What Is Public Housing?
Public housing is one of the nation’s three main rental assistance programs, along with “Section 8” vouchers and project-based rental assistance. Public housing developments provide affordable homes to 3.2 million low-income Americans.
Public housing can help families avoid housing instability that could make it difficult to find or keep a job. In addition, by limiting housing costs, public housing leaves families with more resources for work expenses like child care and transportation as well as basic needs like food and medicine.
The nation’s 2.12 million public housing units are located in all 50 states and several territories, nearly one in five of them in rural areas. As of 2008, more than 60 percent of units (based on available data) were in areas with low or moderate poverty rates, meaning that less than 30 percent of residents were poor. Only about a fifth were in areas where at least 40 percent of residents were poor.
While the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) oversees the public housing program, it is administered locally by about 3,000 public housing agencies. Most agencies own and manage the public housing developments themselves, but some contract with private management companies or transfer ownership to a private subsidiary or another entity that operates the development under public housing rules.
A family must be “low-income” — meaning that its income may not exceed 80 percent of the local median income — in order to move into public housing. At least 40 percent of the new families that an agency admits each year must be “extremely low-income,” with incomes no greater than 30 percent of the local median (roughly equivalent to the poverty line on average nationally); on average, agencies exceed this requirement by a large margin. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for assistance through public housing.
The federal government funds public housing through two main streams: (1) the Public Housing Operating Fund, which is intended to cover the gap between the rents that public housing tenants pay and the developments’ operating costs (such as maintenance and security); and (2) the Public Housing Capital Fund, which funds renovation of developments and replacement of items such as appliances and heating and cooling equipment. In addition, the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (which Congress first funded in 2010 and has replaced the similar “HOPE VI” program) provides a small number of grants each year to revitalize distressed public housing developments.