United States Housing Policy

For over a century, the provision of housing for low-income residents has been an ongoing issue for policymakers and the millions of households struggling to obtain decent, affordable shelter. The creation of public housing began as an economic development strategy with the dual goal of providing shelter for low-income residents. By the 1930 there was and continues to be a growing awareness among reformers and policymakers that stronger measures were needed to address the housing needs of low-income households. The primary focus of concern was the physical adequacy of housing units.

Tenement laws and housing codes were introduced to help stem the tide of housing deterioration (von Hoffman, 2000) Code enforcement helped to slow the expansion of slum areas, and some units were improved, but blighted residential areas continued to exist. As conditions in urban areas declined, urban policy focused on redevelopment in which the major thrust for public housing was to replace demolished units. (Wood, 1982). The growing lack of affordable, accessible, and adequate units for low-income households necessitated direct assistance from the Federal government.

The first explicit Federal policy response to address low-income shelter needs was the public housing program. In the Housing Act of 1937, the Federal government focused on a program of housing development and management that had explicit goals of social and economic advancement for residents based on the belief that slums imposed social costs and liabilities. The following discussion presents brief description of the events leading up to the policy that triggered it as well as a detailed description of the effects of the Housing Policy of 1937.

The Beginning of Public Housing During the 1930’s the United States experienced economic problems. People found themselves unemployed or underemployed during this economic depression. During this era, the dominant policy approach was to improve economic conditions and develop the physical landscape of the country, as a result, the public housing program was established to create construction jobs to boost the economy and provide housing for deserving people who were temporarily poor due to the Depression.

(Stone, 1993) In response to the failing economic conditions, President Roosevelt created the Public Works Administration (PWA) to stimulate the economy by constructing, reconstructing, or rehabilitating low cost housing and slum clearance projects. (Husock, 2003) The PWA’s Housing Division along with the National Association of Housing Officials (NAHO) commissioned a group of experts to draft a proposal for a public housing program.

The report, A Housing Program for the United States (1934), laid the foundation for the first public housing program in which it stressed the importance of housing as a vehicle to rebuild cities (Wood, 1982). Soon thereafter, the Federal government selected cities to begin building housing projects without consultation with local officials. It acquired land, hired architects, designed and constructed buildings, and provided management for 50 projects in 35 cities with 21,000 units.

(Wood, 1982) The Federal government’s role in this capacity came to a halt in 1935 when the courts ruled in the case of United States vs. Certain Lands in the City of Louisville that the Federal government could not use eminent domain to acquire slum land to build public housing. However in a subsequent case, New York City Housing Authority vs. Muller, it was ruled that state legislation granting eminent domain powers to local public housing authorities was legal.

Therefore, in 1936 it was determined that the Federal government should not directly engage in the administration of public housing, but should limit its role to providing funds to local housing authorities for their administration of public housing programs (Wood, 1982). The impact or lasting effect of the Great Depression, with its well-documented assault on jobs and housing, the population upheavals of migration and immigration, and the public health crises of disease, crime, delinquency, and premature death, pushed the federal government to extend the burgeoning safety net into the area of public housing and slum clearance.

One attempt to provide relevant legislation was made in 1935 with Wagner-Ellenbogen Bill. Although that endeavor was rather illusive than valid, it had provided strong background for Wagner-Steagall Act. The 1937 Housing Act was successfully passed, not merely because of the confluence of certain variables, but because the prevailing issues of the provision of jobs and the control of social disorder were persuasive enough for both politicians and the lay public alike. (Gelfand, 1975)