Public Housing in the United Staes

Public housing in the United States

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Public housing in the United States has been administered by federal, state and local agencies to provide subsidized assistance for low-income and poor people. Increasingly provided in a variety of settings, public housing used to be one or more blocks of low-rise and/or high-rise housing operated by a government agency. They are often referred to as "the projects".


In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, government involvement in housing for the poor was chiefly in the area of requiring new buildings to meet certain standards - like having airshafts - for decent livability.

Most housing communities developed from the 1930s onward under the auspices of the housing division of the Public Works Administration and, after 1937, the United States Housing Authority created by the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act. Most of the initial public housing could be considered slum clearance; there wasn't a national initiative in place to build housing for the poor and so the number of units didn't increase. This helped ease the concerns of a health-conscious public by eliminating or altering neighborhoods commonly considered dangerous, and reflected progressive-era sanitation initiatives. However, the advent of make-shift tent communities during the Great Depression caused concern in the Administration. Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote in 1938, "Today, we are launching an attack on the slums of this country."

A housing project in Asheville, North Carolina

Public housing in its earliest decades was usually much more working-class and middle-class and white than it was by the 1960s and after. Many Americans associate large, multi-story towers with public housing, but early projects, like the Ida B. Wells projects in Chicago, were actually low-rise, though Le Corbusier superblocks caught on before World War II, as seen in the (union built) Penn South houses in New York.

What Kenneth T. Jackson and other historians have called the "ghettofication" of public housing occurred for several reasons. One reason was the general weakening of the urban working classes.

Other reasons for the ghettofication of public housing can be attributed to broad public policy decisions. Federal law required that no person could pay more than a quarter of his or her income for rent in public housing. Since middle class people would pay as much, or more, for rent in public housing as they would in superior private housing, middle class people had no incentive to live in public housing at all. Another public policy factor that led to the decline in public housing was that, in general, city housing agencies ceased to screen tenants (New York City was an exception). In the 1940s, some public housing agencies, such as the Chicago Housing Authority under Elizabeth Wood, would only accept married tenants and gave special benefits to war veterans.

The federal government no longer pays to build housing projects. Since the early 1990s, it has given money under HOPE VI to tear down distressed projects, to be replaced by mixed communities built with private partners.[1]

In reaction to the problems surrounding public housing, the US Congress passed legislation enacting the Section 8 Housing Program in 1974, which Richard Nixon signed into law, to encourage the private sector to construct affordable homes. This kind of housing assistance assists poor tenants by giving a monthly subsidy to their landlords. This assistance can be 'project based,' which applies to specific properties, or 'tenant based,' which provides tenants with a voucher they can use anywhere vouchers are accepted. Virtually no new project based Section 8 housing has been produced since 1983. Effective October 1, 1999, existing tenant based voucher programs were merged into the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which is today the primary means of providing subsidies to low income renters. The George W. Bush Administration has recently proposed controversial changes to the Housing Choice Voucher Program.


Public housing was only built with the blessing of the local government. Hence, unlike France, projects were almost never built on suburban greenfields. Usually projects were built in older neighborhoods, whose old housing was demolished to make way for them. The destruction of tenements and eviction of their low-income residents consistently created problems in nearby neighborhoods with "soft" real estate markets.

The destruction of deteriorating buildings to make room for public housing often created problems in adjacent neighborhoods. An excellent example of this phenomenon can be found in Brooklyn. When blocks of slums in the Brownsville district were cleared to make room for public housing in the 1920s, thousands of displaced families moved into the neighboring district of East New York, which at that time was a predominantly white, middle-class area with a stable economy. The sudden influx of large, lower-income black and Hispanic families from Brownsville strained the physical and social services of the community. A mass exodus of the white population began (see white flight). Within six years a healthy community became one of the most decayed and dangerous neighborhoods in the United States. A similar situation occurred when Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania attempted to tear down public housing in the Polish Hill area to make way for a Civic Arena.[2]

Source: Wikipedia

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