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date: 31 March 2023

Public Housing in Urban Americafree

Public Housing in Urban Americafree

  • D. Bradford HuntD. Bradford HuntVice President for Research and Academic Programs, Newberry Library


Public housing emerged during the New Deal as a progressive effort to end the scourge of dilapidated housing in American cities. Reformers argued that the private market had failed to provide decent, safe, and affordable housing, and they convinced Congress to provide deep subsidies to local housing authorities to build and manage modern, low-cost housing projects for the working poor. Well-intentioned but ultimately misguided policy decisions encouraged large-scale developments, concentrated poverty and youth, and starved public housing of needed resources. Further, the antipathy of private interests to public competition and the visceral resistance of white Americans to racial integration saddled public housing with many enemies and few friends. While residents often formed tight communities and fought for improvements, stigmatization and neglect undermined the success of many projects; a sizable fraction became disgraceful and tangible symbols of systemic racism toward the nation’s African American poor. Federal policy had few answers and retreated in the 1960s, eventually making a neoliberal turn to embrace public-private partnerships for delivering affordable housing. Housing vouchers and tax credits effectively displaced the federal public housing program. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration encouraged the demolition and rebuilding of troubled projects using vernacular “New Urbanist” designs to house “mixed-income” populations. Policy problems, political weakness, and an ideology of homeownership in the United States meant that a robust, public-centered program of housing for use rather than profit could not be sustained.


  • Economic History
  • Urban History
  • Labor and Working Class History

Public housing in the United States began with great promise and the best of intentions during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. Progressive reformers, after decades of frustration with the private housing market, pushed Congress to enact a federal-local partnership to clear slums and construct modern, large-scale housing intended for the utopian uplift of the working poor. But by the 1970s, many projects began a downward spiral characterized by deferred maintenance, broken infrastructures, and increasing poverty of residents. By the 1990s, public housing was the nation’s most problematic social welfare program. Overt and structural racism, misguided policy choices, and the politics of the US welfare state deeply undermined projects, turning them into underfunded, badly maintained warehouses for the urban poor. With their often bleak architecture and disproportionately African American tenancy, “the projects” became racialized shorthand for urban poverty, imprinted on the built environment in concrete form.

But generalizations about public housing are often misleading. The program evolved considerably over time and produced a wide range of outcomes. Cities large and small built projects in all shapes and sizes, from sprawling agglomerations of high-rise towers to modest single-family developments. Southern states like Alabama and Georgia and conservative cities like Dallas actively participated in the program in its first decades, but Los Angeles largely shunned it after World War II. While many fled public housing as conditions deteriorated, others stayed and sank deep roots in their communities, fighting for resources and community-centered solutions. Several cities, including Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, and New Orleans, eventually dismantled the bulk of their projects, but New York City—the largest housing authority in the United States—tore down none of its high-rise developments. Many stereotypes suggest public housing serves only African Americans, but in 2017 the public housing population was 40 percent black, 34 percent white, 22 percent Latino, and 4 percent Asian and other; senior citizens amounted to 30 percent of residents that year.1 Today, housing vouchers, which provide federal subsidies for families to rent privately owned housing, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), which finances construction of privately owned affordable housing developments, have supplanted and surpassed the original New Deal program. “Public housing” is no longer a single program of government-owned housing and has evolved—often painfully and still insufficiently—into a patchwork of affordable housing programs that support low-income families.2

Still, a history of public housing must confront the fact that the program as conceived in the New Deal and widely implemented in the 1950s and 1960s proved unsustainable. Projects like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Cabrini-Green in Chicago, Tasker Homes in Philadelphia, Techwood Homes in Atlanta, and Jordan Downs Homes in Los Angeles became infamous for their dysfunction and violence, giving public housing—and the welfare state in general—a bad name. Exploding the stereotypes surrounding public housing is important, but unpacking the failures of the past is also critical, as the demise of the New Deal program had major repercussions for cities and urban politics in the 20th century.

Public Housing Launches, 1933–1945

Public housing became politically viable only after other housing reforms proved ineffective at dealing with the problems of poverty and slum housing. Progressive-era reformers convinced cities to enact building codes to regulate private housing, but few cities enforced them rigorously, as landlords chafed at inspections while tenants feared rental increases triggered by city-mandated improvements. The real estate industry argued that new construction for the middle class could improve conditions, with older housing “filtering down” to lower-income families over time. But impoverished districts with predominantly unsanitary and dilapidated housing—what progressive reformers and conservative civic interests alike labeled “slums”—continued to be profitable as a steady stream of poor migrants desperately sought urban shelter.3

The Great Depression of the 1930s and the New Deal state changed the calculus for housing reform. High unemployment, the continued presence of slums, and the collapse of new housing construction opened the door to state action (see figure 1). Progressives looked to Europe for policy ideas, made the case for direct government construction of housing, and lobbied Congress, with women playing central roles in the effort. Edith Elmer Wood developed a market failure argument that the housing problem was “insoluble . . . under the ordinary laws of supply and demand” for the “bottom third” of the population, a theme picked up by President Franklin Roosevelt, whose second inaugural address saw “one-third of a nation ill-housed.”4 Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, a long-time New York settlement house leader and founder of the National Public Housing Conference, rallied political support among urban reformers across the country. Housing reformer Catherine Bauer wrote Modern Housing (1934), a call to action based on European precedents, and won the admiration of Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY), a crucial ally.5 But Simkhovitch and Bauer did not always see eye-to-eye. The former wanted to rebuild slums with the goal of cleaning up the city and uplifting its poor residents; the latter was willing to let such neighborhoods further decay and instead wanted to design affordable modernist apartment complexes on vacant land using interwar German models. Importantly, both sought direct federal subsidies for the construction of large-scale projects at below-market rents; both believed that governments could build better communities than private developers driven by profit.6

Figure 1. New York City Housing Authority poster, 1934.

Of the two visions, “slum clearance,” as it was known, had greater political appeal. In 1933, Simkhovitch successfully lobbied Congress to authorize the Public Works Administration (PWA) to undertake slum clearance and public housing construction. Over five years, the PWA built fifty-one projects with 21,000 units, using row house and walk-up designs. But housing reformers viewed the PWA experiment as a disappointment (see figure 2). A federal court case in 1936 rejected the federal government’s use of eminent domain to obtain land for public housing; as a result, roughly half of PWA projects ended up on vacant sites. Further, the high cost of construction pushed rents out of the reach of the working poor. Reformers blamed inadequate subsidies, federal micromanagement, and excessive designs for this outcome. Few, however, openly criticized the PWA’s racial policies, including its “neighborhood composition” rule, which deferred to local norms and blocked new projects from changing the racial makeup of an area, thereby preventing racial integration at projects in all-white neighborhoods.7

Figure 2. Dedication ceremonies for Outhwaite Homes, Cleveland, Ohio, August 1937.

Source: Western Reserve Historical Society.

Learning from the PWA effort, housing reformers produced the Housing Act of 1937, which established the basic parameters of public housing for the next several decades. Bauer and Leon Keyserling, an aide to Senator Wagner, wrote much of the legislation and allowed for the development of modern housing on vacant land, but the act’s deep subsidies and greater local control also made slum clearance attractive. Under its terms, a new United States Housing Authority (USHA) agreed to pay 90 percent of the capital costs to build public housing, including buying and clearing slum land, designing new projects, and constructing them. Local housing authorities (charted by cities under state housing laws) would contribute 10 percent of capital costs, select sites, clear them, contract for construction, manage finished projects, charge sufficient rents to pay for their maintenance, and build up a reserve fund for periodic renovations. The 10 percent local contribution could be met in part by exempting projects from property taxation; in this way, cities could clear slums and build new public housing without significant cash outlay. In essence, public housing was nearly “free” to cities, at least initially. Deep subsidies would mean low rents, but in deference to real estate interests who hoped to limit public housing to the poor, the 1937 Housing Act included restrictions on tenant incomes. The law said nothing about race or racial integration, though local control over site selection and tenant selection meant deference to local customs.8

The Housing Act of 1937, coupled with other New Deal housing legislation, created what historian Gail Radford calls a “two-tiered” policy. The first tier centered on homeownership, with laws reorganizing and insuring the private mortgage market while also codifying discriminatory real estate practices in order to help whites achieve higher rates of ownership in racially exclusive communities. This vast but largely invisible set of politically popular supports and subsidies dwarfed the second tier—a limited, circumscribed, highly visible, and ultimately unsustainable public housing program intended for the working poor.9

Implementation of the 1937 Housing Act got off to a rocky start. President Roosevelt appointed New York developer Nathan Straus to lead the new USHA, but he proved to be a weak leader with a fixation on driving down costs and an inability to get along with legislators or local officials. In 1939, Congress stopped authorizations for additional public housing, but not before Straus set dangerous precedents by forcing local housing authorities to design projects with monotonous layouts and small room sizes—all to reduce costs in a misguided effort to demonstrate public housing’s frugality. Further, the law allowed local housing authorities to choose between vacant land and slum clearance; most chose the latter over Bauer’s vision of modern housing for the working class in the nascent suburbs.10

Early public housing projects were, nevertheless, highly sought after by eligible families, especially the “submerged” middle class devastated by the Great Depression. New apartments amounted to a major step up from poverty, with modern amenities like electric refrigerators, full plumbing, reliable heat, and private bedrooms. Most projects included park facilities, health clinics, and other public space. Public housing, writes historian Lawrence Vale, “was more than an attempt to destroy the slums; it was also a concomitant effort to rebuild the village.” Local housing authorities published “before” and “after” images to demonstrate public housing’s remarkable transformation of the built environment (see figure 3). Rents were set significantly below those in the private sector, resulting in long waiting lists, especially among projects open to African Americans who faced discrimination in housing and job markets. When the Ida B. Wells Homes opened on Chicago’s South Side in 1939, more than 18,000 families applied for 1,600 apartments.11

Figure 3. Before and after of slum clearance for Chicago’s Dearborn Homes, from Chicago Housing Authority, Annual Report, 1957.

But the 1937 Housing Act was barely under way when World War II intervened, and public housing’s mission quickly shifted. President Roosevelt, disdainful of Straus, reorganized the USHA out of existence in 1942, pressed many projects into service to house essential war workers, and developed new bureaucracies to meet wartime housing needs. By the end of the war, more than 625,000 public housing units had been built across the country, mostly in temporary structures including Quonset huts, trailers, and dormitories, and much of it constructed quickly on marginal sites. Enormous projects were built near the nation’s costal shipbuilding cities and airplane factories. The Planeview project near Boeing’s Wichita, Kansas, plant included 4,382 housing units, while the entirely new community of Vanport, Oregon, had 10,400 units of temporary housing, finished in a mere 110 days (see figure 4). Vanport lay near Portland’s shipyards on low-lying land, and on May 30, 1948, a flood destroyed the community, displacing 18,000 people, one-third of them African American. Other temporary projects survived into the 1950s, deteriorating into blighted communities. Racial tensions flared as whites resented the housing of African Americans in new locations; in 1942, more than two thousand police and national guardsmen protected the first six black families to integrate the all-white Sojourner Truth project in Detroit. While the massive construction of shelter supported the war effort, it did little to generate political support for the public housing program.12

Figure 4. War housing in Vanport, Oregon, 1943.

Source: Portland Archives and Records Center.

Postwar Struggles, 1945–1960

Liberals had every expectation after World War II that public housing construction would resume, especially given severe housing shortages across the country. Depression and war in the previous fifteen years meant little new private housing had been built, while returning veterans created considerable demand. But public housing faced an uphill battle in Congress throughout the postwar period, as charges of socialism from real estate interests and localized battles over race put supporters on the defensive. The Housing Act of 1949, passed after four years of stalemate, authorized 135,000 units of public housing per year for five years with nearly the same terms as in 1937, potentially a massive expansion. But the program never came close to this figure, as first the Korean War and then Republican control of Congress and the presidency sharply limited construction throughout the 1950s. Public housing survived in large part because it played an important supporting role to the federal urban renewal program (initiated in 1949 and expanded in 1954) by taking in low-income dwellers to make way for private redevelopment.13

Congressional debates reflected the deep opposition of real estate interests to public housing, which tarred the program as socialist and, more to the point, as direct governmental competition in the rental market. The National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) organized anti-public housing campaigns across the country asking, rhetorically, “Who is going to pay YOUR rent?”—a message to voters that a select few in public housing received a rent subsidy while most did not (see figure 5). NAREB’s lobbying gained traction nationwide and had its greatest success in California, which passed a state referendum in 1950 requiring city voters to directly approve the location of housing projects. Further, in a three-year battle that roiled Los Angeles politics, conservative activists forced that city to back out of a 1949 agreement on a slate of public housing projects.14

Figure 5. Pamphlet distributed by the Taxpayers Defense Council, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1950. (In the author’s possession.)

Public housing also faced backlashes over its potential for racial integration. The migration of African Americans to the urban North during the war continued in the 1950s, and where they would live preoccupied whites. In Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Seattle, and St. Louis, city leaders directed public housing into existing black neighborhoods in a not-so-subtle effort to avoid integration. Historian Arnold Hirsch argues these site decisions amounted to a “domestic containment policy,” analogous to the Cold War’s effort to contain communism in Europe, that would rebuild a “second ghetto” on top of the old one. Other cities sought to use public housing to reclaim black neighborhoods for white occupancy; Miami, for example, relocated African Americans to public housing on outlying lands so areas near downtown could be cleared. In nearly all cases, white voters placed racial considerations front and center when influencing site selection policy. Progressives fought back but often lost: Chicago officials engineered the ouster of its long-time housing leader Elizabeth Wood in 1954 when she publicly championed integration.15

In the American South, small cities and even towns embraced public housing as long as racial integration could be avoided. Local housing authorities (LHAs) sprang up across the South, and by 1958 Georgia (118 LHAs), Texas (111) and Alabama (84) led the nation in participation. As with other New Deal programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority, southern states eagerly sought federal dollars, and many cities feared slums more than socialized housing. Southern communities often constructed separate but nearly equal projects, one for whites and one for blacks, building Plessy v Ferguson onto the landscape. For example, San Antonio’s first four projects included one built one for whites, two for African Americans and one for Mexican Americans. Meanwhile, Midwestern states such as Minnesota (9 LHAs in 1958), Wisconsin (4), Nebraska (1), and Kansas (0) viewed public housing through ideological lenses, with real estate interests and political conservatism resisting participation.16

Southern enthusiasm for public housing remained strong until the issue of racial segregation reached the US Supreme Court in 1954. One week after the Brown v Board of Education decision, the Court let stand a California Supreme Court ruling that declared unconstitutional San Francisco’s segregation of public housing by race. In the decade that followed, many public housing projects racially transitioned rather than racially integrated, as the admission of African Americans led to high turnover among whites. Without policies to intentionally sustain integration (which would have required some form of quotas), public housing in many cities became predominantly African American. Black residents, who faced discriminatory housing and job markets, sought out—and remained—in public housing far longer than whites.17

By the late 1950s, liberals began to sour on public housing. In 1957, Bauer wrote a weary critique of the program to date, bemoaning that it had not “taken off” politically, creating “excessive caution, administrative rigidity, and lack of creative initiative” that resulted in designs amounting to “watered-down modernism.” Urban critic Jane Jacobs railed against the scale of public housing in her influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), saying the removal of streets to create “super-blocks” of housing contributed to anonymous communities without “eyes on the street,” thereby inviting disorder.18 These critiques, however, had little impact on public debate, at least initially. In the deepening urban crisis of the 1960s, desperate policymakers hoped more public housing might placate African American unrest. In 1965, in response to the Watts riots in Los Angeles the year before, President Lyndon Johnson reorganized housing and selected social programs into a cabinet-level agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the Housing and Redevelopment Act of 1968 authorized a surge of new public housing construction, though many cities chose to build housing for senior citizens—politically far less controversial than family units.

High-Rise Designs and Public Housing Decline: 1950–1972

Even as Congress doubled-down on public housing, the 1968 Housing Act discouraged the use of tall buildings in future public housing (except for senior housing), as it became clear that elevator buildings for families were an albatross in cities that used the form. Since the 1920s, European modernists had argued that the future of the city lay in its clearance and rebuilding with forests of tall buildings in park-like settings, and several of the largest housing authorities adopted the model for early postwar projects. But high-rises, when translated through the constraints of the public housing program, did not fare well in cities except New York. Design restrictions, driven by the federal government’s continued obsession with cost, produced monotonous, drab complexes easily stigmatized as housing for the poor. Further, some cities planned elevator buildings with a large proportion of multi-bedroom apartments to serve low-income families with several children, as such families faced the most difficulties in the private market. The resulting youth density—unprecedented demographically—exacerbated wear and tear and created problems of social order unanticipated by planners. Elevators became play spaces for children, and their constant breakdown strained high-rise living.19

The Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis showed the problems of cost-constrained, youth-filled, high-rise public housing in the extreme (figure 6). Constructed in 1954 and designed by highly regarded architect Minoru Yamasaki (who later designed the World Trade Center in New York City), the project contained 2,870 apartments in eleven-story buildings at high densities. Federal cost restrictions led to unusual choices, including the use of “skip-stop” elevators that stopped at every third floor; residents on adjoining floors had to walk up or down one flight to reach an elevator. Within a decade, the project faced serious maintenance issues due to shoddy construction and large proportions of youth. Management became overwhelmed. Disarray triggered a tenant rent strike in 1964, followed by an exodus of those with options; within a year, vacancies rose to one-third of units and the project soon became housing of last resort. Physical conditions deteriorated further, and in 1968 negotiations over the fate of the project shifted toward demolition. In 1972, the first buildings were imploded with dynamite, creating an indelible image of public housing failure. While Pruitt-Igoe was something of an anomaly—widespread demolition of public housing did not begin until the 1990s—the project represented the leading edge of deeper systemic problems that threatened the entire program.20

Figure 6. Pruit-Igoe, St. Louis, late 1960s.

Public housing’s unsustainable fiscal structure contributed to its slow unraveling. The 1937 Housing Act aimed federal subsidies only at capital costs and required housing authorities to collect enough rent to pay for ongoing maintenance. In a progressive effort to keep apartments affordable for the poor, many housing authorities set rent at 25 percent of a tenant’s income. If a family’s income fell, rent would be adjusted downward; conversely, a pay raise would trigger a rent increase. While seemingly fair-minded, income-based rents created incentives for the upwardly mobile to leave and for those without steady employment to stay, often for lengthy periods. As a result, public housing projects increasingly concentrated poverty over the course of the 1960s, thereby diminishing resources available for maintenance.21

To counteract negative trend lines, housing authorities sought to attract working-class residents and extract more rental income. But tenants complained, and beginning in 1969, Congress passed the Brooke Amendments, named after Senator Edward Brooke (R-MA), to protect low-income tenants from rental increases. In 1972, Congress belatedly recognized the fiscal crisis and authorized new federal operating subsidies to support maintenance. But the formula for distributing subsidies was left to HUD, which allocated funds based on measures of housing authority efficiency. Many big-city housing authorities scored poorly and were penalized, and thus starved of much needed resources. Meanwhile, costs exploded in the 1970s, as boilers, roofs, cabinets, and elevators reached life expectancies and needed replacement, while high youth densities required repeated repair of windows, doors, and lights. The energy crises of the 1970s sent utility costs skyrocketing, a cost absorbed by local housing authorities and not tenants. By the 1980s, the federal-local partnership had evolved into a dependent relationship, with local housing authorities entirely reliant on penurious congressional funding for basic operations.22

While other cities struggled, public housing largely thrived in New York City. That city’s experience remains a vital riposte to narratives of universal public housing failure. Between 1934 and 1965, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) constructed 154 projects with 153,000 units, volumes that dwarfed the next-closest city, Chicago (31,000 units). Of these, 69 projects used elevator buildings in large-scale developments of more than 1,000 apartments. Unlike elsewhere, public housing in New York had strong political support, was well-managed, and sustained working-class tenancy due to careful tenant selection and the city’s chronically tight private housing market. Further, residents had strong relations with NYCHA’s own police force to sustain social order. With more revenue, smaller family sizes, and less concentrated poverty—relative to other housing authorities—New York weathered public housing’s fiscal and social crises of the 1970s and 1980s. While projects experienced typical urban ills and were far from utopian, NYCHA projects nonetheless provided an enormous stock of affordable housing. Only in the 21st century, after decades of federal underfunding resulting in deferred maintenance, did the NYCHA enter its own crisis, all the more harrowing as its projects sheltered one in fourteen New Yorkers in 2017.23

The Neoliberal Turn: 1965–1992

As public housing slipped, Congress began experimenting with public-private partnerships during the 1960s in a shift that amounted to a neoliberal turn. The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 consolidated this turn by expanding trial programs for private developers to build or rehabilitate—and now own and manage—complexes designated for low-income tenancy. Even more significantly, the 1974 legislation made permanent a housing voucher experiment dating back to 1965 to subsidize low-income families in existing privately-owned housing. Collectively, these programs became known as “Section 8” housing, after the section of the 1974 act that created them. Crucially, Section 8 subsidies were more generous than the public housing program, as they guaranteed private owners a federally determined “fair market rent,” regardless of a tenant’s income. (Tenants still paid an income-based rent that offset the government’s fair market rent payment to the landlord.)

While Section 8 programs amounted to a vast expansion of affordable housing opportunities, they did little for the 1.4 million public housing units struggling to stay afloat. Many residents—especially women of color—valiantly organized to resist the profound neglect of their communities (see figure 7). In Baltimore, historian Rhonda Williams documents how African American women became politicized, challenged housing authority officials, and organized to demand action, with some success. Baltimore women were not alone, and by the 1980s a groundswell of resident organizations demanded greater power, taking head-on the Reagan administration’s hostility to public housing and the welfare state. Jack Kemp, HUD secretary under President George H. W. Bush, championed resident management of public housing as an empowerment technique, though his ultimate goal was to sell off projects. A small number of public housing residents did form resident management corporations, but the movement still faced the same maintenance and resource challenges that bedeviled housing authorities. While a handful of resident management corporations invested enormous effort to repair and maintain their developments, often preventing their demise, most found themselves at odds with housing authorities, and the commitment of time and effort proved unsustainable.24

Figure 7. Tenants confront Chicago Housing Authority commissioners, 1982.

Source: Chicago Housing Authority.

Another radical idea emerged in the 1970s and came to fruition in the 1990s, one that rejected cities and project living altogether. As part of a lengthy and complex lawsuit brought in Chicago in 1966 and eventually decided in the 1976 Supreme Court decision Hills v. Gautreaux, legal activists won a court order for a new program to actively move African American public housing residents to white suburban areas using Section 8 vouchers. The idea was that an intentional “opportunity move” would improve social outcomes for families and begin desegregation. From 1976 until 1998, counselors carefully relocated more than 7,000 Chicago public housing families to scattered suburbs and tracked their experiences. In the near-term, researchers found mixed results: participants reported decreased fear of crime but increased fear of racial harassment in their new communities. Still, the Gautreaux experiment led Congress in 1992 to authorize a federally managed demonstration effort called “Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing,” that similarly moved 4,600 public housing residents to middle-class areas around Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. But a federal program, as opposed to a court-ordered one, proved vulnerable to voices objecting to government-led social engineering; Congress cut off further funding for the program after three years.25

The neoliberal turn continued in the 1980s with the creation of a program entirely separate from HUD that soon became the primary engine for affordable housing development in the United States. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), enacted in 1986 and run by the Department of the Treasury, supported production or preservation of 2.3 million affordable housing units between 1987 and 2015. The Treasury Department allocated tax credits to state housing agencies, which awarded the credits to approved projects proposed by private developers or housing authorities, who then sold the credits to private corporations to raise cash for construction, and then the corporation reduced its federal taxes dollar-for-dollar. Regulations on tenant incomes for admission varied from state to state and project to project; most required policies that avoided concentrations of poverty. In essence, LIHTC was and is a way to attract private capital to affordable housing without direct federal outlay (the program, however, was a substantial “tax expenditure,” amounting to $7.8 billion in 2016, but one dwarfed by the $62.4 billion mortgage interest deduction). While critics point to high overhead on complex LIHTC deals, the program nonetheless produced large quantities of sustainable affordable housing that elicited less resistance from whites than did public housing or Section 8.26

Figure 8. Hope VI project, Villages at Westhaven (foreground) replaces Henry Horner Homes Extension (background), 1998.

Source: Chicago Housing Authority.

HOPE VI and Beyond, 1992–Present

The neoliberal turn eventually reached the traditional public housing program in the 1990s. By then, a subset of projects—neglected throughout the Reagan administration—were in deep crisis and no longer viable, with housing authorities practicing triage to save some units but abandoning others, a practice activists labeled “de-facto demolition.” The proportion of destitute public housing families—those with incomes below 10 percent of the local median—rose from 3 percent in 1981 to nearly 20 percent a decade later. In 1992, the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing, whose commissioners consisted largely of local housing authority leaders, argued that only 6 percent of the nation’s public housing units (86,000 apartments) could be labeled “severely distressed”—a surprisingly low figure—though it called the situation a “national disgrace.” The Commission asked for dramatically more funding, more regulatory flexibility, more social services, and more resident control in public housing.27

But rather than investing heavily in renovation of existing projects, Congress instead created the “HOPE VI” program (one of a series of “Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere” programs intended to expand affordable housing). Over two decades HOPE VI offered $6 billion to local housing authorities to rebuild severely distressed projects in new modes. The Clinton administration, under HUD Secretary and former San Antonio Major Henry Cisneros, encouraged housing authorities to create public-private partnerships to undertake redevelopment, manage properties, and deconcentrate poverty using “mixed-income” strategies that blended public housing tenants with families paying market rates. In design, HUD wanted HOPE VI redevelopments to follow the tenets of the “New Urbanist” movement of the 1990s, which called for architecture that respected local traditions; no longer would public housing’s aesthetic create stigmas (see figure 8).

Responses varied greatly by city. Atlanta led the way, aggressively using HOPE VI to tear down over 12,000 public housing units and rebuild approximately 4,000 affordable units under private management; in the process, 10,000 families were relocated using Section 8 vouchers (renamed Housing Choice Vouchers in 2001). Baltimore and Chicago soon followed much of the “Atlanta Blueprint,” though on a larger scale and with extensive acrimony; critics called Chicago’s displacement and demolition in advance of replacement housing a form of “urban cleansing.” Within a decade, nearly all of Baltimore and Chicago’s high-rise public housing came down, though the promised mixed-income communities materialized only years later. Housing Choice Vouchers kept total affordable opportunities nearly neutral, but the demolition and slow rebuilding dramatically altered the physical and demographic landscapes of these cities, and residents often took the brunt of change.28

Other cities prioritized tenants over clearance and avoided a net loss of “hard” (i.e., government-owned) public housing units. For example, in San Francisco, activists and tenants organized at North Beach Place to win full replacement of the project’s 229 public housing units as part of a 341-unit, HOPE VI–funded redevelopment. Overall, the “mix” of incomes also ranged widely among the 260 HOPE VI grants awarded between 1993 and 2010. Some thirty HOPE VI projects remained completely targeted to low-income families, while roughly 12 percent skewed toward high-income residents, as in Atlanta and Chicago. Still, just over half supported a predominantly low-income tenant mix.29

The mixed-income solution for public housing gained traction mostly because it promised to remove unsightly buildings and problematic concentrations of poverty—especially African American poverty. To justify its radical reshaping of communities, HOPE VI advocates suggested that mixing incomes was good for low-income families because proximity to middle-class and affluent families would—somehow vaguely and certainly condescendingly—rub off on the poor and improve life opportunities. Research in the last decade has consistently failed to demonstrate these “proximity” effects but did find improved security and city services in rebuilt communities.30


Public housing’s historical balance sheet remains a contested space. On the one hand, projects constructed in the first few decades replaced slums and provided modern housing at affordable rents for low-income families—a godsend for many. But those same projects displaced many, were often located for segregationist ends, and reinforced race and class divides. While the majority of projects continue to perform reasonably well and remain an asset, a portion failed spectacularly, stigmatizing residents and dragging down the program. Still, residents formed tight-knit communities out of these struggles and were often reluctant to leave, even as media coverage and popular culture presented public housing in stark terms as dangerous and deviant. The neoliberal turn marked a rejection of government-owned and government-managed public housing but has nonetheless resulted in a vast expansion of affordable housing opportunities.

Despite these contradictions, public housing is far from dead, but its delivery has radically changed. Of 1.4 million public housing units build nationwide under the terms of the 1937 Housing Act, roughly 1.0 million remain in operation in 2017. Hope VI redevelopments, while drawing much attention, remain a small fraction of this universe—less than 5 percent of units were redeveloped. Public-private partnerships surpassed conventional public housing: the Housing Choice Voucher program served 2.2 million households and HUD provided project-based subsidies to another 1.2 million units in 2017. All told, HUD supported five million households that year with deep federal subsidies, a figure that rose dramatically in the 1970s but plateaued after 2000. Still, another eight million households in 2017 remained unserved with “worst-case” housing needs, paying more than 50 percent of their income toward rent or living in severely inadequate housing, or both.31 Public housing in the United States still leaves many behind.

The neoliberal turn had the effect of decoupling “public” from “housing.” While HUD’s programs from the 1970s made subsidies largely invisible, they also removed a strong public presence in housing policy. During two centuries, governments in the United States produced, managed, and controlled a wide range of public goods, including public schools, public roads, public parks, public hospitals, and municipally owned water systems, to name a few. But the question of a public commitment to providing housing for citizens has proved far more contentious. Unlike in many European countries, which embraced a strong state role in developing housing for the working poor, the United States never considered housing to be a human right, let alone an entitlement program like Social Security. This failure of the state, however, came from the painful experience of seeing a New Deal program sink under the weight of structural racism, misguided policies, inadequate subsidies, and little political support. The neoliberal turn in housing, then, is a historical artifact more than an ideological one.

Discussion of the Literature

The experience of Chicago dominates much of the literature of public housing, starting with Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940–1960. His pathbreaking study presents public housing and urban renewal programs as powerful governmental tools in the hands of the city’s white power structure who hoped to contain African Americans. Site selection and tenant practices served segregationist ends and, by implication, doomed public housing to failure. Monographs on other cities, including Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Oakland, confirm similar site selection patterns and collectively form a “second ghetto thesis” on postwar urban policy. Still, site selection was only one of many variables influencing public housing outcomes, and the link between location and failure remains tenuous.32

A recent stream in the literature moves away from “second ghetto” studies to more directly recover tenant agency, especially among African American women. In these presentations, residents are beneficiaries and defenders of public housing, not simply victims, and their stories offer a counterpoint to state-centered perspectives focused on the white power structure. The recovery efforts by Roberta Feldman and Susan Stall, Rhonda Williams, Lisa Levenstein, Amy Howard, and Sudhir Venkatesh use oral history and careful cultivation of sources to tell the story of residents who demanded landlord accountability and who created significant community assets despite obvious hardships.33

Lawrence Vale’s work on Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Tucson blends both policy history and tenant empathy into careful explorations of public housing’s implementation at the local level. Boston city leaders moralized to limit public housing to the “worthy” poor in its early years, but tenant leadership proved decisive in the 1980s and 1990s when the city went to redevelop several of its earliest projects. Atlanta, Chicago, and New Orleans took a harsher turn, as the “design politics” of public housing pushed for clearance—both in the 1930s and the 1990s—to wipe away perceived blight, with tenants struggling against a powerful state. San Francisco and Tucson offer somewhat more hopeful stories. For Vale, the lack of resident input in decisions affecting their communities is a critical mistake of housing policy.34

In recent years, historians have challenged the “failure” narrative that stereotypes all public housing by its worst outcomes and thereby undermines governmental action to house the poor. This approach can be traced to 1991 with Katharine Bristol’s article, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” which explained the forces arrayed against the St. Louis project. A subsequent documentary of the same title in 2011 used a tragic narrative arc to amplify the point that neither architecture nor tenants are wholly responsible for that project’s demise. Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Fritz Umbach, and Lawrence J. Vale’s edited volume Public Housing Myths: Perception, Reality, and Social Policy fleshes out these arguments considerably, adding tenant agency and policing as areas of strength, not weakness. Finally, Bloom’s work on New York City remains the most important rebuttal to a monolithic failure narrative.35

The field of public housing history continues to have fertile opportunities. Most works are highly city-centric in nature, and few national-level synthesis or international-level comparisons been written. The broader experience in the rural South remains under-developed, as does the LIHTC story. Nor has public housing policy been well-integrated into larger histories of the welfare state, with few exceptions.36 Public housing’s failures remain better understood than its successes.

Primary Sources

Despite its origins as a federal-local partnership, finding official public housing records can be difficult. Local housing authorities are most often state-chartered, semi-independent agencies, with often spotty archival practices compared to other state or local agencies and widely varying accessibility. As with other aspects of public housing, the New York City Housing Authority is an outlier, with deep archival holdings maintained at the La Guardia and Wagner Archives at La Guardia Community College in New York. Elsewhere, local public libraries often hold annual reports and other published material of housing authorities, but these rarely offer insight into the political battles that surrounded the program.

Federal records are in somewhat better shape, though large volumes and limited finding aids mean that research is highly labor intensive. The National Archives’ Record Group 196 holds the records of the Public Housing Administration and its predecessor agencies, covering the period 1933–1965, while Record Group 207 includes the Department of Housing and Urban Development, formed in 1965.

Unlike federal records, the papers of many nongovernmental actors in public housing policy are well organized with rich finding aids. Cornell University’s Special Collections library, particularly its collection on architecture and planning, holds the papers of numerous New Deal and early postwar planners who conceived and administered public housing programs. The papers of Warren J. Vinton are especially rich in public housing policy history. Women played seminal roles in initiating the program, as seen in the papers of Catherine Bauer Wurster at the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley and the papers of the National Housing Conference, founded by Mary K. Simkhovitch, at the University of Minnesota. In other cities, citizen-led housing advocacy organizations produced reports and covered policy debates in detail; for example, Arnold Hirsch’s study of Chicago relied heavily on the Metropolitan Planning and Housing Council, whose papers are held at the University of Illinois at Chicago. While oral history collections are scarce and much-needed, the Library of Congress produced the “Pioneers in Housing” series, which includes transcribed interviews of twenty-three leaders in mid-20th-century housing policy and advocacy. Finally, the widely held monthly Journal of Housing, published by the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials since 1944 (and now the Journal of Housing and Redevelopment), covers public housing news from a practitioner perspective at a national level.

Further Reading

  • Bauman, John F., Roger Biles, and Kristin M. Szylvian, eds. From Tenements to the Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.
  • Bloom, Nicholas Dagen. Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
  • Bloom, Nicholas Dagen, Fritz Umbach, and Lawrence J. Vale, eds. Public Housing Myths: Perception, Reality, and Social Policy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.
  • Cisneros, Henry G., and Lora Engdahl, eds. From Despair to Hope: Hope VI and the New Promise of Public Housing in America’s Cities. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2009.
  • Fairbanks, Robert B. The War on Slums in the Southwest: Public Housing and Slum Clearance in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, 1935–1965. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014.
  • Goetz, Edward G. New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice and Public Housing Policy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.
  • Hirsch, Arnold. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940–1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
  • Hunt, D. Bradford. Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Radford, Gail. Modern Housing for America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Vale, Lawrence J. From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Vale, Lawrence J. Purging the Poorest: Public Housing and the Design Politics of Twice-Cleared Communities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
  • Williams, Rhonda Y. The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.