Policy Debate

When the Wagner-Steagall Act was passed, establishing the United States Housing Authority, a long-term rehousing and slum-clearance program was inaugurated in the United States. The temporary agencies that preceded it would be considered as experimental facilities for low-cost housing, conducted under federal control and working with no background in experience.

Solution of their technical and legal difficulties gradually built a basis for the present conception of a housing program, the idea of federal controlled projects giving way to the principle of decentralization with local authorities initiating, designing, building, managing, and owning the low-cost housing, projects. Looked upon first as a possible means of alleviating unemployment, low-cost housing was recognized by the federal government as a definite community need, pointing the way, not only to slum elimination, but also to a better physical and economic future for the low-income group.

The dual housing and human development goals of the Housing Act of 1937 reflected the compelling realities of the Great Depression. Faced with the economic hardships during the Depression years, policymakers combined housing and employment goals. The objective was to provide short-term housing for those experiencing temporary economic hardship. Many households faced eviction as they struggled to pay rent and often moved into overcrowded or inadequate housing.

In extreme cases, individuals were left homeless (Stone, 1993). In addition, during the late percent of all occupied units were considered dilapidated. The Wagner-Steagall Act represents, not the completion of the public housing story but merely the difficult beginning. In the years to come, public discourse on public housing, slum clearance, and urban development would revisit old controversies and offer new questions pertaining to race, poverty, and the social welfare safety nets.


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Housing Policy Debate, 11(2), 299-326. Hunt, B. (2005). Was the 1937 U. S. Housing Act a Pyrrhic Victory? Journal of Planning History, 4 (3), 195-221 Husock, H. (2003). America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy. New York: Ivan R. Dee. Stone, M. (1993). Shelter Poverty. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Wood, E. (1982). The Beautiful Beginnings, the Failure to Learn: Fifty Years of Public Housing in America. Washington, DC: National Center for Housing Management.