Criminalization, Empowerment, and the End of Public Housing as We Knew It, 1969-2000

Rosenblith, Gillet, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, AS-History, University of Virginia

In my dissertation, “Criminalization, Empowerment, and the End of Public Housing as We Knew It, 1969-2000,” I explore how race, poverty, and gender interact in the context of public housing policy. My dissertation argues that during this time period the two seemingly contradictory forces of empowerment and criminalization dominated federal public housing policy, local housing authority practice, and tenant activism. Congress, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), local housing authorities, and tenant activists all used the language of empowerment to advance their policy agendas. But these philosophies of empowerment collided with the criminalization of impoverished communities of color, such that by the end of the twentieth century, the federal government retreated from traditional multifamily public housing as a viable anti-poverty program. Through examinations and close readings of congressional hearings, HUD publications, print and television journalism, and prerecorded oral histories, my work shows that during the last thirty years of the century, conservative and centrist politicians popularized public housing budget cuts by appropriating the language of the Left, pushing for tenant empowerment and community control as a form of personal responsibility. In doing so, these policymakers shifted the meaning of the word empowerment from a structural to an individual connotation. As a result, tenant empowerment became a central idea through which the federal government abandoned multifamily public housing.
While a variety of governmental and social entities had long associated low-income Blackness with criminality, throughout the last decades of the 20th century the expanding carceral state increasingly targeted public housing tenants, disproportionately Black women and their families. Mainstream journalists wrote sensationalist accounts of crime in public housing, contributing to a sense of urgency among policymakers. Politicians and public housing administrators also heeded residents’ calls for greater security by pushing to undermine the due process rights of tenants, in large part by streamlining or eradicating grievance procedures for tenants accused of drug-related activities. The criminalizing of public housing tenants crested with the 1996 passage of the One Strike Act, which mandated that housing authorities immediately evict entire families when a family member or guest had been implicated in drug-related activity on or off of public housing premises. These punitive policies unduly impacted impoverished Black women and their families and served as a gendered form of punishment. Ultimately, the interplay between the criminalization of public housing tenants as a class and the increasingly individual meaning of empowerment amongst policymakers at the end of the twentieth created the political space in which the federal government, under the Clinton administration, withdrew from its commitment to housing impoverished citizens.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
public housing, American history, African American History, Mass Incarceration, Twentieth Century American History
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