Democracy and the Challenge of Affordability: An Evolving and Expanding Definition of ‘Public’ Housing

This post is the fourth in a month-long series of blog postings on affordable housing as a challenge to the health of American democracy, and in particular local democracy in the United States. The series, edited by Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor Quinton Mayne, is part of the Ash Center’s Challenges to Democracy series, a two-year public dialogue inviting leaders in thought and practice to name our greatest challenges and explore promising solutions.

In this post, we invite Harvard Graduate School of Design Master in Urban Planning candidate Margaret Scott to explore how the evolution of public housing as an institution might offer hopeful opportunities for a broader coalition of actors in the field of affordable housing. In particular, we explore the changing balance of power in the funding, production, and management of public housing between multiple scales of government and, increasingly, toward greater involvement of private actors in the delivery of public housing.

By Margaret Scott

As a major actor in affordable housing, public housing in the U.S. has evolved from a federal institution to an interconnected web of local authorities, services, and policies. Whatever form it might take, however, public housing continues to serve as home to millions of Americans.

Accounts of public housing’s history rarely tell the stories of its institutions, instead focusing on iconic buildings and developments or personal stories about the people who live in public housing. Recent pieces by NPR and Next City, for example, emphasize the powerful voices of public housing residents and the importance of public housing as a home. In this post I focus on the institutions, structures, and systems involved in public housing.

The provision of public housing originally emerged as a federal mandate from the 1937 Housing Act, with construction of rental and homeownership units in the 1940s, and large-scale construction of rental housing in many cities across the country in the 1950s and 1960s, the scale and consequences of which has been made infamous in research, images, and film.

Young residents of New Orleans. Photo credit: Craig Morse via Flickr

The 1970s, 80s, and 90s meanwhile were marked by a significant slowdown in the production of public housing. During this period, local housing authorities focused instead on juggling the complexities and challenges presented by the financing, management, and preservation of the significant portfolio of housing that had emerged in previous decades.

Moreover, during this period public housing authorities operated with minimal oversight. In many cities they became synonymous with corruption and profound mismanagement, in some cases even entering receivership by the federal government. And to this day, housing authorities continue to battle this negative reputation.

Across the country, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that approximately 1.2 million households live in public housing units, managed by approximately 3,300 housing authorities. HUD’s description of the role of the housing authority (HA) is telling in its simplicity, stated here on their website: “An HA is responsible for the management and operation of its local public housing program. They may also operate other types of housing programs.”

Deceivingly simple, this mandate is an enormous one. In spite of being both chartered by and intertwined with the federal government — primarily through the disbursement and regulation of federal funds — a local housing authority has significant independence. The provision of public housing involves a complex and interconnected set of partnerships and institutional relationships.

For example an additional service administered by housing authorities is the housing voucher program, commonly known as “Section 8,” which serves over 5 million individuals. Households use Section 8 to access participating rental housing in the private market. Vouchers may also be “project-based,” in which they are allocated to subsidize specific developments constructed by private developers.

Typically, 50% of a public housing authority’s funding comes from federal sources as a foundation of the capital budget, with the remaining operating budget coming from residents’ rental income. Unlike in the past, public housing authorities (PHAs) today are managers rather than developers of public housing, and thus limited in their ability to expand the housing stock in order to serve more of the community.

Given this constraint, many housing authorities have expanded into social service delivery as a way of supporting those residents who are striving toward better job and earning opportunities. This effort aims not only to support individual residents and families. It also has the potential to serve the greater community; residents who achieve sufficient household earnings to allow them to move out of public housing, if desired, open a housing opportunity to another family in need.

The potential for this type of turnover is increasingly significant as the demand for public housing, or affordable housing more broadly, continues to grow. Across the country, it is estimated that only 1 in 4 individuals qualifying for a housing voucher has access to services through a local housing authority.

This unmet demand for public housing is linked directly to recent political shifts that have led in turn to significant budget cuts to congressional funding for public housing. In addition to program innovations as described above, these changes in funding have prompted public housing authorities to pursue new arrangements and partnerships. Two programs highlight the ways that HUD is encouraging these shifts among local housing authorities: the Moving to Work (MTW) and Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) programs.

First enacted in 1996, MTW aims to expand housing options and to provide thoughtful programming and services for public housing households while pursuing administrative cost savings for housing authorities. The program has grown steadily since its launch nearly two decades ago and continues to garner broad support.

RAD allows public housing authorities to shift some of their properties to private management firms so as to enable the large-scale improvements that aging public housing developments frequently require. An important feature of RAD is the incorporation of mixed-income units into the developments that transfer to private management. By lifting the requirement to serve only the lowest-income bracket of eligible families, this new arrangement has the potential to facilitate the emergence of mixed-income communities.

Cabrini-Green Building teardown in Chicago. Photo credit: TheErin via Flickr

Though distinct, both MTW and RAD represent a decentralizing relationship between the federal government and local public housing authorities. Local authorities are gaining more flexibility, which opens up opportunities for new partnerships and creative decision-making. Both programs enable local housing authorities to make more decisions on their own, and many have opted to innovate traditional institutional arrangements by bringing in private actors.

While flexibility and efficiency are important values in governance, it is also natural for concerns to arise over the transfer of a public good to private control as represented by both programs. These shifts elicit a number of critical questions about protecting democratic values like fairness, transparency, accountability, and responsiveness.

An excellent summary of the MTW program by the National Low Income Housing Coalition,* for example, emphasizes the importance of balancing tenant protections with federal cost-saving measures. In the end, NLIHC rates the program as a net positive for public housing delivery because of its potential to encourage investment in public housing through partnerships with private actors.

While advocates are right to question how permanent affordability will be maintained in these partnerships, among other issues, the truth is that the nature of public housing is one of innovation and change in the face of periodic challenges. And more broadly, cooperation between private and public sectors on social problems, rather than relying solely on direct government delivery of services, is an increasingly popular model of governance.

Equally important is examining the ways in which this hybrid model of housing delivery may raise the potential for improvement in the health of local governance beyond effective service delivery and efficient stewardship of tax dollars. Might the ongoing evolution of these partnerships lead to more active public engagement in the field of public housing?

How might these models start to encourage more individuals and institutions to take on greater responsibility for solving the problem of affordable housing, whether through delivery or advocacy? How might public housing become more entwined into the fabric of the entire city? As the stories of public housing become shared among a broader public, might more and more residents become politically invested or amenable to the cause?

*Editor’s Note — The agreement referenced in this article was not implemented and become defunct as of 2012. NLIHC does not rate the current MTW demonstration program as a net positive for public housing. Instead, NLIHC has expressed concern that the current MTW program includes policies that could be harmful to residents through affordability, deep income targeting, resident participation, and programmatic accountability. NLIHC has submitted comments regarding the proposed expansion of the MTW program such as removing policies like time limits, work requirements, and rents not based on household incomes.

Margaret Scott is a second year Master in Urban Planning candidate at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, with a concentration in Housing and Neighborhood Development and International Planning. Before coming to the GSD, Scott worked as a foreclosure prevention counselor in Minnesota and a community organizer with Habitat for Humanity International in Argentina.

Further Reading

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has a number of resources detailing their programs and budget. The Office of Policy Development and Research (PDR) has a great set of resources available at

The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University is a wealth of resource on the housing market and housing affordability in the United States.

Busting 3 Myths About Public Housing in Next City, April 16, 2015, written by Jake Blumgart.

Originally published at

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