Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What is Public Housing?

3 minute read

Born out of the progressive ideals of the New Deal and a desire to improve the standard of living in poor urban neighborhoods, American public housing has taken several forms as political opinion about subsidized housing shifts.

New York City Public Housing Project

Patrick Stahl / 3333 Broadway, Tower Block

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, public housing "was established to provide decent and safe rental housing for eligible low-income families, the elderly, and persons with disabilities." At its broadest, public housing defines any residential property owned by a governmental entity and aimed at providing below-market rate rental housing. As defined by the agency, "public housing comes in all sizes and types, from scattered single-family houses to high rise apartments for elderly families." Public housing also served middle-class Americans through the Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division, a late New Deal program that developed housing projects for defense workers under a cooperative ownership model.

Progressive ideals of sanitation and urban slum clearance guided the creation of public housing projects. "The test of our progress," said President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his second inaugural address, "is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." The first public housing project in the United States, Atlanta's Techwood Homes, opened in 1935 as part of new federal programs created by the 1934 National Housing Act and designed to create more affordable housing for low-income families and raise the standard of living in neighborhoods perceived as "slums." The Housing Act of 1937, also known as the Wagner-Steagall Act, formally established the U.S. Housing Authority and provided $500 million in funding, with the USHA acting as a loan granting agency to local public housing agencies. 

From the beginning and throughout its history, public housing has faced fierce opposition from fiscal conservatives, landlords, and rural Congresspeople who worried the program would be too focused on big cities. Meanwhile, the administration of funds was largely left up to the local housing authorities and highly reliant on rental revenue to cover maintenance costs. This led to increasing deterioration of many public housing projects, further eroding public confidence in the program and exacerbating segregation. One of America's most infamous housing projects, Chicago's Cabrini-Green Homes, housed up to 15,000 people on Chicago's Near North Side and was made up of mid- and high-rise apartment buildings. In the decades after its construction in 1942, the complex gained a reputation for crime and poor living conditions. The name became associated with the problems plaguing public housing, and its high-rise buildings were demolished between 1995 and 2011. The property is now being redeveloped into a mixed-income project with funds from a HOPE VI grant. 

As public housing projects gained a reputation for crime, violence, and poor conditions, policymakers sought to disperse low-income households by, theoretically, giving them more flexibility in choosing new housing. The program now most commonly associated with public housing, Section 8, was created in 1974 through the Housing and Community Development Act. Rather than placing people in government-owned housing, Section 8 provides rental assistance to subsidize rent for low-income tenants in rental units of their choice. But in most  cities, landlords can refuse to accept rental vouchers, trapping recipients in low-income neighborhoods, where landlords actively court them, seeking the financial security of government vouchers. This was the case for many former residents of Cabrini-Green, who reported discrimination and difficulty accessing new housing when they were forced to relocate. 

Federal support for public housing eroded further when 1994's Faircloth Amendment, introduced as part of the 1998 Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, capped the number of public housing units that cities could maintain at 1994 levels, effectively throttling the production of new public housing. Combined with an increased reliance on vouchers, this led to the demolition of over 250,000 units of public housing as funding for public housing continued to decrease.

Today, around 2,830 local public housing authorities continue to manage roughly 958,000 public housing units. The Housing Choice Voucher program serves 2.2 million American families–about 25 percent of eligible households–but voucher recipients face a multitude of barriers in finding and accessing housing, pushing them farther out of central cities and into more affordable exurban areas farther from jobs and transit.

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