The Road to PETRA

From the early days of the public housing program in the 1930s to the present, vociferous opposition has resulted in a host of problems. Understanding the history can help put President Obama's PETRA program in context.

Past Decisions — Present Problems

Along with a lack of political will, there are several historical reasons for public housing’s capital needs backlog.

First, the original public housing funding formula was unrealistic for long-term occupancy by low-income households. In that formula, the capital costs of constructing public housing were covered by the proceeds from bonds issued by local housing authorities. The federal government paid the principal and interest on these bonds, but tenants’ rents were expected to cover maintenance and repairs. When the buildings were relatively new and as incomes of the original tenants rose, the formula worked. But as buildings began to age and as a new group of lower income tenants moved in, the funding formula proved to be highly inadequate.

Decades of inadequate federal funding never made up for the problems caused by this original short-sighted formula.

A second contributor to the capital needs backlog was that the opposition by the private homebuilding industry limited where public housing got built and what it looked like. This, in turn, reduced the value of public housing, increased its stigma, and increased capital costs.

In community after community, vigorous campaigns were launched if a development was proposed in an area that might be attractive for private development. As a result, public housing developments were typically sited in the least desirable locales, such as former landfill sites or places inaccessible to public amenities and transportation.

Compounding the locational issue was the poor quality and unattractive design of the buildings. While the exteriors were usually sturdy, often brick, early public housing developments took architectural modernism to an extreme, resulting in unappealing buildings that were easily recognizable and specifically intended not to compete with private rental housing. Developments were often separated from existing street patterns, isolating the structures from their surroundings. Long hallways and the design of other public spaces proved unsafe and costly to monitor, with vandalism creating a need for recurrent repairs.

The interiors and various building systems were often the least expensive available. Over the long-term, sub-par heating, windows, and plumbing systems have created higher costs as repairs were more frequent and serious than expected.

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