Yonah Freemark

From Public Housing to Public-Private Housing: 75 Years of American Social Experimentation

Article information

Lawrence Vale and Yonah Freemark (2012). “From Public Housing to Public-Private Housing: 75 Years of American Social Experimentation.” Journal of the American Planning Association 78(4), 379-402.

DOI: 10.1080/01944363.2012.737985

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Over the past few decades, cities have replaced their public housing stock with vouchers for low-income families.

American public housing since 1937 is often viewed as a single failed experiment of architecture, management, and policy. This view masks a much more highly differentiated experience for residents and housing authorities, rooted in a long-term moral and ideological struggle over the place of the poorest residents in American cities. This article reframes public housing history as a succession of informal social experiments: initial public efforts to clear out slum-dwellers and instead accommodate barely poor working-class tenants or the worthy elderly; a 30-year interlude, where public housing authorities consolidated the poorest into welfare housing while gradually shifting responsibility for low-income housing to private landlords, private developers, and private investors; and a series of partnerships since 1990 that reserve more of this public-private housing for a less-poor constituency. Empirically, this article provides an unprecedented graphic glimpse into the ways that the overall mode-share of public housing has shifted and diversified. Ultimately, this article reveals that the reduced role of the public sector has curtailed the growth of deeply subsidized housing provision to the lowest-income Americans.