else in the office besides the list? How is the list determined?
  • The PCs all live in public housing and are struggling to make ends meet. Rent is due or they face eviction to make room for other eager potential residents and they are willing to take on any job. Luckily, one appears. What job is it? Do they all pay the same amount of rent? How long do they have to pay it? Do they know the person hiring them?

For PCs

  • How do you feel about private property? Public property?
  • Do you own your home? Rent?
  • Do you think the government should provide housing?
  • Do you think housing is a basic right? Something earned?
  • What do you think is the bare minimum in order for a home to be comfortable?
  • Do you think people should pay the same amount of rent for the same home or should it be adjusted according to your income?
  • Do you like paperwork?

What say you? I’ve lived in public housing and it was…pretty interesting to say the least. Heh.

3 thoughts on “Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Public Housing

Add yours

  1. I hadn’t really thought of public housing in a fantasy setting, but it makes sense. I could totally see a group of PCs who are in public housing for one reason or other taking matters into their own hands when something goes haywire.
    I could actually see that as a campaign starter–as a level 1 scenario, for example–where it’s a) an alternative to the whole “You start out in a tavern” thing, and b) how the rogue embraces their roguish nature and takes up adventuring.


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