Myths and Realities about Public Housing

Myths and Realities about Public Housing

Myth #1: Public housing is crumbling everywhere! 

Reality: 85% of public housing meets or exceeds federal quality standards and more than 40% of developments are considered “excellent.”

Myth #2: Public housing is a hotbed for criminal activity!

Reality: Researchers agree that high crime rates in areas with lots of public housing are not due to the housing itself, but more likely to the lack of opportunity in the area in which the housing is built. Public housing in neighborhoods with access to employment, commerce, good schools, and other community institutions have crime rates similar to the rest of the neighborhood.

Myth #3: Residents hate it there! They want to get out!

Reality: Surveys consistently show large majorities of public housing residents are satisfied with their housing. So many people are eager to live in public housing and benefit from its affordability that nearly all of the nation’s more than 3,000 PHAs have waiting lists that are more than one year long.

Myth #4: They are all just ugly high-rise projects!

Reality: Most public housing buildings are three stories tall or less, with townhomes or small buildings the most common architecture. When public housing was at its peak in terms of total units, only 27% of public housing was in high-rises, and that number has dropped since the early ‘90s.

Myth #5: Low-income white people in America do not benefit from public housing.

Reality: 53% of households living in public housing identify as white. “The Long Wait for a Home,” NLIHC’s 2016 report on PHA waiting lists, shows that 58% of households currently on waiting lists are low-income white renters.

Myth #6: Public housing is only for poor people!

Reality: Households with incomes up to 80% of area median income are eligible to move into public housing. For a 4-person household, this would be $129,150 in an expensive city like San Francisco, or $67,300 in a more affordable area like Fargo, ND. These standards are well above the poverty line. PHAs can set their standards below the maximum, and many of them do, but public housing can serve middle-income as well as poor households. Once living in public housing, resident incomes are allowed to climb above average for their community, up to 120% of AMI.

Myth #7: Residents in public housing have no power!

Reality: Public housing’s concentration of subsidized renters in one location, the allocation of tenant participation funds for organizing activities, and required resident participation in PHA planning create an environment for better tenant mobilization than most other forms of affordable rental housing.

The data and information for this article is largely drawn from two excellent books. In Defense of Housing by David Madden and Peter Marcuse was released by Verso in 2016. Public Housing Myths: Perception, Reality, and Social Policy, edited by Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Fritz Umbach, and Lawrence J. Vale was released in 2015 by Cornell University Press.