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Does Twenty-First Century America Need Publicly-Owned Housing? This question was being asked in 2011, as an era of sharply-curtailed discretionary government spending dawned in the aftermath of the debt limitation crisis. From its inception in 1937 to the present, public housing remains the housing program with the deepest subsidy, designed for households who cannot compete effectively in the private housing market and, since the 1950s, the program that reaches the lowest income quadrant of society. Questions posed in 2011 center around the future of the 1.1 million public housing units in existence (down from 1.4 million two decades ago), all of which are at least 45 years old and most of which are in need of substantial repairs and renovation.

Three successive Administrations (two Democratic and one Republican) have sought to move the Federal government away from ownership and management of housing, arguing that these responsibilities can be handled better by the private sector. For fifteen years Congress has resisted efforts to give up on the public housing model while acknowledging with the HOPE VI program that the original urban high-rise model fostered isolation rather than integration and helped trigger serious declines in the quality of urban life.

This article will discuss current Obama Administration proposals to preserve existing public and assisted housing units by enabling housing authorities to borrow from private investors, and integrating those units into surrounding neighborhoods which will be “transform[ed from]... extreme poverty into sustainable mixed-income communities.” Through its Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, HUD provides competitive planning and implementation grants to enable grantees to focus not only on the condition of severely distressed public and assisted housing units, but also on the social, educational and physicals needs of residents in the surrounding neighborhoods. The 1969 public housing rent strike in St. Louis, which led to passage of the first Brooke Amendment, will offer a perspective from which to evaluate current approaches.

With poverty levels increasing sharply as a result of the Great Recession, and discretionary funds being cut, preservation of existing public and assisted housing becomes a critical issue. Public and assisted housing are valuable community assets and should be recognized as such. What has been missing is full integration of such housing and their occupants into surrounding neighborhoods. Initiatives such as Choice Neighborhoods appear to have the potential for accomplishing that goal so long as the interests of current residents are kept in the forefront.

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