History of U.S. Public Housing

1 History of U.S. Public Housing

Public housing in the United States was initially developed in the 1930s as a response to the Great Depression, the lack of adequate housing, and to provide jobs. Throughout the years, the government has provided various public housing policies, including the Housing Act of 1949, to support the development and maintenance of public housing. However, despite these initiatives, public housing has faced structural issues such as dilapidated and inadequate homes, inadequate funding, poor maintenance, and lack of security. In the 1990s, the US government made significant changes to public housing policies by introducing the HOPE VI program. This program aimed to transform public housing into mixed-income communities to provide a better living environment for low-income families.



  1. Understand key moments in the history of public housing in the United States


Key Takeaway:

  • The history of public housing in the US began with Roosevelts New Deal, which paved the way for affordable housing for low-income families. Public housing programs continued in the post-WWII era and were expanded by the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965.
  • Despite efforts to provide affordable housing through public programs like Scattered Site and Section 8 Housing, challenges and negative stereotypes surrounding public housing persist. Emerging housing models like Tiny Homes and Non-Profit Housing, as well as zoning and local government solutions, may offer alternative solutions to the affordable housing crisis.


Early Public Housing in the United States


Techwood Homes

In 1935 Techwood Homes became the first public housing project built in the United States. It replaced a fourteen-block slum area known as Techwood Flats. Residents of the Flats lived in cheap rental housing that dated back to the 1880s, and they labored either in the nearby manufacturing and warehousing district on the west side of Atlanta or for low wages downtown

In 1933 Atlanta real estate developer Charles F. Palmer drove through Techwood Flats on his way to work and saw conditions deteriorating.  Palmer organized a group of Atlantans concerned about poor living conditions in the city. Together, believing that the federal government could give the poor of Atlanta a decent place to live, while reducing crime and disease, they wrote a proposal requesting $2,375,000 in federal funding for slum clearance and housing construction. In addition, Palmer’s buildings in downtown Atlanta represented the largest block of privately held commercial real estate in the South; improving the area would boost his property values and promote further business expansion.


Tenants moved into the modified Georgian buildings in August 1936. The project blueprints reflected housing reform concerns for health, safety, and reasonable comfort. Rent included heat, electricity, and water, and the units had the latest electric appliances, as well as closets in each room. Two-story row houses and three-story garden apartments covered less than one quarter of the twenty-two-acre grounds. On the remaining property, residents enjoyed lush landscaping, playgrounds, park benches, and open space, and they had easy access to an administration building, six stores, recreational facilities, and a health clinic. Techwood Homes became a source of pride for its new residents, as well as the model studied and observed by sociologists, housing experts, and architects.

While Techwood Homes did provide affordable, clean, modern living for 604 white families, its construction also meant the clearance of the Flats, which displaced 1,611 families. Twenty-eight percent of the Flats community had been African American, and because public housing was segregated by national policy, only white residents were permitted in Techwood Homes. Some quickly found refuge in the all-Black University Homes public housing project on the west side of Atlanta, but many African Americans from the Flats were never rehoused. Furthermore, income qualifiers for public housing meant that many former Flats inhabitants, white and Black, were too poor for public housing.


Nonetheless, Techwood Homes set the standard for public housing, and its success led to congressional passage of the Housing Act of 1937, which permanently established a federally sponsored low-rent housing program.


Housing Act of 1937

The Housing Act of 1937 (sometimes called the Wagner-Steagall Act) established the United States Housing Authority (USHA), a federal agency tasked with providing loans to local public housing agencies for the construction of low-cost housing for low-income families.

The Housing Act of 1937 was enacted during the Great Depression, a time when many Americans were struggling to find affordable housing. The act aimed to address this issue by providing federal funding for the construction of public housing.

The Housing Act of 1937 also established the framework for the modern public housing system in the United States. It created the concept of public housing authorities, which were responsible for managing and maintaining public housing developments.


Housing Act of 1949

The Housing Act of 1949 was a significant piece of legislation that aimed to improve the housing conditions of low-income families in the United States. It was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman on July 15, 1949.

The act provided federal funding for the construction of public housing projects, as well as funding for slum clearance and urban renewal programs. It also established the Urban Renewal Administration, which was tasked with overseeing these programs.

The Housing Act of 1949 was a response to the severe housing shortage that existed in the United States after World War II. Many families were living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and the federal government recognized the need for a comprehensive approach to address this issue.

The act was also significant because it marked a shift in federal housing policy. Prior to the Housing Act of 1949, federal housing policy had primarily focused on providing loans and subsidies to encourage private developers to build affordable housing. The Housing Act of 1949, however, recognized the need for direct federal involvement in the construction and management of public housing projects.



Expansion of Public Housing Programs in the 1950s

The 1950s saw a significant expansion of public housing programs in the United States. This was due in part to the Housing Act of 1949, which provided federal funding for the construction of public housing units. The act also established the Public Housing Administration, which was responsible for overseeing the development and management of public housing projects.

The expansion of public housing in the 1950s was not without controversy, however. Some critics argued that public housing projects were poorly designed and managed, and that they concentrated poverty and crime in certain areas. Others argued that public housing was a form of socialism and that it undermined the free market.

Despite these criticisms, public housing continued to expand throughout the 1950s. By the end of the decade, there were over 1 million public housing units in the United States. However, the 1960s would bring new challenges and changes to public housing policy in the United States.

Pruitt Igoe

Pruitt–Igoe was a public housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, that was built in the 1950s. The project consisted of 33 eleven-story high-rise buildings, designed in the modernist architectural style by Minoru Yamasaki. It was constructed with federal funds on the site of a former slum as part of the city’s urban renewal program. The project was originally intended to be racially segregated; a Supreme Court ruling forced the project to be integrated on opening, but from the beginning it almost exclusively accommodated African Americans.

Pruitt–Igoe was plagued by problems from the start. The buildings were poorly designed and poorly maintained. The high-rise buildings created a sense of isolation and loneliness among residents. The project was also located in a high-crime area. As a result, Pruitt–Igoe became a symbol of urban decay and despair.

In 1972, the city of St. Louis began to demolish Pruitt–Igoe. The demolition was completed in 1976. The site of Pruitt–Igoe is now a park.

The failure of Pruitt–Igoe had a profound impact on public housing policy in the United States. It led to a decline in the construction of public housing and a shift towards smaller, more scattered-site developments. Pruitt–Igoe also became a symbol of the problems of urban poverty and the challenges of providing affordable housing for low-income families.

Today, the legacy of Pruitt–Igoe is still debated. Some argue that Pruitt–Igoe was a failure because of its design and location. Others argue that Pruitt–Igoe was a failure because of the social and economic conditions of the time. Whatever the reason, Pruitt–Igoe remains a cautionary tale about the dangers of concentrating poverty in high-rise buildings.




Challenges Faced by Public Housing Programs in the 1980s

One of the major challenges faced by public housing programs in the 1980s was the lack of funding. The federal government reduced its financial support for public housing, leaving many housing authorities struggling to maintain their properties and provide basic services to tenants. This led to a decline in the quality of public housing and an increase in the number of vacant units.

Another challenge was the rise of crime in public housing developments. Many residents felt unsafe in their homes and communities, and housing authorities struggled to address these issues. Some housing authorities implemented security measures, such as hiring more security personnel and installing surveillance cameras, but these measures were often expensive and not always effective.

A third challenge was the stigma associated with public housing. Many people viewed public housing as a last resort for those who could not afford to live elsewhere, and this perception led to a lack of investment in public housing and a reluctance to live in public housing developments. This made it difficult for housing authorities to attract and retain tenants, and it perpetuated the cycle of disinvestment and decline in public housing.


Cabrini–Green Homes was a Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) public housing project on the Near North Side of Chicago, Illinois. It was one of the most notorious public housing projects in the United States, and it was plagued by problems in the 1980s.

Some of the problems in Cabrini–Green in the 1980s included:

  • High crime rates: Cabrini–Green was a high-crime area.
  • Poor maintenance: The buildings in Cabrini–Green were poorly maintained. This led to problems with mold, vermin, and broken windows.
  • Social isolation: Cabrini–Green was socially isolated. The project was located in a high-crime area, and it was difficult for residents to get to work or school.
  • Lack of resources: Cabrini–Green lacked resources. There were few grocery stores or other businesses in the area, and there was a lack of job opportunities.

[It’s not necessary to watch this entire video but it shows the evolving story of Cabrini-Green.]

The problems in Cabrini–Green led to a decline in the quality of life for residents. Many residents became discouraged and gave up hope. The project became a symbol of urban decay and despair.

In the 1990s, the CHA began to demolish Cabrini–Green. The demolition was completed in 2011. The site of Cabrini–Green is now a mixed-income development.


The demolition of Cabrini–Green was a controversial decision. Some people argued that the demolition was necessary to improve the quality of life for residents. Others argued that the demolition was a form of urban renewal that displaced low-income residents.

This film clip is from a full-length documentary, 70 Acres in Chicago, that looks at the residents of Cabrini-Green, what their community meant to them, and the impact of its destruction.  

Hope VI and the Revitalization of Public Housing


Image: On the left, is a large public housing complex.  On the right, are the replacement units after a HOPE VI revitalization.  

Hope VI was a program initiated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1992.

The program aimed to revitalize public housing in the United States by demolishing severely distressed public housing developments and replacing them with mixed-income communities.


The program was designed to reduce the concentration of poverty in public housing and provide residents with better living conditions and increased opportunities for social and economic mobility.


Image: Atlanta’s mixed-income housing that was built after the demolition of large scale public housing project. 

Hope VI was successful in demolishing and replacing many severely distressed public housing developments, but it was also criticized for displacing low-income residents and failing to provide enough affordable housing options.



Atlanta was one of the first cities to being HOPE VI revitalization. The city started demolishing housing just prior to the 1996 Olympics and continued over a decade, until all of its public housing was gone.  

Read  “Atlanta is Making Way for New Public Housing” from the New York Times (2009).  

Techwood Homes becomes Centennial Place 

By 1990, the conditions of Techwood had become miserable. The Washington Post described it as “a dangerous, rundown public-housing project infested with crack dealers, afflicted with bad plumbing and home to 1,200 residents trapped in poverty.” Once the city won the Olympic Bid in 1990 and was therefore expecting a lot of visitors in the area, it was finally decided that Techwood Homes had to go. The 1996 Summer Olympics would serve as the catalyst for the end of Techwood Homes and see that Paul Austin’s plan went through.

In preparation for the 1996 Olympic Games and considering the many visitors who be coming to the city for this event, Atlanta began cleaning up neighborhoods and renovating. The result of this renovation was the destruction of a lot of affordable housing units such as Techwood Homes. They were replaced by either newer, “mixed-income” housing or urban renewal projects like stadiums. Techwood specifically was designated to be demolished and replaced with a “mixed-income” apartment complex called Centennial Place Apartment Homes.

The deconstruction of Techwood was eerily like that of Tanyard Creek, as both projects left a lot of people, who were overwhelmingly African American, displaced. Former residents of Techwood Homes were supposed to be given vouchers that would allow them to move back after the reconstruction of Centennial Place, but the majority of residents did not actually receive these vouchers or were not allowed back at all. 24 This was because, by design, Centennial Place only reserved less than 40% of its units for affordable housing. There would never have been enough room within the new complex for all the old residents to return.



East Lake Meadows

Located on the eastside of Atlanta, East Lake Meadows was dilapidated and dangerous. Residents gave it the moniker “Little Vietnam.”


[If you want to really understand the evolving history of public housing in the United States, check out this fantastic full-length PBS film, East Lake Meadows. It’s about Atlanta but it reflects the changing sentiments and evolving issues that public housing faced across the country.  If that link doesn’t work, you can search the GT Library and you can watch through Film on Demand]

Bowen Homes

Located in Bankhead, Bowen Homes was built in 1964, named after John W. E. Bowen, Sr. John Wesley Edward Bowen was born into American slavery and became a Methodist clergyman, denominational official, college and university educator, and one of the first African Americans to earn a Ph.D. degree in the US. He is credited as the first African American to receive a Ph.D. degree from Boston University, which was granted in 1887.

Bowen Homes Housing Projects was a sprawling complex, containing an early education facility and a library. Like many public housing complexes in the 1980s, it was poorly maintained and neglected.  

**** Warning **** The following video has language that some may offensive.  If you are concerned about this, please put your system on mute or skip the video.  I’m only including this video because it gives a sense of the enormous size of the Bowen Homes complex as well as how disconnected it was from the surrounding community.  

Bowen was the last large-scale public housing complex taken down in Atlanta.  

It should be noted, that the site of Bowen Homes has not been rebuilt.  


Current State of Public Housing in the U.S. 

Federal rental assistance helps 10 million people in 5 million households afford housing.  But only assist about 1 in 4 households in need.  Most applicants for rental assistance face waiting lists that are very long or closed.  Average wait time = 2.5 years.  Miami’s wait time is 8.20 years.  

Three major programs

  • Public Housing
  • Section 8 Rental Assistance (Project-Based)
  • Housing Choice Vouchers (Tenet-based)


Public Housing

Property is owned by the federal government.  Most public housing today is mixed-income. 


Section 8

Participating private owners enter into multi-year rental assistance agreements with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and they maintain responsibility for management of their properties.

Tenants pay 30 percent of their income (after certain deductions are taken out) for rent and utilities.  

The voucher is associated with the rental unit so if family wants to move (and they don’t have tenant-based voucher), then have to give up subsidy.  

Today, there are very few new Section 8 vouchers created.  This is because Section 8 does not allow flexibility for location which often keeps families in low-resource neighborhoods.  Most new voucher programs are Housing Choice.  


 Housing Choice Vouchers

Similar to Section 8, but the voucher is associated with the family, not the rental unit.  This allows the family to move to any rental unit. The voucher recipient pays about 30% of their income for rent and utilities and the federal government covers the rest of the rent.  


Many housing advocates say that Housing Choice Vouchers 

The single biggest problem with the current housing voucher program is that federal spending for affordable
housing is woefully inadequate. Only about one in every three eligible families gets assistance. Thus, even
though vouchers work quite well for those lucky enough to receive them, 6.1 million low-income renters still
face severe housing hardship—paying more than half their monthly income for housing, or living in seriously
run-down or overcrowded housing.


  • image.png

Five Facts About the History of Public Housing in the United States:

  • ✅ Public housing in the United States began during the Great Depression as a way to address widespread homelessness and unemployment.
  • ✅ The first public housing project in the United States was Techwood Homes in Atlanta
  • ✅ The number of public housing units in the U.S. peaked in the mid-1960s at around 1.4 million.
  • ✅ The HOPE VI program, started in 1992, aimed to revitalize public housing by replacing high-rise buildings with mixed-income developments.
  • ✅ As of 2021, the demand for affordable housing in the United States continues to exceed the supply, with many families waiting years for a spot in public housing. 

FAQs about History Of Public Housing In The United States

What is the history of public housing in the United States?

Public housing in the United States has a long and complex history, dating back to the late 19th century. The first public housing projects were created as a response to the growing need for affordable housing for low-income families, primarily in urban areas. Over time, public housing has evolved to meet changing needs and priorities, with varying degrees of success.

When did public housing first become a widespread phenomenon in the United States?

The modern public housing movement in the United States began in earnest in the 1930s, with the passage of the National Housing Act of 1937. This legislation created the United States Housing Authority, which was tasked with providing low-income housing for families across the country.

What were the original goals of public housing in the United States?

The original goals of public housing in the United States were primarily focused on providing affordable housing for families who were unable to afford privately owned homes or apartments. However, public housing was also seen as a way to improve living conditions in urban areas, reduce overcrowding, and help stimulate the economy through the creation of jobs and the construction of new housing units.

What role has public housing played in shaping the urban landscape of the United States?

Public housing has had a profound impact on the urban landscape of the United States. Many public housing projects were built in response to urban renewal efforts in the mid-20th century, which targeted blighted or rundown neighborhoods for redevelopment. While some public housing projects did help to revitalize urban areas, others had the opposite effect, creating isolated pockets of poverty and crime that exacerbated existing problems in struggling neighborhoods.


Quick Check

What did the Faircloth Amendment stipulate?

The U.S. government must shut down all public housing projects

Response text to display when this answer is selected.

The U.S. government could begin to accept housing vouchers for rental properties

Answer B reply text

The U.S. government could double the amount of public housing units being built

Answer reply text

The U.S. government could not build more public housing than existed right at that moment

Answer reply text

Check Answer




Leave a Comment