Housing America part 1: The decline of public housing

By on February 7, 2019

From MultiBriefs:  Just as in other parts of the world hit by the shockwaves of the Industrial Revolution, the call for public housing in the U.S. was born in the late 19th century out of an urgent attempt to put an end to the urban misery faced by factory workers. With rising levels of homelessness in the U.S. today another crisis is looming but the response this time around is a more ambiguous one.

This first part in a series on housing in America tells the story of how public housing began in the U.S. and how it got where it is today. Future articles will look at other aspects of housing in the U.S. in more detail.

Public housing vs. the home ownership dream

Public housing in the U.S. today provides homes to 2.1 million low-income Americans. However, while public housing in Europe remains a significant part of the housing stock, most Americans continue to chase the home ownership dream — despite growing evidence that this is failing many and exacerbating social and racial segregation (ironically the impetus behind the birth of public housing in the first place). Publicly subsidized housing today houses only 5 percent of the population, with around half of that provided by profit-making companies.

Our perceptions of public housing have shifted so dramatically that, despite the horror stories, there is simply less collective outrage than in the past. The has a lot to do with how we perceive the urban poor and the right to shelter.

The roots of public housing: Ending the urban misery of the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution across U.S. and European cities brought great wealth to some, but not to all. With it came a mass influx of the working poor to the cities and the ensuing crises of overcrowding, sanitation and shocking conditions. It was the shock of seeing the slums and tenements of New York that eventually led to calls for reform and decent housing for all.

Philanthropy has always permeated American life, and housing was one of the targets of charitable funds at the time. Indeed, it was Massachusetts-born financier George Peabody who gave away millions to house the poor in decent dwellings amid London’s industrial boom.

The Great Depression, the New Deal and Housing

Despite scattered efforts beforehand, it was the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s that that ushered in a short-lived period of a different approach to housing in the U/S. When Roosevelt was elected in 1933, his New Deal promised to alleviate the suffering brought on by the Depression, and housing was a cornerstone.

The newly established Public Works Administration was a powerhouse that both provided housing and acted as a catalyst for economic recovery. The 1937 Housing Act provided subsidies to local housing agencies to improve living conditions for low-income Americans.

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