In a 1973 message to Congress, President Richard Nixon stated, “I have seen a number of our public housing projects. Some of them are impressive, but too many are monstrous, depressing places—run down, overcrowded, crime-ridden, falling apart. The residents of these projects are often strangers to one another—with little sense of belonging.” Of all the places Americans call home, public housing has long been one of the most contentious. Politicians, media, and the public reinforce stereotypes, often focusing on crime rates amongst residents, dilapidated buildings, sanitation concerns, and extreme poverty. To be clear, these conditions have existed in some public housing currently and historically, and dangerous living conditions should not be tolerated. However, these stereotypes often reflect the conditions in a few large cities and do not represent the majority of public housing in the United States.
Policymakers and scholars have placed blame for the conditions of public housing in many places. Some critics blame the extremely low incomes of its residents, which both centralize poverty and do not provide adequate funding for maintenance. Others criticize the architecture, arguing that high-rise buildings were unsuitable for families and designed with common spaces that residents did not maintain or supervise. Similarly, some point out that public housing was not well-integrated into neighborhoods or surrounding public infrastructure. Other critics blame housing legislation that has long favored private solutions and thus worked to limit its scope. Ultimately, the combination of each of these issues has produced animosity toward public housing and resulted in its current conditions.
Contemporary arguments against public housing often mirror the arguments made since the 1930s, including high development costs, wariness of government involvement in housing, and fears of the influence of communism and socialism. However, we must be able to make the distinction between how our leaders have chosen to craft policies in this country compared to the concept of public housing more broadly. This article examines the values and policies that have shaped these stereotypes and critiques of public housing in the United States since its beginning in the 1930s. We must understand these influences to thoughtfully analyze the current conditions of public housing in America.
Policies and Programs
Currently, approximately 1.2 million households live in public housing across the United States, in units maintained and operated by local housing authorities, either at the city- or county-level. These housing authorities receive federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In total, there are roughly 3,300 housing authorities throughout the country. Housing authorities are also responsible for the Housing Choice Voucher Program, known as Section 8, which provides vouchers to low-income tenants to find housing in the private housing market. Nearly half of the housing authorities in the United States are responsible for 100 units or less and most often house seniors. There are only ten housing authorities in the country with more than 7,500 units, but they comprise nearly a third of all the public housing in the nation.
The overall supply of public housing increased from the beginning of the program in the 1930s through the 1980s. Since the 1980s, the public housing stock has decreased, and funding has since gone toward preserving or redeveloping the existing stock instead of new construction. Public housing in American cities is commonly associated with high-rise buildings, but in reality, high-rises make up less than a third of all public housing. Nearly a fourth of all public housing are low-rise townhouses.
Although the main goal of public housing in the United States should be to provide safe, affordable housing to low-income people, policies over the past eighty years have not all centered this goal. Varying aspirations for public housing manifested through different housing policies throughout the twentieth century; beyond housing, some of these goals have included the promotion of employment opportunities, regulation of public health, and the creation of public spaces or buildings through programs like slum clearance and urban renewal.
The 1930s: The Beginning
The government began its involvement in the regulation of low-income housing, specifically tenements, around the turn of the twentieth century. However, this housing was privately-owned, and while the government created standards for decent housing, it did not build housing. Housing reformers were interested in transforming whole sections of cities that they deemed unsanitary and crime-ridden. Government authorities would later use a similar rationale to justify public housing legislation.
At the beginning of the 1930s, the country was coping with the effects of the Great Depression. The housing crisis of the 1920s was exacerbated by the Depression, which resulted in widespread foreclosures and an overall lack of supply due to unemployment in the homebuilding trade. In response to these issues, the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 authorized the Public Works Administration (PWA) to build the nation’s first public housing. The purpose of the legislation was to put people back to work and to increase the supply of housing. It also introduced slum clearance in relation to public housing, which entailed demolishing existing dilapidated buildings in low-income neighborhoods and replacing them with public housing developments. However, the PWA program did not last long, and Congress replaced it with the nation’s first official public housing policy in 1937.
Beginning in the 1930s, federal housing policies both created and exacerbated patterns of residential segregation in cities as well as within individual public housing developments. As director of PWA public housing during the 1930s, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes created a “neighborhood composition rule” that dictated “federal housing projects should reflect the previous racial composition of their neighborhoods.” This meant that a proposed development in predominately white neighborhoods could only have white residents and vice versa for black neighborhoods. The rule mandated that PWA public housing could only be integrated if the surrounding neighborhood was integrated. However, the PWA disregarded its own rule and created “segregated projects even where there was no previous pattern of segregation.”
Beginning with the Housing Act of 1937, policymakers have crafted housing policies that propagated a version of the American Dream that is based on homeownership. This version was influenced by values central to liberalism and capitalism, such as privatism and individualism. Opponents of public housing viewed it as antithetical to these proclaimed American values, specifically the narrative of a free market for housing. They voiced concerns about the relationship between public housing and the ideologies of communism and socialism. (Although they are often incorrectly associated, communism and socialism should not be equated.) In his 1938 book, The Challenge of Housing, New York City Housing Commissioner Langdon Post questioned if government involvement in housing was “the backdoor to socialism?” The collective nature of public housing and government involvement in housing more generally faced opposition from those who feared that government-operated housing was the beginning of communism or socialism in America.
The Housing Act of 1937, also known as the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act, took on the same functions as its predecessor in tackling job creation and building of public housing. The newly formed United States Housing Authority (USHA) now oversaw public housing instead of the PWA. However, from its beginning, control over the building and maintenance was given to local public housing authorities. The USHA provided grants and loans to local housing authorities to build the housing as well as allowing them to issue bonds for this purpose. Because rents covered operating costs, the earliest public housing did not serve the poorest Americans but rather those with some form of income.
Even after the USHA began overseeing public housing in 1937, it continued to act in the same manner as the PWA and segregated neighborhoods where it had not previously existed. Specifically, “the USHA manual warned that it was undesirable to have projects for white families ‘in areas now occupied by Negroes’ and added: ‘The aim of the [local housing] authority should be the preservation rather than the disruption of community social structures which best fit the desires of the groups concerned.’” In part, this occurred because early federal public housing legislation emphasized local control. The Housing Act of 1937 gave cities control over where and if public housing would be constructed. Some suburbs chose not to create a public housing authority in their municipality to avoid housing low-income families. If a local government did establish a housing authority, they were allowed to decide where to site projects. Residents in white neighborhoods often spoke out against public housing developments near their homes. If the local housing authority did build a project in a white neighborhood, it could be deemed exclusively for low-income, white residents. These practices of explicit segregation in housing developments continued through the 1940s and 1950s but siting subsidized housing in well-resourced neighborhoods continues to be an issue to this day.
Like many other pieces of housing legislation, the powerful real estate lobby opposed the creation of a federal public housing program. The 1937 Act reflected their influence as the federal government agreed to only build public housing for Americans with the lowest incomes so as not to create competition for the private housing industry. The lobby also influenced the creation of the “equal elimination agreement” which said that for every unit of public housing built, one unit of slum housing had to be torn down or rehabilitated. The goal behind this provision was to keep competition in the low-income housing market at a minimum for those in the private industry. Public housing advocates had mixed views about slum clearance. Some wanted to develop public housing on vacant land while others wanted it built directly on cleared slum sites. While the 1937 Act made both options a possibility, slum clearance with the building of public housing on-site became more common.
The 1940s: Public Housing Becomes Defense Housing
As the United States entered World War II, the country continued to face a housing shortage. In most cities, the federal government halted residential construction to channel available materials toward the war effort. However, some cities were deemed critical defense areas and allowed construction to continue as long as it was with the intent of housing defense workers. In 1940, the Lanham Act authorized the Federal Works Agency (FWA) to build public housing for defense workers and their families, and by the following year, approximately forty-four thousand defense workers were living in public housing across the country. The Lanham Act marked a shift in the purpose of public housing from that of housing low-income Americans, employing slum clearance, and reducing unemployment to serving the country by housing defense workers.
The country’s housing shortage was exacerbated as veterans returned since housing construction had stopped in most cities during the war. The real estate lobby had advocated for a provision in the Lanham Act that required the public housing units built during the war to be torn down or converted to private housing at the end of the war—again attempting to limit the potential for competition. However, the conversion did not happen as soon as the Lanham Act had mandated. Many Americans, including veterans, were living in public housing after the war since the shortage still existed, but the disposition process was eventually completed nearly a decade after the end of the war. In the postwar years, federal policies enabled homeownership to become more available to white, middle-class Americans than ever before, including for the veterans that were living in public housing. This meant that they were able to move out of public housing and into new homes, often in the suburbs.
The 1950s: Public Housing as Urban Renewal
The next piece of public housing legislation, the Housing Act of 1949, also known as the Taft-Ellender-Wagner bill, signaled another shift in goals. It no longer emphasized defense housing but now focused on urban renewal. The bill authorized more public housing units but increasingly ignored the plight of Americans living in them. It focused on urban redevelopment goals and did not require developers to build housing on cleared sites. The bill increased local control by allowing local housing authorities to deem certain areas as slums and ask for federal funds for redevelopment separate from funding for public housing, which made redevelopment without housing much more likely. Private interests benefited since cities could sell the land at reduced prices for redevelopment. Slum clearance, sometimes coupled with public housing, continued in the name of urban redevelopment. “Between 1949 and 1968, the program razed 425,000 units of housing but constructed only 125,000 units nationwide (the majority of which were luxury apartments).”
The public housing program faced a formidable test in the early 1950s. In the years immediately following World War II, the Cold War began to take shape—pinning the opposing ideologies of Soviet Union communism and American capitalism against one another. By the early 1950s, fears of communism infiltrating American institutions induced widespread paranoia. Spurred on nationally by Senator Joseph McCarthy, McCarthyism viewed communism as un-American, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigated individuals for their associations with communism. In Los Angeles, employees at the City Housing Authority, which oversaw public housing, were fired after the California Un-American Activities Committee questioned their relationships to the Communist Party and deemed their actions disloyal to the agency.
These fears of conflicting ideologies also had tangible consequences for public housing nationally during the 1950s. Congress appropriated less funding for fewer public housing units; the program only lasted through this decade because it was tied to popular urban renewal programs. Other federal housing policies continued to fund the growing suburbs. As white Americans moved out of cities, black Americans increasingly became the majority of public housing residents.
With the Housing Act of 1954, urban redevelopment became urban renewal, which expanded on the goals of redevelopment and included rehabilitation and conservation in addition to clearance. Businesses and homes in central cities were cleared to make way for urban renewal projects, including sports venues, civic centers, and highways. These projects largely came at the expense of communities of color, especially African American neighborhoods, which were often targeted for slum clearance. Many of these people ended up in public housing when they were unable to find housing on the private market due to unaffordable rents and biased mortgage lending practices.
In addition to public housing programs, slum clearance and urban renewal programs were voluntary, and the federal government could not force a city to participate. However, local officials, especially business leaders, were often interested in these federally-funded programs, specifically those that emphasized slum clearance but also public housing that could move families out of slum conditions. These local leaders looked to public housing and slum clearance programs as a means to create more productive citizens and as an economic development tool since they perceived slums as threatening to the economic vitality of central city neighborhoods.
The 1960s and 1970s: Homeownership Reigns Supreme
Into the 1960s and 1970s, federal legislation attempted to move away from traditional public housing to focus on privately-built rental housing and creating homeownership opportunities for low-income Americans. In 1960, President John F. Kennedy made segregation illegal in all federally built housing, including public housing. The Housing Act of 1968 created the Section 235 and Section 236 programs. Section 235 provided subsidized mortgage payments to income-qualifying families. While some families could benefit from these programs, many low-income families living did not have funds to sustain homeownership. Those who were able to move had relatively modest incomes, which left increasingly poorer residents. The goal behind these programs was to increase homeownership in African American communities because policymakers patronizingly perceived these “not only as a way to help stabilize urban areas at a time of maximum national unrest (‘people won’t burn down houses that they own’) but also as a way to promote virtue.” However, within a few years, these programs were riddled with scandal and eventually influenced President Richard Nixon’s decision to put a year-long moratorium on public housing in 1973. In the following year, Congress created the voucher program, known as Section 8, as a part of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974.
Even as waitlists for those in need of housing grew, authorities began demolishing public housing projects in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Saint Louis. In 1972, three high-rise towers of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe development were razed by the Saint Louis Housing Authority. The media created a public spectacle of the demolition as the imploding buildings were televised for the nation to witness. Critics of Pruitt-Igoe suggested the housing development was representative of stereotypical ills, such as crime and buildings in disrepair, and that these were exacerbated by the high-rise structures themselves. However, these dilapidated conditions in public housing developments across the country were no accident but were representative of decades of disinvestment. Rental incomes and inadequate federal funding could not keep up with rising operation costs caused by needed repairs. Toward the end of the decade, many housing authorities declared bankruptcy.
The 1980s and 1990s: Redeveloping Public Housing
Programs in the 1980s and 1990s continued to focus on moving families out of public housing and into private housing. This coincided with a larger shift to remove Americans from the welfare system and privatize public goods. The 1984 Project Self-Sufficiency sought to get 10,000 single mothers out of public housing and off of other government programs. Similarly, Operation Bootstrap in 1989 added 3,000 families to the program. Similar to the programs from the late 1960s, the intended goal was to increase ownership among this population. Although evidence revealed that this did not work for the majority of families, Congress created the Family Self-Sufficiency Program in 1990, required all housing authorities to participate by 1993, and had approximately 60,000 people enrolled by 1996.
During the 1990s, the Department of Housing and Urban Development once again turned to redeveloping public housing in the form of a program known as HOPE VI (or Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere) after the Department’s Secretary tried and failed to sell units to its residents. Contrary to the Secretary’s plan, “Congress recognized that the vast majority of public housing residents lacked the stable income stream to support the financial responsibility of homeownership and acknowledged that most large urban public housing projects—the biggest problem in the whole system—were too decrepit to seem a terribly attractive investment.” Instead, HUD selected what they determined to be the most distressed developments to be redeveloped through HOPE VI. However, redevelopment most often meant demolition. These communities were intended to be replaced with low-rise, mixed-income, and privately-managed housing. During this program, units did not have to be replaced, which meant some residents lost their housing with no place to return to.
In a 2017 interview, HUD Secretary Ben Carson stated, “Success is not how many people we can put into public housing, it’s how many we can get out of it.” Moving households to safe, affordable housing is a goal that the nation should aspire to. Further, eliminating poverty for families who live in public housing so that they do not need subsidized housing is noble. However, Secretary Carson seems to suggest not the elimination of poverty but the elimination of public housing itself. His statement is representative of a continuation of the values and policies that have shaped public housing since its inception. Privatism and individualism continue to inform legislation as they have since the 1930s.
Public housing continues to be inadequately funded compared to the number of families who qualify to live in it. As private housing becomes increasingly unaffordable across the country, it is necessary to engage in a critical conversation about housing, including how to house our low- or no-income neighbors. The history of public housing was not inevitable and neither is its future. As we consider its future, it is important to recall this history and remember that we can implement an alternative, more effective program going forward.
- From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors by Lawrence Vale
- The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
- Making a Better World: Public Housing, the Red Scare, and the Direction of Modern Los Angeles by Don Parson
- Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal by Gail Radford
- Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 by Arnold R. Hirsch
- From Tenements to the Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America edited by John F. Bauman, Roger Biles, and Kristin M. Szylvian
- The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
- 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green
- National Public Housing Museum in Chicago
- Tenement Museum in New York City