Arts, Culture & Humanities

The public-housing experiment

Claude Fischer

Public housing in the United States has never sheltered a significant proportion of Americans, perhaps three percent at most — unlike in many western European countries, where 10 to 40 percent of households, at various income levels, live in state-constructed buildings. But public housing has been a significant part of the debate over American government safety-net programs, a significant factor in the history of large American cities over the last 50 years, and cruel disillusionment for social reformers (and many sociologists).

public housing

1972 Pruitt-Igoe demolition (source)

American public housing projects started in the New Deal, accelerated after the war, and then largely stopped in the 1970s, when they were widely described as abject failures. This verdict was hammered home by the well-publicized demolition in 1972 of the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis. Federal support for housing since, skimpy as it is, has largely been in the form of “Section 8” vouchers and dispersed, low-density, mixed housing. The actual number of public housing units has shrunk in recent decades.

A new study in the Journal of Economic History, by Katharine L. Shester, fleshes out our understanding of what went wrong in this great social experiment. In some ways, large-scale public housing was doomed from the start; in other ways, perhaps different critical decisions could have made it work.

Building up, coming down

The U.S. began building major projects to house needy families (which should be distinguished from projects to house the elderly) in the 1930s, but the program really took off in the 1950s, creating about 1 million units by 1973. It was a response to the post-war housing shortage and to many social scientists’ view at the time that poor housing itself – crowded, dilapidated quarters – contributed to social dysfunction.

But there were problems right from the start, including the projects’ very locations. The authorities put public housing projects, especially those in the large cities, disproportionately in poor black neighborhoods. As earlier studies showed [1], this was only in part because those neighborhoods had the worst housing and neediest people. In good measure, the politics of class and race decided location; those with the clout to resist low-income neighbors made sure that the construction took place where people who could not resist lived. Another problem at the start was government insistence on holding down construction costs, which would eventually produce problems withupkeep.

Placing large public housing structures in a neighborhood eventually contributed to further decline in the neighborhood. As shown in studies of Chicago [1] and Columbus, Ohio,  in the 1960s and ’70s, the presence of public housing accentuated local poverty, in part at least because better-off residents moved away. Shester’s study provides a new look at that process.

A longer look

Shester, in the new JEH article, examines the entire public housing experiment by looking at the whole country from 1933 to 1973. She shows that by 1970, even taking into account local conditions prior to their construction, public housing projects depressed counties’ social and economic levels. Critically, however, that was not true before 1970. Data from 1950 and 1960 suggest that public housing seemed to have positive local effects. Something changed in the 1960s. The source of change was not, in Shester’s analysis, the new projects built in the 1960s, but seems to have been some cumulative aspect of public housing generally.

public-housing high-rise

Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public-housing project (source)

Decisions and developments from 1950 to 1970, Shester argues, accelerated the physical deterioration of public housing and increased the concentration of troubled families living there. Limits on government maintenance funds, like the limits on the original construction costs, hampered the housing managers. And because of imposed rent ceilings, local housing agencies could not get the funds sufficient to keep up repairs by charging tenants. Physical dilapidation followed.

At the same time, tightening the requirements that housing be provided only to the neediest families meant that stable working-class families, once part of the mix, were gone. The renters became increasingly and exclusively the poorest and most troubled families. Their growing concentration in dense (and tense) settings compounded the problems of order. By 1970, public housing projects had gained their nightmarish image. Pruitt-Igoe (and others) came down.

Lessons learned?

One lesson many policy analysts took away from the public housing experiment was that market solutions for housing shortages are better than government ones. Yet, the current Section 8 voucher system has its own problems. Another lesson is that mixed-income housing  is preferable. A third is that low-density structures avoid some of the problems. The jury is still out on these ideas (as far as I know).

Yet another set of lessons are that the disasters that were Pruit-Igo, the Robert Taylor Homes, and others like them might perhaps have been avoided by better and, yes, more expensive planning – greater attention to location, more money up-front for construction and maintenance, and more social mixing. We hear an echo of this story in the current fallout from the Obamacare federal website debacle, that because of the political battles, the construction of the system was underfunded at the start. It seems that when the U.S. does public provisioning of basic needs, it does so halfheartedly, perhaps thereby promoting its failure.

[1] E.g., Massey and Kanaiaupuni, “Public Housing and the Concentration of Poverty,” Social Science Quarterly 74 (1993).

Posted on Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history and cross-posted on the Boston Review BR Blog on Jan. 14, 2014.)

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Comments to "The public-housing experiment":
    • Chelsea

      Living in Public Housing has been the most terrifying, humiliating, and pointless time in my life. I cannot wait to get my family out of it.

      We entered into Public Housing close to seven years ago with my ailing mother. Within the first 3 months our home was broken into and $500 worth of things stolen. After that our family was terrorized to the point where we could not go outside and do anything without fear. We were called cruel names, my entire family was threatened with various acts of violence. Our car was vandalized by have baseballs thrown at it, the gas lines cut, and gas stolen from the tank via a hose. My children’s bikes were stolen, rocks thrown at them, and they became shut ins.

      Three years ago my mother passed away. We continued to stay in the neighborhood because the site manager refused to move us. Things just got worse. Just three months after my mothers passing our home was broken into and just about everything was stolen close to $3000 worth of presents and things HARD earned by us working. We are NOT lay-abouts. Fortunately we had renters insurance at the time, but it cannot replace everything like; peace of mind and that feeling of “home”.

      The robberies continued every six months since then. We even got our move after fighting for two years for it. Sad that the breaking point was my daughters mental health. She is 13 and she has severe anxiety, chronic worry, night terrors, and she pulls out her hair (literally) every time our home is violated.

      We have been in our “new” home for six months. We celebrated Christmas and we thought all was good; we felt like this was “home” more importantly we felt safe and secure.

      I could not have been more wrong. On 12/26/2015 our home was broken into yet again. We left to spend holidays with family at 2 p.m. and returned home at 10:30 p.m. to find our window smashed in and all the hard earned things we bought our children stolen, another $1500. Sadly this time we do not have insurance.

      You see after so many break-ins they drop you unless your landlord can assure them security measures are being taken to prevent loss. I never got any such letter from them and because of that could not protect myself or my family. I feel like a failure… but it isn’t really me that has failed, it is them who have failed us.

      All of this hardship is on top of the two to three inspections they do of your home every year just so they can look down on you. They come in with their noses high and they scrutinize everything about you. You ARE an exhibit. They put forth that they care so much for the place you’re living in yet when there are things wrong, NOTHING gets fixed.

      Public Housing also is supposed to offer programs like the FSS or Family Self Sufficiency. This program is supposed to help families get out of public housing, off welfare and on their own. Boasting such things as on the job training, money for certificates and licenses through local agencies like PENTA, even job placement or apprenticeship.

      We have been participating in the FSS for a whole year; it’s only a 5 year program, and we have gotten nothing. All that training we were promised, had been locked down and no money was being allocated for anything. Veterans Affairs was never contacted on our behalf like they promised. There has been NO offer of ‘on the job training’ or any kind of apprenticeship. We are no better off than when we started one year ago, and now we only have 4 years to get off the system or we are just dropped and unable to reapply. THAT is the deal you sign up for. Sure they offer extensions on that 5 year plan, but only 2 total years. To be short a whole year is HUGE, because we all know how much can change in just one year.

      So… here we sit. My children terrified. My husband gearing me up with mace and a gun just in case while he is at work on 3rd shift.

      THIS is not living; it is surviving.

      This is a REAL look at how Public Housing “helps” you. Families beware; once you fall into this, you may not make it out alive. There is NO help save for what you do for yourself regardless of their promises.

      In conclusion I ask: What now?

      [Report abuse]

    • Gareth

      Public housing is always a difficult subject. I guess we’ll have to see how the next few years holds up in regard to it.

      One thing I always find about public housing is the sheer unsightliness it has. Unlike many normal housing the designs are often quite poor and it breeds poverty.

      I’m sure you can find many examples on the web of where public housing is just appalling to look at. It happens all over the world be it USA, Britain or any other country.

      [Report abuse]

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