Public Housing Policy Research Paper Starter

Public Housing Policy

(Research Starters)

This article presents an overview of public housing in the United States. Public housing provides affordable rental housing for low-income families, elderly individuals, and person with disabilities. Despite the common perception of the decaying condition of public housing, most subsidized inner-city housing was relatively functional until the 1980s. Demolition and replacement of the most run down of the older units began in the early 1990s. The primary crisis in public housing increasingly involves the availability and affordability of old and new units as much as the adequacy of living conditions. Efforts to reform the public housing system under the 1992 HOPE VI program through the integration of public housing residents into mixed-income communities (largely based on the defensible space theory) saw more than two hundred revitalization grants awarded to more than one hundred housing authorities between 1993 and 2010. The beneficiaries of these reforms, however, have arguably been the more socially and economically advantaged households that were often least in need of access to public housing. In short, two distinctly different responses have emerged from efforts at public housing reform: one that emphasizes the integration of residents with other, more heterogeneous urban communities and another that emphasizes the social values that can be identified within public housing communities.

Keywords Brooke Amendment; Concentration Effects; Defensible Space Theory; Gautreaux Program; HOPE VI; Housing and Urban Development (HUD); One-Strike Policies; Section 8 Voucher; Set-Aside Programs; Social Capital

Social Issues


Although HOPE VI combines subsidized housing opportunities with social services (such as education programs), the reforms also go a step further in imposing strict oversight measures such as the policing of personal behavior. Nevertheless, HOPE VI is popular within much of the public housing community (Alexander, 2008).

Arguably, political decisions at the municipal level also reflect an implicit agenda to separate the poorest urban dwellers from the middle class. Freeways were constructed to allow suburban residents easy access to city centers at the same time that suburban municipal governments were able to opt-out of building programs sponsored by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) (Carter, Schill, & Wachter, 1998). Until the 1960s, African American residents in public housing had been more socially integrated with middle-class African Americans families. White households and successful working-class African American households were compelled to leave public housing in the 1960s due the loss of local employment, deteriorating living conditions, and HUD emphasis on reserving public housing for the neediest households (Curley, 2005). As such, public programs legitimately intended to help working-class African Americans often had the effect of strengthening discriminatory attitudes and even of encouraging further segregation, while existing tangible and intangible neighborhood resources deteriorated.

Concentration Effects Theory

These and other spiraling problems—poor education and employment outcomes, high crime rates, and escalating social and geographical isolation—are often grouped together under the rubric of the concentration effects theory. This theory tends to tie together the strands of several other theories about the downward spiral of physical and social conditions in public housing, while emphasizing two key points: all of these trends tend to be mutually re-enforcing, and they were largely limited to public housing populations (Carter, Schill, & Wachter, 1998). The horror stories that proliferate in the popular media about terrible living conditions in public housing, however, are only characteristic of about 100,000 of five million units (Rice, 2006). A 1992 study similarly concluded that about 6 percent of public housing units were uninhabitable at that time (Brazley & Gilderbloom, 2007). According to a report by the National Council on Disability, there was a 24 percent reduction in public housing units between 2000 and 2010, from 1.28 million to about 976,000 units, due to the demolition of 150,000 units under the HOPE IV program and the loss of units declared uninhabitable. Although the HOPE IV oversaw the construction of 50,000 replacement public housing units, this was insufficient to replace the demolished and decrepit buildings (National Council on Disability, 2010). Despite the shortfall, the HOPE IV program has generally been considered successful in transferring public housing residents into mixed-income communities.

Unlike the factors that contribute to the concentration effects theory, the principles underlying the current practice of relocating public housing residents to mixed-income neighborhoods point in decidedly different directions. On one hand, relocation is likely to result in a greater sense of safety, material improvement, and possibly exposure to healthier education-based and work-related environments. On the other hand, relocation itself is disruptive and can sever the social networks that have developed within public housing communities. This form of social capital is arguably the greatest advantage held by residents of public housing, in addition to manageable rent. In other words, it is important to draw a sharp distinction between forced or implicit segregation and efforts to maintain an "asset-based" strategy that emphasizes community, familiarity, and solidarity within public housing developments. The assets-based approach might help to explain why many public housing residents tend to favor the harsh measures, such as one-strike eviction clauses, to which they themselves are subjected (Alexander, 2008).

The term "affordable housing" usually indicates housing expenses not greater than 30 percent of income. Residents of public housing have paid roughly that portion of their income in rent; the remaining amount is subsidized. The median income in neighborhoods surrounding public housing developments has usually been three times higher than the average income within public housing (Mele, 2003).

Homeownership Opportunity for People Everywhere (HOPE VI)

The conventional high density of poverty in public housing developments has been, at least, an addressable problem at the level of urban planning. Most HOPE VI neighborhoods contain a large number of market-priced single-family homes, a handful of homes sold below the market price, and some subsidized apartments in low-rise buildings (Rice, 2006). HOPE VI programs, however, are only available to a small portion of public housing residents due to the screening process and limited availability; the waiting time to secure a new unit can be several years. About 1.4 million households that qualify for public housing receive Section 8 vouchers, and some of those recipients are waiting for a HOPE VI unit (Curley, 2005). The screening process involves credit checks, criminal background checks, employment records, and even continuing home inspections and supervision. This process is largely an extension of the welfare reforms of 1996 in that it places emphasis on competition for opportunities and on illustrating and maintaining self-sufficiency. Past protests against a Public Housing Agency, a local administrator of HUD policies and programs, are also likely to prevent a household from gaining access to a HOPE VI waiting list (Hackworth, 2005).

The first decade of HOPE VI expended $5.3 billion, and more than twice as many units were demolished as have been constructed. The mixture of subsidized housing and social services, however, is significant. More emphasis has been placed on job training, child care, education, and case management (Curley, 2005). When a new public housing development is announced, thousands of applicants routinely sign up in a matter of days (Rice, 2006). The relocation procedure among qualified applicants is largely a lottery (Hackworth, 2005). Public housing residents holding a valid lease in units that are about to be demolished are usually given Section 8 vouchers, but the acquisition process for Section 8 vouchers among new applicants can take years (Belluck, 1998).

Set-Aside Programs

Under set-aside programs, more than one hundred cities and counties have enacted legislation requiring the existence of some low-cost housing. These requirements are not always enforced, but tax credits are provided to real estate developers to build affordable rental units. The real estate industry generally opposes set-aside requirements. Small, low-rise apartment buildings constructed under set-aside programs have recently been disguised as large luxurious houses in order to preserve aesthetic neighborhood continuity. Numerous efforts have been made to meet set-aside requirements through highly creative financing schemes combining public funds, private builders, and community organizations (such as churches), but doing so is only economically feasible in a healthy real estate market (Rice, 2006). There is a growing body of evidence indicating that HOPE VI programs are more beneficial to business districts and real estate interests than to low-income households. The inner-city land that had been used for high-rise public housing buildings and that HOPE VI projects have reclaimed is of considerable value (Curley, 2005).

Further Insights


Public housing initially grew out of New Deal legislation, the United States Housing Act of 1937 (also known as the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act). The new housing developments at that time were intended to provide safe and sanitary living conditions for low-income earners who had previously resided in slums, but they were also a public works project meant to stimulate the economy and create jobs during the Great Depression. In many large northern cities, the total population declined between about 1950 and 1970 as the number of people living in poverty increased proportionally and even in absolute terms. In Cleveland, poverty tended to expand near other pockets of poverty. In Boston, by contrast, some pockets grew worse in both inner and outer areas of the city, while other sections improved through social integration or displacement. In most cases, however, it was quite clear that there was a strong connection between urban planning and the patterns of poverty (Carter, Schill, & Wachter, 1998).

That tendency was even more pronounced in Chicago. The American Civil Liberties Union initiated a class-action lawsuit against the Chicago Housing Authority, Gautreaux v. CHA, in 1966. In 1976, the Supreme Court decided that the Chicago Housing Authority had defied the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education by constructing public housing in areas with a high concentration of poor minorities. A subsequent experiment in relocation known as the Gautreaux Project resulted from the court-ordered dismantling of discriminatory housing practices in Chicago. It was possible to trace and directly compare the relocated households that had received Section 8 vouchers in both inner-city and suburban environments, and the latter group clearly benefited from integration into a largely white, middle-class community. The adults in those families did not exhibit substantial changes, but the children were significantly better off in education and employment outcomes. The group that was relocated to inner-city neighborhoods did not exhibit a similar pattern of improved outcomes (Curley, 2005).

The success of this experiment became a model for later programs, most notably the 1994 Moving to Opportunities (MTO) program. The MTO program resulted in a similar improvement in education outcomes, but the employment and welfare-based outcome did not match the results of the Gautreaux Project, the participants of which had also received additional education and supervision regarding the expectations that accompanied movement to a middle-class neighborhood. The MTO was also less ambitious in its relocation agenda, in that public housing residents were...

(The entire section is 5331 words.)