The transformation of public housing policy, 1985-2011

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Problem, research strategy, and findings: Local housing authorities across the U.S. have demolished and disposed of close to 260,000 units of public housing in the past 25 years. While some of these units have been replaced in new mixed-income communities, thousands have been converted to tenant-based subsidies or lost altogether. Using a combination of primary and secondary source materials to build the case for policy change since the 1980s, I trace the recent history of the public housing program to describe how and why this transformation has taken place. Growing concern for concentrations of poverty led to the emergence of mixed-income housing and mobility strategies for low-income, subsidized households. These ideas have come to dominate public housing in the United States. The adoption of new urbanist planning and design principles has also moved public housing policy toward demolition and redevelopment and away from the original model, which persisted for six decades. Political shifts in the 1990s that threatened the existence of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the economic boom experienced by many central cities, have led to widespread demolition of public housing, its replacement with public and private partnerships of mixed-income redevelopment, and renewed private investment in inner-city neighborhoods that had been home to public housing. Takeaway for practice: Older public housing complexes have become sites of redevelopment and investment opportunity in central city areas. This has meant a retrenchment in the public housing program and a shift in housing assistance away toward tenant-based subsidies. The result is fewer permanently affordable units available for very low-income households. Research support: None.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)452-463
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of the American Planning Association
Issue number4
StatePublished - Sep 1 2012


  • demolition
  • public housing
  • redevelopment


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