The Public-Housing Experiment

Failed Public Housing Projects

The last building of the Cabrini-Green housing project was demolished in 2011

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).

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 (JEH), 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 with upkeep.

Edenwald Projects still stands in the Bronx New York

Edenwald Projects still stands in the Bronx New York

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.

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).

claude fischerYet 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.

Claude Fischer
The Berkeley Blog

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



  1. JoeWeinstein says

    As noted by prior commenter PeonInChief, the article underplays some potentially key facts and issues.
    In particular the article fails to note that architecturally USA ‘public housing’ inevitably got stigmatized because it early on and consistently focused on big-city-style highrise apartment towers. This kind of residential architecture briefly enjoyed status in the heyday of LeCorbusier’s International Style.
    However it certainly was NOT the residential architecture of choice – no matter how otherwise desirable the neighborhood might be or how high a status a given tower’s apartment dwellers might have – for America’s middle (including working) classes, indeed for anyone who dreamed ‘the American dream’.
    That dream prominently featured ‘owning your own home’ – which in the USA (at least until recent decades, if not maybe to this day) always meant owning the land ( a proper Jeffersonian rural ambition), not just an apartment on it (a strictly urban ambition).

    In the early 1960s I recall being shown examples in an agreeable Milwaukee middle-class neighborhood of a few one-family and duplex houses which were in fact ‘dispersed’ public housing. My guides were themselves middle-class family members who accepted and even positively approved of this kind of public housing. Their basic reasoning operates to this day among what is left of America’s homeowning actual or would-be middle classes. Namely, they figured that the values of the homeowning neighborhood majority – in particular, heed to careful upkeep of property, would likely set a compelling example to the public-housing tenants and would likely be upheld by them. So, despite her wonderment, it’s no mystery why – as PeonInChief puts it – ‘middle class people think that just being surrounded by them is good for the rest of us’.

  2. PeonInChief says

    Two things get missed in concentrating on the 1960s to 1970s. The first is that the real estate industry insisted that public housing be set apart from standard housing in both location and construction–that it be perceived by both residents and others as lesser housing. This decision was made in the immediate post-WWII period and that’s why we have highrises sited directly next to freeway on-ramps.

    Section 8 housing depends on the willingness of private landlords to rent to Section 8 tenants. First it means that the government is spending a lot of money. Second it means that they aren’t getting very much for that spending, as the only housing available to Section 8 tenants is that which wouldn’t rent for fair market rents on the private market.

    Finally it’s not good for poor people to be distributed in middle-class neighborhoods. Many who are moved to middle class neighborhoods suffer social isolation, don’t have access to needed services and can’t afford to use the services that surround them. I have yet to figure out why middle class people think that just being surrounded by them is good for the rest of us.

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