Photo by Kobe, Flickr CC

Public housing has a long and troubled history in the United States. In recent years, the demolishing of public housing in cities like Chicago has been one of the most prominent images of decline. For sociologists, it is important to understand not just the problems with and eventual failures of post-war public housing, but also the social forces and sentiments behind their creation.

Consider why the federal government would even see a role for itself in the building of public housing structures in the first place. The origin of public housing legislation can be traced back to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of laws and executive orders focused on providing more basic necessities for the poorest in America.
However, public housing would eventually become associated with racial segregation. The design of public housing projects ultimately worked to concentrate poor non-white communities into relatively cut-off neighborhoods in the middle of cities. This segregation, combined with heavy degradation of the buildings and a lack of proper care from government officials, led to a heavily stigmatized view of public housing buildings.
Given the sheer intensity of racial segregation and concentrated poverty in public housing, many housing advocates and public officials have declared these programs a failure, leading to the demolition of old public housing facilities. But there have also been various proposals to renew public housing initiatives that look to learn from the mistakes of the past while keeping to the goal of housing the poor. One of the largest programs, the federal HOPE VI program, is an ongoing federal project to revitalize public housing areas with architecture focused on crime prevention. This focus on crime prevention is inspired by Oscar Newman’s ‘defensible space’ concept — the idea that if people feel more ownership over a space, they’ll be more watchful over how their neighbors use it, thus curbing crime.