Modern Housing

By Harvey Smith

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act into law on September 1, 1937. The new law established the United States Housing Authority (USHA) that provided $500 million in loans for low-cost housing projects across the country and drew on the talents of architects, artists and city planners. Montage courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Homelessness in the U.S. has become so normalized as to be accepted as a fact of life. The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that more than a half million people are without shelter on any given night. Public officials seem at a loss to help the thousands now sleeping in our parks and city streets.

This was not always the case. In his “Second Bill of Rights” speech in 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared employment, education, housing and medical care as rights due every citizen— values that underpinned the New Deal and the humane policies they inspired.  

Public housing was once thought of as positive, radical, and hopeful—the product of a government optimistic about its ability to improve the lives of its poor and working-class families. Today, market-based solutions are touted as the answer to society’s problems. Developers may be required to dedicate a few affordable units in exchange for permits for their market-rate housing projects, but this does little to help low-income people. In fact, long-time residents are often displaced by the resulting gentrification.

When millions were displaced by the Dust Bowl and job loss during the Great Depression, the federal government made housing a priority. The Roosevelt Administration enlisted leading thinkers, collectively known as “housers.” These architects, designers and social scientists challenged barriers to housing for all.  

Berenice Abbott. courtesy of Wikimedia: Huts in a Hooverville on W. Houston Street in Manhattan in the 1930s

Catherine Bauer was among the most influential, as author of a seminal book on government-supported housing in post-WWI Europe. In Modern Housing, Bauer argues for making decent housing a “public utility” and a basic right. Bauer was the primary author of the U.S. Housing Act in 1937 that provided federal subsidies to local public housing agencies to improve living conditions for low-income families. Bauer also worked with the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which lowered financial barriers to home ownership. She promoted non-speculative housing owned by public agencies or nonprofit cooperatives and was a vocal advocate for racially integrated public housing at a time when Blacks and other minorities were excluded.

In 1933 about half of the nation’s home mortgages were in default. Millions had lost their homes and millions more were in danger of doing so. The Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration set about building public housing, while the Resettlement Administration relocated struggling urban and rural families to communities planned by the federal government.

During this time, New Deal legislation brought home ownership into reach for many, creating a bridge to the middle class. The Home Owners’ Loan Act of 1933 helped those in danger of losing their homes. The National Housing Act of 1934 produced the Federal Housing Administration and the Federal Savings and the Loan Insurance Corporation, which raised housing standards and provided a system of mortgage insurance. The Housing Act of 1937 established the U.S. Housing Authority (USHA) to provide loans for low-cost housing projects. The G.I. Bill of 1944 provided low-interest home loans to war veterans.

In 1940, Bauer reported that 193 loan contracts had been approved between USHA and local authorities for 467 different projects to rehouse more than 150,000 families—some 650,000 people—and that 100,000 dwellings had been completed or were under construction.

The Red Hook Housing project, Brooklyn, NY. This 40-acre, $13 million project, completed on November 20, 1939 was heralded as a modern living residence with fireproofing; modern kitchen, bathroom, and laundry facilities; vermin-proof; and open to light. Photography courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Below, the Red Hook Housing project today, undergoing restoration after Hurricane Sandy by KPF Architects and Olin Studios, Landscape Architects. Watch KPF's fascinating film about rebuilding for climate resiliency here:
Playground and open space in Red Hook today. Photo courtesy of KFP and Olin Studios
In addition to The Commons, Olin is restoring individual courtyards between residences

Other influential “housers “were landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, who worked for both the US Housing Authority and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) designing housing for migrant agricultural workers, and Vernon DeMars, also with the FSA, who planned and designed affordable housing for thousands of wartime workers.

The “housers” emphasized affordability, quality construction and human-scale design in harmony with the environment.  Or, as, Eckbo put it, “What is good for the rich is good for the poor.”

With the US economy crushed by the coronavirus, homelessness is on the rise. The values expressed in FDR’s Second Bill of Rights have been sidelined, along with the social welfare policies they inspired. But, as the New Deal shows us, homelessness can be solved, given the political will to do so.

“Movements are not made by a handful of specialists,” Bauer concludes in “Modern Housing.”  Change would come only when Americans “demanded a positive program of good housing—not merely for some vague, hypothetical ‘slum-dwellers,’ but for themselves and their families.”

Catherine Bauer was a founder of UC Berkeley's School of Environomental Design, the first of its kind in the nation. She taught there until 1964.

Harvey Smith is president of the National New Deal Preservation Association, and vice president of the nonprofit board for The Living New Deal.  This article first appeared in its monthly newsletter, Fireside. Our thanks also to Susan Ives, editor of the Fireside newsletter, for her information on New Deal Housing and on the Williamsburg murals in the sidebars below.


Designing Communities from the Ground Up

WPA Housing: Air, Light, Gardens, Walkability---and Art

During the New Deal, housing was constructed for many Americans displaced from the Dust Bowl. Rexford Tugwell, a Columbia economics professor tapped to head FDR’s Resettlement Administration (RA) wanted to create a new sense of community along with this new housing. “My plans are fashioned and practical,” he said. “I shall roll up my sleeves—make America over!”  

Not surprisingly, conservatives in Congress derided the Greenbelt experiment as both extravagant and “socialist,” and sought to end it.

To win support for the Greenbelt projects, Tugwell called on his former graduate student, Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the RA (soon to become the Farm Securities Administration). Stryker famously deployed FSA photographers to document the human desperation that the New Deal agencies were working to address. Photographs by the likes of Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Walker Evans captured some of the best-known images of the victims of the Great Depression. Lesser known were the RA’s photographs of the Greenbelt towns that conveyed an America on the road to recovery. Nonetheless, under pressure from Congress and wealthy farmers deprived of their tenant work force, the RA was discontinued in 1936.

Seventy-five years later, Jason Reblando has re-captured the founding vision of the Greenbelt towns in his large-format book, New Deal Utopias. His color photographs of the tidy homes and well-tended grounds surrounded by farms and forests recall a kind of everyday orderliness—both ordinary and reassuring. Portraits of the towns’ 21st Century inhabitants depict a sense of small-town pride.   

Pictured here are modest houses and a common green space in Greendale, Wisconsin, and a community garden in Greenbelt, Maryland. Photos courtesy of Jason Reblando.  — Susan Ives

In Willliamsburg, Brooklyn, an urban housing development, noted for its community rooms and New Deal murals, was built between 1936 and 1938. The project covered 25 acres and included 20 four-story residential buildings spanning twelve city blocks with courtyards, playgrounds, ball courts, a school and a community center with ample walking paths.  The facades of the buildings were light tan brick and entrances featured blue tiles and stainless steel canopies.

The finishing touches included five abstract murals by Ilya BolotowskyBalcomb GreenePaul Kelpe, and Albert Swinden.  These were installed in the community meeting rooms in the late 1930s.  Eventually they were painted over, but the Brooklyn Museum rescued them in 1990, and, after careful removal and restoration, put them on display.


Professor Andrew Dolkart of Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation points out that the Williamsburg Houses project “…is an early example of European modernist planning and design.” —  Susan Ives

Europe: Public Housing for the Middle Class

Where did WPA architects get their inspiration? In the early 20th century, European city planners bought up land between the wars, when it was cheap, leveraged construction costs, and provided well-constructed housing for one seventh of the general population.  This era gave us the English garden apartment, some charming Art Deco Buildings, and a movement to link apartment living with nature.  Catherine Bauer championed  buildings by Ernst Mai,  Karl Ehn and Bernard Lubekin in her book, Modern Housing recently reissued by the University of Minnesota Press. 

In Frankfurt, Ernst Mai designed this building like a ship.By Peng - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Vienna's innovative public housing, The Karl Marx Hof, by Karl Ehn. By Bwag - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Highpoint I, interwar housing in London, designed by Bernard Lubekin, has been fully occupied for 85 years. By SilvaBarral - Own work, CC0,

Catherine Bauer's Revolution

In her new introduction to Modern Housing, Barbara Penner  describes Catherine Bauer as a revolutionary.   Penner, an architectural historian and a professor  at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, has her own lively view of what makes houses work.  Here she puts Bauer in perspective, showing why so many of her marvelous plans never took root here in America. 

 Bauer knew it was possible to create well-crafted and beautifully situated homes for citizens of low and middle income levels, while providing easy access to work and shopping because all this had been done successfully in Europe after the first world war.  

Cities had managed to save money by buying up huge tracts of land when it was cheap, then creating whole “garden communities” from scratch.  Of course, Bauer hoped to do the same thing here, but when the slums were being cleared, and the time was ripe for such a program, politicians were worried about socialism, and the growing power of the government.   

Says Penner: “Bauer was a pivotal figure who remains overlooked.  She leapt into activism, labor organizing and campaigning.  That’s why it was so important to reprint Modern Housing.  It was written at a time when debates about public housing were front and center, and at a time when it was important to remember the key role women played in these debates.”  Her ideas couldn’t be more timely.  Listen to Penner’s illuminating talk.

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