The Future of Public Housing

apartment courtyard, tree showing fall foliage

What We Know

As a fundamental feature of the social safety net, public housing plays an essential and unique role in communities across the country, providing much-needed stability to individuals and families. A January 2020 fact sheet on the state of the public housing stock shows the following:

  • More than 1 million low-income households live in public housing, most of whom are seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children.
  • Households living in public housing are among the poorest in their communities:
    • Ninety-one percent of households meet the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of very low income, and 72 percent meet the definition of extremely low income.
    • The average total annual income of households living in public housing is $14,444.

Public housing provides stable homes to some of the nation’s most vulnerable people, a service that is even more crucial amid COVID-19. The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the challenges that public housing faced before the outbreak. Properties are aging, some are in poor condition, and in some areas, they are susceptible to the effects of climate change. Now, with COVID-19 introducing new obstacles, public housing authorities are stretched to the limit to maintain properties and services, keep staff and residents safe and informed, and support families hit hard by job loss and school closures.

Turning the tide on decades of disinvestment to preserve high-quality, affordable homes for our nation’s most vulnerable households—while ensuring they remain healthy and economically stable during and after the pandemic—will take new policy tools, political will, and collective effort.

What We’re Doing

In 2019, the Urban Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities launched a new initiative—The Future of Public Housing—to build an evidence-based agenda for preserving public housing and protecting tenants. In October 2019, we convened housing industry leaders, advocates, tenant leaders, foundation representatives, policymakers, and other stakeholders to discuss the state of public housing and begin to identify actionable strategies for delivering high-quality, affordable housing. This includes confronting segregation and disinvestment in communities where public housing is located. The convening was the first step in our effort to build consensus around the urgent need to preserve the nation’s public housing stock and to develop a shared policy agenda for the 2020 presidential election and next Congress.

We produced a brief that outlines takeaways from the convening—including areas of consensus and disagreement across stakeholders—and that offers a new agenda for research, policy, and practice. It lays the groundwork for future conversations on ways to preserve the existing stock, strengthen and tailor resident supports, and ensure the program’s longevity.

Here’s our plan moving forward:

  • Continue to engage and develop partnerships with public housing authorities to jointly create and pilot approaches to providing housing services and supporting residents.
  • Hold a series of convenings with diverse stakeholders in 2020 to continue building consensus around tools and strategies to preserve and expand the public housing stock in the face of new and existing challenges.
  • Communicate and inform the public, policymakers, and practitioners about public housing’s crucial role in providing homes for low-income Americans and ways to improve and protect it.

Learn More

Fact Sheets:
Future of Public Housing: Public Housing Fact Sheet
Future of Public Housing: Rental Assistance Demonstration Fact Sheet

Urban Wire blog posts:
Centering DC Public Housing Residents in COVID-19 Response Can Help Address Racial Inequities
Why Public Housing Authorities Need More Funding to Continue Their Rapid Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic
New Funding Flexibility Is Helping Public Housing Authorities Address Urgent Needs—But Their Long-Term Challenges Could Get Worse
How Public Housing Authorities Are Supporting Vulnerable Residents during COVID-19
How Public Housing Authorities Can Help Bridge the Food Access Gap Exacerbated by the Pandemic
Our Aging Public Housing Puts Older Americans At Risk
How Has HUD’s Controversial Rental Assistance Demonstration Affected Tenants?
Many New Bills Bring National Attention to Urgent Public Housing Needs