The bipartisan National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing was established by the United States Congress in 1989 to identify severely distressed public housing developments and to develop an action plan for improving their conditions. After an eighteen month process that included site visits, interviews, and analysis, the Commission published their final report, setting a goal of eradicating severely distressed public housing by 2000 and recommending actions by Congress to achieve that goal. The Commission estimated that 86,000 units, approximately 6 percent of the nation’s public housing stock, constituted severely distressed units, to be improved through demolition, rehabilitation, reconfiguration, and replacement.
The recommendations of the report reflect an acceleration of political and economic trends defined by deregulation and the privatization of the public sector. “Section 8” housing choice vouchers, a rental assistance program authorized by a 1974 amendment to the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, are advocated as a strategy by which former public housing residents can look for housing on the private market with government assistance. Instead of public agencies who would build and manage the new crop of public housing, the report imagines private actors contracted for construction and management of the new public housing stock. Finally, the report stresses the eventual ownership of homes and property by public housing residents as a goal superseding tenant support or the construction of new public housing. Reflecting architect and urban planner Oscar Newman’s theory of “defensible space,” this last strategy can be studied as a conduit toward increasingly policed and surveilled cities: the privatization of space was advocated by Newman as a tactic through which residents would become police officers of their own individual territories.
The final report of the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing would launch the work of the Urban Revitalization Demonstration, which was renamed HOPE VI and funded under Public Law 102-389 in 1992. HOPE VI dollars would be awarded in the form of vouchers and contracts to demolish, reconstruct, and transform US public housing over the subsequent decades. HOPE VI developments, reflecting the recommendations of the Commission, changed and usually downsized public housing from residential developments built by public agencies to mixed-use, mixed-income developments built by private contractors.