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Judith Owens-Manley
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The Emergence of Public Housing


Public housing began in the 1930s with a series of government initiatives designed to combat problems of unemployment, slums, and inadequate housing during the Great Depression under President Franklin D.
Roosevelt. Roosevelt requested direct government intervention from the legislature, and Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in June 1933. Title II of this act appropriated $3.3 billion to create the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, or the Public Works Administration (PWA).
The PWA's Housing Division created the first housing projects through low-interest loans to limited-dividend corporations. The federal government became "directly in the business of building safe, clean, modern housing to meet the needs of the country's most disadvantaged citizens" (Lusignan, P.R., 2002, p. 36).

The limited-dividend program was later suspended because it did not meet the objective of clearing slum areas while creating new housing, and the PWA began the direct financing and construction of public housing projects. By fall of 1937, the PWA had accomplished "the replacement of some of the country's worst urban slums with safe, modern housing, and set the stage for the development of even more extensive housing programs during the later 1930s and 1940s." (Lusignan, 2002, p. 37).

Public Housing as a Basic Human Necessity

Stoloff tells us in A brief history of public housing that "public housing has also been thought of as a solution for inner-city poverty and isolation, and as a basic human necessity. . . The view of many planners, architects and social workers", he says, " was that good housing was humane and necessary to the well-being of all people and would greatly improve life chances for slum dwellers. They saw public housing as way of fulfilling part of the state's responsibility to ensure that decent, affordable housing was available for all residents of the U.S." (2004, p.5)

Housing Act of 1937

In 1937, Congress passed The United States Housing Act with a renewed commitment on the part of the federal government to provide "decent, affordable housing for America's urban poor" (Lusignan, p. 37). The Housing Act, also known as the Wagner-Steagle Act created the federally-funded, locally-operated public housing program that exists today. It created the United States Housing Authority (USHA) to provide direction, financial support and technical and design assistance with local housing authorities having some decision-making ability for local community conditions. Robert F. Wagner (1877 - 1953) served as a Senator from New York for 23 years and authored much of the important social and economic legislation of the 1930's and 1940's, including the Wagner National Labor Relations Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Railroad Retirement Act, and Social Security legislation. He also introduced bills for for unemployment insurance, low-cost public housing, and federal youth programs (The Leon Keyserling Papers, Georgetown University, http://library.georgetown.edu/dept/speccoll/cl219.htm.)

WWII and the period directly following brought a halt to the production of traditional public housing and created a shift in who was eligible to live there. Priorities shifted to defense housing. Time Magazine noted the mounting problem with affordable housing in an article published in 1940:
A U. S. problem during World War I was housing for workers in defense industries.
Near the war's end the emergency U. S. Housing Corp. calculated a shortage of adequate
shelter for 292.000 workers. Aircraft, steel, other companies reported that they could have
increased efficiency, upped production 20% or more, simply by enough decent houses to keep workers from wandering elsewhere. Last week the U. S. boomed toward defense production at wartime levels. But the U. S. already had signs of another housing shortage. Worst shortages were at and near shipyards (Bremerton. Wash.; Norfolk, Va.; Newport, R. I.; Mare Island. Calif., etc.) where workers flocked by thousands. At Bremerton (Puget Sound Navy Yard), State patrolmen, harried by reports of "stolen" and abandoned cars, wearily retorted: "Hell, there's guys living in them—Navy yard workers" (p. 50).
Housing that was under construction was converted for use by war workers, and "local housing authorities in strategic defense areas quickly converted unfinished projects from public housing to defense housing" (Lusignan, p. 37). Many of the defense housing projects built during the war became a part of the public housing program as soon as they were not needed for defense workers.

Housing Act of 1940

The passage of The Housing Act of 1940, known as the Lanham Act, gave housing authorities permission to use federal funds to build housing for defense industry workers. Housing was needed for lower income rural residents who migrated to the cities for wartime factory jobs. It became a part of the war effort to expedite war worker housing that was administered by the local housing authorities. Between 1940 and 1944, the federal government built approximately 625,000 housing units under the Lanham Act and its amendments (The past: public housing in Texas. Accessed at http://www.texashousing.org/phdebate/past9.html, 7/21/08.) The Lanham Act of 1940 was an important influence for African Americans too. The Emergency Defense Housing program established under The Act provided shelter for war workers and "harbored more than a million American families by 1945, among which more than 90,000 were African Americans. With the inclusion of black veterans in the program after the war, this total rose to more than 150,000 black families by 1950. Coupled with federally subsidized public housing for low-income black families, the emergency war housing program was the largest source of new housing for African Americans in cities and suburbs during the 1940s" (Wiese, A., 2004, p.135).

1949: A New Phase

In 1949, America enacted another Housing Act and entered a new phase of "substantial
urban renewal efforts (The Past, ). President Harry S. Truman proposed a program of new slum clearance and housing legislation as part of his "Fair Deal" initiative. There was opposition from business interests , but President Truman called for the public to "open up the prospect of decent homes in wholesome surroundings for low-income families now living in the squalor of the slums" (The Past: United States Housing Act of 1937.) Senator Paul Douglas spoke in favor of government intervention at the time, saying,
I would favor solving the housing problem by private effort, if it could be done that way.
But since it cannot, I think the national government must do it. When the soil resources of
this nation were threatened by erosion, the national government properly set to work to save them. It must act similarly when human resources are threatened. States and municipalities generally have not the means to do what must be done" (Douglas, P., 1949, p. 50).
Public housing initiatives during this period were mainly judged to be a success and were thought to represent "highly successful cooperative efforts by local and government agencies to provide housing and employment during times of desperate need" (The Past: United States Housing Act of 1937).


References
Clarke, T.W. (1952). Utica for a century and a half, Utica, NY: The Widtman Press
Defense Housing, Time Magazine, Monday, Sep. 16, 1940, accessed at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,764666,00.html?promoid=googlep
7/21/08
Douglas, P. (1949). Democracy can't live in these houses. Collier's, 9, 22, 50.
Lusignan, P.R. (2002). Public housing in the United States: 1933-1949. Found at http://crm.cr.nps.gov/archive/25-01/25-01-16.pdf, accessed on 7/21/08).
The Leon Keyserling Papers, Georgetown University, http://library.georgetown.edu/dept/speccoll/cl219.htm.)
The Past: Public Housing in Texas. Accessed at http://www.texashousing.org/phdebate/past9.html, 7/21/08
The Past: United States Housing Act of 1937. Found at http://www.texashousing.org/phdebate/past5.html, accessed on 7/21/08.
Stoloff, J. A. (2004) "A brief history of public housing. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Hilton San Francisco & Renaissance Parc 55 Hotel, San Francisco, CA, Online <.PDF> Retrieved 2008-07-19 from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p108852_index.html.
Wiese, A. (2004). Places of their own: African American suburbanization in the twentieth century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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