Public housing

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Public housing or project homes are a form of housing in which the property is owned by a government authority, which may be central or local. Although the principles are common, the details of the arrangements differ between countries, and so does the terminology.

United States and Canada

In the United States and Canada, public housing is usually a block of purpose-built housing operated by a government agency, often simply refered to as "projects."

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, government involvement in housing for the poor was chiefly in the area of requiring new buildings to meet certain standards - like having airshafts - for decent livability. Most housing communities were developed from the 1930s onward and initial public housing was largely slum regeneration, with no nationwide expansion of public housing. This helped ease the concerns of a health-conscious public by eliminating or altering neighborhoods commonly considered dangerous, and reflected progressive-era sanitation initiatives. However, the advent of make-shift tent communities during the Great Depression caused concern in the Administration. Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote in 1938, "Today, we are launching an attack on the slums of this country."

Public housing in its earliest decades was usually much more working class and middle class and white than it was by the 1960s and after. Many Americans associate large, multi-story towers with public housing, but early projects, like the Ida B. Wells projects in Chicago, were actually low-rise, though Le Corbusier superblocks caught on before World War II, as seen in the Penn South Houses in New York City.

What Kenneth T. Jackson and other historians have called the "ghettofication" of public housing occurred for several reasons. One reason was the general weakening of the urban working classes. By the late 1950s the reservoir of needy working class urban dwellers was simply smaller than it had been previously. Additionally, federal law required that no person could pay more than a quarter of his or her income for rent in public housing. Since middle class people would pay as much, or more, for rent in public housing as they would in superior private housing, middle class people had no incentive to live in public housing at all. Another public policy factor that led to the decline in public housing was that, in general, city housing agencies ceased to screen tenants (New York City was an exception). In the 1940s, some public housing agencies, such as Chicago's under Elizabeth Wood, would only accept married tenants and gave special benefits to war veterans.

Public housing was only built with the blessing of the local government, and projects were almost never built on suburban empty lots, but through regeneration of older neighborhoods. The destruction of tenements and eviction of their low income residents consistently created problems in nearby neighborhoods with "soft" real estate markets.

Houses, apartments or other residential units are usually subsidized on a rent-geared-to-income (RGI) basis. Some communities have now embraced a mixed income, with both assisted and market rents, when allocating homes as they become available.

In recent years, many such projects have been torn down, renovated or replaced after criticism that the concentration of poverty in economically depressed areas, inadequate management of the buildings, and government indifference have contributed to increased crime. U.S. public housing continues to have a reputation for violence, drug use, and prostitution, leading to the passage, in 1996, of a federal "one strike you're out" law, calling for the eviction of tenants convicted of crimes, especially drug-related.

In reaction to the problems surrounding public housing, the United States Congress passed legislation enacting the Section 8 Housing Program in 1974, which Richard Nixon signed into law, to encourage the private sector to construct affordable homes. This kind of housing assistance assists poor tenants by giving a monthly subsidy to their landlords. This assistance can be 'project based,' which applies to specific properties, or 'tenant based,' which provides tenants with a voucher they can use anywhere vouchers are accepted. Virtually no new project based Section 8 housing has been produced since 1983. Effective October 1, 1999, existing tenant based voucher programs were merged into the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which is today the primary means of providing subsidies to low income renters. The Bush Administration has recently proposed controversial changes to the Housing Choice Voucher Program.