| Public Housing: Image Versus Facts
Since 1937 the Federal Government has provided families and individuals with low-cost housing through the public housing program.1 Currently HUD is proposing changes that would alter in fundamental ways the manner in which this program operates.2 Public discussion of this proposal and alternatives to it is greatly influenced by the mental picture of public housing that a person carries in his or her head. To some "public housing" is synonymous with crime and squalid living conditions, symbolized by projects such as Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago or Desire in New Orleans. To others it is the high-rise apartment buildings on the East River where thousands of New Yorkers live in safety and comfort and commute to jobs throughout the boroughs of New York City.
Actually the public housing experience takes many different forms. There are approximately 1.3 million units of occupied public housing managed by some 3,400 public housing authorities (PHAs). Public housing differs in terms of the people who live there; the types, location, and quality of the buildings; and the quality of the surrounding areas. This essay uses newly available data to describe the variety of the public housing experience.
In 1992 HUD released a report that used data from the 1989 American Housing Survey (AHS) to describe HUD-assisted housing.3 The Department now has similar data available from the 1991 AHS. At HUD's direction the Census Bureau obtained this information by using the addresses of public housing buildings to identify 212 AHS respondents who live in public housing. This essay also relies on sample-based information on characteristics of residents and census tract characteristics of projects from a newly created Public Housing Race and Location Data File.4 5
Who lives in public housing?
Forty percent of public housing units are occupied by households headed by a person 65 years old or older, most of whom live alone (88 percent). Over half of the elderly households live in projects specifically designed for the elderly. Public housing contains a much higher percentage of elderly households than the overall rental housing stock. Only 14 percent of all rental housing is occupied by the elderly.
Households with children comprise 43 percent of public housing. A slight majority of these families (56 percent) are single-parent households. Households headed by handicapped persons are also an important component of public housing; 12 percent of public housing families have a nonelderly disabled head of household. To summarize: 52 percent of all public housing is occupied by elderly or handicapped households, 43 percent by households with children (including some with handicapped heads of household), and the balance by nonelderly households without children.
Public housing serves black households at a rate substantially greater than their share of the renter population. Forty-eight percent of public housing households are black compared to only 19 percent of all renter households.6 Taking income into account does not alter this conclusion, since only 30 percent of households with incomes low enough to qualify for public housing are black.
Hispanic households are represented in public housing at a rate comparable to their share of renter households (10 percent versus 11 percent). Non-Hispanic white households occupy 39 percent of public housing, considerably less than their share of the total renter population (66 percent).
Public housing tenants are very poor. Median household income in 1991 was $7,338, which was substantially less than the national poverty level for a family of three at that time ($10,799). Considering the number of elderly households, single-parent households, and disabled households, it is not surprising that only 21 percent of public housing households reported income from wages and salaries. Forty-three percent reported receiving social security, while 44 percent reported receiving public assistance. Another data base7 shows some housing authorities have significantly higher levels of wage earners, such as the Virgin Islands with 62 percent, Biloxi with 41 percent, and several others over 30 percent, including El Paso, New York City, and Puerto Rico.
The data on education are consistent with the general picture of limited economic opportunities. Among the heads of public housing households, 58 percent did not complete a high school education. This is much higher than the 24-percent figure among all renters.
Where is public housing located?
PHAs in the Northeast and South have been most aggressive in developing public housing.8 These two regions account for 73 percent of all occupied public housing units but only 54 percent of all renters. Public housing is also much more prevalent in central cities than in suburbs. Whereas central cities are home to 46 percent of all renters, they accommodate 69 percent of occupied public housing units. The reverse is true for suburbs, which house 38 percent of renters compared to 14 percent of occupied public housing units.
Public housing generally comes in three basic structure types: high-rise buildings, garden-style apartments, and single-family structures. The AHS data report that 41 percent of occupied public housing units are in buildings with four or more stories, and 33 percent live in buildings with seven or more stories. Another 40 percent are in multiple-unit buildings of three stories or less. The remaining 19 percent are in single-family units, either free standing or attached.
Public housing is much less concentrated than many people think. Most public housing units (84 percent) are located in census tracts where public housing accounts for less than half of the housing units in the tract. Sixty percent of all public housing units are located in census tracts where public housing accounts for less than 20 percent of the housing units in the tract.
Perceptions about public housing being located in poor neighborhoods are generally correct. In urban areas census tracts where more than 40 percent of the households have incomes below the poverty level are likely to be characterized by poorer housing, higher unemployment, and other socioeconomic problems. Without distinguishing between urban and rural areas, 42 percent of all public housing units are located in such census tracts. However, this is not unexpected since most public housing residents have incomes below the poverty level. For example, if public housing accounts for 15 percent of all households in a tract and all the public housing residents have incomes below the poverty level, then the tract would have a 40-percent poverty rate if only 3 out of 10 of the remaining residents had incomes below the poverty level.
HUD's study of the location and racial occupancy of public housing found that the large majority of public housing projects are segregated, but generally not to the extent of private market housing. Although the Department prohibits discrimination in selecting tenants and requires PHAs to take affirmative actions to promote racially mixed housing, the racial mix of projects often reflects the racial mix of the neighborhoods and communities in which they are located. For example, over half of all public housing households headed by a black are located in census tracts where blacks represent 70 percent or more of the population. Nevertheless, 22 percent of black public housing households live in projects located in neighborhoods where blacks represent less than 30 percent of the population.
How good are public housing units?
After 1981 HUD funded only a small number of new public housing projects, therefore most projects were at least 10 years old when the AHS collected data in 1991. The AHS found that 39 percent of occupied public housing units were built after 1970, 36 percent were built from 1950 through 1969, and 25 percent were built prior to 1950.
PHAs constructed projects to serve two different populations-- families and the elderly--and the distribution of public housing units by bedroom size reflects these different populations. Forty-eight percent of occupied public housing units are either efficiencies or one-bedroom apartments suitable for the elderly, 25 percent of occupied public housing units have two bedrooms, and 28 percent have three or more bedrooms.
Most occupied public housing units compare well to private-market rental units on the quality tests used by the AHS. The AHS judges a unit to have severe physical problems if any one of the following five conditions exists: lacks complete plumbing, heating equipment broke down for 24 hours within the past year, inadequate electrical wiring, seriously inadequate upkeep of unit, or seriously inadequate upkeep of common hallways. Only 4 percent of occupied public housing units failed this test; the same percentage of all rental occupied units failed the test.
Similarly, the AHS judges a unit to have moderate physical problems if any one of the following five conditions exists and the unit does not have severe physical problems: no kitchen facilities, three serious plumbing failures in the past year, unvented gas or kerosene heaters, inadequate upkeep of unit, or inadequate upkeep of hallways. Ten percent of occupied public housing units failed this test compared to 7 percent of all occupied rental units.
While public housing units are generally in good condition, the AHS shows that they are located in poorer quality neighborhoods than private rental units. For example, 26 percent of public housing respondents indicated that crime is a problem in their neighborhoods compared to 12 percent of all renters. When asked if their units were near vandalized buildings, 14 percent of public housing respondents replied affirmatively compared to only 3 percent of all renters. When asked if trash or junk on streets or properties in their neighborhoods was a problem, 40 percent of public housing respondents replied affirmatively compared to 17 percent of all renters.
The available data contradict many common misconceptions about public housing. Much of the public housing stock appears to be in reasonably good shape. Most public housing units are not in large, high-rise buildings and are not concentrated in large developments that overwhelm neighborhoods. AHS data show that public housing tenants rate their units as highly as the typical renter.9It would seem that most tenants are happy with their units and that many would choose to live in their units even if they had other options.
The data confirm other common views about public housing, both good and bad. Public housing successfully serves the most needy, that is, those with the lowest income, the elderly, the handicapped, single parents whose ability to earn a living wage is constrained by family responsibilities and sometimes limited education, and those most subject to discrimination in the housing market. But many public housing units are located in poor neighborhoods. Frequently these neighborhoods have problems of crime, abandoned buildings, and other undesirable living conditions. While AHS data show that many public housing tenants rate their neighborhoods highly, the same data show that a higher percentage give poor ratings to their neighborhoods than do all renters.10 It would seem that many would choose to move if they had other options.
Perhaps the best overall summary of what public housing means to its tenants are the answers to two questions asked of tenants who have moved into public housing within the last year:
Is this apartment better, worse, or about the same as your last home?
Of those public housing tenants who answered, 62 percent replied "better" and only 7 percent replied "worse."
Is your neighborhood better, worse, or about the same as your last neighborhood?
Of those public housing tenants who answered and had changed neighborhoods, 32 percent replied "better" while 38 percent replied "worse."
The key change proposed by HUD is to substitute tenant-based housing assistance, termed certificate funding, provided directly to public housing tenants, for the current Federal operating and modernization subsidies provided to PHAs for their units. This change will permit PHAs to operate in a more businesslike manner, to charge market rents for their units, and to rent to tenants with or without housing certificates. PHAs will be permitted to demolish public housing units that cannot be made competitive with other rental housing in the local rental market.
Actually HUD has data on race and ethnicity only for the "householder," that is, the adult who filled out the application for admission or who answered the AHS questionnaire. Black refers only to non-Hispanic blacks and white refers only to non-Hispanic whites.
Family Data on Subsidized Housing, diskette, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1995. The diskette shows summaries for each project and housing authority and covers 86 percent of public housing tenants. An earlier version was issued in 1993.
The Northeast census region includes Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The South includes Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky.