A Brief History of Public Housing


By the turn of the 20th century, housing concerns had come to the fore of social consciousness. Housing conditions of the inner city were dire and disease-ridden.  Increasing demand for housing in the urban market resulted from the combined forces of immigration, the Industrial Revolution, and rural migration.  Tenements were overcrowded and unsanitary.  Reformists fought for regulations governing air, light, and waste disposal of tenements.  Many opened their own settlement housing for the poor.  However, these private enterprises were too small and far between to have any real effect on the problems facing the housing market.  In addition, heavy opposition to public interference in the private market existed.  Many people felt the government should not play landlord, and that the free market would eventually solve the problem.


The first law to regulate housing was passed in 1867, in New York City.  The Tenement Act was created in an effort to provide minimal light and ventilation requirements for tenements.  Throughout the beginning of the century, the National Housing Association sought to enforce minimal standards, but the efforts were not publicly supported, and issues of enforcement limited their success.  Federal involvement in the housing market for low-income housing did not aggressively begin until the Depression hit with the 1929 stock market crash.  Under Roosevelt’s New Deal program, a public works housing initiative was set up in an effort to mobilize the nation’s economy and provide employment relief; it secondarily assured federal involvement in housing for the poor.  By 1937, 22,000 units of public housing had been built in 50 projects nationwide.



TIMELINE


Housing Act of 1937:  This act was adopted in an effort to supplement private development of housing.  The goal was to federally subsidize the gap between what the poor could afford for housing, and what the private market could offer, in order to assure decent housing for everyone.  The Act also provided “equivalent elimination,” a requirement that for every one unit of public housing constructed, one unit of slum housing be destroyed.  In this way, only the quality of housing would be improved, and not the quantity.  In addition, the U.S. Housing Authority was created, which went on to establish local housing authorities.  Federal housing authorities were charged with the responsibility of providing guidelines for a public housing program and appropriating funds.  Local housing authorities (LHAs) were responsible for demonstrating local need for income-assisted housing, submitting plans for development, and ensuring the enforcement of federal codes/guidelines. 

Housing Act of 1949:  Once again, the primary target for the act was to provide employment relief.  The secondary goal was to aid in the elimination of blight, or slum clearance.  In addition, an amendment was provided whereby the financing of construction was to be provided entirely at the local level.  The 1949 Act set a goal of 1 million units of public housing to be built by 1955.  However, only 460,000 units were built from 1949 to 1967.  Strong private opposition, economic downturn, and federal and local disputes over control were just some of the reasons behind the shortage. 

Housing Act of 1954:  Under this act, public housing was built largely as a consequence of urban renewal, and in an effort to relocate those families displaced by the renewal.

Housing Acts of 1956 and 1959:  These two acts were revolutionary in their provisions for the elderly.  They also provided LHAs maximum responsibility in establishing low- income rent/ eligibility standards.  It was felt that local authorities could more accurately determine the needs of low- income residents, and therefore more adequately address the issues. 


1965:  The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is created.  HUD’s mission is “to increase homeownership, support community development and increase access to affordable housing free from discrimination” (www.hud.gov).  HUD was also charged with the responsibility of enforcing federal guidelines on fair housing. 

1970s: There is greater emphasis placed on affordable housing for the elderly.  The 70s saw the concern shift from merely providing affordable shelter to include social welfare of residents into housing policy.  Nixon introduces New Federalism with the main focus on deregulation.  Now, higher demand is placed on states, both fiscally and in terms of policy.  Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds are now the method for financing projects, in which localities petition the state for funds. 

1980s: Funding for HUD programs are cut by 65%; virtually no public housing is built.

1990s: HUD appropriates an assessment standard of performance for every LHA to aid in the dispersal of funds.  HOPE is established to provide resources for resident management, homeownership, and economic empowerment of residents.

Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998: Implemented to increase economic integration, desegregation and deconcentration, encourage work, and increase number of public housing units.  The act also provides for increased accountability at the local level. 

(Material obtained from the NAHRO Public Housing Manager Seminar workbook)