Public housing in the United States
Public housing in the United States is housing administered by federal, state and local agencies to provide subsidized assistance for low-income households. Now increasingly provided in a variety of settings and formats, originally public housing in the U.S. consisted primarily of one or more concentrated blocks of low-rise and/or high-rise apartment buildings. These complexes are operated by state and local housing authorities which are authorized and funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. More than 1.2 million households currently live in public housing of some type.
Subsidized apartment buildings, often referred to as housing projects or colloquially "the projects", have a complicated and often notorious history in the United States. While the first decades of projects were built with higher construction standards and a broader range of incomes and applicants, as time went on, public housing increasingly became the housing of last resort. In many cities, housing projects suffered from mismanagement and high vacancy rates. Furthermore, housing projects have also been seen to greatly increase concentrated poverty in a community, leading to several negative externalities. As a result, many of the housing projects constructed in the 1950s and 1960s have since been torn down.
In recent decades, public housing has increasingly taken different formats. Since the 1970s, subsidized housing has increasingly been funded through rent vouchers rather than the construction of subsidized units. Additionally, since the early 1990s, rather than constructing large subsidized complexes, the federal government has used funds under the HOPE VI Program to tear down distressed public housing projects and replace them with mixed communities constructed in cooperation with private partners.
- 1 History
- 1.1 Early efforts
- 1.2 PWA Housing Division
- 1.3 Housing Act of 1937
- 1.4 World War II Era
- 1.5 Housing Act of 1949
- 1.6 Housing in the 1960s
- 1.7 Housing in the 1970s
- 1.8 Housing in the 1980s-1990s
- 2 Social issues
- 3 Alternative models
- 4 City programs
- 5 See also
- 6 Footnotes
- 7 Further reading
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, government involvement in housing for the poor was chiefly in the area of building code enforcement, requiring new buildings to meet certain standards for decent livability (e.g. proper ventilation), and forcing landlords to make some modifications to existing building stock. Photojournalist Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives (1890) brought considerable attention the conditions of the slums in New York City, sparking new attention to housing conditions around the country.
Early tenement reform was primarily a philanthropic venture, with Model Tenements built as early as the 1870s which attempted to use new architectural and management models to address the physical and social problems of the slums. These attempts were limited by available resources, and early efforts were soon redirected towards building code reform. The New York Tenement Act of 1895 and Tenement Law of 1901 were early attempts to address building codes in New York City, which were then copied in Chicago, Philadelphia, and other American cities.
In 1910, the National Housing Association (NHA) was created to improve housing conditions in urban and suburban neighborhoods through the enactment of better regulation and increased awareness. The NHA was founded by Lawrence Veiller, author of Model Tenement House Law (1910), and consisted of delegates from dozens of cities. Over time, the focus of the housing movement shifted from a focus on proper building typology to community development on a broader scale, and the NHA dissolved in 1936.
PWA Housing Division
Permanent, federally funded housing came into being in the United States as a part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Title II, Section 202 of the National Industrial Recovery Act, passed June 16, 1933, directed the Public Works Administration (PWA) to develop a program for the "construction, reconstruction, alteration, or repair under public regulation or control of low-cost housing and slum-clearance projects...". Led by the Housing Division of the PWA and headed by architect Robert Kohn, the initial, Limited-Dividend Program aimed to provide low-interest loans to public or private groups to fund the construction of low-income housing.
Too few qualified applicants stepped forward, and the Limited-Dividend Program funded only seven housing projects nationally. In the spring of 1934, PWA Administrator Harold Ickes directed the Housing Division to undertake the direct construction of public housing, a decisive step that would serve as a precedent for the 1937 Wagner-Stegall Housing Act, and the permanent public housing program in the United States. Kohn stepped down during the reorganization, and between 1934 and 1937 the Housing Division, now headed by Colonel Horatio B. Hackett, constructed fifty-two housing projects across the United States, as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Atlanta's Techwood Homes opened on 1 September 1936 and was the first of the fifty-two opened.
Based on the residential planning concepts of Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, these fifty-two projects are architecturally cohesive, with composed on one to four story row house and apartment buildings, arranged around open spaces, creating traffic-free play spaces that defined community lift. Many of these projects were built on slum land, but land acquisition proved difficult, so abandoned industrial sites and vacant land were also purchased. Louisville's two early projects were constructed on an abandoned horse racing track. At Ickes' direction, many of these projects were also segregated, designed and built for either whites or African-Americans. Race was largely determined by the neighborhood surrounding the site, as American residential patterns, in both the North and South, were highly segregated.
Coming out of the housing movement at the turn of the century, the 1930s also saw the creation of the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC), which refinanced loans in order to keep the housing market afloat. The National Housing Act of 1934 created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which used only a small capital investment from the federal government to insure mortgages. Construction of public housing projects were therefore only one portion of the federal housing efforts during the Great Depression.
Housing Act of 1937
In 1937, the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act replaced the temporary PWA Housing Division with a permanent, quasi-autonomous agency to administer housing. The new United States Housing Authority Housing Act of 1937 would operate with a strong bent towards local efforts in locating and constructing housing and would place caps on how much could be spent per housing unit. The cap of $5,000 was a hotly contested feature of the bill as it would be a considerable reduction of the money spent on PWA housing and was far less than advocates of the bill had lobbied to get.
Construction of housing projects dramatically accelerated under the new structure. In 1939 alone, 50,000 housing units were constructed—more than twice as many as were built during the entire tenure of the PWA Housing Division. Building on the Housing Division's organizational and architectural precedent, the USHA built housing in the build-up to World War II, supported war-production efforts and battled the housing shortage that occurred after the end of the war. In the 1960s, across the nation, housing authorities became key partners in urban renewal efforts, constructing new homes for those displaced by highway, hospital and other public efforts.
World War II Era
As part of the war mobilization, entire communities sprang up around factories manufacturing military goods. In 1940, Congress therefore authorized the US Housing Authority to build twenty public housing developments around these private companies to sustain the war effort. There was considerable debate over whether these should be permanent dwellings, furthering reformer goals of establishing a broader public housing effort, or temporary dwellings in keeping with the timeliness of the need. The Defense Housing Division was founded in 1941 and would ultimately construct eight developments of temporary housing, though many ended up as long-term housing after the war.
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.
During World War II, construction of homes dramatically decreased as all efforts were directed towards the War. When the veterans returned from overseas, they came ready to start a new life, often with families, and did so with the funding resources of the G.I. Bill to start a new mortgage. However, there was not enough housing stock to accommodate the demand. As a result, President Truman created the office of Housing Expediter by executive order on January 26, 1946, to be headed by Wilson Wyatt. Through this office, government intervened in the housing market largely through price controls and supply chain restrictions, despite political pressure from some factions to directly construct housing. Efforts moved to focus exclusively on veterans housing, specifically a materials subsidy for housing construction. However, in the wake of the 1946 elections, President Truman believed there was insufficient public support to continue such materials restrictions and subsidies. The Veterans' Emergency Housing Program ended on January 1947 by an executive order from President Truman.
Housing Act of 1949
With the Office of Housing Expediter ended, housing efforts moved to look at new, comprehensive approaches to address housing issues. The result was the Housing Act of 1949, which dramatically expanded the role of the federal government in both public and private housing. Part of Truman's Fair Deal, the Act covered three primary areas: (1) It expanded the Federal Housing Administration and federal involvement in mortgage insurance, (2) under Title I, it provided authority and funds for slum clearance and urban renewal, and (3) initiated construction of a significant public housing program. Title II of the legislation stated the goal of a "decent home in a decent environment for every American," and the legislation authorized $13 billion mortgage guarantees, $1.5 billion for slum redevelopment, and set a construction goal of 810,000 units of public housing.
Upon its passage, Truman told the press:
"[This legislation] opens up the prospect of decent homes in wholesome surroundings for low-income families now living in the squalor of the slums. It equips the Federal Government, for the first time, with effective means for aiding cities in the vital task of clearing slums and rebuilding blighted areas. This legislation permits us to take a long step toward increasing the well-being and happiness of millions of our fellow citizens. Let us not delay in fulfilling that high purpose.
Housing in the 1960s
Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965
Discontent with Urban Renewal came fairly swiftly on the heels of the passage of Title I and the Housing Act of 1949. Urban renewal had become, for many cities, a way to eliminate blight, but not a solid vehicle for constructing new housing. For example, in the ten years after the bill was passed, 425,000 units of housing were razed under its auspices, but only 125,000 units were constructed. Between Title I and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, entire communities in poorer, urban neighborhoods were demolished to make way for modern developments and transportation needs, often in the 'Tower in the Park' style of Le Corbusier. Jane Jacobs would famously describe the new products as, "Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism, and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with vapid vulgarity...This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities."
Several additional housing acts were passed after 1949, altering the program in small ways, such as shifting ratios for elderly housing, but no major legislation changed the mechanisms of public housing until the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965. This act created the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a cabinet-level agency to lead with housing. This act also introduced rent subsidies for the first time, the beginning of a shift towards encouraging privately constructed low-income housing. With this legislation, the FHA would insure mortgages for non-profits which would then construct homes for low-income families. HUD could then provide subsidies to bridge the gap between the cost of these units and a set percentage of a household's income.
The 1961 Housing Act quietly introduced a program under Section 23 which allowed local housing authorities to house individuals on their waiting lists in privately leased units through the mechanism of a voucher which covered the gap between household ability to pay and the market rent. This mechanism was repeatedly expanded in later legislation.
Housing Act of 1968
In response to many of the emerging concerns regarding new public housing developments, the Housing Act of 1968 attempt to shift the style of housing developments, looking to the Garden Cities model of Ebenezer Howard. The act prohibited the construction of high-rise developments for families with children. The role of high-rises had always been contentious, but with rising rates of vandalism and vacancy and considerable concerns about the concentration of poverty, these developments were declared unsuitable for families. One of the most notorious of these developments was the Pruitt-Igoe development in St. Louis, Missouri, constructed in 1955 and 1956. This development posted 2,870 units in thirty-three high rises buildings. By the late 1960s, vacancy rates reached as high as 65%, and the project was demolished between 1972 and 1975.
The Act also impacted the home ownership market through the expansion of the FHA. Ginnie Mae was initially established to purchase risky public housing projects and resell them at market rates. In addition, Section 235 originated mortgage subsidies by reducing the interest rate on mortgages for low-income families to a rate more comparable to that of the FHA mortgages. The program suffered from high foreclosure rates and administrative scandal, and was dramatically scaled down in 1974. The Section 236 program subsidized the debt service on private developments which would then be offered at a reduced rates to households below a certain income ceiling.
Housing in the 1970s
Experimental Housing Allowance Program
The Housing Act of 1970 established the Experimental Housing Allowance Program (EHAP), a lengthy investigation in the potential market effects of housing vouchers. Vouchers, initially introduced in 1965, were an attempt to subsidize the demand side of the housing market rather than the supply side by supplementing a household’s rent allowance until they were able to afford market rates. EHAP was designed to test three aspects of the impact of vouchers:
- ’’Demand:’’ Investigated user dynamics, including mobility, participation rates, rent rates, and housing standards.
- ‘’Supply:’’ Monitored the market response to the subsidy, namely whether it changed the construction or rent rates for the community, writ large.
- ‘’Administration:’’ Examined several different approaches to structuring and managing the programs.
Ultimately, new legislation on housing vouchers did not wait for the conclusion of the experiment. When the program concluded over a decade later, it was discovered that the program had minimal impact on surrounding rents, but did have the potential to tighten the market for low-income housing, and communities were in need of an infusion of additional units. Some therefore argued that public housing was the appropriate model for cost and supply-chain reasons, though vouchers did not appear to overly distort local housing markets.
In 1973, President Richard M. Nixon halted funding for numerous housing projects in the wake of the building concerns regarding the housing projects constructed in the prior two decades. HUD Secretary George Romney declared that the moratorium would encompass all money for Urban Renewal and Model Cities programs, all subsidized housing, and Section 235 and 236 funding. An intensive report was commissioned from the National Housing Policy Review to analyze and assess the federal government's role in housing. This report, entitled ‘’Housing in the Seventies’’ was instrumental in crafting new housing legislation the following year. In keeping with Nixon’s market-based approach, as demonstrated by EHAP, Nixon also lifted the moratorium on the Section 23 voucher program late in September, allowing for 200,000 new households to be funded. The full moratorium was lifted in the summer of 1974, as Nixon faced impeachment in the wake of Watergate.
Housing and Community Development Act of 1974
The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 created the Section 8 Housing Program 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. Tenant based housing vouchers covered the gap between 25% of a household's income and established fair market rent. Virtually no new project based Section 8 housing has been produced since 1983, but tenant based vouchers are now the primary mechanism of assisted housing.
The other main feature of Act was the creation of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). While not directly tied to public housing, CDBGs were lump sums of money, the amount of which was determined by a formula focusing on population, given to state and local governments for housing and community development work. The sum could be used as determined by the community, though the legislation also required the development of Housing Assistance Plans (HAP) which required local communities to survey and catalog their available housing stock as well as determine the populations most in need of assistance. These were submitted as part of the CDBG application.
Again in response to the growing discontent with public housing, urban developers began looking for alternate forms of affordable, low-income housing. From this concern sprang 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.
Housing in the 1980s-1990s
Changes to public housing programs were minor during the 1980s. Under the Reagan administration, household contribution towards Section 8 rents was increased to 30% of household income and fair market rents were lowered. Public assistance for housing efforts was reduced as part of a package of across the board cuts. Additionally, emergency shelters for the homeless were expanded, and home ownership by low-income families was promoted to a greater degree.
In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Cranston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act (NAHA), which furthered the use of HOME funds for rental assistance. In his address upon its passage, Bush said, "Although the Federal Government currently serves about 4.3 million low-income families, there are about 4 million additional families, most of them very low income, whose housing needs have not been met. We should not divert assistance from those who need it most."
The next new era in public housing began in 1992 with the launch of the HOPE VI program. HOPE VI funds were devoted to demolishing poor-quality public housing projects and replacing them with lower-density developments, often of mixed-income. Funds included construction and demolition costs, tenant relocation costs, and subsidies for newly constructed units. HOPE VI has become the primary vehicle for the construction of new federally subsidized units, but it suffered considerable funding cuts in 2004 under President George W. Bush.
In 1998, the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act (QHWRA) was passed and signed by President Bill Clinton. Following the frame of welfare reform, QHWRA developed new programs to transition families out of public housing, developed a home ownership model for Section 8, and expanded the HOPE VI program to replace traditional public housing units.
According to the HUD’s Residential Characteristic Report, the average annual income for a resident of a public housing unit is $13,730. The same report classifies 68% of residents as “Extremely Low Income,” with the largest annual income bracket being $5,000 to $10,000, containing 32% of public housing residents.
Trends of an increase in geographic concentration of poverty became evident by the 1970s as high and middle-class residents vacated property in U.S. cities (Massey and Kanaiaupuni 1993). Urban renewal programs lead to widespread slum clearance, creating a need to house those displaced by the clearance (Massey and Kanaiaupuni 1993). However, whites in city governments, political organizations, and suburban communities resisted the creation of public housing units in middle and working-class neighborhoods, leading to the construction of such units around ghetto neighborhoods which already exhibited signs of poverty (Massey and Kanaiaupuni 1993). Massey and Kanaiaupuni (1993) describe three sources of concentrated poverty in relation to public housing: income-requirements structurally creating areas of poverty, the reinforcement of patterns of poverty via the location of the public housing units, and the migration of impoverished individuals towards the public housing, although this effect is relatively small in comparison to the other sources.
A study of public housing in Columbus, Ohio, found that public housing has differing effects on the concentration of black poverty versus white poverty (Holloway et al. 1998). Public housing’s effect on concentrated poverty is doubled for blacks compared to whites (Holloway et al. 1998). The study further found that public housing tends to concentrate those who struggle the most economically into a specific area, further raising poverty levels.
A different study, conducted by Freeman (2003) on a national level, cast doubt onto the theory that public housing units have an independent effect on the concentration of poverty. The study found that while out-migration of the non-poor and in-migration of the poor were associated with the creation of public housing, such associations disappeared with the introduction of statistical controls, suggesting that migration levels were caused by characteristics of the neighborhood itself rather than the public housing unit.
Concentrated poverty from public housing units has effects on the economy of the surrounding area, competing for space with middle class housing (Husock 2003). Because of “social pathologies” incubated by public housing, Husock (2003) states that unit prices in surrounding buildings fall, reducing city revenue from property taxes and giving a disincentive to high-paying businesses to locate themselves in the area. He further argues that the pathologies caused by a concentration of poverty are likely to spread to surrounding neighborhoods, forcing local residents and businesses to relocate.
Freeman and Botein (2002) are more skeptical of a reduction of property values following the building of public housing units. In a meta-analysis of empirical studies, they expected to find that when public housing lacks obtrusive architecture and its residents are similar to those already in the neighborhood, property values are not likely to fluctuate. However, a review of the literature yielded no definitive conclusions on the impact of public housing on property values, with only two studies lacking methodological flaws that had either mixed results or showed no impact (Freeman and Botein 2002).
Others are skeptical of concentrated poverty from public housing being the cause of social pathologies, arguing that such a characterization is a simplification of a much more complex set of social phenomena (Crump 2002). According to Crump (2002), the term “concentrated poverty” was originally a spatial concept that was part of a much broader and complex sociological description of poverty, but the spatial component then became the overarching metaphor for concentrated poverty and the cause of social pathologies surrounding it. Instead of spatial concentration simply being a part of the broad description of social pathologies, Crump (2002) argues that the concept replaced the broad description, mistakenly narrowing the focus to the physical concentration of poverty.
The HUD’s The Location and Racial Composition of Public Housing in the United States report found that the racial distribution of residents within individual public housing units tends to be rather homogeneous, with African Americans tending to occupy poor minority neighborhoods and whites occupying more affluent white neighborhoods. More than 40% of public housing occupants live in neighborhoods where the majority is African American, according to the HUD report. The report also states that racial segregation has declined over the past 20 years, but the issue still remains in many units. Segregation varies by housing type and metropolitan area, but the general trend is a clear separation of blacks and whites (Bickford and Massey 1991). Segregation levels rose with levels of black population growth, suggesting that public housing policies were a response from white elites in government to isolate blacks into certain areas, away from high-paying business districts (Bickford and Massey 1991).
Segregation in public housing has roots in the early developments and activities of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), created by the Housing Act of 1934 (Gotham 2000). The FHA institutionalized a practice by which it would seek to maintain racially homogenous neighborhoods, although this practice was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1948 and outlawed by legislation in 1960 (Gotham 2000). However, according to Gotham (2000), Section 235 of the Housing Act of 1968 encouraged white flight from the inner city, selling suburban properties to whites and inner-city properties to blacks, creating neighborhoods that were racially isolated from others. Public housing units were often built in predominantly poor and black areas, reinforcing racial and economic differences between neighborhoods (Massey and Kanaiaupuni 1993).
A meta-analysis of public housing studies conducted by Freeman and Botein (2002) found that while neighborhoods surrounding public housing units are disproportionately black, the creation of new public housing units is not associated with a change in the racial composition of the neighborhood. Very little evidence was found for substantial amount of racial transition on the scale of “white flight” (Freeman and Brotein 2002).
McNulty and Holloway (2000) studied the intersection of public housing geography, race, and crime in order to determine if racial differences existed in crime rates when controlled for the proximity of public housing units. The study found that “the race-crime relationship is geographically contingent, varying as a function of the distribution of public housing” (McNulty and Holloway 2000). This suggests that a focus on institutional causes of crime in relation to race is more appropriate than a focus on cultural differences between races being the cause of differing crime rates.
Health and safety
Public housing units themselves offer very few amenities to occupants, providing the minimum necessary accommodations for living (Schill 1993). The original wording of the 1937 Housing Act meant that units were built with minimal effort in order to give amenities only slightly better than slums (Schill 1993). The units had poor insulation, roofing, electricity, and plumbing, were generally very small, and built to use as few resources as possible (Schill 1993). Turner et al. (2005) documents more physical deterioration, with backlogged repairs, vandalism, cockroaches, mold, and other problems creating a generally unsafe environment for occupants. A Boston study showed that dampness and heating issues in public housing create concentrations of dust mites, mold, and fungi, which causes asthma at a rate much higher than the national average (Hynes et al. 2000).
Other studies have been less negative in their assessments of living conditions in public housing units, showing only marginal differences caused by public housing units (Fertig and Reingold 2007). The study by Fertig and Reingold (2007) concluded that of a large list of possible health effects, public housing units only seemed to affect domestic violence levels, with only a mixed effect, a mother’s overall health status, and the probability of mothers becoming overweight.
Crime is also a major issue in public housing, with surveys showing high amounts of drug-related crime and shootings (Turner et al. 2005). Potential causes include inefficient management, which leads to problematic residents being able to stay in the unit, and inadequate policing and security (Turner et al. 2005). Public housing units are far more susceptible to homicides than comparable neighborhoods, which Griffiths and Tita (2009) argue is an effect of social isolation within the units. These homicides tend to be localized within the public housing unit rather than around it (Griffiths and Tita 2009).
Satisfaction with one’s living environment is another variable affected by public housing (Ross, Shlay, and Picon 2012). Residents of public housing units and voucher holders are more likely to express higher satisfaction with their current residency than low-income renters who are not receiving government assistance (Ross, Shlay, and Picon 2012). However, the study also concluded that residents of public housings units and voucher holders are more likely to express lower satisfaction with the neighborhood in which they live compared to low-income renters. This suggests that while the accommodations of public housing are better than comparable options, the surrounding neighborhoods are less desirable and have not been improved by government assistance (Ross, Shlay, and Picon 2012).
Another concern about public housing is the availability of quality education for children living in public housing units in areas of concentrated poverty (Schwartz et al. 2010). In a study of student achievement in New York City, Schwartz et al. (2010) found that those children living in public housing units did worse on standardized tests than others who go to the same or comparable schools. Furthermore, the study found that the resources of the schools serving different populations of the city were roughly the same.
Other studies refute this result, stating that public housing does not have a unique effect on student achievement (Jacob 2003). In a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Jacob (2003) found that children who had moved out of public housing due to demolition in Chicago fared no better and no worse in school and often continued to attend the same school as before demolition. However, among older children (14 years or older), dropout rates increased by 4.4% after demolition, though this effect was not seen in younger children (Jacob 2003).
A separate study conducted by Newman and Harkness (2000) produced findings similar to Jacob (2003). It concluded that public housing did not have an independent effect on educational attainment levels. Instead, variation in educational attainment was associated with poor economic standing and characteristics of the family (Newman and Harkness 2000). Additionally, the study finds very little difference between educational attainment in public versus subsidized private housing developments.
More positive educational outcomes have been recorded in other analyses. A study by Currie and Yelowitz (1999) found that families living in public housing were less likely to experience overcrowding in their units. Children living in public housing were 11% less likely to be held back a grade, suggesting that public housing may help low-income students (Currie and Yelowitz 1999). A 2011 report from the Center for Housing Policy argued for the benefits of stable and affordable housing in regard to education. Reasons for such educational benefits included less sporadic moving, community support, reduction in stress from overcrowding, less health hazards, provision of after-school programs, and reduction of homelessness (Brennan 2011).
Several negative stereotypes associated with public housing create difficulties in developing new units. Tighe (2010) reviewed a breadth of literature on perceptions of public housing and found five major public concerns: a lack of maintenance, expectation of crime, disapproval of housing as a handout, reduction of property values, and physical unattractiveness. While the reality of certain aspects may differ from the perceptions, such perceptions are strong enough to mount formidable opposition to public housing programs (Tighe 2010).
In a separate study, Freeman and Botein (2002) found four major areas of public concern related to public housing: reduction in property values, racial transition, concentrated poverty, and increased crime. The study concludes that such concerns are only warranted in certain circumstances, and in varying degrees. While negative consequences have potential to occur with the building of public housing, there is an almost equal chance of the public housing having the opposite effect of creating positive impacts within the neighborhood (Freeman and Botein 2002).
“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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
American sociologist William Julius Wilson has proposed that concentrating low-income housing in impoverished areas can limit tenants’ access to social opportunity. 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. 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.
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.
Housing vouchers, now one of the primary methods of subsidized housing delivery in the United States, became a robust program in the United States with passage of the 1974 Housing and Community Development Act. The program, colloquially known as Section 8, currently assists more than 1.4 million households. Through the voucher system, direct-to-landlord payments assist eligible households in covering the gap between market rents and 30% of the household's income.
The Hope VI program, created in 1992, was initiated in response to the physical deterioration of public housing units. The program rebuilds housing projects with an emphasis on mixed-income developments rather than projects which concentrate poorer households in one area.
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.
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”. 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.
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 requirements based on 80% of the Houston area’s median income. 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 home ownership through the scattered-site program and with the properties received in 1988.
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.
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