From Public to Social Housing: How DC Policymakers Want to Build a More Equitable City


Washington, DC and Montgomery County, Maryland are trying to change years of poor public housing policy. How has stigmatization contributed to these issues, and how are they fixing it?

short multistory building with trees out front and nice sunlight

A long line of working-class Black residents stood outside of Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Washington, DC this May in hopes of receiving public housing. It had been over a decade since the District of Columbia Housing Agency (DCHA) had accepted new applicants on their waitlist. Those lucky enough to secure a lease could expect mold, contamination, and infestations according to a scathing 72-page audit conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The capital is facing a crisis in its public housing system. The DCHA operates as one of the biggest landlords in the city with over 8,000 units in its portfolio – a third of which remain vacant due to maintenance requirements. Consequently, the agency suffered a loss of $13.2 million dollars for the fiscal year 2022. As occupancy rates have seen a steady decline since 2021, many aging housing complexes are left blighted, uninhabitable, and undesirable. Thus, public housing fails to provide meaningful relief to thousands who find themselves stigmatized and neglected – being relegated to poor and dilapidated neighborhoods. However, some DC area policy makers are pushing to reimagine public housing in a way that removes the stigma of concentrated poverty.

Two Initiatives in the Changing DC Public Housing Landscape

DC Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese George Lewis introduced the Green New Deal for Housing Amendment Act, which seeks inspiration from the world famous housing program in Austria’s capital Vienna. Imitating the Austrian Model, the bill would supply high-quality mixed-income apartments that would be economically self-sufficient. Initial construction would be funded by a combination of the Housing Trust Fund Act and municipal bonds. While details are still subject to change, according to the current draft, one-third of the units in a complex will be reserved for extremely low-income households making 0-30% of the area median income (AMI), one-third will be reserved for very-low-income households representing 30%-50% AMI, and the last third will be market-rate housing that will subsidize the cost of maintenance.

To address the DCHA, the bill will create a new Office of Social Housing Developments responsible for the construction and maintenance of new mixed-income affordable housing units. These new developments will be fully equipped with zero-emission infrastructure such as on-site solar panels and energy-efficient appliances. Commercial developments will be built on the ground floor suitable for child-care centers, grocery stores, and small locally owned businesses providing direct access to essential services. In addition, tenants may participate in leadership boards that will keep management accountable for quality of living. They will be involved in management contracts and establishing community rules.

Just outside the Northwestern border of DC, Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) has also begun providing its own small loans to affordable housing projects, to compensate for federal funding. The housing authority began drawing from its Housing Production Fund (HPF) of $50 billion to fund local social housing like the Hurston, which is building 81 affordable apartments within 50-60% of AMI. Previously, the housing authority relied on private equity partners to acquire loans, which demanded higher profit returns and equity within the projects. By issuing its own loans, HOC has more control over housing affordability and ensures that revenue acquired from rent will return directly to the Housing Production Fund for future projects.

These initiatives drew heavy inspiration from the approach of Vienna, Austria, where publicly funded housing is a dominant force in the market, lowering housing prices for all. About 60 percent of the 1.8 million inhabitants live in publicly owned or cooperative housing. Rent is regulated by the federal government through public ownership as well as limited-profit private development. Income caps are high enough that over 75 percent of the population qualify for subsidized housing. Additionally, these income brackets apply only during the initial leasing stage. Once tenants are living in a unit, they are not required to leave regardless of changes in income. Aesthetically speaking, and compared to the dilapidated complexes of US cities, these complexes known as Gemeindebauten, resemble high-end estates with elaborate courtyards. Neighborhoods are designed in proximity to basic resources like child care, residential parks, and grocery stores. While common criticisms of US public housing construction come from the fear of higher taxes, Vienna funds its units through cooperatives between investors, banks, and insurance funds, which offer low-interest shares for initial construction. Profit margins are limited and any surplus funds are reinvested into financing the maintenance of the complex. Systemically, these policy decisions integrate the poor into urban life, removing the stigma of concentrated poverty from publicly owned units. They place trust within the government to provide housing as a public good. 

The History of the Public Housing Stigma in the US

However, the challenges of implementing such a foundation remain: stigma against public housing is entrenched in the US and has been perpetuated by legacies of racial and economic marginalization – issues that Vienna faces to a lesser degree.

During the Great Depression, Congress sought to address the growing unemployed and unhoused population by passing the Housing Act of 1937, which mandated the construction of public housing units strictly for the low-income population. Crucially, public housing construction was tied to the demolition of slums; therefore, housing supply did not increase and instead displaced those it sought to house. The private market remained the dominant producer of housing, which drove up prices. Over several decades, public housing became synonymous with the slums it aimed to replace as units were relegated to the poorest of society. By the 1980s, funding for HUD public housing programs was drastically cut under the purview of the Reagan administration because of its negative reputation. The prevailing rhetoric was that housing status reflected “cultural problems specific to certain ethnic groups” – in other words – poverty was a choice of the urban ethnic poor. Reagan capitalized on media portrayals of POC inner city residents as being reliant on welfare and undeserving of public goods. Municipalities saw divestment for public housing projects and increased privatization that coincided with sweeping tax deductions for wealthy homeowners. This development changed the makeup and face of major cities within the US.

During the early 1990s, sociologist Loïc Wacquant took a fieldwork assignment down to the ghettos of inner Chicago where he observed that the residents verbally associated attributes of “social vitriol, vice, and violence” with their own neighborhoods. The Southside of Chicago, also known as the “Black Belt,” has historically been riddled with dilapidated high density housing complexes (including public housing) constructed decades prior to the 1990 Census. Around that time, The Chicago Tribune published a series of papers called “The American Millstone” characterizing the Black Belt as the “urban underclass.” The term was in reference to high Black populations within these neighborhoods that coincided with equally high unemployment rates. “The American Millstone” and similar rhetoric dominated political and journalistic discussion about inner cities. Wacquant coined this phenomenon as “Territorial Stigmatization” – placing stereotypes of poverty in social spaces. Looking to remove the “blight” of these stigmatized communities, municipalities oversaw the demolition of over 200,000 public housing units in areas perceived as dilapidated and crime-ridden without plans for replacement. By then, the territorial stigmatization of places like inner-city Chicago had been expressed by policymakers, the media, and the residents.

“In the US, we have [historically] constructed a racialized image of who the poor are and also [the concept of] deservingness. I think ultimately, there's a conception among a large number of people that one should not provide social programs for undeserving people of color. Unfortunately that is a huge issue,” explains Will Flagle, legislative assistant for Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. 

Stigmatization manifests itself today through the electorate themselves. In a notable case in 2010, residents in Rockville, Maryland won an appeal to block the planning approval for a mixed-income housing structure. In the decision, the court argued that it would attract crime and concentrate poverty. Suburban homeowners have also used other less direct arguments such as environmental impact and traffic congestion to portray the introduction of housing units for low-income residents and people of color as a nuisance that would lower surrounding housing values. They have been able to avoid unwelcome development for decades through various redlining policies that priced out non-white inner-city residents.

A Colossal Task Ahead for US Cities

The stigmatization has resulted in one of the biggest issues facing public housing in the US today: local housing agencies simply lack the federal funding to construct new and maintain old public housing projects. State and local spending on housing/community development stand at $59 billion, representing only 1 to 2 percent of state budgets. As a result, many public housing units were built before the 1970s and desperately need funding for operations and maintenance. Local housing agencies that rely on federal grants are forced to defer maintenance requests as funding levels fluctuate from presidential administration to administration. By 2016, 91 percent of US households that lived in public housing met the criteria for “very low income” and 72 percent met the criteria for “extremely low income.”

While Vienna continues to add 5,000 new subsidized units annually, DC alone is short of about 20,000 affordable housing units for low-income residents without even accounting for homelessness. Not to mention the other constraints to housing development, including zoning laws that prevent the development of high-density complexes in DC’s suburbs. Furthermore, the majority of the land is already developed, especially areas close to downtown, where most access to public transportation exists. Therefore, there is a colossal task of implementing development projects that should have begun decades ago.

It is likely that federal funding for public housing will remain lackluster as institutional barriers remain. At the federal level, the Faircloth Act, which prevents additional funding for public housing agencies beyond the unit limit established in 1999, has yet to be repealed. This only emphasizes the importance of local initiatives. Today, the Green New Deal for Social Housing continues to undergo negotiation and revision according to Flagle.

While policymakers in the District are still struggling with a more comprehensive solution, Montgomery County’s Housing Production Fund is further down the line with an estimated yield of 900 units per year, with 30% being low-income housing. The Housing Production Fund’s first project, the Hurston, will be filled with amenities, located near the Shady Grove metro station, and will look indistinguishable from neighboring luxury units. While metropolitan areas such as DC are lagging far behind Vienna, projects like this show what the future of US urban areas could look like when public planning focuses on quality affordable housing.