Low income housing

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Government housing assistance is available to low-income older persons through three major programs: public housing, section 202, and section 8. These programs aim to relieve the housing burden of low-income families, older people, and persons with disabilities (regardless of age). There is no uniform public housing policy solely for older people in the United States. Historically, housing policies and programs were family centered; older people benefited from public subsidies through having low-income or belonging to members of a low-income family. The Housing Act of 1937 resolved to improve the housing standards of those families who could not afford to buy or rent in the private market.

Section 202 and Section 8

The Housing Act of 1937 did not fund housing assistance for older people. The first National Conference on Aging in 1950 recommended that Congress specifically address housing needs of the elderly, but nine years passed (1959) before enactment of a subsidized housing program known as Section 202.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was created by the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 as a cabinet-level agency. Although HUD administers all federal housing programs, the main thrust of its activities traditionally has consisted of urban development. This is reflected in HUD's budget, which in 2000 allocated only 10 percent for housing for the elderly.

The original Section 202 provided loans to nonprofit organizations at a rate of 3 percent to build housing for older low- and moderate-income persons and the disabled. The rate has changed several times due to market conditions. Between 1959 and 1969, approximately forty-five thousand units were constructed. By 1996 there were 7,547 Section 202 facilities housing more than 387,000 persons.

Congress created Section 8 in 1974 to provide subsidized housing assistance to households with incomes too low for them to obtain decent housing in the private market. Under this program, HUD entered into assistance contracts with owners of existing housing and developers of new or rehabilitated housing for a specified number of units to be leased to households meeting federal eligibility standards. Qualified families paid part of the rent and HUD paid the difference directly to owners of the units. In 1999, three million families benefited from Section 8 subsidies; 44 percent of these were older people.

Section 8 includes two forms of subsidy: tenant-based and project-based, each assisting approximately half of the Section 8 units. In the tenant-based programs, vouchers are given to residents, who can choose from the available housing market in the private sector. In the project-based programs, specific properties are subsidized, such as high-rise apartments for older people.

In 1975 HUD entered into twenty-year contracts with the owners of project-based units, resulting in increased owner opt-outs as the contracts expired. With the future of project-based programs threatened, HUD proposed a remedy in 1999, providing vouchers for residents of project-based programs to allow them to remain in the units. This effectively left the decision to accept or reject the vouchers in the hands of the owners, thus putting the future of affordable housing for many older Americans in jeopardy. Since 1996 more than thirty thousand subsidized units have left the Section 8 program. This trend continues; HUD estimates the termination of 900,000 project units by 2004.

Historical phases

Poverty was the main issue in the development of Section 202 and Section 8 programs. During the initial phase (19591974) Section 202 housed the moderate-income clientele who did not meet eligibility requirements for public housing. The program was criticized for not being sensitive to the housing needs of the poor, even though it was run by nonprofit organizations. The Housing Act of 1968 allowed the for-profit sector to enter into the building of elderly housing. The Nixon administration terminated funding for Section 202 in 1970, but with enactment of the 1974 Housing Act, funding was reinstated and a new low-income phase began.

"Low income" meant below 80 percent of median income. First-time Section 202 units were also available as Section 8 rentals for eligible low-income persons. For low-income older people, this meant the acceptance of publicly subsidized housing and the realization that they could improve their housing standards by moving to a Section 8 unit. This Section 202 phase also responded to the rural and minority poor and the frail elderly by setting aside up to 25 percent of available funds to improve the conditions of their current housing.

Significant changes occurred between 1984 and 1990. Income eligibility was lowered to 50 percent of the local median income, but the rent contribution for low-income tenants was increased from 25 to 30 percent. Due to significant cuts during the Reagan and Bush administrations, the construction of Section 202 units declined; by 1988 older persons applying for Section 202 housing had to wait eight to eleven years, depending on location. By 1992 there were eight low-income elderly waiting for each vacancy in Section 202 housing. By 1999 over one million families were on the waiting list.

Housing needs in the twenty-first century

HUD used three dimensions (1999) to identify housing conditions of older people: adequacy, affordability, and accessibility. Regarding adequacy, available data suggest that 7 percent of public housing for the elderly and 7 percent of Section 202 housing have moderate deficiencies but better conditions than market-rate rentals. Of the elderly population as a whole, 1.45 million still lack the most basic elements of housing security, such as safety, reliable plumbing, heat sources, or accommodation for those with limitations on activities of daily living (ADL). Nine percent of the units occupied by those with mobility problems are inadequate.

In spite of favorable economic conditions in the 1980s and 1990s, cost continued to be most widespread housing problem for the elderly. Nationally, 7 percent of all older people spent more than 30 percent of income for housing. There are not enough Section 202 and Section 8 funds to provide affordable homes for an eligible 1.5 million elderly.

Accessibility is crucial for older people with functional limitations and disabilities. HUD (1999) reported a need for home modification for 1.1 million older people. Although ADL limitations increase with age, HUD appropriations do not increase proportionately, and sometimes decline. (The $26 billion 2000 HUD budget was called "landmark" by the Clinton administration, when in fact the 1980 HUD budget was $80 billion.)

Perhaps a fourth dimension, appropriateness, is as crucial to recognize as the three just discussed. Lacking the understanding of and sensitivity to the needs of older people and persons with disabilities, both Congress and administrations since the 1950s have ignored needs for services in public housing and subsidized programs by accepting the premise that older persons belong either in a Section 202 or in a Section 8 unit or in a nursing home. Although HUD was mandated to develop services that would help older persons to move on a continuum, the needed services were never developed.

Service needs

As residents in Section 202 units aged, becoming more frail and in greater need of supportive services, few of those services were developed. Although HUD has been required since 1974 to seek assurance that Section 202 projects provide a range of services which, in combination, will prevent premature institutionalization, researchers found that there had been a clear shift away from supportive design features over the history of the 202 program. These features, known as Congregate Housing Service Programs (CHSPs), include the following:

  • Provision for nutritional needs by serving two meals a day, seven days a week
  • Provision of housekeeping assistance in areas where needed
  • Provision of personal assistance to those demonstrating difficulty with ADLs
  • Provision of expanded personal counseling services to those experiencing emotional problems due to losses
  • Provision for the limited extension of existing transportation services to enable those with physical and mental impairments to meet medical appointments
  • Facilitation of optimal utilization of CHSP services through professional case management.

In view of the requirements and the findings, Congress passed the National Affordable Housing Act of 1990 (NAHA), recognizing a need to (1) expand the supply of supportive housing for the elderly and (2) enhance the supportive environment of existing Section 202 projects. One section of the act requires HUD to ensure that projects approved after 30 September 1991 comply with the law. The act also authorizes up to 15 percent of the 202 funds to be spent on supportive services and retrofitting units (e.g., installing ramps or railings) for the frail and disabled. However, these mandates did not carry the needed appropriations. HUD also neglected to comply with the terms of the NAHA. Instead, HUD used random selection to determine in which projects supportive services were placed; selection was not based on need. The decision to initiate and plan supportive services or to convert the Section 202 units to assisted living facilities was left up to the project managers.

Throughout the history of federal housing, project managers were given far greater authority than they were qualified to assume. In the case of service needs for frail older persons, managers lacking necessary training were asked to make needs assessments. Researchers found that the health conditions of the frail elderly were far worse than self-reported to project managers and far worse than residency policy permitted. Fearing nursing home placement, older residents refused to reveal functional problems. Mandated or not, services became very low priority during the Reagan and Bush administrations, when HUD suffered severe budget cutsfrom $80 billion in 1980 to $24 billion in 1992. During the same period staff was cut from seventeen thousand to thirteen thousand.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to linking housing and services lies in the separate jurisdictions of the policy-making arena: building of housing is under the House and Senate Banking Committees, while providing services is under Health and Human Services. The Subcommittee on Housing and Consumer Interests of the House Select Committee on Aging and the House and Senate Appropriations Committees also affect policy decisions. The history of the public housing program showed that the "bricks and mortar" principle prevailed, and high-rise buildings were far more visible to the constituencies of these committee members than the people who resided in them.

Case mix

The service inadequacy is compounded by the case mix of young and old. Traditionally, older and younger persons with physical disabilities lived side by side in the units. Then, due to deinstitutionalization in the 1960s and 1970s, discharged mental patients with no other housing opportunities began to occupy the units. By 1991, 10 percent of the three hundred thousand units housed younger persons with mental disabilities. Interest groups advocating on behalf of younger people with drug and alcohol addiction argued that disproportionate amounts of housing subsidies were spent for the low-income elderly. As the aging network continued to pressure Congress against funding projects with mixed populations, HUD rules and regulations remained ambiguous and the admission of younger and mixed groups continued. Many older residents have reported concerns about physical safety, mental anguish, and loss of quality of life in mixed congregate housing projects.

In spite of the unprecedented economic growth in the 1990s, housing assistance for low-income elderly and persons with disabilities has remained a very low priority. All of the existing programspublic housing, Section 202, Section 8have been funded at levels far below demonstrated needs.

BÉla John BognÁr

See also Housing; Housing, Alternative Options; Social Services.


American Association of Retired Persons Public Policy Institute. The Housing Assistance Needs of Older Americans. Washington, D.C.: AARP, 1995.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Housing Our Elders: A Report Card on the Housing Conditions and Needs of Older Americans. Washington D.C.: HUD, 1999.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The State of the Cities 2000. Washington, D.C.: HUD, 2000.


National Resource and Policy Center on Housing and Long Term Care. Housing Highlights: Government Assisted Highlights. www.aoa.dhhs.gov/

Picture of Subsidized Households1998. www.huduser.org.

The State of the Nation's Housing: 2000. www.gsd.harvard.edu.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The FY 2000 Budget of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 1999. www.hud.gov/budget.html.

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United States Housing Act of 1937

Charles E. Daye

Excerpt from the United States Housing Act of 1937

It is the policy of the United States (1) to promote the general welfare of the Nation by employing the funds and credit of the Nation...(A) to assist States and political subdivi sions of States to remedy the unsafe housing conditions and the acute shortage of decent and safe dwellings for low-income families; [and] (B) to assist States and political subdivi sions of States to address the shortage of housing affordable to low-income families....

The United States Housing Act of 1937 (P.L. 75-412, 50 Stat. 888) created the public housing program. The act is also known as the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act (after Representative Henry B. Steagall, Democrat of Alabama, and Senate Robert F. Wagner, Democrat of New York) and the Low-Rent Housing Act. Under the program, the federal government, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), provides subsidies to local public housing agencies (PHAs) that rent housing to low-income families.

The financial structure of the program rests on three subsidies: (1) one subsidy covers the cost to build the units, (2) another subsidy goes to investors who buy federally guaranteed bonds that the PHAs issue to raise money to build the units (but the investors do not pay taxes on the interest the bonds pay them), (3) a subsidy added in 1969 pays some of the PHAs' operating expenses.

PHAs are independent entities with limited accountability to local governments. However, local governments determine where public housing may be located. In addition, local governments charge for certain services such as water and sewers. Instead of collecting taxes to pay for police and fire protection, local governments charge the PHAs 10 percent of their rental collections for those services. The low-income tenants who live in the public housing pay rent equal to just 30 percent of their income. At the start of the twenty-first century, over three million residents lived in roughly 1.3 million units of public housing throughout the nation.


The public housing program has always been controversial. The act, based on Congress' power, under Article I, section 8 of the United States Constitution, to provide for the general welfare, was a late part of President Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-era legislation. Proponents included social reformers who wanted to remedy "unsafe and insanitary" housing for poor people. Some argued that bad housing contributed to other problems, including poor health, political corruption, crime, and even immorality. Others argued that housing assistance should be provided to the "submerged middle class" that was temporarily out of work because of the Depression. Labor unions and political leaders supported housing subsidies as aids to recovery from the Depression because building housing would create jobs and stimulate the construction industry.

Opponents objected that providing housing subsidies was inappropriate for the federal government on three grounds. They believed subsidies would 1) undermine the private housing market, 2) diminish homeownership incentives, and 3) be a form of socialism. Opponents included chambers of commerce, business organizations, and real estate interests, such as associations of home builders. To meet opponents' objections, President Roosevelt accepted the limitation that only the "poorest and lowliest people" would qualify to live in public housing. This provision would ensure that a government program would neither interfere with the private sector nor diminish personal incentives for those the private sector could serve.

Under the act, assistance would go through the states to local entities that would provide and operate the subsidized housing. The policy assured that local government would share in the responsibility and public housing would not be forced upon communities that did not want it.


Whether public housing has been partly successful or mostly a failure depends on the individual observer's perspective. The federal law enables many low-income families to gain access to housing that may otherwise be unavailable. Yet serious financial, social, and safety problems have plagued the lowincome housing program.

Problems Created by Restricted Rents The original concept of the act was for federal subsidies that would cover the costs to build the housing, and rent from tenants would cover the PHAs' operating costs. Although some tenants paid rents that required a large share of their income, the PHAs sometimes suffered from deficits because restricted rent payments did not cover operating costs. In 1969 Congress enacted the Brooke Amendments, named for Senator Edward Brooke, a Republican from Massachusetts and the third African American elected to the U.S. Senate since the reconstruction period of the 1870s. Brooke sponsored an amendment limiting the rent that tenants could be charged to 25 percent of their income (later raised to 30 percent during President Ronald Reagan's term in 1980). Another Brooke amendment authorized operating subsidies to cover the PHAs' deficits. Congress never appropriated sufficient funds to cover all deficits, and HUD, which had opposed operating subsidies, did not use all the funds that Congress provided.

The Problem of Changing Tenant Demographics By 1937 the Depression had thrown masses of people out of work. Many in government assumed that when prosperity and jobs returned, tenants would move out of public housing. Some "wealthier" tenants did in fact leave public housing as the economy improved, but they were replaced by tenants with dim economic prospects. The people in this new demographic were poorer and not just temporarily out of work: they were welfare recipients, elderly persons, the chronically unemployed, people with disabilities, female-headed households, and families with multiple economic and social needs. Moreover, public housing developments started out and stayed racially segregated. White tenants left at a faster rate than did black tenants. In many metropolitan areas, the view of public housing was that only very poor members of racial minorities lived in it.

Policy Problems. Some policies adopted by Congress or imposed by HUD added to public housing's problems. Building sites were chosen that reinforced racial and economic segregation. Some sites were unsuitable environmentally or were in undesirable locations. Local zoning caused "over-concentration" of public housing in distinct parts of municipalities. Construction was sometimes shoddy because of scandalous mismanagement and lack of HUD oversight. The buildings were frequently high rises located in high-density developments that proved to be unsuitable for families with young children. As a result of these powerful social, economic, and political forces, many associated public housing with problems in older, deteriorating urban centers of our nation.


Congress has enacted many amendments to try to solve some of public housing problems. One program, called HOPE VI, derived from a related series of programs under the name "Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere," was enacted in 1992. HOPE VI funds may be used to offer homeownership opportunities, demolish deteriorated units, and rebuild lowdensity developments. The HOPE VI program is funded by a process in which PHAs apply to and compete for funding from HUD. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the success of HOPE VI programs was not yet clear.

Drugs and crime in public housing present a difficult and controversial problem. Many tenants support stringent measures to rid public housing of drugs and crime. Congress enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act to provide for evictions of entire families if any family member is involved with drugs or crime, even when the other family members are innocent. These evictions are known as "one-strike" (one strike and you're out) and "no fault." The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the provisions in 2002. Civil libertarians objected that tenants in public housing were being denied basic civil liberties that included privacy, due process, and fairness.


The act is the precursor of all subsequent housing legislation. Indeed, many housing programs are named for the section number of the Housing Act of 1937 in which they were placed (for example, the Section 8 program).

  • The Housing Act of 1949 announced a goal of a "decent home and suitable living environment for every American family" and funded "slum clearance" activities.
  • The Housing Act of 1954 enacted the urban renewal program.
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 created HUD to consolidate federal agencies that dealt with urban housing, including, the Public Housing Administration, the Federal Housing Administration, and Federal National Mortgage Association (popularly know as Fannie Mae), which operates extensive insurance and mortgage-buying operations from banks and selected other lenders.
  • The Housing Act of 1965 created a rent supplement program for use in privately owned housing.
  • The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 enacted a series of assisted programs for private housing that continued the shift to using federal subsidies for privately owned housing and away from publicly owned housing.
  • The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 consolidated community development programs into block grants and created the Section 8 housing assistance program.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited certain forms of racial discrimination in federally assisted programs.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1968 enacted the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits racial discrimination, with a 1974 amendment prohibiting sex discrimination, and a 1988 amendment prohibiting discrimination against families with children or handicapped persons.

See also: Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965; National Housing Act.


Bratt, Rachel G. Rebuilding a Low-Income Housing Policy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Freedman, Lawrence M. Government and Slum Housing. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1968.

Keith, Nathaniel S. Politics of the Housing Crisis Since 1930. New York: Universe Books, 1973.

Mandelker, Daniel R. Housing Subsidies in the United States and England. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.

McDonnell, Timothy L. The Wagner Housing Act. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1957.

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Everyday Life: Home Improvements


Utilities. Between 1880 and 1899 technological innovations made it possible for more and more middle-class homes to be connected to city services supplying water, heat, light, and sewerage. The new utilities came to wealthy people and city dwellers before poor people and farmers. Easterners tended to get them before southerners and westerners. Homeowners enjoyed the new services; yet they also brought a host of new expenses and worries.

Water. During the 1870s hauling fresh water into the house and carrying wastewater out was a daily chore for many women and children. In the country they filled buckets at cisterns, rain barrels, wells, or springs and other natural water sources. Some houses had a kitchen pump located over a well, or they had their own water tanks with windmill-powered pumps. In small cities water-hauling trucks filled outdoor water barrels. By 1880 most cities of more than ten thousand people had some sort of municipal water supply for some neighborhoods. People in tenements might get water from street hydrants or water taps in hallways. Some individual families had house plumbing systems hooked up to public water mains. Small towns also assumed some responsibility for providing a regular supply of water for their residents by building water towers or hilltop reservoirs, but in rural areas families still had to find their own water supply.

Heat. Most American homes relied on stoves for heat. In frontier communities almost anything that could be burned was used as fuel. Homesteaders in west Texas during the 1880s used mesquite, shinnery (a dwarf oak), corncobs, and cow chips (dried cow manure). Even after railroads brought coal to this region, settlers continued to maintain chip sheds to ensure a regular supply of heat. Urban dwellers fueled their stoves with coal. By the end of the nineteenth century middle-class Americans had begun to install central, coal-burning furnaces in their cellars to provide heat through a system of ducts and vents to the entire house. Often cheaper furnace systems provided heat through one large grate located on the first floor directly above the furnace. While middle-class families could afford furnaces, working-class families continued to heat with stoves, which brought with them a host of problems. The most serious was the leaking of deadly carbon monoxide caused from burning the wrong kind of fuel. Most houses heated this way had only one stove centrally located. In the winter the room with the stove tended to be too hot for comfort while adjoining rooms were frigid. Many Americans believed that waking up cold on winter mornings was simply part of life.


The development of plumbing was a high-priority concern in the late 1800s, especially in large cities. Indoor plumbing of any description was a novelty, and bathrooms were rare except in the mansions of the rich.

The phrase going to the bathroom was meaningless then. People took care of their personal needs in outhouses, where weather and sensibilities permitted, or in chamberpots, containers usually made of porcelain that were stored in a closet or underneath a bed and were dumped after use; I fashion-minded people kept a commode, which was a wood case with a lid for the chamber pot. When separate outhouses were provided for men and women, they were distinguished by a crescent shape on the door of the womens facility; and a full moon on the mans door. Inside was a wooden bench with a hole in the center; newspapers or mail-order catalogues were provided to serve the purpose of toilet paper. Outhouses were smelly, uncomfortable, and usually far enough away from a familys living quarters to make a midnight nature call a dreaded occurrence. The odor was controlled (but not very well) by spreading lime or dirt over the waste.

Baths were also different a hundred years ago. Tubs were free-standing containers, usually made of iron, or sometimes porcelain, that were round or oval-shaped. Water had to be carried to fill them, and unless the bather was content with a cold bath, the water had to be heated on a stove. Store-bought soap was a luxury associated with city life. More often homemade lye soap was used as a cleanser. Because baths were so much trouble, people took them less often than they did after running water was introduced. People thought that good hygiene required a weekly bath and a hair washing at least every two weeks for women.

Light. After the Civil War artificial light from a variety of sources extended the hours of productive activity in American households. Rural homes still used candles and oil lamps; kerosene lamps were gradually improved. In 1870 they provided light equivalent to that of six to twenty candles; by 1910 their light had been increased to sixty to eighty candlepower. In middle-class homes during the 1880s and 1890s, first in urban areas and later in the country, kerosene lamps began to give way to gas and electrical lighting. Most Americans first experienced gaslights at midcentury in public spaces such as city streets, department stores, schools, hospitals, and government buildings. If the homeowner could afford it and lived close to a gas supply, gaslighting offered a welcome alternative to the dirt and odor of the kerosene lamp. After Thomas Edison perfected the incandescent electric lightbulb in 1879 and developed the delivery system, gas gradually lost out to electricity. Electrical power appeared to have many advantages over gas. It provided more regular light; and it was clean and odorless. In 1899 about 75 percent of the gas produced in the United States was used for lighting; in 1919 that figure had dropped to 21 percent (while more than half the gas produced was used for heating). In 1881 the first central electric power plant in the world was constructed in New York City; it became operational the following year. Two years later about five hundred households and one thousand businesses in the city had electricity. By 1907 about 8 percent of households nationwide had electric lighting. Electricity also made telephone systems possible. The first commercial exchange, serving twenty-one telephones, opened in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1878, I the same year in which a telephone was installed in the

White House. By 1900 Americans had nearly 1.5 million telephones.

The Bathroom. Not until the 1910s did the modern bathroom with a tub, sink, and toilet become a standard part of the American house. For most Americans the toilet was an outdoor privy or a chamberpot tucked under a bed when it was not in use. People washed using a bowl and pitcher in a bedroom and took baths in a portable tub. In 1876 only wealthy homes had a room designated only for the toilet. Most indoor toilets were located in closets or storage areas, not in rooms. By the 1880s and 1890s some wealthy Americans had modern flush toilets, an invention developed in England during the 1870s. Toilets were usually connected to individual cesspools, which were not practical in heavily populated urban areas. Various patents for different kinds of water closets, as bathrooms were called, had been issued in the United States since the 1830s, but the water closet did not come into general use until after the development of sewerage systems, which lagged behind water provision in most cities. Before 1880 drainage was managed by open ditches. Some cities began building sewerage systems during the 1880s, but they were mostly for draining storm water not wastewater. The result was that unpaved areas were likely to be muddy slogs dotted with foul-smelling and unhealthy puddles. It took decades before sewers were built to carry waste from individual homes. Even then it was difficult to convince landlords to install indoor plumbing and sewer connections. At the end of the century thousands of city dwellers living in tenements on streets with sewer lines were still using old-fashioned outdoor privies.


Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House, 1973);

Thomas J. Schlereth, Conduits and Conduct: Home Utilities in Victorian America, 1876-1915, in American Home Life, 1880-1930, edited by Jessica H. Foy and Schlereth (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992), pp. 225-241.