The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 15, 2012

The Next Challenge for Public Housing

November 15, 2012

Over the past two decades, public housing in Chicago and other cities has undergone a remarkable transformation. Through the HOPE VI program, dilapidated developments that were blighting neighborhoods—and residents’ lives—have been replaced with new, mixed-income housing. Housing authorities have also made major investments in their traditional properties, improving management and security.

Our studies on the fate of the residents who used to live in the worst developments find that no matter what kind of housing they have now--whether they are living in a new development or in rehabilitated housing or are using a voucher to rent an apartment in the private market—most say they are now living in better housing in safer neighborhoods. The magnitude of this transformation is significant, reflecting profound changes in management and institutional capacity and evident in the more visible changes in the actual housing developments.

The question for housing authorities going forward is how to ensure a high standard of management and maintenance in the face of very real challenges to providing housing to the poorest, most needy households. In many housing markets, public housing is a major source of affordable multi-bedroom units; as a result, many developments are home to large numbers of children and youth. Further, many families who live in public housing face complex problems, such as serious mental and physical health conditions, substance abuse, and domestic violence—problems that simply improving their housing circumstances could not address. Both these factors can create serious management problems as it only takes a handful of problem tenants to create an atmosphere of fear for an entire development.

The Urban Institute’s HOST Demonstration, is testing whether providing intensive case management services to the most vulnerable families in public and mixed-income housing can help support the health of the entire community. The hope is that an investment in services like with wraparound case management, clinical and employment services for adults, and clinical support and positive activities for youth will pay off in terms of fewer management problems, reduced evictions, and greater safety and security overall.

In essence, we are hoping to demonstrate that using public housing as a platform for change can have a significant payoff as an asset management strategy for housing authorities. Beyond housing, we hope to demonstrate that this approach can reduce costs across systems—such as health care and criminal justice—much like the “housing first” approach to homelessness. Public housing transformation made significant strides in improving the way we provide assisted housing to the poorest households. But without substantial investments in human capital, we risk losing the hard-won gains of the past 20 years.

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