The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 21, 2011

Why Large Public Housing Projects Are a Still a Bad Idea

November 21, 2011

Recently, a colleague asked me what lesson I would draw from all the research I’ve done on transforming public housing to work better for families and nearby communities. Given the costs, the challenges of relocating vulnerable families, and widespread community resistance to renters using housing vouchers, is it better to simply keep investing in maintaining large, traditional public housing developments? Some advocates argue that it is, and that programs like HOPE VI, which funds the redevelopment of distressed public housing, disrupt communities and reduce the supply of affordable housing for the poorest households.

For starters, there is still a role for traditional public housing—at least for the smaller developments that are easier to manage or for developments in more affluent areas with better schools, amenities, and employment opportunities for low-income families. But ample evidence confirms that huge public housing developments that isolate hundreds of extremely poor families in a single community blight lives and neighborhoods.

Take for example, Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens, the city’s last large traditional public housing development and home to 1,700 families. Violence dogs Altgeld continually. Just last week, 4 people were killed and 2 others shot in a nearby convenience store.  The Chicago Housing Authority is trying to improve life for Altgeld residents by installing security cameras and on-site social service providers, and is participating in the Urban Institute’s HOST Demonstration, which provides intensive services to both adults and kids to try to boost employment and education outcomes. CHA also provides youth with job skills and educates residents about healthy eating through Altgeld Farm, which I described in an earlier blog. But improving life in Altgeld remains an uphill and costly battle that might not be winnable.

So when I ponder housing policy choices, I think about all the damage that living in isolated, high-crime public housing projects has done to residents—trauma, substance abuse, physical debility, mental illness, chaotic family lives, and lives lost because of the constant violence—and can’t imagine recommending that government continue a policy that has had such tragic consequences. A far better course, as Margery Turner wrote recently, is helping families move to better neighborhoods and investing in the services and supports they need to improve their quality of life.

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