Public Housing Reform and Voucher Success: Progress and Challenges

By the mid-1990s, a general consensus had emerged that in too many instances, public housing failed to provide quality, affordable housing to the nation’s neediest families. The nation’s worst public housing developments warehoused poor, minority families in isolated blocks of high-rises or overwhelming concentrations of low-rise buildings. The conditions of these developments had so corroded that they attracted drug and criminal activity. The management of public housing in many large cities had become abysmal, resulting in the long neglect of even the most basic building repairs and maintenance needs. Because of these and other factors, the best possible role models in public housing—working families—had mostly left.

While a series of incremental reforms were implemented in the 1990s, the biggest attempt to remake public housing came in 1998—the year that Congress and the president enacted the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act. The act is the most comprehensive effort in the history of public housing to overhaul this program. It includes provisions to improve or replace public housing, reduce poverty concentration, promote family self-sufficiency, improve public housing management, and streamline the Section 8 voucher program. By including reforms to both the public housing and tenant-based voucher programs, the act affects approximately 3.3 million families.

This paper reviews the progress of these important federal housing reforms since 1998, including the latest actions reflected in the FY 2005 appropriations bill. It examines the extent to which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and its local partners have implemented changes to transform the physical, social, and economic setting of public housing, improve its overall management, and enhance the voucher program. The paper also identifies outstanding concerns and ways in which HUD, Congress, and public housing authorities (PHAs) can ensure that the full intent of the act is carried out.