Public housing in the United States

Public housing in the United States

Public housing in the United States has been administered by federal, state and local agencies to provide subsidized assistance for low-income and people living in poverty. Now increasingly provided in a variety of settings and formats, originally public housing in the U.S. in a given area consisted of one or more blocks of low-rise and/or high-rise apartment buildings operated by a government agency. Subsidized apartment buildings in the U.S. are usually called housing projects, and the slang term for a group of these buildings is "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 for decent livability (e.g. proper ventilation).

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. Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing is the history of the public housing program and its many failures in Chicago. 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."

One of the most unique US public housing initiatives was the development of subsidized middle-class housing during the late New Deal (1940–42) under the auspices of the Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division of the Federal Works Agency under the direction of Colonel Lawrence Westbrook. These eight projects were purchased by the residents after the Second World War and as of 2009 seven of the projects continue to operate as mutual housing corporations owned by their residents. These projects are among the very few definitive success stories in the history of the US public housing effort.

Public housing in its earliest decades was usually much more working-class and middle-class and white than it was by the 1970s. 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]

As discontent with public housing continued to rise in the 1960s, urban developers began looking for alternate forms of affordable, low-income housing. Discontent became apparent nationwide after the publication of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, which describes the limitations of the current low-income housing.[2] A top priority amongst developers was to prevent high concentrations of poverty that were present in existing public housing units. From this sprung the creation of scattered-site housing programs designed to place smaller-scale, better-integrated public housing units in diverse neighborhoods. Scattered-site housing programs became popularized in the late 1970s and 1980s. Since that time, cities across the country have implemented such programs with varying levels of success. Other alternatives to affordable housing were also considered during this time of distress over 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.


Public housing was only built with the blessing of the local government. Hence, unlike France, projects were almost never built on suburban greenfield land. 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.[citation needed]

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 Hill District neighborhood to make way for a Civic Arena.[3]

Scattered-Site Housing

“Scattered-site” or "Scatter Site" refers to a form of housing in which publicly-funded, affordable, low-density units are scattered throughout diverse, middle-class neighborhoods. It can take the form of single units spread throughout the city or clusters of family units.[4] Scattered-site housing can also be managed by private not-for-profit organizations using a permanent, supportive housing model, where specific barriers to the housing of the low-income individual or family are addressed in regular visits with a case manager. In New York City, The Scatter Site Apartment Program provides city contracts to not-for-profits from the HIV/AIDS Services Administration under the New York City Human Resources Administration. Also, Scattered Site is one of two models, the other being Congregate, which are utilized in the New York/New York housing agreements between New York City and New York State.


Scattered-site housing units were originally constructed as an alternative form of public housing designed to prevent the concentration of poverty associated with more traditional high-density units. The benchmark class-action case that led to the popularization of scattered-site models was Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority in 1969. Much of motivation for this trial and lawsuit stemmed from concerns about residential segregation. It was believed that the placement of public housing facilities in primarily black neighborhoods perpetuated residential segregation. The lawsuit was finally resolved with a verdict mandating that the Chicago Housing Authority redistribute public housing into non-black neighborhoods.[5] U.S. District Court Judge Richard B. Austin mandated that three public housing units be built in white areas (less than 30% black) for every one unit built in black areas (more than 30% black).

These percentages have decreased since then and a wide array of programs have developed across the United States. While some programs have seen great successes, others have had difficulties in acquiring the land needed for construction and in maintaining new units.[6] Eligibility requirements, generally based on household income and size, are common in these programs. In Dakota County, Minnesota, for example, eligibility ranges from a maximum of $51,550 for two people to $85,050 for 8-10 people.[7] Eligibility requirements are designed to ensure that those most in need receive relief first and that concerns regarding housing discrimination do not extend into the public housing sector.

Public Policy and Implications

Scattered-site housing programs are generally run by the city housing authorities or local governments. They are intended to increase the availability of affordable housing and improve the quality of low-income housing, while avoiding problems associated with concentrated subsidized housing. Many scattered-site units are built to be similar in appearance to other homes in the neighborhood to somewhat mask the financial stature of tenants and reduce the stigma associated with public housing.[citation needed]

An issue of great concern with regards to the implementation of scattered-site programs is where to construct these housing units and how to gain the support of the community. Frequent concerns of community members include potential decreases in the retail price of their home, a decline in neighborhood safety due to elevated levels of crime.[8] Thus, one of the major concerns with the relocation of scattered-site tenants into white, middle-class neighborhoods is that residents will move elsewhere – a phenomenon known as white flight. To counter this phenomenon, some programs place tenants in private apartments that do not appear outwardly different. Despite these efforts, many members of middle-class, predominantly white neighborhoods have fought hard to keep public housing out of their communities.[9]

American sociologist William Julius Wilson has proposed that concentrating low-income housing in impoverished areas can limit tenants’ access to social opportunity.[4] Thus, some scattered-site programs now relocate tenants in middle-class suburban neighborhoods, hoping that immersion within social networks of greater financial stability will increase their social opportunities.[4] However, this strategy has not necessarily proved effective, especially with regards to boosting employment. When placed in neighborhoods of similar economic means, studies indicate that low-income residents use neighbors as social resources less often when living scattered throughout a neighborhood than when living in small clusters within a neighborhood.[4]

There are also concerns associated with the financial burden that these programs have on the state. Scattered-site housing provides no better living conditions for its tenants than traditional concentrated housing if the units are not properly maintained. There are questions as to whether or not scattered-site public facilities are more expensive to manage because dispersal throughout the city makes maintenance more difficult.[10]

City Programs


The class-action lawsuit of Gautreaux v. CHA (1966) made Chicago the first city to mandate scattered-site housing as a way to desegregate neighborhoods. Dorothy Gautreaux argued that the Chicago Housing Authority discriminated based on race in its public housing policy. The case went to Supreme Court as Hills v. Gautreaux and the 1976 verdict mandated scattered-site housing for residents currently living in public housing in impoverished neighborhoods.[9]

Since that time, scattered-site housing has become a major part of public housing in Chicago. In 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority created the Plan for Transformation designed to not only improve the structural aspects of public housing but to also “build and strengthen communities by integrating public housing and its leaseholders into the larger social, economic, and physical fabric of Chicago”.[11] The goal is to have 25,000 new or remodeled units, and to have these units indistinguishable from surrounding housing. While properly run scattered-site public housing units greatly improve the quality of life of the tenants, abandoned and decrepit units foster crime and perpetuate poverty. The Chicago Housing Authority began demolishing units deemed unsafe, but the Plan for Transformation set aside $77 million to clean-up sites not demolished in this process.[12]


The Houston Housing Authority has created the Scattered Sites Homeownership Program to promote home ownership amongst those who would otherwise not be able to afford it. The program delineates strict eligibility requirements based on 80% of the Houston area’s median income.[13] In 1987, the HHA received 336 properties throughout the city and it has worked to clean up these properties or sell them as low cost housing. As of 2009, the HHA had helped 172 families achieve homeownership through the scattered-site program and with the properties received in 198.[13]


The Seattle Housing Authority created its Scattered Site program in 1978. The program to date has a total of 800 units that range from duplex to multi-family. The program is currently in the process of “portfolio realignment,” which entails successive upgrading of over 200 units and a continued effort to distribute public housing in various neighborhoods throughout the city. In choosing site locations, proximity to public facilities such as schools, parks, and transportation, is considered.[14]

See also

  • List of public housing developments in the United States


  • Harold Harby (1894–1978), Los Angeles, California, City Council member whose vote switch killed public housing in that city


  1. ^ Eckholm, Erik, "Washington’s Grand Experiment to Rehouse the Poor", The New York Times, March 21, 2008
  2. ^ Meriden City Center Initiative, Housing (2005), accessed on November 10, 2010.
  3. ^ Jackson, Kenneth T., Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, (Oxford University Press USA, 1987) p. 229
  4. ^ a b c d Kleit, Rachel G. “The Role of Neighborhood Social Networks in Scattered-Site Public Housing Residents’ Search for Jobs.” Housing Policy Debate 12 (2001): 541-573, accessed on November, 2010. Fannie Mae Foundation 2001.
  5. ^ Oldweiler, Cory. “Scattered-Site Era Coming to an End.” The Chicago Reporter. September 28, 2007
  6. ^ Bass, Sharon L “Public Housing Entering New Era.” The New York Times. February 5, 1989
  7. ^ Dakota County Community Development Agency. “Scattered Site Public Housing Program.” Dakota County 2005, accessed on November 15, 2010.
  8. ^ Bass, Sharon L “Public Housing Entering New Era.” The New York Times, February 5, 1989
  9. ^ a b Oldweiler, Cory. “Scattered-Site Era Coming to an End.” The Chicago Reporter, September 28, 2007
  10. ^ Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Scattered-Site Housing: Characteristics and Consequences (1996), accessed on November 10, 2010.
  11. ^ Chicago Housing Authority. “Scattered Site Properties,” accessed on October 31, 2010.
  12. ^ Oldweiler, Cory. “Scattered-Site Era Coming to an End.” The Chicago Reporter, September 28, 2007
  13. ^ a b Houston Housing Authority. “Dolcefino Message,” accessed on November 10, 2010.
  14. ^ Seattle Housing Authority. “Scattered Sites,” accessed on November 10, 2010.

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