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Why Did Pruitt-Igoe Fail?

Image showing several towers of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing development in St. Louis being demolished. The high-rise, multi-story residential buildings are surrounded by parking lots, streets, and small strips of vegetation.
In the 1970s, the city of St. Louis demolished the Pruitt-Igoe public housing towers due to high vacancy and crime rates. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research.
The Myths of Pruitt-Igoe

In 1954, the first tenant moved into the federally funded Pruitt-Igoe housing project on the north side of St. Louis, Missouri. By the mid-1960s, however, the complex’s crime rate surged, the vacancy rate rose, and living conditions dramatically declined. On July 15, 1972, the city of St. Louis admitted defeat and demolished 3 of the project’s 33 towers. By 1976, the razing of Pruitt-Igoe was complete. Today, half of the property is occupied by two St. Louis city schools; in the other half, an overgrown urban forest has sprung up amid the rubble.

On September 9, 2014, HUD hosted Chad Freidrichs, director of the award-winning 2011 documentary film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. The film provides an alternative to the popular explanations of Pruitt-Igoe’s demise. According to the film, these narratives have blamed modernist architecture, attacked public assistance programs, and stigmatized public housing residents themselves in the course of explaining Pruitt-Igoe’s failure. As Bryan Greene, HUD General Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, commented, “Many made Pruitt-Igoe a scapegoat, a symbol of failure, and from Pruitt-Igoe drew conclusions about the racial and social dynamics of public housing across the country.”

Placing Pruitt-Igoe in Context

Instead, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth argues that factors such as structural changes occurring in St. Louis, public welfare policies, racial segregation, and flawed assumptions made by the project’s planners better explain what happened. As one speaker in the film states, “The bigger story is in fact the decline of the city overall.”

Speaking at HUD, Freidrichs emphasized the confluence of Pruitt-Igoe’s funding structure, high vacancy rate, and changes to the city of St. Louis itself. Although federal funding supported Pruitt-Igoe’s construction, the project’s maintenance and operations were unsubsidized. Because Pruitt-Igoe’s upkeep depended entirely on rent from the project’s low-income tenants, excessive vacancies would imperil its financial and physical condition. And, in fact, research demonstrated that, from the time it opened its doors, Pruitt-Igoe had a higher vacancy rate than did more successful, contemporaneous housing projects in St. Louis.

Pruitt-Igoe’s planners, Freidrichs noted, had assumed that the project would be consistently filled with working-class people seeking housing in the city. St. Louis, however, experienced dramatic demographic changes during the 1950s and 1960s, losing half of its population. Although “the city changed radically,” Freidrichs commented, “the policies for funding [Pruitt-Igoe] didn’t [change] along with it.”

In addition, Freidrichs commented that the area around Pruitt-Igoe gradually “became something of an amenity desert,” lacking sufficient access to transportation, jobs, and food. Moreover, state welfare policies at the time restricted support to families with a man in the home, placing many residents in a difficult position. This “tangle of issues,” combined with a “relatively intransigent” city housing authority early on, “made it very difficult for residents who were there.”

Freidrichs also noted the role of race and social class. Pruitt-Igoe was originally intended to be two separately located public housing projects: one for white residents and one for black residents. When the location for the white development fell through, the city planned to build segregated complexes on the same plot. It was only following the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that Pruitt-Igoe was planned as an integrated project. Although white tenants lived in Pruitt-Igoe when it first opened, the tenant population of Pruitt-Igoe was almost entirely black by the mid-1960s.

An Alternative View on Public Housing

In general, popular stereotypes about public housing in the United States obscure the reality that many residents experience. A 1999 HUD study found, for example, that 75 percent of public housing residents surveyed were satisfied or very satisfied with their unit. Moreover, although public housing is often characterized as high rises such as Pruitt-Igoe or Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, the vast majority of public housing developments are much smaller. According to the HUD Picture of Subsidized Households, in 2013 only 13 percent of public housing developments had 250 units or more. Also, about 31 percent of public housing units were occupied by elderly households, that is, those with a head of household or spouse 62 years or older.

Housing policy has also dramatically changed since the era of Pruitt-Igoe. In the years following Pruitt-Igoe’s demolition, policymakers largely stopped funding and constructing new public housing developments. Instead, they have pursued affordable housing through programs such as HOPE VI, which funded the renovation and reconstruction of existing public housing units; vouchers; and low-income housing tax credits. In 2009, HUD introduced the Choice Neighborhoods program to revitalize severely distressed public housing across the United States.

Looking forward, narratives such as The Pruitt-Igoe Myth can contextualize why the public housing complex failed and help policymakers avoid the mistakes of the past. In addition, PD&R Edge has described other models for understanding effective public housing, such as Vienna’s unique social housing program.