What Went Wrong With Public Housing?

A recent study examines “the entire public housing experiment by looking at the whole country from 1933 to 1973”:

[Researcher Katharine L. Shester] shows that by 1970, even taking into account local dish_pruittigoe conditions prior to their construction, public housing projects depressed counties’ social and economic levels. Critically, however, that was not true before 1970. Data from 1950 and 1960 suggest that public housing seemed to have positive local effects. Something changed in the 1960s. The source of change was not, in Shester’s analysis, the new projects built in the 1960s, but seems to have been some cumulative aspect of public housing generally.

Decisions and developments from 1950 to 1970, Shester argues, accelerated the physical deterioration of public housing and increased the concentration of troubled families living there. Limits on government maintenance funds, like the limits on the original construction costs, hampered the housing managers. And because of imposed rent ceilings, local housing agencies could not get the funds sufficient to keep up repairs by charging tenants. Physical dilapidation followed.

At the same time, tightening the requirements that housing be provided only to the neediest families meant that stable working-class families, once part of the mix, were gone. The renters became increasingly and exclusively the poorest and most troubled families. Their growing concentration in dense (and tense) settings compounded the problems of order. By 1970, public housing projects had gained their nightmarish image. Pruitt–Igoe (and others) came down.

(Image sequence of 1972 demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis via Wikimedia Commons)