Opinion

Public housing for the poor: Mend it, don't end it

In this time of housing crisis, what's needed are patient reforms, not a rush to end a model that has met an important social need for the past 75 years.

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For 75 years, public housing has served the needs of America's poorest families. With the nation's homeless population expected to grow by 1.5 million over the next two years, the need for low-income housing is crucial.

But today, this New Deal program is on the verge of collapse. Atlanta, the first city to provide public housing projects in 1936, is demolishing these units and relocating residents using vouchers in a bid to deconcentrate poverty. Other cities are following suit; by decade's end, traditional public housing could be over.

That would be a mistake, because poverty and homelessness are serious problems lying beyond the scope of the private market. Before rushing to replicate this shift nationwide, policymakers ought to reflect on its broader implications.

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In the past decade, the city has bulldozed over a dozen developments, forcing tens of thousands of families to relocate. "Concentrating families in poverty is very destructive," Atlanta Housing Authority CEO Renée Glover told The New York Times last year. The last residents were moved out on Dec. 31, 2009. About 7,000 qualified residents have been relocated to private market rental housing with the help of a voucher subsidy. There are no plans to build replacement housing.

Atlanta's effort reflects a national campaign that goes back 30 years.

By the 1980s, lack of maintenance, crime, and other problems had given public housing a bad name. The Reagan administration gutted funding, exacerbating the strain on these communities.

In 1992, the federal HOPE VI Program was created to transform public housing by building mixed-income housing in its place. Atlanta has been at the forefront, demolishing some of its largest public housing developments and building 10 nationally acclaimed mixed-income complexes between 1994 and 2004.

Many have declared the Atlanta model a success. But lost in this praise is an important detail: By definition, "mixed income" means relocating the majority of poor residents for good. Only about 17 percent of the residents relocated in Atlanta during the 1990s were able to come back to the new complexes; another 40 percent remain in voucher-subsidized housing. No one can say what happened to the rest.

Proponents defend such initiatives by insisting that they diffuse poverty. They do, to an extent. But that doesn't mean it was right to demolish projects without building low-income replacements.

While research around the country – including ours in Atlanta – consistently finds that public housing residents relocated with vouchers typically end up in less poor neighborhoods, these areas are still poor. They're too disadvantaged to lead to improved socioeconomic status over time. Furthermore, voucher subsidies have never met the demand. In large urban areas like Atlanta, with burgeoning homeless populations, there are long waiting lists. And unlike public housing, voucher subsidies don't guarantee that units will remain affordable for those with low incomes. Landlords are only obligated on a year-to-year basis.

Paradoxically, the end of public housing in Atlanta comes on the heels of a report from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition that details the growing shortage of low-income housing units. The report recommends the preservation of public housing units and the allocation of additional vouchers in order to meet the growing affordability challenges that cities are facing.

Public housing may have shortcomings, but it has consistently provided shelter and support networks for poor Americans who might otherwise end up on the street. In this time of housing crisis, what's needed are patient reforms, not a rush to end a model that has met an important social need for the past 75 years.

Deirdre Oakley, Erin Ruel, and Lesley Reid are professors of sociology at Georgia State University. They are conducting a longitudinal study of public housing relocation in Atlanta.

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