Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era

The small single family house, backed by a federally guaranteed mortgage and residing within the confines of a sprawling subdivision, is a commonly recalled image of America in the post World War Two era.  Yet the origins of the country’s unprecedented suburban growth from the late 1940s to the 1960s began much earlier, in a series of policy disputes between New Deal agencies, housing reformers, and special interest lobbyists in the 1930s.  This formative period provides the basis for Gail Radford’s book Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era.

As Radford notes at the beginning of her book, the term “modern housing,” in the context of 1930s domestic architecture, was presented by Catherine Bauer, a noted housing reformer and urban theorist, as an open question to the American people. Bauer, having studied government financed housing units in Europe, encouraged policy makers at the onset of the Great Depression to support the construction of federally-built housing developments in the United States on a scale similar to those seen in Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia.  Such developments, as envisioned by Bauer, would be designed through collaborative partnerships of architects and social theorists, and would house families of all economic backgrounds.  The intersection of federal involvement, good design, and a belief in social equality, Bauer argued, would counter forces that had historically hindered housing for Americans, namely high costs of construction, difficulties in securing mortgage loans, and a volatile banking system.  By the mid 1930s, the modern housing movement, aided by architects (Oscar Stonorov) and labor leaders (John Edelman) had effectively influenced officials in the Roosevelt administration to construct public housing ventures in Philadelphia (Carl Mackley Homes) and New York (Harlem River Houses) through the Public Works Administration (PWA).  Significant not just as early examples of public housing, these projects were (and still are) lauded as landmarks in modern architectural design.

Yet just as housing reformers gained success in seeing their theories put into practice, conservative politicians and lobbying groups such as the National Association of Real Estate Boards worked to undermine the nascent public housing movement.  Fighting to protect the interests of realtors, banks, and land speculators, who felt threatened by federally subsidized public housing, these groups chose to back the efforts of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Home Owners loan Corporation (HOLC), which, while also dependent upon federal intervention in the market, largely left private institutions intact and able to capitalize on government-backed loans issued to American citizens.  By the late 1930s, conservatives in Congress had managed to ensure that public housing would be limited to low-income families with demonstrable financial need and that future housing units would maximize cost efficiency over good design.

By the time America entered World War Two, and as many New Deal programs were winding down, Radford argues that the country had become solidly entrenched in a “two-tiered system of federal housing aid,” with one limited to only the very poor and the other for an increasingly expanding middle class.  The major distinction, as Radford notes in her concluding chapters, is that the tier catering to the middle class (through FHA and later Veterans Administration loans) received a disproportionate amount of funding – not just in housing loans – but in the improvements that accompany suburbanization, such as transportation facilities, water services, public parks, and new schools.  Public housing, meanwhile, relegated to low income residents, became stigmatized as anathema to the American “dream” of home-ownership.  Radford’s book helps reveal the often volatile nature of policy debate during the New Deal era and encourages readers to imagine a “path not taken” with regards to housing inequality and unsustainable development.

Reviewed by Rachel Brahinsky

Rachel Brahinsky is the Living New Deal's managing director and postdoctoral fellow.

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