Take the Best of Public Housing, And Make More

high rise apartments
Photo by Ian Freimuth via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Housing and its affordability are arguably the most pressing issues in the United States today. As the number of renters rises, the availability of housing units at lower-income levels is dwindling. Many households pay more than 50 percent of their monthly incomes on housing expenses. And while many are fighting for the construction of more affordable housing developments, we should not let public housing disappear from our affordable-housing radar.

Approximately 2.1 million people live in what’s left of our public housing. The demolition of public housing developments as a tactic in urban renewal moves to de-concentrate poverty, and redevelopment policy initiatives have drastically changed the landscape of urban areas. The tall, brick, imposing buildings of the infamous Cabrini Green Houses in Chicago, Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, and Robert Taylor Homes in Atlanta have all been cleared away and replaced with newer developments.

The characterization of public housing as traps, pockets of despair, and breeding grounds for criminal behavior have dominated popular and political discourse and led to the belief that the longer people lived in these communities, the worse they would be. This belief ignored the strong social and political bonds we now know were built in many of these communities.

Policymakers must consider public housing as a viable option. Compared with housing vouchers, scattered-site properties, mixed-income, and affordable housing developments, public housing still serves a large segment of Americans.

When considering public housing as a viable option, policymakers must keep in mind our history of racial discrimination in housing policy when planning its design and implementation. For example, the longstanding effects of housing segregation—intensified by policies like the GI Bill—and the simultaneous characterization of the urban poor as a deviant and dependent group, while returning white veterans were cast as worthy of federal support, led to different political agendas and subsequent policy for creation of housing programs, postwar. More modern examples are present in the use of exclusionary zoning policies, which served to further concentrate poverty within our urban centers and intensify racial segregation between suburban and urban communities.

The case for maintaining public housing goes beyond just preserving the current stock of public housing, it should challenge our notions about who should supply housing to families in our country. Interestingly enough, this debate has gone on for a long time.

In 1945, while testifying before Congress during hearings on post-war economic policy and planning, L.E. Mahan, President of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America (MBAA) stated, “we adhere to the general principle that private enterprise and local communities should be responsible for the development of housing needs of the people.” Mahan continued, “Our association wishes to go on record as opposing public housing wherein the Federal Government becomes the direct owner or operator of housing property.”

Though it was largely considered the only option in the mid-twentieth century, despite drastic transformations in housing policy since that time, public housing still holds a strong place in communities across our nation. If we are seeking to build more inclusive communities, then public housing must be maintained and reserved for lower-income earning Americans. We have made many mistakes in disrupting neighborhoods, especially low-income communities of color. Realizing the failures of the past can bring new insight and possibility for the future.

Prentiss Dantzler is an assistant professor of Sociology and the co-chair of the Urban Studies minor at Colorado College. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Affairs from Rutgers University-Camden. His research interests include urban poverty, housing policy, race, and community development.


  1. Besides talking about the valuable resource public housing serves in providing America’s less affluent with shelter and its potential to address past discrimination based on race and income; it should always be noted that public housing has been a creative force in any urban environment.

    All too often the myth is repeated that Pruitt Igoe failed because high rises bred alienation and foster crime and despair. To begin, a substantial number of public housing projects are not high rises and can actually spread any town or village’s poor population if properly planned. Further, and oral history does bear this out, community is very much formed within such communities whether they be high rise or low rise. Rather it is the loss of jobs in an area that brings about alienation and ruin, not the concept of public housing or whether the architecture looks too institutional. Americans should be reminded that this does work in most other industrialized countries.

  2. When viewed in retrospect, the fate of Cabrini Green was destined by planned obsolescence and poor maintenance, blamed on the tenants, and the relocation of the displaced residents was not a success with the CHA not being able to provide names when housing was offered per HUD insured finance agreements. Prof. Dantzler’s descriptions are correct.

    Also, the conversion to investment ownership can only lead to the same 20-year disasters which occurred in the 221(d)(3) rental programs. Conversion to cooperatives, however, could lead to the same success as truly occurred with the 221(d)(3) cooperatives. The HUD records do not show a good record for these cooperatives because poor planning and rapidly rising costs led to the early default of many of these cooperatives, but the resilience of the cooperative structure, resident ownership stimulated involved led most of these cooperatives into modified mortgages with a relative short period of time and most of them ended up paying of 100% plus interest and supplemental loans, if any, of the HUD held mortgages, which HUD unfortunately sold to private investors.

    50 years later these cooperatives are alive, functioning well and mostly still serving low- and moderate-income families with lower than market charges. There are examples of long-lived project-based Section 8 cooperatives which were created to salvage HUD financed failed rentals. There is also an example of long lived public housing conversion on Chicago’s far south side, Racine Courts Cooperative. —Herb Fisher


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