The post-pandemic rise in rents has fueled the view that the private housing market inevitably fails those of modest means. The left-leaning Center for Budget Policies and Priorities summarizes the idea that the short-term spike in rents merely dramatizes that essential market failure. It asserts that the “rent burden among families with the lowest incomes is a long-standing issue. . .primarily due to the gap between families’ incomes and their rent costs.” The situation cries out, the authors continue, for increased federal rental assistance.
But such analysis fails to specify a crucial point: who are the “families with the lowest incomes”? Here’s who they are not: married couples. Both public and subsidized housing—“brick and mortar” housing projects and housing vouchers, which together house 5 million households, including 9 million persons—have come to provide the means for unmarried women with children to have their own apartments. Per HUD data, only 3% of subsidized housing serves “two adults with children” (married or not is not specified). In contrast, 30% of the housing goes to a female head with children. Most of the remainder goes to the elderly and disabled (34% to the disabled ages 61 or less; 47% to the disabled, ages 62 or older).
This is both a sharp departure from the original vision for public housing—and a consequence of the incentives provided by the rules for qualifying today, which both discourage marriage and penalize it. Although we have come to think of public housing projects as locales of “concentrated poverty,” that was far from the original New Deal goal for the program, when enacted through the National Housing Act of 1937 (as crucially amended in 1949). Key advocates such as Catherine Bauer, author of the 1934 book Modern Housing, believed that the private housing market would fail between one-third and two-thirds of all households. Inspired by projects in Communist-led Vienna and Hitler’s Germany, her vision—shared by architecture critic Lewis Mumford and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius—was government owned and managed housing for working families.
They were wrong in a great many ways—as the profusion of post-WWII private housing development in the U.S. demonstrated. But they were not confused about the importance of reserving even public housing for households with two incomes, good housekeeping habits, and the capacity to pay the rent. Indeed, public housing was originally meant to be subsidized only for its construction costs; rent revenue was to pay for operating and capital expenses.
As Nicolas Dagen Bloom wrote in Public Housing that Worked, the New York City Housing Authority, the nation’s largest, tenaciously screened tenants in the early 1950s.1 In New York City, where the twin processes of vast tenement neighborhood demolition and new Project construction were in full swing in the immediate post-WWII era, that meant “full background checks” including 21 specific factors that favored married couples with employed heads of household. As the city housing authority itself put it: “that the Authority adopt as a policy for all projects that occupancy be limited to normal types of families and that unwed women with out of wedlock children be denied admission.” Additional, formal factors that could lead to exclusion included “irregular work history” and “poor housekeeping.”2 As one public housing official put it in the film “Pomonok Dreams,” which tells the story of early years in a Queens public housing project: “If we had no screening, that would be the end of the movement for good housing.” Thus is the tension of public housing exemplified: priority for low-income single-parent households provides housing for those in desperate need but—at the same time—may encourage single-parent household formation. It’s hard to be sure that “doubling-up” is worse.
The public housing population changed dramatically as working families chose to move to new, post-war suburbs, such as New York’s Levittown, leaving the Projects increasingly to the very poor. That posed a stark problem for housing authorities, which would be starved of rent revenues—especially after a 1969 law that limited rents to 25% of income. That set the stage for the exodus of working families—whose rents would rise if their income did—and for the conversion of public and subsidized housing to the domain of the poorest.
Its conversion to the means to accommodate single parents was further assured by later rules as to how to qualify. For instance, in New York, priority is given to families “living in substandard housing, doubled-up or overcrowded in private housing, paying more than 50% of family gross income for rent.” The income rule effectively favors those of lowest income—who are most likely to be single parents with children. Indeed, per data from HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research, median income per person in public and subsidized housing is just $8,000 today, and 77 % of tenants are classified as “lowest-income” households. Even the “doubled-up” priority favors new, single mothers—if they have been living with their own mothers, for instance, after having a child outside of marriage.
One can, of course, see these rules as meant to accommodate those in greatest need. But it’s also a way to enable the choice of single-parenthood, knowing it puts one at the head of the line for one’s own, subsidized apartment—for which there is, it should be added, no time limit on tenancy. The average tenant has lived in her unit for 121 months—or 10 years.
There’s another worrisome incentive: parents can receive SSI support for children labeled by their schools as learning disabled. Indeed, 24% of all public and subsidized households—not just those whose heads are formally disabled—received some sort of disability payment. This can clearly be viewed as appropriate but may suggest an incentive to have children classified as learning disabled in order to increase households SSI payments.
There are important reforms that could help limit these issues. Subsidized households should no longer pay a percentage of their income as rent—a regulation which discourages increased earnings, as 30 cents on each additional dollar earned will go to increased rent; today set at 30% of income. That rule should be replaced by a flat rent, as non-subsidized tenants routinely pay. Crucially, new tenants should have to agree to a time-limited tenancy—so that they no longer have an open-ended subsidy and must begin to make a plan for a post-subsidized life. Ideally, public and subsidized tenancies, with a time limit, would again be bound by at least some of the rules that guided the early New York system.
Finally, it’s worth noting that there are more—far more—households (5 million households with 9 million residents) in subsidized housing than are supported through the welfare system (specifically, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, with 1 million households and 2.7 million residents). For too long, advocates for work, personal responsibility, and marriage have overlooked the threats to all of these posed by public and subsidized housing.