Yates: Housing Organizing for the Long Haul

Contents | Introduction | 1933-48 | 1949-65 | 1960s | 1971-88 | 1988-93 | 1990s | Summary/Analysis | References/Notes/Bio

II. 1949-1965: The Modern Housing Policy Framework is Created

The Housing Situation of the Period

At the end of World War II, ten million troops demobilized in two years. Families came together at a dizzying rate, to find no new housing other thn temporary defense worker housing that had been built in the war years. Estimates of families expected to buy or build homes ranged from three to six million. (Dewhurst 1947, P. 153) The media reported families living in chicken coops and doubling up with their parents.

The following macabre joke, from a 1949 humor anthology, evokes the intensity of the housing crisis:

The housing shortage was so acute in North Carolina that one Southerner, observing a man under a bridge, going down for the third time, called out to him, "Where do you live, buddy?" The drowning man yelled "13 Main St. Help me out." Not even looking back, he sped to the given address and demanded that the landlady let him have the room. "I know it's vacant," he said, "because the former tenant just drowned."

"It's not vacant now. I just rented it to the man who pushed him in." (Keene 1949, P. 300)

The result, when this shortage forced Congress to act, was "an extraordinary period of ... establishing the practices that would dominate the post-war period" (Rabinowitz 1980, P. 83) -- of radical change in the nation's finance and housing activities.

Homeownership levels, at 45% from 1890 through 1940, were at 55% and rising by 1950. (Apgar 1990, P. 17) Financial institutions shifted from corporate and farm lending to home mortgage loans, which tripled between 1945 and 1952. Government programs were key to these changes. Between 1945 and 1952, three-fourths of the 4.5 million dwelling units built were financed with FHA and VA loans. (Rabinowitz 1980, Pp. 84-95) Homeownership became central to the lives of millions of households, and to the massive finance, insurance and real estate sectors. It was key to the exclusion of people of color from the mainstream. In 1950, only one-third of "nonwhite" households owned their own homes, and the average dollar value of a home owned by a "nonwhite" non-farm household was about forty percent that of a white-owned non-farm home. (Guzman 1952, pp. 170-187)

The Government Response

Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, known as "Mr. Republican," was key to post-war housing legislation. In 1945, a Taft report called for "grants for slum clearance, easier FHA loans for home buyers....a permanent National Housing Agency....[and] 500,000 public housing units within the next four years." (Patterson 1972, p. 317) Only the latter proposal was controversial, but for that one the National Association of Real Estate Boards named Taft "at heart a socialist." (Patterson 1972, P. 319) It took four years for Congress to pass a housing bill along the lines of Taft's proposals -- the Housing Act of 1949.

The Act stated a grandiose aim -- "the realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family." In reality, the 1949 Act mainly "guaranteed builders and bankers more substantial profits on large residential developments," and fostered "a suburban world characterized by unimaginative planning, steep housing costs, inadequate services, class and racial segregation...." (Wright, 1981, P. 246, 257)

The hard-won inclusion of public housing did provide low-rent housing for some of those who needed it, a commitment that has since been expanded. But the Act's provisions to finance the new suburbs and redevelop the cities via urban renewal, and its implicit acceptance of segregation, would have far more impact on low-income people than its relatively meager commitment to public housing.

The Activist Response

By 1949, organized housing activism outside of a few urban centers of tenant organizing was pretty much limited to a few liberal and labor leaders -- and to professionals employed by housing organizations. This period was the low point for all aspects of housing organizing. We can quickly review it in terms of the Sidney Hill Benchmarks.

1) Resident Self-Defense

With no national organizing networks or political formations to support them, collective self-defense actions by housing residents become invisible in the post-war period. Neighborhoods faced new threats that they had few tools to fight -- highways that isolated communities of color, public housing that concentrated poverty, and suburbs that gained their cachet from their distances from the poor and people of color. Caught off guard, resident self-defense efforts were less effective and more poorly organized than either before or since.

2) Technical Assistance

More and more, the public housing advocates during this period were administrators of existing housing programs. There was no systematic technical assistance to housing organizing.

In fact, in New York City, and probably in other less-studied cities, conflicts emerged between nonprofit housing professionals and organized tenants. Columbia University and other local nonprofit institutions formed Morningside Heights, Incorporated, which planned with city government to develop middle-income housing. Tenants in the site area, working with the citywide United Community to Save Our Homes and the left-wing American Labor Party, fought those plans, packing meetings with angry tenants and providing tenant counseling. Ultimately the project was built, and the Save Our Homes forces were "discounted as Communisttainted by liberal housing reformers." (Lawson 1986, P. 158-160)

3) Progressive Agenda

Locally, as with the American Labor Party, housing issues were key to left agendas, but such local efforts were not interconnected nationally.

This period did represent a high point of labor union participation in housing development, including "a blossoming of labor involvement in housing cooperatives in the post-World War II period, especially of housing co-ops for seniors" and the work of "the United Housing Foundation, a co-op sponsor that worked closely with labor unions in New York City to create many thousands of units of cooperative housing." (Yates, 1996) However, labor's housing efforts were increasingly focussed on benefits for current members and retirees, not on building an inclusive progressive movement.

There were no significant national initiatives for progressive housing organizing.

4) Right to Housing

In this period, liberals pressed for more housing and deplored the abuse of housing programs; but they did not question federal housing policy's basic assumptions, as radicals had during the Depression. There was no nationally organized effort that sought a right to housing.

5) Anti-Racism

As de jure segregation began to be weakened by the civil rights movement, racism in housing became the bulwark of institutional racism. The lack of an aggressive and effective anti-racist housing organizing agenda in grassroots communities during this period was a determining factor in this nation's history.

The period's federal "slum clearance" provisions, Title I of the 1949 Act, made African-American and Latino communities vulnerable to a new and unprecedented level of attack. Title I gave local authorities "power of a new immensity. Title I of the Housing Act of 1949 extended the power of eminent domain, traditionally used in America only for government-built projects, so drastically that governments could now condemn land and turn it over to individuals...." (Caro 1974, P. 777)

Housing activists in New York City came to fear that if housing czar Robert Moses "hounded the people living on those sites out of their homes without finding them new homes... they would have no choice but to flee to other slums....The slums would spill over their boundaries, spreading to blocks as yet untouched by blight..." (Caro 1974, p. 966)

Eventually in every major city, those displaced by this process crowded into existing or newly created slums, some of them high-rise public housing ghettoes to which they had admission priority. This process that disproportionately affected African-Americans -- sociologist Herbert Gans reported that "80 per cent of the relocatees the country over were poor blacks" -- came to be known in African-American communities as 'Negro removal,' mocking the government jargon phrase 'urban renewal.' (Gans 1982, p. 380)

At the same time, people of color who could afford to buy homes outside of their "assigned" neighborhoods gained support from the courts. In 1954, Thurgood Marshall, then Director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, stated that due to Supreme Court decisions, "any American any place in the United States, regardless of race or color, may own and occupy property wherever he can find a willing seller, has the money to purchase the property, and the courage to live in it." Marshall noted there still was "residential segregation throughout the country, not by law" but due to "the reactionary policies of mortgage companies and real estate boards, public-housing agencies, including F.H.A., and other governmental agencies." (Foner 1972, p. 871)

The key legal victories invalidating racial covenants in real estate were won by the NAACP and by Mexican-American civil rights groups. (Henry B. Gonzalez, at the time a San Antonio activist and later Chair of the U.S. House Banking Committee, was involved in one case) (Quiñones, 1990, P. 57) But the Federal Housing Administration, which underwrote the financing for the suburban development surge, had overtly segregationist policies until 1950, and "accepted unwritten agreements and existing 'traditions' of segregation until 1968." (Wright 1981, p. 248)

The fight against housing discrimination usually focussed on individual solutions, not collective problems. For example, while New York's pioneer State Commission Against Discrimination (SCAD) identified the Title I relocation process as "one of the city's most serious minority housing problems," it chose to respond only behind the scenes, and not to take on "any great responsibilities" on this issue. (Lawson 1986, P. 158-159)

The housing activism of the 1950s and 1960s did go farther than the left activism of the 1930s on race, reflecting the increasing organized push for civil rights. However, without any connection to grassroots organizing, successful legal assaults on housing discrimination did not protect the vast majority of people of color from increasing segregation.

The modern framework of housing policy was created during this period, but without the active participation of a grassroots movement -- and without the suppressed voices of low-income communities of color. The long deferred promise of Reconstruction-era civil rights principles began to be fulfilled, an early effect of the emerging civil rights movement. But for most of those excluded from the suburban boom, this era stifled dissent, grossly limited opportunity, and created ominous new restrictions.

Contents | Introduction | 1933-48 | 1949-65 | 1960s | 1971-88 | 1988-93 | 1990s | Summary/Analysis | References/Notes/Bio