Public Housing Works. We Need More of It.
We’re in the middle of an affordable housing crisis. We can’t solve it without drastically increasing government funding for public housing.
Brenda Temple’s family is a public housing success story. She grew up in public housing in Queens, where a cohesive community of families and affordable rents allowed her parents and others to provide both stability and extra educational opportunities for their children. Temple’s sister went on to raise her two children in public housing while she and the children all earned advanced degrees that set the foundation for successful careers.
Temple herself lived in for-profit housing as a young adult, but some personal setbacks led her to years of struggling to afford rent and then couch surfing. The struggle ended when she got her home in the Oceanside Development in Far Rockaway, operated by the New York City Housing Authority. Temple has lived there for sixteen years, where her rent, which is adjusted to her Social Security income, has allowed her to become an active community leader.
“And that is just in my family,” Temple says after listing all the benefits public housing has provided. “There are stories across the board of people doing wonderful, fantastic things, including artists and athletes, all because of the opportunity we were provided with housing that is affordable.”
Temple’s account is at odds with the popular perception of public housing. Richard Nixon called it “depressing” and “crime-ridden.” Conservative think tanks have recently labeled the homes “noxious environments.” Republican representative Richard Baker from Louisiana said after Hurricane Katrina, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” The condemnation of public housing has been bipartisan: President Jimmy Carter’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary, Patricia Harris, in 1976 called public housing units “monstrosities.” She said, “We should make it clear that we are abandoning the whole notion of public housing.” And Bill Clinton oversaw the demolition of tens of thousands of public housing units.
Yet US public housing is still home to nearly two million people, many of them from groups that have struggled in the for-profit housing market. Public housing is particularly important for black and brown families still impacted by generations of housing racism: 43 percent of heads of housing in public housing are black and 26 percent are Latino. More than a third of public housing households are headed by someone age sixty-two or older, and over half of public housing households rely on disability or retirement checks.
Some of those characteristics may not be surprising, but others defy the stereotypes of public housing. For example, a good deal of public housing is operated by small local housing authorities and consists of low-rise buildings without a lot of units. In many cities, like Austin, Texas; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Portland, Oregon; and St Paul, Minnesota, it is thriving. Jackson Gandour, author of a comprehensive Human Rights Watch report on public housing, says that it has been unfairly stigmatized. “The impression is that public housing is a total failure, and that misses a lot of the picture,” he says.
The most compelling part of that picture is public housing’s affordability, which shines through during this time of rapidly rising rents and widespread evictions. Rents are capped at 30 percent of the tenants’ income, meaning that the average public housing tenant pays $392 a month in rent, compared to an average of over $2,000 per month for market-rate rentals. Public housing tenants also enjoy a far more secure tenure than most renters, as they are entitled by law to substantially more protections from arbitrary evictions and rent increases than their counterparts in the private housing market.
So it’s no wonder that millions of people have signed up for subsidized housing waiting lists. When those waiting lists open up, people have literally been trampled in the rush to sign up. As Michael Stegman, the top housing policy advisor in the Obama administration, has said, “Public housing is unpopular with everybody except those who live in it and those who are waiting to get in.”
A Starved Public Housing System
Temple is one of those public housing residents who is an unapologetic fan of the program, and her building is in fairly good condition. But she knows from her community work that many public housing residents struggle with broken elevators, water leaks, and pest control problems. They report that a once-responsive maintenance system is slower and far less effective at fixing their problems.
Too many public housing apartments and buildings are in bad shape. The National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials estimated in 2020 that a whopping $70 billion in repairs and replacement was needed for US public housing. “If you don’t provide for needed maintenance, eventually any home will start falling apart,” says Gandour.
The blame for this maintenance crisis lies squarely at the feet of public housing’s biggest critics. As housing researchers Gianpaolo Baiocchi and H. Jacob Carlson have written, “The failures of public housing can be traced to early sabotage, chronic under-funding, and segregationist logic.” Since public housing’s creation in 1937, the private real estate lobby has ensured that government housing was segregated by race and income, built with inferior materials, and blocked from funding for necessary maintenance.
It is this ongoing legacy that motivated Human Rights Watch to add US public housing to its advocacy agenda that is better known for exposing political repression and war crimes. “Purposefully driving people’s homes into disrepair is an obvious human rights problem,” Gandour says.
Although the demonization of public housing by the private real estate industry started decades earlier, massive divestment from the program truly began in the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan and a compliant Congress slashed funding for affordable housing by nearly 80 percent. The nation’s housing system has yet to recover: the United States devoted 1.4 percent of our Gross Domestic Product to federal interventions in affordable housing during the 1970s, but today our commitment has shrunk to only 0.25 percent.
The 1998 Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, part of the infamous Clinton Congress’s “end welfare as we know it” cuts to federal anti-poverty programs, enabled public housing agencies to use capital funding to tear down developments without replacing the demolished units. It also featured the Faircloth Amendment, which capped the number of public housing units at October 1999 levels. A refusal to maintain those units has ensured that the no-growth goal of the Faircloth Amendment has been easily achieved: there are only 958,000 public housing units today, compared to 1.3 million in 1996.
The massive loss of housing was no accident. HUD’s HOPE VI program funded the demolition of public housing, significantly reducing the number of affordable homes available. Under HOPE VI, Atlanta lost a stunning 86 percent of its public housing; Chicago lost 62 percent. HOPE VI has expired, but neglect and decay still causes ten thousand more public housing units to be lost each year.
Yet even as public housing is being starved of needed funds, our government spends lavishly on subsidized housing for wealthy homeowners and corporate landlords. Depending on the calculations, the US government spends anywhere from two to thirteen times more on wealthier homeowners than on renters in need. Subsidies like the mortgage interest and property taxes deduction, which in the US benefit only the wealthiest homeowners, do not exist in comparable nations like England, Canada, and Australia.
Nor do other nations match the United States’ array of generous tax expenditures for landlords, who are awarded deductions for depreciation and access to tax-avoidance schemes such as like-kind exchanges and pass-through exemptions. The gilded package of landlord tax breaks allow real estate billionaires like Donald Trump to avoid paying any federal income tax whatsoever most years. For example, New York provided a tax break for real estate developers of new multifamily construction — including luxury apartments — that cost $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2021, more than the city or federal government spent on the area’s public, subsidized housing development.
Redirecting some of the tax expenditures that reward wealthy homeowners and corporations toward subsidized housing for low-income people could dramatically reorient our economy toward greater equity. We could provide a subsidized housing voucher to every eligible US renter — an entitlement that is already the law in the United Kingdom and Australia. Or, in a single year, that money now spent on wealthy homeowners alone could instead fund in full the tens of billions in accumulated capital costs for public housing across the nation.
Across the Globe, Public Housing Works
How do we know that investments in public housing can bear fruit? Because, in addition to the benefits public housing has historically provided US families like Temple’s, multiple other countries offer examples of success. Austria, Finland, and Singapore are among the many nations with vibrant public housing programs. Germany flips the script from the homeowner-centric US approach to housing policies, providing renters with subsidies and rights including rent control and strong protections against arbitrary evictions. Germany is now a renter-majority nation where the average tenancy lasts eleven years.
While the efforts of the US real estate lobby have limited public housing to low-income people, a wide range of income groups benefit from public housing in other nations, increasing the programs’ base of political support. The United States is also a global outlier in the extent that we divert our affordable housing dollars to for-profit entities. Since the 1970s, the United States has switched investment away from public housing to instead subsidize for-profit landlords via direct payments and tax breaks. The Section 8 voucher program (also known as Housing Choice Vouchers), the Project-Based Section 8 program, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program all directly fund private landlords, often large, for-profit corporations.
Beyond the obvious inefficiency of using money intended to house low-income people to enrich corporations, all of these programs are inherently inferior to public housing. Tenants struggle to find private landlords that will accept vouchers, and the project-based Section 8 and LIHTC programs allow private landlords to convert to market-rate housing after they benefit from government subsidies. The LIHTC program, which replaced public housing as the largest supply-side US housing subsidy program, allows landlords like the notorious private equity firm Blackstone Group to rake in benefits while still not lowering rents to rates that the lowest income families can afford. Even the Congressional Budget Office has admitted that the LIHTC program is “more suited to the needs of investors than poor renters.”
Decades of public housing divestment and neglect have caused this profit-soaked combination to account for six times more units than public housing. That ratio should be reversed. Public housing is far more cost-effective, can be developed and enhanced even in market downturns, and endures after other types of subsidized housing are converted to market-rate rentals.
And public housing in the United States and beyond has often led to inspiring examples of localized, democratic governance. Back in 1949, the American Housing Act set out the goal of ensuring a “decent home in a suitable living environment for every American family,” echoing the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by the United States the year before. There is no better way to fulfill that goal than public housing.
So it is heartening to see that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders are sponsoring the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, which would direct $172 billion to fund desperately needed repairs and retrofits in existing public housing. Rep. Ilhan Omar has introduced the Homes for All Act, which would devote $1 trillion to building twelve million new, permanently affordable public and social housing units. Both bills would repeal the Faircloth Amendment.
At the same time, state and local governments across the country are also embracing a new commitment to public housing. “For me this is primarily about the state stepping up to solve a housing problem that is affecting huge numbers of people,” says Meghan Kallman, a Rhode Island state senator who has sponsored legislation to create a state-level agency to build and operate public housing.
“It’s not rocket science,” Gandour says. “Fundamentally, public housing in the US needs money to achieve its potential. It can be done: other governments are doing it well every day, and even the US experience shows it is well within our capacity.”