Housing units owned and often subsidized by the federal government. 

Key Takeaways:

  • From its inception and up to the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, publicly-owned housing was often one of the few new, non-substandard housing options available to Black residents of cities, particularly in the North. 
  • By undermining public housing funding and pushing for its allocation and construction on a segregated basis from the onset, organized real estate helped ensure public housing’s decline and ultimate demise. This occurred to the detriment of the institution’s disproportionately Black population, and to the benefit of slumlords.

When the federal government initially proposed that it intervene in a housing market that private industry seemed unable to adequately manage, NAREB and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce banded together to oppose and dilute the nation’s public housing program to replace the substandard housing of slums, creating what historian Gail Radford refers to as the nation’s “two-tier” housing system - heavily subsidized mortgages for the middle and upper classes, and insufficiently subsidized public housing for the poor. Unfortunately, for Black residents of many cities across the country, public housing provided the only new, non-substandard, non-exploitative housing available to them well into the 1960s due to discriminatory mortgage underwriting standards supported by the government and organized real estate professionals.


Public housing was not perfect. For its first few decades of existence it was built and tenanted on a segregated basis. Yet the quality of public housing compared to what was available on the private market to most lower- and even middle-class families in urban areas during the 1930s and 1940s made it a prized resource desired by both white and Black communities, and especially important to the latter.

The supply of public housing was insufficient for the need among Black city dwellers, however. So as white residents drifted toward suburbs and their units sat vacant, activists demanded public housing integration. Having unsuccessfully fought against racially restrictive covenants during Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), some Realtors now turned their energy toward organizing white communities against public housing in their communities, too. Eventually the violence of this white resistance to public housing-driven integration epitomized by instances such as Detroit’s Belle Isle and Chicago’s Trumbull Park died down, but public housing would never quite recover from the loss of former support from white residents who now joined Realtors in trying to crush the program for good. By the 1970s, public housing construction was halted, its funds curtailed, its tenancy mostly limited to only the poorest of the poor, and its status considered one of abject failure by its detractors and policymakers. Still, waitlists for many public housing authority units, which remain popular among low-income residents, can stretch over 25 years long.