America’s Failed Experiment in Public Housing

It leaves families living in squalid conditions, trapped in segregated neighborhoods. Rather than spending billions on socialized shelter, we need to put money in their pockets to give them choices.

Queens,,New,York,-,March,24,,2015:,New,York,City
New York City Housing Authority public housing in Queens, New York. NYCHA has been sued by tenants for failing to provide adequate heat and hot water.
(Shutterstock)
President Biden’s nearly $2 trillion infrastructure package calls for doubling down on public housing. Projects are in “disrepair,” the plan rightly observes, with “critical life-safety concerns” and “imminent hazards to residents.” Biden proposes investing $40 billion to clean and green them. This is roughly 14 times the federal government’s current capital spending on public housing agencies, and it’s likely just the beginning.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is now demanding at least $80 billion in federal public housing funds. But why stop there: Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have joined other progressive activists calling for a Green New Deal for Public Housing costing as much as $172 billion — or $230,000 per unit — to retrofit public housing for energy efficiency and greenlight new projects.

Is the public housing we have really the affordable housing we want? This question matters to the 2.2 million residents of more than 1.1 million units of public housing managed by more than 3,000 public housing agencies across the country. The Biden administration’s housing agenda represents an opportunity — not to redo public housing, but to rethink whether it was a good idea in the first place and to consider policies that give lower-income families the kinds of choices that better-off Americans have long enjoyed.

Squalid Conditions


Concordia Place Apartments in Chicago’s impoverished Riverdale neighborhood appears almost idyllic, surrounded by wide green lawns and built with a tidy sloped roof. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspectors seemed to agree on their most recent visit, granting the public housing complex a score of 94, far above the passing grade of 60. Perhaps the inspectors missed the mold or the mice droppings. “You can hear them at night crawling on the walls,” one tenant said of the rodents. “We shouldn’t live like this,” said another tenant. Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth seem to agree, writing in a March 2021 letter to HUD that “no one should be subjected to living in the conditions reported by the residents of the Concordia Place apartment complex.”

What these public housing residents face in Chicago should be seen less as an aberration and more as a shocking norm, where the government in serving as a landlord of last resort gets away with behavior that could land a private landlord in jail. Nearly 10 percent of public units recently inspected by HUD received failing scores and, according to 2010 HUD analysis, likely many more nearly failed inspections, rates that are far higher than for privately owned units. Even when HUD certifies housing as decent, safe and sanitary — as required by federal law since 1937 — it’s often later revealed to not be so, as the residents of Concordia Place know all too well. HUD inspectors often gave passing grades to public housing complexes showing clear signs of toxic mold, asbestos and lead paint, or where raw sewage regularly backed up and furnace boilers gave out in the dead of winter.

As early as the 1950s, maintenance woes were already appearing in public housing. By the 1960s, rent from poor tenants was often falling far short of the costs of management or maintenance. Time — and need — has not brightened this picture. In Philadelphia today, tenant rents cover just 6 percent of the housing authority’s budget. And no wonder: The typical household in public housing pulls in an annual income of just $14,444, with minimum rents of $50 a month. The reality is that deeply affordable housing is unaffordable to maintain or sustain on rents alone, which impossibly demands ever-increasing levels of federal subsidy across time and presidential administrations.

As recently as 2009, experts were boasting that New York City had “one of the best housing authorities in the nation.” In truth, tenants in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartments too often lived in squalid conditions, and it was they who filed suit in 2018 claiming the agency “failed to provide tenants with heat and hot water, keep residents safe from lead, involve tenants in policymaking and hire residents, as required under federal law.” In June of the same year, after NYCHA’s chairwoman resigned amid intense scrutiny of the agency’s failures, federal prosecutors filed their own complaint against the authority for “violating basic health and safety regulations” and exposing children to lead paint. NYCHA quickly admitted to the truth of these allegations and agreed to oversight by a federal monitor. Yet one critic labeled this measure the “equivalent of nailing a two-by-four to a collapsing building.”
NYCHA is hardly alone. Baltimore’s public housing authority paid a multimillion-dollar settlement in 2013 to residents living with lead paint; HUD estimates that more than 62,000 public housing units nationwide require lead abatement. And the problems don’t stop there: Many more tenants suffer for want of heat and hot water or suffer health issues from invading mold. Boston’s public housing residents, for instance, were more likely to report poor health than the surrounding population or similar residents found in nonpublic housing, and children living in NYCHA complexes were found to be twice as likely to suffer from asthma as their classmates in private housing.

Government-Backed Ghettos


Atlanta’s Techwood Homes, built in 1935 as the first federal public housing project in America, evicted hundreds of Black families to house a whites-only neighborhood. NYCHA’s earliest housing developments built from the ground up were also segregated by race, one in Harlem for Black tenants and another in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) for whites; it took the city’s housing authority until 1964 to end its practice of setting aside apartments for white tenants. Richard Rothstein, author of the 2017 book The Color of Law, describes these New Deal-era housing programs as a “state-sponsored system of segregation.”

Techwood.LoC.jpg
Techwood, an early example of public housing built in Atlanta, Ga.
(Library of Congress)
Public housing’s racist roots didn’t end there. In the decades that followed World War II, low-income Blacks were continually relegated to urban housing projects far away from white neighborhoods, not to mention from jobs, opportunity and other forms of social support. Of the more than 10,000 public housing units built in Chicago from 1954 to 1967, all but 63 were built in poor and racially segregated neighborhoods. Even with HUD explicitly “promoting racial and economic integration” since the 1968 Fair Housing Act, public housing residents remained remarkably segregated; census tracts containing such units have an average poverty rate of 33 percent and are 61 percent non-white, with Black residents suffering far worse living conditions than white residents.

Far too much of today’s public housing bears the legacy of having trapped generations in poverty. Families are condemned to being renters rather than owners, missing out not only the chance to build equity but also to earn their own rental income, and doing little to address the racial wealth gap. Once they are segregated in low-income housing, residents are disincentivized to get ahead in life or move to better housing. Worse yet, public housing is all too often placed farther away from jobs and public transportation, resulting in ever deeper economic and social isolation. By segregating similarly poor and minority residents in these public units, such projects amount to the perpetuation of government-backed ghettos.

Safe and Equitable Choices


Socialized shelter in this country is perpetually in disrepair, shoddily managed and actively harmful to the well-being of tenants while doing little to integrate residents into their economy or community. These are not failures of funding alone, but inescapable flaws of public housing itself, which robs Americans of safe and equitable choice for shelter. Instead of, say, spending nearly a quarter of a million dollars per unit on green schemes for public housing, why not fully fund America’s housing vouchers?

Far more American households currently qualify for housing support than receive it, and even many current public housing residents would rather have a voucher than their current shelter when given the choice. Everyone who qualifies for a housing voucher should receive one. Turning housing assistance into an income-based entitlement would provide an opportunity to consolidate the federal government’s 160 different housing assistance programs under one roof — HUD’s — and redirect to low-income tenants many of the subsidies already provided to low-income housing production and wealthy homeowners. Such vouchers could even be turned into direct cash benefits in order to counter discrimination, as Emily Hamilton of the Mercatus Center has suggested.

Successfully turning housing assistance into tenant assistance would serve far more low-income Americans than simply fixing the problems of our existing public housing stock. Doing so will require loosening the artificial regulatory barriers on private housing production to meet this demand — which Biden’s infrastructure plan rightly argues for — and can be improved with carrots and sticks aligned to actual housing outcomes. Coupled with freer rules on land use, Americans would enjoy an even greater choice in more affordable housing. As it stands, even HUD is struggling to build: The $1.2 billion that’s gone into the nation’s Housing Trust Fund since 2016 has yielded just 521 new units.

Of course, many Americans will still depend on public housing, and they should not be forced to endure deplorable living conditions. This is why ongoing repairs by local housing authorities should leverage the private expertise and rehab funds of the Obama-era Rental Assistance Demonstration program, and residents in projects that are beyond repair should receive tenant protection vouchers. The federal government could even block-grant the funds local housing authorities already receive for public housing and turn over control to cities themselves.

Whatever the fault of Washington and its appropriators, the lived reality of public housing across America is a social engineer's dream turned nightmare by design. While there is no guarantee that directly helping people afford decent housing will improve their lives overnight, we would surely be doing better than continuing this nightmare. The implicit subsidy provided to public housing’s residents would be better used explicitly in their pockets — free now to move into neighborhoods of real opportunity. It’s time we ended America’s failed experiment in public housing.



Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute. He can be reached at mhendrix@manhattan-institute.org or on Twitter at @michael_hendrix.
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