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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Housing Policy Revolution by David J. Erickson

  • Author(s): Wegmann, Jake;
  • et al.

There is a familiar story about the history of government-subsidized housing in the United States, and it goes something like this: during the Great Depression, amidst widespread public concern about degraded dwelling conditions amongst the poor, federal housing programs of unprecedented scope and ambition are approved and implemented. An enormous burst of public housing construction ensues, and continues through most of the 1960s as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Unfortunately, much of the housing is ill-conceived: it is architecturally out of scale with its surroundings, and designed in such a way that it eventually becomes unsafe. Furthermore, its management is ensnared in a tangle of hopelessly incompetent and unresponsive public housing authorities and federal bureaucracies. By the late 1960s, public housing has become a nightmarish trap for its impoverished denizens, worse than the original slum neighborhoods that it often replaced, which at least offered a modicum of safety and social connections to their inhabitants. This ill-conceived overreach of the American welfare state, along with a sharp rightward lurch amongst the U.S. electorate with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, eventually leads to an almost total retreat of the federal government from financing below-market housing. Ever since, the message from the American public sector to the poor has been that they are essentially on their own for finding adequate, safe, affordable housing.

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