The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 19, 2013

Public housing and the legacy of segregation

August 19, 2013

Fifty years after the March on Washington, we are still dealing with the legacy of the federal government’s decision to permit local housing authorities to build huge public housing developments in poor, black communities.

As my colleagues and I discussed in our 2008 book, Public Housing and the Legacy of Segregation, the consequences of this decision were disastrous for both residents and communities. Instead of offering poor, African-American families decent housing and new opportunities, public housing helped reinforce patterns of concentrated poverty and racial segregation.

The original motivation for building this housing was to alleviate poverty—to clear slums and provide decent, affordable places to live. Much of this housing was intended for the many African-American families who had made their way north as part of the Great Migration and were now crowded in tenements that lacked basic facilities—running water, flush toilets, and reliable heat.

Initially, it seemed like these new developments might live up to their promise. In St. Louis and Chicago, the opening of high-rise developments like Pruitt-Igoe and Robert Taylor Homes were greeted with great fanfare, touting the modern, clean apartments.

But these developments were built in already poor, racially segregated communities. Chicago and Washington, D.C. constructed new highways and train lines that cut residents off from the rest of the city. These “modern” high-rises quickly became national symbols of the failures of the War on Poverty, suffering all the ills of chronic poverty and disadvantage: female-headed households, high rates of unemployment, low levels of education, shocking levels of physical and mental illness, and most of all, overwhelming drug trafficking and violent crime. After just 15 years, the St. Louis Housing Authority declared its showplace Pruitt-Igoe uninhabitable; film of the 1975 demolition of the homes made the national news.

Many factors contributed to the failures of public housing in the United States.

  • Poor design and construction coupled with ineffective management meant that the buildings quickly deteriorated.
  • The large numbers of multi-bedroom units meant that the properties were dominated by big families, creating an “unnatural” adult-child ratio that contributed to vandalism and disorder.
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) failed to provide adequate funding for operations, prompting housing authorities to hike tenant rents, driving out those who could afford better options.
  • The Brooke Amendment, passed in 1969, capped rents at 30 percent of tenants’ income and provided operating funds, but made public housing less attractive for working families with higher incomes.
  • The Reagan administration, under pressure to do something about the rise in homelessness, gave homeless families and individuals priority for public housing.
  • As conditions deteriorated, families who could afford better options fled, leaving behind a population increasingly dominated by the poorest and most vulnerable families.

The transformation of public housing that began in the 1990s with the HOPE VI program has led to the demolition of much of the worst housing. New mixed-income developments constructed with today’s best design principles have replaced dilapidated properties in many cities. And the Section 8 voucher program has offered poor families the opportunity to find housing in the private market, sometimes even providing assistance with finding housing in areas that should offer greater opportunity—better schools, parks, and access to jobs.

But, while these efforts mean that many residents are now living in better housing in safer neighborhoods and have a better quality of life, even the most ambitious efforts have done little to help lift these families out of poverty. As we concluded in our book, until we as a nation are willing to have an honest conversation about the legacy of racial segregation in public housing, these families are likely to continue to be left behind.

Public housing photo from Shutterstock

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