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Scholars have repeatedly shown safe dwellings are essential for children and the entire family to thrive. Thus, for decades, a central objective of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been the financing of decent and safe rental housing. Yet, our recently released research demonstrates not all families have equal access to these federal benefits.

White families receive higher quality units and pay less per month than their counterparts of color. Racial inequality in public housing is not new, but its persistence is troubling.

A Long History of Racially Separate and Unequal Public Housing

At the start of subsidized housing programs in the 1930s, the federal government ensured units were only available to upstanding, stably employed White families. These units were highly sought after as they were well constructed and affordable.

However, they also became a symbol of the federal government’s ongoing discrimination against residents of color. Citizens of color were paying taxes that contributed to the construction of these new public housing developments but were unable to live within them. Additionally, many communities of color were displaced to make room for the new public housing developments.

These stark injustices became a rallying cry, building momentum for activists calling for racial equity in schools and communities. Fearing desegregation, Congress began privatizing publicly owned housing developments, even before any Civil Rights legislation had passed.

Eventually, Congress passed the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which prohibited racial, national origin, or religious discrimination. However, just four months later, they enacted the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968, which defunded public rental units and created new mechanisms of racial inequity.

While We Weren’t Watching

As the remaining public housing developments were desegregated, elected officials used racist dog whistles to deliberately damage the public’s perception of publicly housing. Public housing was no longer discussed as a desirable, decent, and necessary public good. Instead, politicians, journalists, and academics painted public housing as crime ridden, filthy, and a last resort for desperate families.

Even though rigorous scholarship debunked these racist narratives, the public—including academics—embraced the notion that public housing was predominately Black and broken. Thus, citizens and scholars stopped investigating whether public housing was desegregating or providing equitable services for all families, no matter their racial classification.

Granted, many scholars have investigated several other critical questions about public housing, especially the relatively recent and now most common housing subsidy, housing vouchers. Yet, none of these studies specifically investigated the racial equality and segregation of the public housing programs.

Still Racially Separate and Unequal

We combined data from two major U.S. Census Bureau surveys: the restricted American Housing Survey (AHS) and the American Community Survey (ACS). Our research shows that although residents of color are disproportionally poor, White residents are still the largest racial category among low-income renters who qualify for HUD housing subsidies (42 percent). In fact, White residents remain the largest racial category in the public housing developments whose ownership and management were privatized to avoid desegregation. Put another way, Congress’ actions in 1961 to avoid the coming desegregation at least partially worked.

White subsidized housing residents have fewer unsafe and unsanitary conditions compared to their Indigenous, Black and Latinx counterparts. Yet, these White residents pay approximately 100 dollars (or, about 5 percent of their income) less a month than their Asian, Black, and Latinx counterparts. Additionally, White subsidized renters live in less segregated neighborhoods.

In short, all key measures of racial integration and equity demonstrate the publicly subsidized housing programs are still providing higher quality units at lower cost to White renters compared to their counterparts of color.

Moreover, the racial inequality in subsidized housing is larger—on every measure—than the racial inequality among low-income renters who would qualify for HUD housing but are renting market rate units. Thus, it is not merely personal preference or market conditions creating the observed inequality.

The inequalities and racial segregation across public housing programs (e.g., publicly owned housing, privately owned, publicly funded development, housing vouchers, and other subsidies) is a key factor enabling the racial inequality to continue. Specifically, housing vouchers, which are disproportionately given to Black and Latinx renters, are notably more expensive, unsafe, and segregated than the other housing programs. Additionally, segregation across age and the unequal maintenance of developments also contribute to the inequities.

Building Decent and Safe Housing for All

Building off the legacy of activists in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, we need to hold the government accountable to fulfill its own mandate for racially equitable public housing. As the last five decades have taught us, this cannot be accomplished through defunding, demonizing, and privatizing government housing programs. Instead, we need to reinvest and reimagine public housing policies that are built for all.

Given the specific findings of our study, we suggest three immediate interventions: (1) integrating developments across age and family composition; (2) investing in upgrades for Indigenous housing developments; and (3) reallocating resources from tenant vouchers into high quality, well-managed public housing developments.

Yet, we also argue for broader transformations in all governmental housing subsidies (e.g., federal mortgage insurance, secondary housing market, etc.) that recognize the harms that have been caused and build systems that uplift and empower families to live happy and full lives.


Junia Howell is a sociologist affiliated with University of Illinois Chicago and the director of the nonprofit, eruka.

Ellen Whitehead is an Assistant Professor at Ball State University. Follow her on X @EllenMWhitehead.

Elizabeth Korver-Glenn is an Assistant Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Follow her on X @elizabethkaygee or on Instagram @ekg_writes.