History of Housing Authorities

A Brief History of Housing Authorities

In 1937, as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act created “public housing” and directed local public housing authorities to manage these developments. Subsequent federal legislation established funding that enabled the clearance of what were considered “slums” – often through “urban renewal” – and sold that land to private developers (1949) for the purpose of improving communities, creating housing and building local economies. Subsequent legislation eliminated discrimination in housing (1968), and ensured that no public housing resident would have to pay more than 25% of an individual’s income (1969) – making housing attainable and more affordable for low-income people. (In 1981 the cap was raised to 30%.)

It’s important to note that public housing was rooted in a very idealistic view of supporting working families. In the earliest years, public housing was built on a small scale with many garden apartments financed through bonds with set tents to cover costs. In the 1950s high-rise construction became the norm, although over time they were shown (in many communities) to be inappropriate for families with children.

Section 8 of the Housing Act was enacted in 1973 as an attempt to utilize the private market to create affordable housing by providing “certificates” to qualified households. Further diversifying the means by which affordable housing would be created, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) Program was created through the Tax Reform Act of 1986, giving tax credits to developers and businesses for the construction of affordable housing.

In the last decade of the 20th Century, a flurry of legislation greatly impacted the way in which housing authorities functioned. In 1990, the National Affordable Housing Act decentralized the control of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), with the intention of giving greater freedom to local housing authorities. In 1992, the HUD-sponsored HOPE VI Program authorized demolition of “severely distressed” public housing complexes — allowing federal funds to be used to build “mixed-income” developments, often in conjunction with private developers. Fresno Housing Authority received HOPE VI funds to develop rental housing and houses for first-time home buyers (Sierra Pointe and Yosemite Village).

In the late 1990s, a small number of housing authorities were designated “Move to Work” agencies – an attempt to provide greater opportunities to create and test locally-designed strategies to increase efficiency, help residents find employment that could lead to self-sufficiency, and increase housing choices for low-income families. (These agencies were given exemptions from many existing public housing and voucher rules and more flexibility in the use of federal funds.) More recently, HUD instituted “Choice Neighborhoods,” which is intended to focus on the transformation, rehabilitation, and replacement of public housing and to transform neighborhoods of poverty into sustainable, mixed-income areas.

Since 2010, there have been attempts to reform the Housing Choice Voucher program (Section 8) – first through a HUD initiative called Preservation, Enhancement, and Transformation of Rental Assistance (PETRA), then the Section 8 Voucher Reform Act (SEVRA), and most recently, the Section 8 Savings Act (SESA). SEVRA was designed to streamline the Housing Choice Voucher program and address a loss of vouchers that has taken place over the years, as well as facilitating moves between units for voucher holders. The most recent version of reform was called the Affordable Housing and Self-Sufficiency Improvement Act (AHSSIA) but died at the end of the 112th Congress, and no comprehensive reform has been enacted since.

For many years, “public housing” was stigmatized and in some cities and communities residents were ashamed of living in government-funded housing (some of which was poorly maintained). Today, public and affordable housing is often cited for its good design, concern about the use of sustainable products, and its attention to the needs of its residents. Thus, it is seen as playing an important role in revitalizing neighborhoods. No longer is it “the housing of last resort.” Indeed, housing authorities and non-profit housing developers are generally viewed as both good landlords and good neighbors.