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Often used loosely, the term public housing describes several very different categories of housing. In a narrow sense, particularly in the United States, public housing tends to refer to dwellings funded by the national government and owned and operated by a local authority. In a broader interpretation, public housing consists of those units whose occupants cannot afford housing available on the so-called free market and who benefit, according to income-linked criteria, from some form of public assistance, extended either directly to the tenants or to developers or owners, who in turn provide discounted rent. Finally, one may argue that all housing targeted for any type of public subsidy is public housing, regardless of who owns it.

This last perspective would indicate that in the United States and many other countries most housing is, in fact, subsidized with public funds. This is so because its cost to private owners is lowered by national, state, and local governments through tax expenditures (for example, the deduction of mortgage interest and property tax from personal taxable income, amounting to more than $65 billion annually) and the provision of public infrastructure (such as roads), among other subsidies. Indirect subsidies of this type are not tenure neutral (they benefit owners much more than renters), and they are also highly regressive (they benefit households with high incomes much more than those with low incomes).

These distinctions and their implications are highly significant in the debates that help shape housing policies and programs in the United States and elsewhere. However, it is not possible here to engage the full scope of this discussion. This brief article focuses mainly on U.S. public housing in the more conventional, narrower definition.

Historical Background

Public housing is a means-tested, non-cash transfer program. Only households with incomes below specified levels are eligible. At present, they pay 30 percent of income for rent. Initially authorized by the (Wagner Steagall) Housing Act of 1937, public housing in the United States was meant to house families who were temporarily poor as a result of the economic depression. Its establishment came after a hard-fought, lengthy battle in which the National Association for Real Estate Boards, the U.S. Savings and Loans League, and the U.S. Mortgage Bankers Association opposed “socialist” government intervention in the housing market. The compromise that was reached has been seen by many as more an effort to boost the construction industry and reduce unemployment than to provide affordable housing.

After World War II, the Housing Act of 1949 declared the goal of “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.” It called for the construction of 810,000 public housing units in six years. However, production fell far short, and private commercial interests succeeded in appropriating funds that had been tied to residential redevelopment. In the following decades, the U.S. commitment to public housing steadily declined, and in January 1973 President Richard Nixon imposed a moratorium on all federal housing assistance. The moratorium was lifted the following year with the enactment of legislation oriented to demand-side subsidies.

Subsequent significant changes in housing policy included a shift away from large projects (scattered-site approach), a trend toward privatization (e.g. in management and sale of units), and especially an increased use of the existing housing stock through a system of allowances and vouchers that reduced the cost of housing to tenants. Today, few new units are built. The total number of public housing units is, in fact, declining at present, as large problem projects are being torn down and replaced by higher-quality redevelopments built at lower densities.

Profile and International Scope

Public housing in the United States provides homes to about 3.3 million people, accounting for about 1.5 percent of all occupied dwelling units. The percentage is also relatively low in other countries that have traditionally relied heavily on the private-sector supply to meet housing demand: Australia (6 percent), New Zealand (5 percent), and Canada (5.5 percent), to name three. In Japan, which has also favored a minimal role for government in housing provision, public housing for low-income households similarly constitutes 5 percent of the total stock. These figures contrast sharply with those in regions where national government has played an active role in creating a relatively large postwar social housing sector, such as Israel (13 percent), France (18 percent), Germany (20 percent), Denmark (24 percent), Britain (31 percent), Sweden (36 percent), The Netherlands (45 percent), Hong Kong (50 percent), and Singapore (86 percent). Privatization trends have more recently resulted in a decline of some of these figures, although they remain high in comparison. Countries in Eastern Europe and Russia have long had a very large housing sector controlled by the central state. During the 1990s, their economies underwent a process of transformation oriented to a more market-based organization of society. Nonetheless, at the end of the 20th century, after significant selloffs to tenants against nominal prices, diminished but still significant public housing stocks remained in, for example, Russia (49 percent), Poland (25 percent), and Hungary (13 percent).

In the United States, the popular image of public housing conjures up mass-produced high-rises and superblocks built at high densities with low-quality construction materials according to bad designs and situated in undesirable locations. Undeniably, many projects fit that description. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that about 100,000 units are “severely distressed,” that is, physically deteriorated and with high vacancy and unemployment rates. However, such units constitute a minority of public housing, concentrated in a few large cities, and they are not representative. In fact, the largest proportion of public housing developments in the United States, 38 percent, comprises two- or three-story walk-ups; 34 percent are singlefamily attached or detached dwellings. Only 28 percent consist of buildings of four or more stories, a share that is dwindling under the HOPE VI program. Public housing in the United States includes many examples of fine designs, and some of the most recent developments incorporate design concepts strikingly similar to some of the earliest public housing in the country.

Initially, U.S. public housing was intended as temporary housing for poor households expected to work their way up to private-market housing. However, increasingly it became a last resort for people with no prospects for other housing options. As a result, over time, public housing has become residualized. Many residents are dependent on welfare (over 50 percent) and social security or disability payments (25 percent). About 75 percent of households are headed by a single adult, usually an elderly person or a single parent. A majority are nonwhite.

In western and northern Europe after World War II, many governments embarked on large-scale housing programs to meet pent-up demand and make up for housing stock destroyed in the war. More than 5 million units were built. Most of this construction occurred in the form of high-rises built on peripherally located estates. By the mid-1970s, the absolute shortages had been eliminated. Demand fell. Households with rising incomes moved out, leaving behind those without choice. Vacancies rose, revenues declined, and conditions quickly deteriorated. Since then, local authorities and nonprofit landlords, oriented to providing and managing social housing, have increasingly faced social welfare challenges engendered by economic, political, and demographic trends in the larger society.

In eastern Europe, national governments controlled property rights and financial resources. Central planning produced a mass-housing sector owned and operated by state agencies and state-run industries. Large estates comprising prefabricated dwelling units in multistory buildings became home to 170 million people. Access to housing was a legislated entitlement, and since wages were low, households spent only a small proportion of their income on rent (often around 3 percent). Limited rent revenues and subsidies insufficient for operating and maintenance needs, often combined with lowquality building materials and fast construction, caused the housing to fall into disrepair quickly. Responsibilities for upkeep and repair became a salient issue in the transition of the former state socialist systems into more market-oriented societies.

In the developing countries, with a few exceptions, public housing has constituted only a minute portion of housing production. Typically, self-help and other informal processes of housing provision have been much more important. Insofar as scarce resources were used for the building of public housing, the beneficiaries have usually been civil servants rather than the poorest segments of the population. Current efforts are generally directed toward enabling housing markets to work, although it remains to be seen whether this approach will extend access to housing to the lowest-income groups.

Design in Context

In terms of architecture and project layout, there have been three stages in the evolution of public housing in the United States. In the 1930s and the early 1940s, semienclosed courts with walk-up buildings dominated, aligned with the streets but with entries usually from the interior of the site. Open areas between lines of row houses or walk-ups or around widely spaced elevator high-rises placed at an angle to the street or in closed streets were more characteristic of projects built from the 1940s through the 1960s. From the late 1970s onward, public housing designs more typically include private yards and semi- or fully enclosed courts for row houses and low-rises with entrances reoriented to front the streets. The different designs have been seen as the enactment of prevailing belief systems concerning the place of public housing and its residents in the surrounding community and society at large.

Illustrative of the broader context of design is the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis, which opened its doors to the first tenants in the early 1950s amid high praise for its design. When it was dynamited scarcely 20 years later, many critics decried design features, such as the lack of semipublic space and the mismatch between the social and physical environment (for example, large families in high-rise apartments), attributing to them the project’s failure. Others, however, have downplayed the significance of design in the demise of Pruitt-Igoe and similar projects, instead emphasizing the role of insufficient budgets and discriminatory policies.

Current Approaches

Public housing remains a valuable resource. It is home to millions of households who cannot afford market housing. Maintaining this resource requires that extant challenges be effectively met. Current approaches fall into two categories. The first is tenant based, primarily under the Section 8 program. It seeks to ameliorate the concentration of poverty by portable subsidies, such as vouchers and allowances, aimed at increasing household mobility, and sometimes provides additional supports, such as job training. The second, area-based, supply-side approach focuses on the housing estates themselves in an attempt to address problems in a comprehensive manner. The latter approach is multipronged (incorporating more accountable forms of management, providing programs and services in support of resident needs, attracting mixed-income tenant populations, and carrying out research-based design) and seeks to avoid past mistakes that led to higher rates of vandalism and crime. HOPE VI funding has stimulated improved architecture and site planning to foster neighborly interactions and promote safety (crime prevention through environmental design). In addition, examples are growing of public housing that integrates programs to assist residents in becoming economically more self-reliant (for example, Project Self-Sufficiency) and that provides services that facilitate independent functioning.

The problems facing U.S. public housing—problems of design, siting, maintenance, and population composition—are often attributable to oppositional economic and political forces rather than to causes inherent in the public subsidy of housing. Smaller schemes that use individual street addresses rather than project names and that are woven into the fabric of the surrounding community by integrating services and mixing different income groups will make public housing less distinguishable from private housing. Indeed, evidence links the emergence of successful public housing to the dissolution of its standout image and to its being an integral part of a comprehensive approach to housing.


Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.3 (P-Z).  Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.



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Public housing in America, (The reference shelf)












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