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Public Housing Policy in the USA

Public Housing

Public housing, introduced at federal level in 1937, provides for low-cost housing through public financing by means of publicly owned and managed multi-family developments. Several cities began providing public housing prior to the 1937 Housing Act, through local programs of their own. Furthermore, it was these kinds of local programs that helped mold the model for the federal program. Public Housing was environed to be a solution for homelessness, but due to several problems with residents and owners it was not as successful as planned. Although there are multiple themes and topics related to public housing and its poor success this paper will solely focus on 6 themes that are critical in understanding the history and advancement of public housing. These themes are in regards to the population it was aimed for, financing, federal public housing authority, local public housing authorities, design, and urban renewal.

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Public housing did not originally aim to provide housing for the “extreme” lower-class, it was actually aimed towards select members of the working class. More specifically, public housing’s original design intended to serve the needs of the industrial middle class, who were temporarily unemployed or lacked adequate employment during the Great Depression.[1] After the Second World War concluded, many individuals and members of the working class were able to purchase their own homes by utilizing low-interest mortgages via Federal Housing Administration (FHA). However, discriminatory practices took place through these benefits. In their study, sociologists Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, demonstrate the discriminatory nature of these practices. These benefits were targeted, for the most part, towards non-Hispanic whites and consequently helped move non-Hispanic whites into the suburbs, while simultaneously keeping blacks.[2] Although Massey and Denton’s study focus on the segregation of blacks other minority groups were also affected and segregated as well. Regardless of what minority group an individual belonged to, public housings were segregated and the higher end ones were mainly exclusive to whites while the lower end ones were mainly exclusive to minorities.

Public housing has also been viewed and portrayed as a solution for homelessness. According to urban planner Peter Marcuse’s study, many planners, architects and social workers had a more moralistic view because they believed that adequate housing was a necessity in order to improve the quality of life for slum dwellers. Furthermore, they viewed public housing as means of aiding the state in fulfilling its responsibility to ensure that decent and affordable housing was available for everyone in the United Sates. Early examples of unequal housing were the terrible conditions of the tenements where many immigrants lived, which inclusively disgusted many early reformers. As previously mentioned, minority groups lived in terrible public housing and in order to put an end to this the early reformers initiated demolition of the poor conditioned tenements, they also got rid of the design of interior rooms containing no windows, lastly they also bettered air circulation and added more lighting to public housing. The main issue with the terrible qualities of these tenants was that they led to dangerous and unsanitary living conditions. Within time, however, housing commissions were set up in many major cities in order to improve the quality of public houses by imposing regulations on landlords.[3] Landlords were therefore now being held responsible with providing adequate living conditions for all residents regardless of ethnicity and immigration status, which was consequently a major improvement in comparison to the previous lack of regulations and treatment of minority based public housing.

In 1937, after a long struggle in Congress, the first national housing legislation passed. In addition to providing low-cost housing, the housing legislation also improved the deteriorating economy by providing construction jobs. Public housing was never actually thought of as being a long-term or permanent home for the poor. The actual purpose of the act was “…to alleviate present and recurring unemployment and to remedy the unsafe and insanitary housing conditions and the acute shortage of decent, safe and sanitary dwellings for families of low income…”[4] A modification was actually made to the original legislation in order to be accepted by congress which was the addition of “alleviation of unemployment” as of the main purposes of the act. This housing meant to house low-income families, which congress defined as, families who could not afford to build adequate supply of decent, safe, and sanitary residences.[5] The 1937 National Housing Legislation essentially intended to alleviate public housing of unsafe and insanitary living conditions.

Tenant screening received support from advocates of public housing because they believed that in order to for housing developments to be successful, residents needed to be employed. According to Marcuse, when public housing was first constructed, qualitative tenant screening was the norm. But, by the 1950’s and earlier, very strict tenant policies became enforced. These strict tenant policies included that large fines for property damage were imposed and unwed pregnant women could be evicted. Other criteria included that families were required to possess two parents, the head of the household needed to be employed, and families needed to have some record of good housekeeping skills. Visits were inclusively made to future tenants’ previous homes in order to see if they were suitable candidates. Occasionally checking up on public housing developments to make sure the units were being adequately taken cared of, was another common practice.[6]

The Federal Housing Authority developed several policies and programs as a response to difficulties with congress and to cope with presidential administrations. Problems with congress began with the first housing act, because it funded fewer units than it was designed to. According to law and real estate expert Michael Schill, the act only funded capital costs and expected rental income to cover most of the operational and maintenance costs.[7] Congress however wrongfully blamed rising costs in public housing to poor management. The real reason for rising costs were actually due to old buildings needing to be refurbished, high inflation, and increasing expenses. High inflation took place mainly due to tenant incomes declining. Financial problems also escalated with a small affluence of public housing construction between 1969 and 1970. The need to fund construction and other physical needs to public houses had a negative economic impact on residents, especially during that time because they’re income was significantly lower than usual. Public housing authorities were consequently left with a nearly impossible choice of raising rents, decreasing services and maintenance, or doing both.

In January of 1973, the Nixon administration sanctioned a freeze on most federal housing programs. However, according to R. Allen Hays, Nixon and his advisors later viewed public housing as a tried and true program which is why the freeze was shortly lifted and Section 8 was created. Section 8 intended to replace both low and moderate income subsidy programs, ultimately it was intended to avoid too much exclusion of people of very low incomes and too much density of very low income individuals. The impact of section 8 was not a successful one because it was the low-point of subsidized housing production for the entire decade. It was not until Carter administration’s that subsidized housing construction rose. Although Carter had many unsuccessful initiatives, public housing was an obvious exception because during his administration housing programs reached high levels of production.[8] One dispute in favor of public housing was that it couldn’t be entirely removed because of humanitarian and social cost reasons. Not even Congress could bring itself to completely abolish public housing. Public housing was crucial in not only providing housing for people in legitimate need but it also proved to be economically beneficially because it meant less vagrants and also created a greater circulation of wealth. However, in means of being economically beneficially, it was not as successful as it was in providing housing. This was in fact one of the only things public housing was successful in, because it suffered from many other problems.

Furthermore, Local Public Housing Authorities also suffered due to rising rents and reduction of services. This took place during the 1960s and it displeased many tenants which created a series of rent strikes, which eventually concluded with the Brooke Amendment being added to the 1969 Housing Act. [9] In 1971 the Brooke Amendment provided operating subsidies to housing authorities to pay for losses and deficits and also capped public housing rents at 25% of the household’s income. Also, in order to qualify for admission, tenants’ incomes were required to be less than 80% of the area’s median income. Low-performing housing authorities continued to struggle, because their neglect led to the need of many repairs and modernization being needed. These housing authorities delayed maintenance needs and did not adequately fund modernization. Also low percentage of the rent going wards operation costs had a negative impact of public housing. Lastly, the solution of the housing authorities was a poor and greedy one because instead of increasing the percentage they increased the rent, which only led to the continuation of maintenance problems and buildings rapidly perishing.

Beginning around the early 2000’s, the majority of the federal housing dollars began to be used for tenant-based housing vouchers, known as “Housing Choice Vouchers.” The way it works is the recipient pays 30% of their income towards rent and the voucher covers any difference there may be between what they paid and the rental price of the unit. According to Carole Walker and David Varady’s study, these vouchers have failed to satisfy the need of the public to have affordable housing.[10] One of the reasons why these vouchers have had little success is because individuals with vouchers have difficulty finding a public house because landlords prefer to rent to unsubsidized families because they can charge them higher rents.

Poor design of developments is another problem that many public housing residents faced. Many public houses had no ventilation and windows in their interior rooms, which made meant that these public houses had rooms filled with unsanitary air. There was also a poor amount of light, which signified that man of these rooms were very dark in the sense that they had no windows, proper air flow, and adequate lighting. These houses resembled mental institutions more than houses. Families could therefore not thrive in in that environment because it was a very neglected and gloomy environment.[11]

By the early 1940’s, high-rises was seen as a solution to provide an adequate living environment for tenants and also as a way to provide a better image for public houses. High rise buildings was glorified due to providing more spacing, but economically they were not as glorified because they were not exactly the cheapest form of public housing developments. High rises were more expensive in the long run than any other development because they provided much more units which meant much more operational and maintenance costs. They were also much more expensive and difficult to build which is why in some cases architects were unable to properly execute their original architectural/design plans.[12]

Due to cost reasons and in order to encourage residents to better themselves, limits on unit amenities were enforced. One way which limits on unities were made due to cost reasons was how several services were no longer provided and how poor quality units were produced. Interestingly enough, Congress and housing authorities blamed tenants for the terrible conditions of the units when in reality it was mostly their own fault. Many of the services no longer provided were reliable elevators and some of the poor units produced had inadequate floor space.[13] This led to several security problems, which is why many housing authorities put the blame on the tenants, but in reality they were the source of the problem.

Many public housing developments were also designed to be separated from the rest of the neighborhood/community. An example of this is how at times zoning policies placed buildings diagonally into the pattern of the street. A break in the street grid was also implemented in order to separate the public housing development from the rest of the neighborhood.[14] Due to its peculiar institutional look, many developments have become easily to identify visually, which has led to it being subjected to stigmatization and isolation. This is why its massive structure has been negatively critiqued. All these negative results were by no means intended or anticipated, it was a complete shock to housing authorities and architects, because the result it was supposed to produce was a benefit to residents. Residents were supposed to benefit from the design because they would be able to distinguish their residences from the rest of the neighborhood and be viewed as a symbolic building, but its separation from the community actually led to backlash. This was also only a logical result because if tenants are separated from the community they are not allowed to coexist with everyone else and provide a better image of themselves. By being isolated they only provoke a negative image of not wanting to be part of the community.

Initially Site selection was completely under local control. However, this was a problem because local authorities carried on discriminatory site selection. Racial segregation was one of the practices they carried on in which a larger amount and the better quality ones were designated for whites over blacks and any other minority group. Local housing authorities also separated each racial into their own developments, i.e. some only housed blacks, some only housed whites, some only housed Mexicans, and some only housed Chinese.[15] A clearer example is the William Houses project in Brooklyn, New York which was exclusive to whites, and no other ethnic group was allowed to reside there. Another example is the Harlem River Houses project in Manhattan, which was built exclusively for blacks. This project was also built as a way to silence the demands made by the African-American community in New York for access to public housing.

Urban renewal initiated in 1949 with Title I of the Housing Act, but proved to be problematic because it made it possible for large-scale slum clearance to take place without requiring that all cleared housing be replaced.[16] Law expert, Lawrence M. Friedman, emphasized in his study the dangerous aspects of slum housing and how it was crucial that it be illegalized in order to avoid further unsanitary living conditions which could spread not only among the slum housings but among greater society as well.[17] Actions would begin to take place with laws, however some of these laws were not effective. Title I for example did not mandate construction of low-income housing. Living conditions of the poor was largely disregarded due to the fact that it did not concern most of the population, since most of the U.S. population was middle-class. However, unsanitary living conditions could affect the greater population through the spread of diseases. This was one of the reasons why actions were taken towards slum clearance but unfortunately they were not effective and irrational. Gans documented a horrible example of urban renewal, a slum clearance project that took place in the West End of Boston, with little support from the neighborhood residents.[18] This was especially shocking because it signified the removal of a community that appeared to be perfectly functional. What was additionally more irrational was how the renewal process would be quite lengthy and would leave large unproductive areas in the center of the city. Although actions were being made in order to clear slum housing, the process was slow and irrational.

The 1949 Housing Act ordered for 810,000 units of public housing to be constructed. However, by December of 1951 only 84,600 units of public housing were actually under construction. This led to the creation of the 1954 Housing Act, which mandated that public housing be built solely in areas of urban renewal/slum clearance. Therefore, new public housing no longer increased housing supply, instead it replaced deteriorating housing. Furthermore, slum dwellers faced the problem of displacement because they had to wait for the new promised public housing to be fully functional. That is why investment in urban renewal increased, because of the decline of public housing construction.[19]

To conclude, public housing was originally designed in order to provide housing for all low-income individuals and families, but as time went on the infamous question of the deserving poor was brought up and low-income individuals and families had to fit into certain regulations in order to be allowed to live in public housing. Public housing also faced many financial difficulties at the federal level due to difficulties with congress and presidential administrations. Financial problems were also present at a local level and were reflected with poor housing authorities and rising rents and reduction of services. The actual design of these public housings also proved to be problematic, and its most problematic feature were perhaps the segregation among them and the violence that arose from some of these. Overall, public housing failed to be as successful as originally environed, because in practice they suffered from overcrowdings, racial tensions, violence, poor management, and financial problems.


Bickford, Adam, and Douglas S Massey. Segregation in the Second Ghetto: Racial and Ethnic Segregation in American Public Housing, 1977. Social Forces. 69, no. 4. 1991.

Friedman, Lawrence M. Government and Slum Housing: Some General Considerations. Law and Contemporary Problems. 32, no. 2. 1967.

Hays, R. Allen. The Federal Government and Urban Housing Ideology and Change in Public Policy. 2nd ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Gans, Herbert J. The High-rise Fallacy. Design Quarterly. 24. 1992.

Gans, Herbert J. The urban villagers; group and class in the life of Italian-Americans.. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1962.

Marcuse, Peter. The Myth of the Benevolent State: Towards a Theory of Housing. New York: Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture and Planning, 1978.

Milbert, Isabelle. Slums, Slum Dwellers and Multilevel Governance. The European Journal of Development Research. 18, no. 2. 2006.

Public Housing. Social Service Review. 11, no. 1. 1937.

Schach, Janice Cervelli. Planning and Design of Public Housing an Evolution of Structure. Landscape and Urban Planning. 39, no. 2. 1997.

Schill, Michael. Distressed Public Housing: Where Do We Go from Here? 60 University of Chicago Law Review 497. 1993.

The United States Housing Act of 1937, as amended, and provisions of other laws and of executive orders pertaining to the United States housing act of 1937, as amended. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, U.S. Housing Authority, 1938.

Walker, Carole, and David Varady. “Housing Vouchers and Residential Mobility.” Journal of Planning Literature, 18.1 2003.

[1] Bauman, John. Public housing, race, and renewal: urban planning in Philadelphia, 1920-1974. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.

[2] Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of an Underclass. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

[3] Marcuse, Peter. The Myth of the Benevolent State: Towards a Theory of Housing. New York: Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture and Planning, 1978. 248-263.

[4] The United States Housing Act of 1937, as amended, and provisions of other laws and of executive orders pertaining to the United States housing act of 1937, as amended. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, U.S. Housing Authority, 1938.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Marcuse, Peter. The Myth of the Benevolent State: Towards a Theory of Housing.

[7] Schill, Michael. Distressed Public Housing: Where Do We Go from Here? 60 University of Chicago Law Review 497. 1993.

[8] Hays, R. Allen. The Federal Government and Urban Housing Ideology and Change in Public Policy. 2nd ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Walker,Carole, and David Varady. “Housing Vouchers and Residential Mobility.” Journal of Planning Literature, 18.1 2003.

[11] Schach,Janice Cervelli. Planning and Design of Public Housing an Evolution of Structure. Landscape and Urban Planning. 39, no. 2. 1997.

[12] Gans,Herbert J. The High-rise Fallacy. Design Quarterly. 24. 1992.

[13] Schach,Janice Cervelli. Planning and Design of Public Housing an Evolution of Structure. 1997.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Bickford,Adam, and Douglas S Massey. Segregation in the Second Ghetto: Racial and Ethnic Segregation in American Public Housing, 1977. Social Forces. 69, no. 4. 1991.

[16] Public Housing. Social Service Review. 11, no. 1. 1937.

[17] Friedman,Lawrence M. Government and Slum Housing: Some General Considerations. Law and Contemporary Problems. 32, no. 2. 1967.

[18] Gans, Herbert J. The urban villagers; group and class in the life of Italian-Americans.. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1962.

[19] Milbert,Isabelle. Slums, Slum Dwellers and Multilevel Governance. The European Journal of Development Research. 18, no. 2. 2006.


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