- Public Housing in America: Lost Opportunities
Across the urban landscape of America, public housing sits neglected and often abandoned—monuments to the failures of a well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous effort to house the urban poor. The purpose of public housing has become so lost that in 1992 Nicholas Lemann, author of The Promised Land (1991), told Congress in optimistic tones and without a hint of irony that “the biggest single success story about the really distressed high-rise public housing probably involves people leaving. People leave these places constantly. They move to a better life. . . . success should be defined as enabling people, if they want to leave, to leave.” 1 Success in public housing no longer means housing the urban poor, it means getting them out. In 1995, HUD announced plans to tear down a total of 100,000 public housing units by the year 2000.
In Europe, by contrast, state-sponsored housing serves large numbers without debilitating effects. Why has American public housing failed to live up to its promise? Historians have generated several answers to this question, blaming conservative opposition, poor design, insufficient funding, and racism. 2 Adding important new detail to the early history of American public housing, Gail Radford argues that public housing might have taken a far different path if only the communitarian ethos and design inspirations of a handful of progressive housing reformers had been embraced by policymakers during the 1930s.
Radford skillfully builds a story of a lost opportunity in American housing policy. In the New Deal, she believes, the opportunity existed to avoid the “two-tiered” system that still divides state support for housing into nearly invisible subsidies for the suburban middle and upper classes (FHA insurance programs, mortgage interest and property tax deductions) and into stingy warehouses for the poor called public housing. In place of this two-tiered policy, Radford argues that the possibility existed in the 1930s for a new vision of state-sponsored housing, a vision she calls “Modern Housing” after [End Page 637] the title of a 1934 book by Catherine Bauer, the heroine of her story. Derived from post-World War I European models, particularly in social-democratic Vienna and union-based communities in Germany, Modern Housing envisioned a new form of urban living: well-planned, community-centered, avant-garde apartment complexes. These modern apartment complexes would have appealed, Bauer and Radford believe, to a wide range of middle-class Americans because of both their affordability (through state subsidies) and their strong communitarian bent. Modern Housing, Radford argues, offered a “universalistic” (p. 1) alternative to the two-tiered American housing policy that emerged from the New Deal.
Radford is careful not to call Bauer’s vision of Modern Housing a “movement”; instead it is a “policy initiative” and a “plan” (p. 1). This restraint is significant because the number of activists for the plan were small, made up of only a handful of progressive and left-leaning East Coast planners and social critics who admired European postwar avant-garde housing. Radford constructs her story around Bauer, the most fascinating of these activists.
Following her 1926 graduation from Vassar, Bauer spent a year writing about design for various magazines before joining with Lewis Mumford and his informal intellectual gathering called the Regional Planning Association of America. She traveled in Europe on various research grants and wrote Modern Housing in 1934, a manifesto for transplanting European alternatives to America. Her book ends with a call for a political movement among American workers to demand a more democratic, communitarian form of urban housing supported by state subsidies. Bauer, unlike Mumford, was not content to merely theorize; she believed only democratic political action by the working class could secure the state subsidies required for Modern Housing.
The Depression and the New Deal offered the political opportunity for experimentation in American housing policy. Public housing advocates from New York City (outside of Bauer’s circles) had quietly included authorization for public housing into legislation creating the...