The District of Columbia Alley Dwelling Act was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on June 12, 1934. The act created the Alley Dwelling Authority (ADA), whose purpose was to eliminate the impoverished, unsafe, and unsanitary housing that had formed in the alleyways of the nation’s capital over many decades and to provide new and improved housing for the displaced residents, usually in the same location . This clear and replace strategy, utilizing eminent domain, was described as “pioneer public housing legislation.” Previously, dilapidated housing was simply condemned and demolished .
This new approach to substandard housing was the culmination of five years of advocacy “by the National Capital Park and Planning Commission and by numerous civic and social agencies of Washington” , as well as an even longer period of activism by reformers like Charlotte Hopkins (1851-1935). This was the beginning of New Deal public housing policy.
The ADA was not part of the D.C. Government, but a special authority created by Congress and President Roosevelt, answerable mostly to the latter. FDR appointed its three-man leadership board, received annual reports, and funded the ADA through a special “Conversion of Inhabited Alleys Fund” held by the U.S. Treasury. The D.C. Board of Commissioners could, however, provide input as to whether a particular project was favorable or not .
The ADA’s first project came in 1935-1936 in southeast Washington DC, in an area “bounded by K and L, 12th and 13th Streets… known as London Court” consisting of 11 dilapidated alley homes . Funding came from the Public Works Administration (PWA). While private contractors were initially contemplated, cost estimates led the ADA to use Works Progress Administration (WPA) labor instead. Through a combination of rehabilitation and new construction, WPA workers created 12 new homes. The new homes were better weatherized, hooked up for electricity, consisted of “four rooms and a full bath,” and equipped with some modern appliances .
This new group of homes was named Hopkins Place, after the recently-deceased Charlotte Hopkins. In a message for the dedication ceremony, Eleanor Roosevelt (a long-time a champion for better housing) stated: “I feel Mrs. Hopkins should have all the credit and honor that any of us can bring to her memory because of the wonderful work she did for better housing in Washington” .
The ADA suffered from underfunding during its early years, but by 1938 was operating with greater resources, including loans from the United States Housing Authority (USHA). With about $16 million in funding from 1936 to 1940 and working in conjunction with private sector builders, the ADA was successful in replacing many alley dwellings with modern homes at affordable rents . Notably, ADA housing projects were small-scale and quite unlike the kind of mass clearance done under postwar Urban Renewal programs.
At the end of fiscal year 1940 (before national defense needs altered its mission), the ADA had completed the construction of 386 new homes and apartments; furthermore, it had an additional 529 under construction and 1,447 in pre-construction planning . While such housing was segregated, like Washington DC in general, the main beneficiaries of the new homes were African Americans. Whites also benefited, however, as in the case of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings project on Capitol Hill .
In 1943, FDR changed the name of the Alley Dwelling Authority to the National Capital Housing Authority, with Executive Order No. 9344. The agency was terminated in 1973-1974 and replaced with a new National Capital Housing Authority under the DC Government . Eventually, the name was changed to District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA).
Today, the DCHA still manages properties created by the ADA, for example, Kelly Miller, Fort Dupont Dwellings, Hopkins Apartments, and town homes on Ellen Wilson Place, Southeast .
Sources: (1) The full text of the act can be found at https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/73rd-congress/session-2/c73s2ch465.pdf, Library of Congress (accessed July 5, 2020). (2) Report of the National Capital Housing Authority, For the Ten-Year Period 1934-1944, p. 2, available on Hathitrust (accessed July 5, 2020). (3) Ibid., p. 1. (4) See note 1. (5) See note 2, p. 12. (6) Ibid., pp. 13-14. (7) “Hopkins Place Commemorates Crusader for Slum Clearance,” Evening Star, October 21, 1936, p. B-1 (accessed July 5, 2020). For more information on Charlotte Hopkins, see “September 7: Charlotte Everett Wise Hopkins (1935),” The Church of the Epiphany: An Episcopal Church in Downtown Washington, DC (accessed July 5, 2020). (8) See note 2, Report of the National Capital Housing Authority, pp. v, 80, and 117-119. (9) Ibid. (10) See, “Townhomes on Capitol Hill,” a DC Housing Authority property at 637 Ellen Wilson Place, SE (accessed July 5, 2020). (11) See, “National Capital Housing Authority,” National Archives and Records Administration (accessed July 5, 2020); and also, “Code of Federal Regulations: The President, Volume 3,” Google Books (accessed July 5, 2020). (12) See, “Kelly Miller,” “Fort Dupont Dwellings,” “Hopkins Apartments,” and “Townhomes on Capitol Hill,” District of Columbia Housing Authority (accessed July 5, 2020).
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