Last summer, the House of Representatives passed the Moving Forward Act, a $1.5 trillion plan to upgrade the national infrastructure and combat climate change by reducing demand for fossil fuels. The bill incorporated a handful of amendments related to housing and homelessness offered by a group of Congressional Democrats. One of those amendments, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), would have repealed the Faircloth Amendment, a 1990s-era rule that prevents the expansion of public housing in the United States. Repealing the amendment would remove a legal obstacle to a series of ambitious housing plans that progressives have rallied behind in the last few years, which include calls to repair and expand existing public housing and build new social housing in American cities.
The Senate never took up the Moving Forward Act. But housing advocates continue to focus on repealing the Faircloth Amendment. The New York Times recently ran an op-ed labeling a repeal of the rule as the “first step to addressing the country’s housing affordability problem.” On the other side, Jenny Schuetz, a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution, recently argued that “focusing debate on the Faircloth Amendment is a red herring—a political distraction from more tangible obstacles to low-cost housing.”
Here’s a look at the basics.
What is the Faircloth Amendment?
The Faircloth Amendment was a provision of the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998. It amended the Housing Act of 1937, which authorized federal financial assistance to help states and housing authorities provide housing for low-income people. The amendment says, “a public housing agency may not use any of the amounts allocated for the agency from the Capital Fund or Operating Fund for the purpose of constructing any public housing unit, if such construction would result in a net increase from the number of public housing units owned, assisted, or operated by the public housing agency on October 1, 1999, including any public housing units demolished as part of any revitalization effort.” In other words, the amendment prevents housing authorities from ever maintaining more public housing units than they had in 1999.
The amendment was named for its sponsor, Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth, a successful hog farmer from South Carolina who served one term in the Senate, from 1993-1999.
Where did it come from?
The Faircloth Amendment, and the rest of the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, were enacted amid a broader movement for welfare reform that was pushed by Congressional Republicans and co-signed by the Clinton White House in the 1990s. The movement was grounded in a belief that public assistance programs were detrimental to people’s ability to achieve economic independence, and that welfare recipients themselves were either overly dependent on the government or outright abusers of taxpayer money. Most lawmakers saw public housing complexes as crime-infested, unhealthy places that kept people trapped in poverty. Running against Clinton in 1996, former Republican Senator Bob Dole, said that public housing was “one of the last bastions of socialism in the world,” and called for its elimination.
“It was essentially viewed as a failed program,” says Susan J. Popkin, director of the Urban Institute’s Housing Opportunities and Services Together (HOST) Initiative and author of a series of books about public housing in Chicago and around the country.
Earlier in the decade, Congress changed a rule that required a 1-for-1 replacement of every demolished public housing unit with another public housing unit. Many lawmakers wanted to eliminate the Department of Housing and Urban Development altogether. Henry Cisneros, Bill Clinton’s HUD Secretary, developed a plan that consolidated grant programs and shifted the emphasis to housing vouchers over traditional public-housing subsidy. HOPE VI, a HUD program aimed at redeveloping “severely distressed” public housing projects, demolished 98,592 public housing units and replaced them with 97,389 mixed-income units between 1993 and 2010, according to a HUD report.
“We’re borrowing logic and principles that have been conservative doctrine for a number of years,” Cisneros told the Washington Post in 1995. “Our plan seeks to replace command and control systems with the market.”
The Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, which one writer recently called “a federal admission of guilt for the failures of public housing,” continued the push for mixed-income, mixed-finance housing. The bill “completely overhauls America’s indefensible current public housing system — emphasizing quality, personal responsibility, institutional accountability, and continuous improvement,” Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House, said in a press release at the time of the Act’s passage. “By removing financial penalties for work, this bill could almost be considered the second stage of the Republican welfare reform plan.” The Faircloth Amendment was a relatively under-covered and uncontroversial provision of the bill at the time.
Does it actually prevent new public housing from being built?
Housing authorities everywhere now operate under “Faircloth Limits,” the number of units eligible for federal funding under the amendment. But because of funding constraints, those limits are often substantially higher than the number of units that housing authorities currently maintain. The Philadelphia Housing Authority is limited to 20,133 units but only owns around 14,000 units. The Chicago Housing Authority is limited to 35,453 units but maintains fewer than 21,000. The Housing Authority of the City of Atlanta owns 3,500 units out of an allowed 11,965.
Since the 1980s, the restriction of federal funding has had a much bigger impact on public housing than the Faircloth Amendment. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that the U.S. loses around 10,000 public-housing units a year to demolition or disposition because of accumulated maintenance issues. According to research from the Urban Institute, there were 2,156,625 people living in 1,067,387 public housing units as of 2016, and Popkin says the U.S. has around 200,000 fewer public-housing units than it did in the mid-1990s. Many housing authorities have un-funded maintenance and rehabilitation needs, including the New York City Housing Authority, which needs to spend an estimated $45.2 billion in the next twenty years just to keep its existing units habitable. Some housing authorities, like the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, have recently bought additional apartment buildings with plans to rent the units to tenants who have housing choice vouchers. But few are in a position to expand the amount of traditional public housing that they maintain.
What effect would repeal have?
As Jenny Schuetz argued in her recent post on the Brookings Institution website, the Faircloth Amendment is only a paper obstacle to an expansion of public housing. Other obstacles include the availability of land zoning rules that prevent the development of any new housing in many areas, and existing housing authorities’ relative ineffectiveness as real estate developers, she wrote.
But the biggest challenge to expanding public housing is a lack of federal funding. The Green New Deal for Public Housing, a proposal introduced in Congress in 2019 by Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders, calls for the federal government to spend $180 billion repairing and retrofitting every existing public housing unit in the U.S. Restoring the 200,000 public-housing units that have been lost would require billions in federal spending and an abrupt departure from the trend of pulling away from publicly owned housing, even without repealing the Faircloth Amendment. Politically, though, repealing the amendment could be powerfully symbolic. As Ross Barkan wrote in the New York Times, “repeal would be a vital signal that America is back in the business of expanding public housing.”
Popkin says that the current debates about investing in housing and other public infrastructure are unlike anything that’s happened since before the era of deregulation began during the Reagan administration. Little in the way of long-term reinvestment in the public sphere has been delivered so far. But more seems possible than it did even a year ago, Popkin says.
“There’s a big policy discussion like I have not seen before about all kinds of options on the table,” she says.
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.