The United States has a longstanding tradition of republicanism and laissez-faire capitalism, which has typically not supported robust federal housing policies or interference in the housing market. Policymakers have often leaned towards the belief that private enterprise is better equipped to ensure an adequate housing supply, fearing that government involvement, similar to healthcare and education, could lead to “socialism” and unwanted market control. While there have been two notable exceptions to this trend—the 1937 National Housing Act, born out of the Great Depression’s aftermath, and the “war on poverty” initiated during the Johnson administration in the mid-1960s—subsequent federal housing policies have largely aimed to undermine these initiatives, whether intentionally or due to neglect. Instead, federal policies have primarily focused on promoting homeownership, considered a cornerstone of the American dream. However, this approach suffered a setback due to the collapse of financing during the subprime loan crisis and its aftermath, leaving the nation with a lack of coherent federal housing policy. Currently, millions of Americans reside in inadequate housing conditions, with many spending a significant portion of their income on housing expenses. Housing construction rates have reached historic lows, while construction costs have soared beyond the means of the average citizen.

New York City’s public housing, overseen by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), stands out as an exception to this narrative. Established in 1934 in response to Jacob Riis’ exposés on the deplorable conditions in the city’s tenements, NYCHA utilized funds from the Public Works Administration to develop several iconic housing projects. These include First Houses in 1934, Williamsburg Houses in 1935, and Harlem River Houses in 1937. By the end of the century, NYCHA had grown to manage over 180,000 units, making it the largest housing authority in the nation.

NYCHA’s housing developments were not the outcome of a single, consistent program; rather, they were shaped by various initiatives driven by evolving policies over time. Following the Depression and the conclusion of the Public Works Administration program, NYCHA faced challenges in securing financing for further construction. However, the onset of World War II brought about new developments aimed at accommodating workers involved in the war effort. In the postwar era, the federal government continued to allocate funds to public housing authorities (PHAs), particularly to meet the housing needs of returning veterans. Ironically, this period of increased government support laid the groundwork for NYCHA’s eventual decline.

Congress viewed public housing primarily as a poverty alleviation program, with taxpayer funds intended to be used sparingly and exclusively for those unable to afford housing. Public housing was not meant to compete with the private housing market, and NYCHA was restricted from constructing anything beyond the basic necessities. Consequently, amenities such as retail stores, daycare centers, health facilities, and libraries, which were present in NYCHA’s early developments, were omitted.

The disparity between early and later subsidized developments is starkly evident in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. While places like Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town feature street-level retail spaces that enhance the urban environment, developments like Wald and Baruch Houses offer only basic residential units without any accompanying commercial activities to enliven the surrounding streets and sidewalks. Additionally, influence from Europe advocating for the modernist “tower in the park” design led to buildings set back from the street, disrupting the traditional Manhattan grid with nondescript towers of minimalist design.

Moreover, in 1969, Congress restricted eligibility for public housing to families earning less than 30% of the area median income through the Brooke Amendment to the Housing and Urban Development Act. Despite opposition from housing advocates and professionals, this amendment resulted in the concentration of very low-income families in public housing, exacerbating social issues and crime rates. While the architecture of public housing has often been wrongly blamed for these problems, it was the Brooke Amendment that ultimately precipitated the challenges faced by public housing in the subsequent decades.

As disillusionment with the housing program grew among members of Congress, they seemed to overlook the fact that many of the problems were a result of their own actions. Consequently, the federal government gradually withdrew its support for the program. When the Nixon administration terminated the capital construction program, it effectively put an end to new public housing developments nationwide. This trend persisted through subsequent presidential administrations, with Democrats also showing little enthusiasm for public housing even when they controlled Congress. Neoliberal economic ideologies dictated that the private sector should take the lead in housing production, with any government funds allocated to the matter directed through programs such as the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit or the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program.

NYCHA became heavily reliant on assistance from the Section 8 program, which enabled many families to access privately-owned rental apartments. However, the effectiveness of the Section 8 program depended on the availability of such apartments in the private market. It did not serve as a catalyst for new housing construction, and in New York City’s competitive rental market, numerous Section 8 vouchers went unused.

Meanwhile, the federal government quietly waged a campaign against public housing programs. The HOPE VI program provided capital grants to public housing authorities (PHAs) to renovate or demolish their existing housing stock. While many cities chose to demolish their public housing, NYCHA participated in this program sparingly. Additionally, the federal operating subsidy that helped bridge the gap between rent revenues and operational costs was gradually reduced, falling below the actual expenses for maintenance and operations. Without the ability to increase rents, and with a significant proportion of welfare-dependent families and a low percentage of working families (a consequence of the Brooke Amendment), public housing authorities faced mounting financial challenges. States and cities, which had largely withdrawn their support for public housing once the federal government took over, were unwilling or unable to fill the funding gap. At NYCHA, these circumstances led to staff reductions and a backlog of maintenance tasks. One exception was the Comprehensive Grant program, which allocated capital funds to PHAs for the renovation of existing housing stock but could not be used for new construction. NYCHA received substantial Comp Grant funds in the 1980s and 1990s, enabling it to rehabilitate several older developments and establish community and senior centers to serve its residents. However, even this program eventually faced cutbacks.

 
 
 
 
 

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