The Privatization of American Public Housing
Since 1937 American public housing has often been viewed as the rise and fall of a single program. However, this view masks a long-term moral and ideological struggle over the place of the poorest residents in American cities that has transmuted low-income housing provision from the public sector into public-private partnerships. This chapter empirically analyzes evolving federal housing programs and policies, starting with conventional public housing but also including other programs that have provided deep housing subsidies. When charted over time, this evolution reveals how the meaning and execution of public housing have shifted and diversified, in tandem with new roles for the private sector. The private sector has played important roles in the provision of public housing since its inception, even as private real estate interests opposed the program entirely. Starting in the late 1950s, with conventional public housing increasingly stigmatized, new forms have emerged. Housing policymakers have gradually shifted responsibility for low-income housing to private developers (through project-based subsidies), to private landlords (through voucher-based subsidies that traveled with tenants), and to private investors and nonprofit developers (through the deployment of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits). Then, during the 1990s and 2000s, a series of more than 250 public-private partnerships transformed public housing into a wide range of mixed-income communities under the HOPE VI program. Nearly all of these partnerships reduced the number of units serving extremely low-income residents. The 50-year trend toward privatization may have reached its logical culmination after 2013 with the burgeoning promulgation of the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. This program further blurred the public-private boundary by permitting conventional public housing apartments to be converted to long-term project-based contracts that no longer require public ownership or management. Taken together, these moves toward a hybridized public-private housing system have reduced the percentage of Americans receiving deep housing subsidies.