This short essay focuses on the development of U.S. housing policies in the 1930s and 1940s, and how those discussions can inform a reimagining of housing policies in 2020. As Peter Marcuse and others have described, the “myth of the benevolent state” leads us to believe that the state acts to protect its citizens, when in truth it intervenes to protect the interests of capital (Marcuse 1986). From the perspective of housing policies, these interventions have happened at times of crisis, when capital was at risk. The Tenement House Act of 1901, efforts to house industrial workers during World War I, homeownership and public housing programs created as part of the New Deal, and the legislative and regulatory responses to the housing crisis of 2008 all illustrate this pattern. Crises in public health, the economy, and financial institutions have spurred the state to enact legislation that protects capital.
The COVID-19 crisis presents an opening for expanded housing policies and programs. Certainly, capital is in trouble, and the state is interested in protecting it. Thus far, efforts to support those who suffer disproportionately from the direct and indirect devastation of the virus—who are low income and people of color—have been inadequate. Moratoriums on mortgage foreclosures and evictions postpone the inevitable: the suffering will get worse. Indeed, given the inadequacy of state action, we have seen a spate of private responses to the crisis—from GoFundMe campaigns to pay for hotel rooms for the homeless in NYC, to Saturday Night Live actor Michael Che offering to pay rent for public housing residents in the building where his grandmother lived, to George Soros’ Open Society Foundations providing grants to undocumented households denied support by the federal government, as well as low wage workers. Mutual aid groups have sprung up in many communities, with their founders stressing their roots in solidarity and the struggle against capital’s disinterest in the needs of those without resources.
How can we learn from the past, and respond in a way that creates enduring change, rather than propping up capital and perpetuating the conditions that will lead to yet another crisis?
In the not so distant past, advocates and policymakers—including the President of the United States—in times of crisis have advocated for a right to housing, which would decommodify housing by removing it from the private real estate market.
After the Great Depression, as policymakers sought to re-start the economy, the 1932 Report of the Committee on Negro Housing, established by the President’s Conference on Building and Home Ownership, found that: “These conditions of Negro housing in our cities are not the result of any willful inhumanity on the part of our society. On the contrary, they merely emphasize the present shortcomings of our individualistic theory of housing, and the failure which grows out of expecting each person in our highly complex industrial civilization to provide his own housing as best he may” (Johnson, 1932). But the programs and policies enacted by the New Deal reflected a compromise that did not address these findings, and instead established the US social welfare state within which we operate today, including a bifurcated national housing policy, in which public housing for the poor was developed on a trajectory that was entirely distinct from subsidized homeownership programs for the middle class.
The National Public Housing Conference (NPHC), which became the National Housing Conference in 1949, was formed in New York City in 1931 as an outgrowth of the movements for tenement reform, to advocate for a federal public housing program. During the Second World War, the NPHC formulated a comprehensive platform outlining the development and delivery of housing in the postwar United States. Its drafting was coordinated by “houser” Catherine Bauer. Multiple drafts, revisions, and comments circulated among NPHC leaders and advisors during 1943. Core principles espoused by the NPHC remained consistent: public acquisition and ownership of land; expanded authority, independence, and financial support for states and localities; master plans to be developed by localities; public housing for very low income people, as well as for those with higher incomes who could not afford existing private housing, and expanded privately developed housing for others; and land use controls to ensure open space and lower housing densities. The plan argued for the evisceration of bright-line distinctions between public and private housing, by blending public and private funding and supporting a mix of household incomes in housing developments. It promoted collaboration between the disciplines of housing and planning. It proposed that eligibility for public housing depend solely on income and local market conditions, and that housing authorities stop investigating applicants’ prior housing situations and subjecting them to intrusive “case work.” The NPHC platform sought to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of supporters, with a program “which can integrate traditional liberal support and add to it all groups directly interested in civic welfare and amenity or in a productive building industry,” subordinating special interests whenever possible to the common goal (Bauer, 1943). The idea of housing as a right remained valid into the mid-1940s. Indeed, in his 1944 State of the Union address, Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a Second or Economic Bill of Rights, which would include rights to, among others, “a decent home.”
By 1949, however, when the first piece of major postwar housing legislation was enacted, the NPHC advocates argued only for incremental changes within the existing framework. Catherine Bauer had warned against the pitfalls of “a housing movement based purely on hand-outs from the top down,” but her cautions went unheeded (Cole 1974). The 1949 Housing Act, which enshrined the distinction between public and private housing introduced in its 1937 predecessor and supported the more destructive aspects of urban renewal, served as the final blow to more progressive housing visions. The Housing Act’s passage pivoted on a compromise between supporters of its Title I, which created and funded the urban renewal program, and Title III, which authorized funding and program guidelines for 810,000 new public housing units. By 1949, housing was no longer contemplated as a right—it was now “the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment” to be accomplished “as soon as feasible.” The optimism and willingness to reconceptualize the structure of the housing market in these manifestos for postwar planning were not to be realized, and were not seen again on a large scale in the postwar period. Housing was one element in an ambitious and unsuccessful blueprint that included plans for universal health insurance, full employment, and an increased minimum wage.
Almost 90 years after the compromises of the New Deal, we have evidence that they have not worked. In terms of housing, even before the crisis of COVID-19, we faced a crisis of housing affordability and availability. Now, as the most vulnerable households will fare the worst in the economic devastation of the pandemic, we need a new paradigm. We can use the crisis to re-think our approach to housing in the United States. But the approach must be radically different from the past if we are to address the inequities that COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated.
Housing under capitalism works for those who control the means of production. We need to decouple housing from the market. If we decommodify housing and turn it into a public good, as was contemplated before and after the New Deal, we have a chance not only to recover from the impact of COVID-19, but to be more resilient in the face of the next challenge, whatever it may be. The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders in November 2019, approaches public housing in the U.S. as a critical element of our infrastructure, rather than a form of service provision. The investments that the legislation contemplates would improve and modernize that infrastructure, while simultaneously creating high-quality jobs. This is precisely the approach that was contemplated—and rejected—in the 1930s and 1940s.
Housing organizers who advocate to #CancelRent and #Halt Debt Collection and support a #Homes Guarantee are seeking the kind of broad-based structural reform that acknowledges that the private housing market is not able to meet the housing needs of many people and communities. They want to shift housing from an individual responsibility to a communal responsibility. We can do so by taking the path that has been rejected previously in favor of compromise and incremental change.
Hilary Botein (email@example.com) is an associate professor at Baruch College, CUNY.
Peter Marcuse, “Housing Policy and the Myth of the Benevolent State,” in Bratt et al., editors, Critical Perspectives on Housing (Philadelphia: Temple, 1986).
Report of the Committee on Negro Housing. Prepared for the Committee by Charles S. Johnson. 1932. Edited by John M. Gries and James Ford. The President’s Conference on Home Building and Home
Catherine Bauer, “Original Draft of Bauer Platform,” December 19, 1942, February 1943 Draft, April 1943 Draft, Memorandum to NPHC August 30, 1943, September 8, 1943, Box 31, National Housing Conference Records, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN.
State of the Union Message to Congress, January 11, 1944 (http://www.fdrlibrary. marist.edu/archives/address_text.html)
Mary Susan Cole, “Catherine Bauer and the Public Housing Movement, 1926-1937” (Ph.D. diss., George Washington University, 1974), 674.
Housing Act of 1949 (https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/81st-congress/session-1/c81s1ch338.pdf)