Municipal Housing in America
Summary and Keywords
Housing in America has long stood as a symbol of the nation’s political values and a measure of its economic health. In the 18th century, a farmhouse represented Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of independent property owners; in the mid-20th century, the suburban house was seen as an emblem of an expanding middle class. Alongside those well-known symbols were a host of other housing forms—tenements, slave quarters, row houses, French apartments, loft condos, and public housing towers—that revealed much about American social order and the material conditions of life for many people.
Since the 19th century, housing markets have been fundamental forces driving the nation’s economy and a major focus of government policies. Home construction has provided jobs for skilled and unskilled laborers. Land speculation, housing development, and the home mortgage industry have generated billions of dollars in investment capital, while ups and downs in housing markets have been considered signals of major changes in the economy. Since the New Deal of the 1930s, the federal government has buttressed the home construction industry and offered economic incentives for home buyers, giving the United States the highest home ownership rate in the world. The housing market crash of 2008 slashed property values and sparked a rapid increase in home foreclosures, especially in places like Southern California and the suburbs of the Northeast, where housing prices had ballooned over the previous two decades. The real estate crisis led to government efforts to prop up the mortgage banking industry and to assist struggling homeowners. The crisis led, as well, to a drop in rates of home ownership, an increase in rental housing, and a growth in homelessness.
Home ownership remains a goal for many Americans and an ideal long associated with the American dream. The owner-occupied home—whether single-family or multifamily dwelling—is typically the largest investment made by an American family. Through much of the 18th and 19th centuries, housing designs varied from region to region. In the mid-20th century, mass production techniques and national building codes tended to standardize design, especially in new suburban housing. In the 18th century, the family home was a site of waged and unwaged work; it was the center of a farm, plantation, or craftsman’s workshop. Two and a half centuries later, a house was a consumer good: its size, location, and decor marked the family’s status and wealth.
Keywords: housing, home, tenement, apartment, real estate, city, race, class, home ownership, public health, New Deal, row house, carpenters, craftsmen, suburb, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Baltimore, Boston, Williamsburg, plumbing
Housing in America has long stood as a symbol of the nation’s political values and a measure of its economic health. In the 18th century, a farmhouse represented Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of independent property owners; in the mid-20th century, the suburban house was seen as an emblem of an expanding middle class. Alongside those well-known symbols were a host of other housing forms—tenements, slave quarters, row houses, French flats, loft condos, and public housing towers—which revealed much about American social order and the material conditions of life for many people.
Housing markets since the 19th century have been fundamental forces driving the nation’s economy and a major focus of government policies. Home construction provided jobs for skilled and unskilled laborers. Land speculation, housing development, and the home mortgage industry absorbed billions of dollars in investment capital, while ups and downs in housing markets have been considered signals of major changes in the economy. Since the New Deal of the 1930s, the federal government has buttressed the home construction industry and offered economic incentives for home buyers, giving the United States the highest home ownership rate in the world. The housing market crash of 2008 slashed property values and sparked a rapid increase in home foreclosures, especially in places like Southern California and Northeastern U.S. suburbs, where housing prices had ballooned over the previous two decades. The real estate crisis led to government efforts to prop up the mortgage banking industry and to assist struggling homeowners. The crisis led, as well, to a drop in home ownership rates, an increase in rental housing, and a growth in homelessness.
Home ownership remains a goal for many Americans and an ideal long associated with the American dream. The owner-occupied home—whether single-family or multi-family dwelling—is typically the largest investment made by an American family. Through much of the 18th and 19th centuries, housing designs varied from region to region. In the mid-20th century, mass production techniques and national building codes tended to standardize design, especially in new suburban housing. In the 18th century, the family home was a site of waged and unwaged work; it was the center of a farm, plantation, or craftsman’s workshop. Two and a half centuries later, a house was generally defined as a consumer good: its size, location and decor marked the family’s status and wealth.
Even as home ownership rates rose steadily in the 20th century—plateauing above 60 percent in the 21st century—there were regular spikes in homelessness and in the number of people living in inadequate and poorly maintained shelter. At the height of the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of people lacked housing. That number fell in the post-war years, then jumped again in the 1980s, a result of a drop in urban manufacturing jobs and major cuts in federal housing programs. Even as much of the nation’s real estate recovered from the housing crash of 2008, more than 600,000 Americans remained homeless or living in transitional shelters.
Making Real Estate
Europeans arriving in North America in the 17th century saw an abundance of land, some of which was occupied by native peoples. The European vision of housing and property ownership differed from that of American Indians. Whether as farmers or nomadic hunters, Indians generally conceived of land ownership as an active practice. Several groups could claim ownership of a single piece of land if all were using it for different and complimentary purposes. English settlers, by contrast, drawing on English common law, believed that holding title to property meant exclusive and permanent rights to the uses and benefits of the property. While an Iroquois community that farmed a plot of land might allow others to travel across it, Europeans saw the travelers as trespassers. Early English settlers treated land and housing as resources necessary for survival. Yet, Europeans almost immediately moved to make land and housing into saleable commodities, establishing a system of private property ownership. In the 17th century, Europeans set to work creating scarcity out of abundance.
Grants of land to corporations and to friends of European monarchs allowed a few large landholders to begin to form real estate markets in port cities. In New York, the Dutch West India Company, chartered in 1621, secured land rights from American Indians, built a fort and trading post, and distributed town lots to settlers and absentee investors. Colonial administrators under the Dutch and English governments granted larger and multiple town lots, and farm tracts, to themselves, to military and church officials, and to influential merchant stockholders or their agents. Early proprietors sold or rented land to new arrivals, using their property in housing to generate profits, often for investment in more land or trade. Historian Elizabeth Blackmar writes that several of New York’s early merchant families started with large land grants.
Housing markets formed in Williamsburg, Virginia, and other southern towns, following the expansion of tobacco cultivation and the hugely profitable sales of tobacco in European markets in the mid-17th century. Early landowners turned their profits in agriculture to the acquisition of larger farms and the purchase of enslaved people to work the land. By the early 18th century, rice and cotton production, driven by an expanding slave trade, shaped speculative markets in land and housing in coastal cities and rural areas. While New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston relied on artisans, unskilled laborers, and merchant traders to fuel urban housing markets, in Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Charleston it was agricultural goods, moving through the cities to European markets, and the vast wealth of slave-holding rural families that spurred house construction.
In many colonial towns, land surveyors mapping town lots and agricultural land sped the formation of housing markets. Town plans, which on paper at least erased topographical features, rendered urban spaces as rows of neat blocks, evenly divided into rectangular lots. William Penn, who was granted approximately 2,000 square acres by Charles II, in 1681, hired a surveyor to sketch a plan for Philadelphia. In the drawings, a grid suspended between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers provided for a series of town lots, which were advertised for sale to artisans, investors, and friends of the Penn family. In St. Louis, settled initially by French fur traders, house lots drawn across the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River were marketed with long, narrow plots of farmland just beyond the settlement, giving each town resident a piece of land to cultivate. In 1811, New York officials hired a team of surveyors to draw a grid across Manhattan Island, to promote development of the farmland north of the settlement.
The grid was the most common urban plan. A few city designs, like those for Washington DC and Williamsburg, Virginia relied on Baroque plans with diagonal boulevards to create grand vistas of civic buildings and to copy the design ideals of European cities. The grid pattern, which gave order to what had been haphazard real estate development, made property values more stable and predictable, and aimed to establish a rational and reliable housing market.
The Domestication of the Family Home
Property rights in land and housing have long held a primary place in American political theory and society. In the agrarian republic, property owners claimed rights and independence based on their ownership of productive property and control over household labor. Republican political theory, which shaped revolutionary-era political debates, contended that a man who owned property could support his household and was, in theory at least, free from the control of a patron landlord, an employer, or market forces. Paradoxically, the home owner’s claim to economic and political independence rested on the labor of his wife, children, servants, and slaves, the politically and economically dependent members of his household. This yeoman farmer, in the vision of republican theorists like Thomas Jefferson, was the ideal citizen for the new republic. When he participated in politics, the farmer, with his assertion of economic independence, could claim to act out of a concern for the common good, rather that self-interest. Early 19th century urban craftsmen asserted similar rights to political independence founded on their ownership of workshops, tools, and skills as well as their control of the labor of the apprentices, journeymen, and family members who lived under the same roof. Until the 1820s, most states set property requirements for the vote, affirming the republican theory that a man who owned property and controlled the labor of his household would cast his vote according to the best interests of the nation.
In the years after the Revolution, writers and public lecturers repeatedly sought a housing style that would reflect the republican values of the new nation. Uniformity of design was believed to represent social equality, the hallmark of the new republic and a sharp contrast to the rigid hierarchies of European society. Inequality did not disappear; indeed, it was institutionalized in urban plans and in different sizes, styles, and locations of housing. Moreover, critics and commentators could hardly agree on what constituted republican design. The architect Charles Bulfinch, who promoted row house designs, wrote several treatises urging simplicity and uniformity in urban housing. Yet, on a visit to the United States, Frances Trollope, the English writer, objected to the dull consistency of Philadelphia houses. By the time of the Civil War, the pursuit of republican design gave way to new, more elaborate houses, especially as regional housing styles emerged. For the new urban middle class, simplicity was replaced by peaked roofs, turrets, and intricately adorned cottages, while laboring people struggling to get by on low wages turned to multi-family dwellings.
From the American Revolution to the early 19th century, small houses of one or two stories were the common dwelling for urban skilled workers, shop keepers, and merchants. Artisans and other laborers often built or purchased houses of wood frame. In New York and Chicago, homeowners often built their houses on a rented lot. Land speculators, then, could generate income without risking capital in constructing houses; even small-time investors, such as prosperous artisans, might invest in a couple of town lots, which they rented to other laborers. The lot renter could own a house without the added expense of purchasing the land. And, if land prices increased and lot rents went up, or if lots became available in a more attractive area, the homeowner might move his house to a new lot. House moving was a lively business in the first half of the 19th century. On May 1, the common moving day, streets of New York and Chicago might be jammed by carts carrying frame houses as well as tenants moving their household possession.
Industrialization and the introduction of mass production techniques gradually transformed the meaning and economic functions of housing. Under the craft system, apprentices and journeymen lived within the craftsman’s home, exchanging their labor for room, board, and training. In the early 19th century, master craftsmen, responding to competition or seeking greater profits, aimed to produce more goods at lower cost. Some separated their workshops from their houses and, without new technology, subdivided the tasks of producing goods like boots, barrels, clothing, and furniture. This shift, called the “deskilling of labor,” eroded the older craft system and sped production of goods for local and global markets. It also gave rise to a growing class of laborers who worked for cash wages and no longer lived with their employer’s family. Instead, wage workers boarded or rented rooms in older houses or sometimes cottages. The breakdown of the craft system and the expansion of waged labor gave rise to rental housing markets in port cities, to a growing number of landlords who generated income from renting housing and tenants who used their wages to pay rent.
In the antebellum era, no ideal better illustrated the reorganization of work and urban life than the family home. In scores of books, magazine articles, and advice manuals dedicated to guiding young people through the rigors of courtship and marriage, writers defined the home as a pastoral refuge removed from the competitive worlds of commerce and politics. Many families employed servants or owned slaves, and both waged and unwaged labor was needed to maintain a household. Yet the ideology that dominated much of American culture distinguished between men’s world of work and women’s world of domesticity. The “cult of domesticity” invested the family home with priceless emotional value. Writers like Sarah Josepha Hale defined the home as a seat of virtue and piety, where children were trained to be good citizens. Landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing similarly claimed the single-family house, surrounded by well-tended nature, would generate physical health and strong character. By the mid-19th century, the family home, whether rented or owned, represented an idealized refuge from market relations, a feminine domain separate from men’s world of work and politics.
The rise of waged labor and the decline of household economies, or broadly, the shift from an agricultural to an urban industrial economy transformed the social meaning of housing in America. Though wives, daughters, servants, and slaves continued to prepare food, scrub floors, wash clothes, and generally maintain domestic space, the house was set, in the dominant ideology, as the opposite of work. Production in an industrial society was associated with manufacturing enterprises and transportation networks; work was increasingly defined as labor remunerated with cash. Cities with streets lined with cottages and brick two-or three-flat buildings a short walk or trolley ride from factories, shops, and offices appeared to strip the family home of its productive activities. The economic value of a house set on a tiny lot on an urban street was obscured by the sentimentalization of the family home. The separate spheres ideology set the middle-class home with a male breadwinner and a wife devoting her unwaged labor to the family as the emblem of the American house, an ideal that persisted through the 20th century.
Antebellum Houses in Towns and Cities
Home construction was a leading industry in 19th-century cities. Building tradesmen were among the first urban laborers to form “workingmen’s associations” in the 1830s. The early labor organizations largely disappeared, under pressure from the economic depression of 1837 and from expanding immigration from Europe. Though some tradesmen built their own houses, most urban housing was built by speculators in land and home construction. A land speculator typically sold several lots to a house wright or to an independent tradesman, usually a carpenter, who put up one or two new houses in a year, then sold the houses, using his profits to invest in materials for new houses. Only a few carpenters built houses on commission for particular clients. Larger land investors contracted with professional row house builders who hired crews of skilled and unskilled laborers to build three or four row houses in a year, or whole block fronts.
By the 1820s, the row house was the most common form of housing in Providence, Baltimore, Annapolis, Philadelphia, and many other cities. The typical row house, generally three or four dwellings, was narrow, usually just fifteen to twenty feet wide, and thirty to forty feet deep. In most row houses, the kitchen was moved to the lowest level of the house—what would become a basement—to keep the smells, sounds, and work of cooking separate from the parlor floor upstairs. The parlor, with ever more elaborate furnishings as the century wore on, was where the family visited with friends or, in more affluent homes, where a merchant might demonstrate his wealth and status to prospective business partners. Baltimore’s prestigious Waterloo Row (1815) was a terrace of twelve houses. Elite New Yorkers could purchase houses in Colonnade Row (1832–1833) on LaGrange Terrace (now Lafayette Street), a four-story edifice with a marble facade and elaborate colonnade. The row house proved popular with the less affluent as well. Smaller versions of the dwellings, often with wooden colonnades, appeared in some neighborhoods.
House designs were fairly similar, though style and construction materials varied from city to city. Houses in Philadelphia tended to be smaller, often just two rooms deep. Architectural historian Gwendolyn Wright notes the New York row house had a distinctive high front stoop, which derived from the Dutch “stoep,” a flight of stairs designed to keep the dwelling above Holland’s recurring flood waters. In some districts of St. Louis, houses were set sideways to the street with a narrow passage between houses leading to the entrance. Charleston, too, often featured side porches and entrances. The freestanding wood cottage was common in mid-western cities in the mid-19th century, often built from Wisconsin pine. In Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis deep red pressed brick was widely used; much of the brick was produced in St. Louis’ clay pits. Even as social critics and commentators promoted a republican design for urban residences, houses took distinctive form depending on available materials and local history.
Public Health and Housing
Through much of the 19th century, significant labor was required to maintain city homes. Most families kept a garden, a few chickens, and sometimes a pig or cow in the space behind their house. Individual homeowners and tenants were responsible for their household’s waste and water needs. Many urban families obtained water from a backyard pump attached to a well dug ten to twelve feet into the bottom soil. Some purchased water from peddlers who went door to door with a horse-drawn cart. In some cities private companies sold water to residents. The Chicago Hydraulic Company received a charter from the state legislature in 1836 to provide Chicago with water, but its services were limited and inadequate. New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit began construction of water systems before the Civil War, but most houses lacked running water, leaving the work of carrying buckets of water for drinking, bathing, and cleaning to wives, daughters, servants, and slaves.
Elimination of household waste was similarly a householder’s responsibility. Garbage was often dumped directly into the street or rear lot. Private companies hired scavengers by the day to remove dead animals from the streets and pick up household garbage. Most families used a privy in the backyard as few urban houses had indoor plumbing before the 1870s. In poorer neighborhoods, several families shared one privy. Privy vaults were sunk into the soil, often right next to the backyard well. The vaults were seldom tight, sometimes leaking into the nearby water supply. Regular outbreaks of dysentery, typhoid, and cholera suggest that city water often was tainted by waste. A national cholera outbreak, in the early 1850s, prompted several cities to build or expand existing sewer and water systems to improve the water supply. Disease, a consequence of a lack of infrastructure in rapidly expanding cities, was widely feared and became a force in urban housing markets.
By the 1830s, worries about contagious diseases and growing concerns about the chaos and disreputable characters on the docks prompted growing numbers of merchants and well-to-do shopkeepers and artisans to move their family dwellings away from the business districts in Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Outbreaks of disease were associated with life along the docks, though it is likely only cholera arrived on sailing ships. But sailors, dockworkers, and immigrants were seen as threats to respectable family life. Health and respectability were increasingly linked to the design and location of the family home, attributes that could be acquired with the purchase of a house in a more expensive residential district. New neighborhoods, upholding the separate spheres ideology, appeared in rural areas edging built-up districts, as affluent and middling families increasingly detached their dwellings from sites of waged labor and business.
In 1869, Catherine Beecher and her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, published a new guide to middle-class housing, arguing that family health was directly related to the design, location, and organization of the family home. The American Family Home: Principles of Domestic Science (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1869), was a best seller. (It did not sell nearly as well as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.) Pictured on the cover was the ideal house, a suburban dwelling with a turret, sun porch, and intricate woodwork set on a lawn landscaped with trees and flowers. The Beecher sisters believed housing served a wider political purpose. The properly organized family home would, they contended, raise virtuous citizens; standardized childrearing and household order would unite a nation divided by Civil War. The book guided readers through the organization of the kitchen and the design of children’s bedrooms, as well as advice on how best to scrub floors, clean sheets, and discipline servants. The authors’ most widely repeated advice had to do with household health; they urged women to make sure the house had plenty of light and fresh air, which were considered nature’s cleansers. Light and air were available only in a semi-suburban location, a place surrounded by trees and plants, on enough land to feel a fresh breeze. The Beechers’ book heralded the fashionable Victorian “cottage” for middle-class families.
Poorer families who could not afford lots or houses in newer districts typically crowded into existing dwellings, subdividing houses into multiple flats. Between 1840 and 1860, 4.5 million immigrants arrived in the United States. Many originated from Ireland, arriving with poor health, few skills, and no jobs. In addition, gradual emancipation of enslaved people in New York and Pennsylvania led to growing numbers of impoverished and homeless African Americans in northern cities. The poorest families crowded into dirt-floored basements or tiny attics. In many cities, rear yards were filled with wooden shacks, which were rented to impoverished laborers. Working-class families often shared dwellings, and unmarried workers found shelter in boarding houses run by widows or single women. A concentration of subdivided rental dwellings, boarding houses, and low-wage tenants led to a drop in property values and in neighborhood respectability.
In the 1840s, builders began constructing multi-family dwellings for working class tenants. Tenements, initially defined (under New York law) as any building housing three or more independent households, were a new sector for real estate investment, a strategy for generating profit from low-cost housing with a high density of residents. Some tenements, like those in Manhattan, were four or five story buildings. To maximize profits, builders filled the entire lot with the building, leaving little space between buildings and almost no light or air circulating in interior rooms. In Baltimore, the poor and laboring classes congregated in subdivided two-story dwellings, and often in shacks set along the alleys. Rental dwellings built for two or three families often were subdivided into housing for six families, or more. The crowded tenement or subdivided house stood in stark contrast to the Beechers’ domestic ideal.
In the mid-19th century, physicians and public health reformers, known as sanitarians, led campaigns to improve housing conditions through building codes and inspections. In 1872, these physicians, joined by engineers, professors, architects, and others, formed the American Public Health Association. The sanitarians were inspired by new knowledge about disease causation, a devotion to science, and a determination to ameliorate the dangerous effects of industrialization. Their most significant project was the promotion of sewer and water lines to provide urban residents with clean water. As one municipal engineer stated, in the “modern” era, cities had “been transformed from loose aggregates” of scattered houses “into well-organized systems.” It was, the sanitarians argued, the responsibility of municipal governments to provide the urban infrastructure that protected the health of its citizens. Though many tenements lacked indoor plumbing well into the 20th century, the sanitarians effectively linked urban housing to household health and made the issue of inadequate housing for the urban poor a subject of political debate.
In the 1880s and 1890s, as cities expanded sewer and water lines, indoor plumbing increased housing prices, leading to growing distinctions between those urban residents able to acquire housing and health and those who could not. The home became a showplace for the latest pumping technology. Readers of Harriet Plunkett’s popular and exhaustive guide to household sanitation, Women, Plumbers, and Doctors (New York: Appleton, 1885) were told that openness and simplicity of design were the keys to proper household sanitation. “The bath tubs standing up on feet, the lavatory slabs are supported by metallic brackets, and the whole arrangement leaves no dark corners to become filthy,” Plunkett wrote.1 Yet, even when the city paid to lay the pipes, poorer households often lacked the financial resources to pay a one-time hook-up fee; some landlords rejected sewer connections, since it would have required them to install indoor plumbing fixtures in rented dwellings; others refused to pay for repairs when plumbing fixtures fell into disrepair. An 1893 U.S. Commissioner of Labor study found that 73 percent of Chicagoans had access only to an outdoor privy.
Between 1890 and 1920, millions of immigrants arrived in the United States from Europe, moving into tenements in New York’s Lower East Side, Chicago’s West Side, and Boston’s West End. A new generation of reformers—including middle-class college-educated women born just after the Civil War—sought to improve living conditions in urban neighborhoods. Reformers like New York’s Lawrence Veiller and Chicago’s Jane Addams and Robert Hunter urged government regulation of tenement housing to force landlords to maintain their properties. Veiller, founder of the National Housing Association, published The Model Tenement House Law in 1910 (New York: Charities Publication), a manual of proposed housing codes. Though many cities adopted building codes, the regulations, rarely enforced, seemed inadequate to the reformers, spurring a growing movement to improve urban housing.
While some reformers drew attention to housing for the poor, other late 19th-century reformers critiqued the private single-family house. Writer and lecturer Charlotte Perkins Gilman promoted the “kitchenless” house, arguing that women, freed from the burden of household labor, would benefit from a stronger education and could become full and active citizens. Instead of working in private kitchens, women could pool their labor in communal kitchens. Around the turn of the 20th century, women in at least thirty towns organized communal eating clubs to share the burdens of cooking for their families. Though kitchenless houses never caught on, about 50 communities in New York, Wisconsin, and California were designed with shared facilities.
In the late 19th century, some well-to-do households, rejecting single-family houses, sought the fashionable “French flats” or apartments in the city center. Rental dwellings for upper income families appeared in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. The architect Richard Morris Hunt designed some of the earliest apartments for investor Rutherford Stuyvesant on 18th Street in Manhattan. The buildings featured a full-time concierge. Possibly the most luxurious apartment building in the United States was the Dakota (1884), a richly ornamented building with separate servant’s entrance and service stairways. Located at the corner of 79th Street and Central Park West, the Dakota was so-named because it was so far from the city center that some New Yorkers said it might as well be in the Dakotas.
Working-class neighborhoods, often communities of European immigrants, were built within walking distance of factories, slaughterhouses, lumber mills, and steelworks. In smaller industrial towns and midwestern cities, workers lived in a range of housing types, including frame three-decker rental buildings, wood cottages, and brick bungalows. Workers in New Orleans and Louisville often lived in single-story shotgun houses. In some urban neighborhoods, nearly all the residents, especially men, worked in local factories. Homestead, southwest of Pittsburgh, Hegewisch in Chicago, and Gary, Indiana, housed workers in nearby steel plants, while thousands of auto workers lived in “vehicle cities” like Flint, Michigan. The companies—which set working hours, provided employee services, and sparked industrial labor unions—shaped community culture and residents’ daily lives.
The rise of the tenement and the movement of more affluent families to residential districts away from wharves and manufacturing sites marked the rise of class-segregated real estate markets. By the final decades of the 19th century, infrastructure improvements funded by municipal governments—sewers, water lines, paved streets, and sidewalks—enhanced property values in housing for some urban residents, especially those living in “fashionable sections,” leaving others—those in tenement districts or working-class neighborhoods—to struggle to acquire health for their families. In rapidly expanding industrial cities, the health of household members was increasingly linked to the location and material conditions of the family home.
The American ideal of home ownership, promoted by builders, real estate developers, and federal housing programs, is, in many ways, rooted in the massive social and economic shifts in late 19th-century America. In the decades after the Civil War, as the nation moved from an agrarian to an industrialized urban society, as immigrants from abroad and migrants from rural regions arrived in American cities, and as reformers sought to improve dangerous living conditions in impoverished neighborhoods, ownership of a single-family house was conceived as an “American standard” of living. Ownership of single-family houses in urban and suburban areas grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and rapidly increased after the New Deal.
Yet, expanding home ownership rates did not catapult all homeowners into the middle class. Some Americans, including nearly two generations of black families, were denied home loans under discriminatory mortgage programs and generally were barred from white-only suburban communities. Indeed, the promotion of home ownership by builders and federal officials quickly left cities sharply segregated by race and class, and ultimately contributed to the mid-20th-century devastation of many urban neighborhoods.
Working people who did not earn enough to purchase houses often moved into boarding houses and, by the 1920s, single-room occupancy hotels. Boarding houses, sometimes owned or managed by widows or single women, provided dwelling spaces and generally a meal for a low weekly fee. Residents typically included single adults, young people recently arrived in the city, or older tenants who fell on hard times and lacked family support. The boarding house provided the services of a low-priced hotel in a family-style home.
Well into the 20th century, some laboring families built their own houses, using purchased and scavenged materials. Self-built housing was usually valued at less than $2,000 in 1900. Geographer Richard Harris estimates that as much as 16 percent of American housing was self-built up to 1950.2 Working-class self-built suburbs could be found on the edge of Detroit, in southern California, and other American cities. Some families purchased pre-fabricated houses. Sears, Roebuck and Co. published its first housing catalogue in 1908, marketing house plans and kits for build-your-own houses. Three years later, the firm entered the mortgage business, lending up to 75 percent of the cost of the lot, house, and labor. From about 1910 and into the 1920s, Sears’ offerings ranged from a one-bedroom shack without indoor plumbing for a couple hundred dollars to a four-bedroom, Colonial-style house marketed for $7,960, in 1919. Architectural historian Dolores Hayden estimates that Sears had sold about 50,000 homes by 1934, when Sears closed down its Modern Homes division.3 Self-built communities, while freeing working class families from rent paying, often lacked sewer lines, water pipes, electricity and paved streets.
The home construction industry changed dramatically in the years between the Civil War and the New Deal. In the 1880s, a new type of businessman-builder merged three separate businesses: subdividing large tracts of land into individual lots, constructing houses, and providing loans to home buyers. Businessmen gradually replaced carpenter-contractors who had controlled home construction through much of the 19th century. Businessmen turned what had been immigrant-controlled enterprises run by skilled craftsmen into regional industries that hired skilled laborers as waged workers to mass-produce housing.
The businessmen lowered construction costs by using factory-produced materials. The move allowed them in turn to hire less skilled workers at lower wages on construction sites, undercutting the wages of skilled carpenters and other craftsmen. By the 1870s, new technology enabled factories to use semiskilled labor to mass-produce moldings, doors, window sashes, and standard-sized lumber. In Cook County, Illinois, for example, there were 51 planning mills and sash, door, and blind factories employing 2,288 workers in 1870; twenty years later, 116 woodworking factories employed more than 8,000 workers. The new industry could build and sell as many as 35 to 40 houses per year, often on newly subdivided land edging the built-up sections of the city.
Businessmen-builders transformed the process of home buying. Until the 1880s, wealthy and middle-class families paid for their homes with inherited money or savings. Most had down payments of more than 50 percent, and they paid off the loans at two-year intervals within six to eight years. Poorer and working-class families, particularly immigrant families, acquired home loans through immigrant savings and loans, or building associations or local organizations, often of people from the same village or region in Europe. The new businessmen-builders used large construction loans from commercial banks and insurance companies to purchase land, subdivide, build houses, and provide credit for homebuyers. Samuel Eberly Gross, a Chicago builder, was among the first to introduce the “easy payment plan,” through which buyers could put as little as $50 dollars down and make monthly payments of $15 to $40. In the 1880s, Gross’ “workingman’s cottages” were priced from $1,000 to $2,000 for a four-to six-room house. The payment system was immensely popular among skilled workers and was quickly copied by other builders.
From the 1890s through the 1920s, housing developers produced whole suburban communities in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities. Using the construction and financing techniques pioneered by late 19th-century builders, developers like Edward H. Bouton in Baltimore, Hugh Potter in Houston, and J. C. Nichols in Kansas City, MO, built suburbs designed for affluent families. They used landscaping, park spaces, and contoured streets to market their developments. Nichols, in his Country Club Hills development, introduced a shopping district to his community, as an added attraction to homebuyers. Palos Verdes, CA, designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr., was a community of Spanish colonial houses on rolling hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean, featuring a golf course and nursery school. The community builders maintained control of the entire process of development from land acquisition through street design, housing, landscaping, marketing, financing, and the location of commercial services.
New suburban communities were racially segregated, a form of social engineering promoted by real estate interests seeking to boost property values in white neighborhoods and enforced by state and municipal legislation. Southern state legislatures, aiming to crush biracial labor organizing, began in the 1890s to pass laws designed to separate black and white citizens, establishing segregated schools, public transportation, and neighborhoods. Municipalities in California, reacting to Chinese immigration, adopted segregation ordinances. Northern cities used zoning regulations, a legal instrument introduced in 1910 to 1920, to enforce racial segregation in real estate markets. In St. Louis in 1916, the city’s realtors association, the Real Estate Exchange, campaigned for a ballot referendum to prohibit black buyers from moving onto blocks where at least 75 percent of the residents were white. Baltimore and Louisville passed similar ordinances. Some social reformers argued that segregation laws would secure social harmony by separating black from white citizens and, thus, preventing white mobs from lynching and terrorizing black Americans. In the 1917 Buchanan v. Warley case, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a Louisville ordinance designed to prevent “conflict and ill-feeling between white and colored races in city of Louisville and to preserve the public peace . . . ”4 by requiring separate blocks of residence for black and white people. Some municipalities simply ignored the court ruling. Other towns and cities used zoning laws to restrict industry, saloons, and even brothels to largely African American neighborhoods, leading to a further drop in property values by linking black communities to crime, vice and industry.
In the wake of the Buchanan decision, white home owners and developers also used racial covenants, addendums attached to the house title, that barred the sale of the house to African Americans, and sometimes Jews, Japanese, or “Mongolian” buyers. Harland Bartholomew, the St. Louis urban planner and leader in the national planning movement, wrote that the city’s zoning was designed to “preserv(e) the more desirable residential neighborhoods” and prevent movement into “finer residential districts . . . by colored people.”5 Racial segregation in housing, rooted in early 20th century law and real estate policies, was neither accidental nor inevitable.
Developers in the 1920s also introduced a series of regulations designed to enhance property values. Most draconian were rules restricting sales to white, native-born, and middle-class buyers. Houses in Palos Verdes included deed restrictions prohibiting Mexican-Americans from buying houses there. Regulations set design features for the houses, required owners to maintain their lawns, and banned amenities like clothes lines, which were associated with immigrant tenement neighborhoods. The regulations, later challenged in the courts, functioned to create well-to-do, racially homogenous communities.
The developers’ strategies for attracting affluent buyers to suburban locales and for linking property values to the race and class of the residents would influence federal housing policies and the home construction industry for much of the 20th century. Despite the builders’ efforts, real estate markets stalled in the mid-1920s. Developers, seeing little profit in housing for working-class families, had saturated the market for high-end housing. The 1929 stock market crash simply clinched an already steep decline in home building, spurring policy makers to look for new ways to buttress the industry and to subsidize the lower-priced housing markets.
Housing and Federal Policy
The federal government entered the nation’s housing markets in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when house construction came to a near halt and large numbers of homeowners, desperate and unemployed, faced foreclosure. The New Deal programs were not the first federal housing programs. In 1918, a year after the United States entered World War I, Congress appropriated $110 million for housing war workers. The effort was designed for the war-time emergency and resulted in just a few developments: Yorkshire Village in Camden, New Jersey; Atlantic Heights in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and several other subdivisions. The crisis of the Depression spurred large, direct, and enduring federal action on housing. The federal government provided generous subsidies to builders and middle-class buyers of suburban houses while simultaneously funding the clearance of urban townhouses and the construction of large, multi-family housing developments for the urban poor. With suburban developers largely rejecting black buyers, African Americans were left out of the post-war housing boom. In the 1970s, federal officials moved to eliminate racial segregation in housing.
President Herbert Hoover, widely reviled for presiding over the onset of the Depression in 1929, introduced the first major national housing legislation. Hoover, who was secretary of commerce in the 1920s, was a bold proponent of home ownership. His Department of Commerce had issued a series of pamphlets that urged Americans to buy houses and guided homebuyers through the rigors of purchasing and decorating a house. The Depression demonstrated that housing depended on wages and, without government intervention, savings banks and insurance companies, which had provided home mortgages, and the home construction industry would fail. Between 1928 and 1933, construction of residential property fell by 95 percent, and spending on home repairs fell by 90 percent. In 1931, when foreclosures hit nearly one thousand per day, Hoover convened the President’s National Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership and pushed through the Federal Home Loan Bank Act. The law proved limited and was replaced in 1933 by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC).
The HOLC refinanced tens of thousands of mortgages in danger of default. More importantly, the agency introduced the long-term, self-amortizing mortgage that became a model for the banking industry. The HOLC systematized appraisal methods across the nation, creating what later became a set of highly controversial maps that determined the relative risk of providing home loans in varied communities. HOLC appraisers were charged with determining whether the government should refinance mortgages. They set out across the country, dividing cities into neighborhoods and using elaborate questionnaires relating to the occupation, income, and ethnicity of inhabitants and the age, type of construction, price range, sales demand, and general state of repair of housing stock. The HOLC devised a rating system that undervalued older neighborhoods of multi-family housing, and depreciated communities that were racially integrated or predominantly African American. Using four categories of quality, which were color-coded, HOLC appraisers mapped the nation’s cities using green for communities described as new, homogenous, and low-risk for housing loans. Homogenous, as historian Kenneth Jackson writes, meant “American business and professional men,” excluding neighborhoods with an “infiltration of Jews” or immigrant or black residents. The second grade was colored in blue for communities that were “still desirable;” yellow neighborhoods were typically described as “definitely declining,” while the fourth grade, circled in red, was defined as fully deteriorated.6 The HOLC saved thousands of families from foreclosure. It also introduced the practice of redlining, which devastated many urban neighborhoods and racially divided American cities and suburbs.
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), established under the National Housing Act of 1934, had a long-term and profound impact on housing in America. Initially, the law was designed to alleviate unemployment by putting laborers to work in construction projects. The FHA quickly became the leading force behind the construction of single-family housing in American suburbs. It was supplemented by the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known as the G. I. Bill, which created a Veterans Administration (VA) program to help the sixteen million returning soldiers and sailors of World War II purchase a home. Under the FHA and VA programs, the federal government insured long-term mortgages made by private creditors. The government essentially eliminated the risk of providing home loans, encouraging lenders to free money for investment in residential construction and home ownership. The FHA, following the HOLC, extended the loan period of its insured mortgages from twenty-five to thirty years. Additionally, it required down payments of 10 percent or less of the value of the home, in contrast to the 1920s, when buyers were required to put down one-third to one-half of the price. With the FHA and VA insuring long-term mortgages with low down payments, home ownership was finally within the reach of a broad section of the American public.
The FHA and VA programs also re-enforced and legitimized racial segregation in housing markets. To determine the risk of insuring mortgages—and whether to insure the mortgages at all—the FHA turned to the HOLC maps and pamphlets, putting into broad practice the redlining initiated by the HOLC. With the federal government refusing to insure mortgages in dense urban neighborhoods and in low-income black communities, many city neighborhoods were left starved for investment capital, while the construction of white suburbs was largely subsidized by federally insured construction loans and home mortgages.
Many urban residents simply could not afford to purchase new single-family houses. American policy-makers, influenced by social reformers, looked to European efforts to eliminate run-down tenements in American cities. Catherine Bauer’s Modern Housing published in 1934 (New York: Houghton Mifflin), compared housing programs in the United States and Western Europe. She advocated European models of large-scale, state-funded housing on vacant urban land. Low-rise apartment buildings clustered around small parks would follow the modernist Bauhaus designs used in Germany. Bauer’s plan included childcare centers, playgrounds, and neighborhood organizations. The first major public housing came from the Public Works Administration (PWA), a New Deal agency established in 1933, under the National Industrial Recovery Act. The PWA financed the construction of fifty-two developments in the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Atlanta’s Techwood Homes, completed in August 1936, included a kindergarten, communal laundry facilities, and a library. Similarly, the Carl Mackley Houses in Philadelphia, opened in 1935, featured five four-story buildings clustered around landscaped parks and a swimming pool. The apartment complexes could be made affordable for American workers priced out of the for-profit housing market.
To speed production of low-income housing, the Wagner-Steagall 1937 Housing Act, proposed by New York Senator Robert Wagner and largely written by Bauer, provided an initial $10 million for public housing. The new program represented policy compromises among reformers, real estate entrepreneurs, builders and bankers. Administration of the program was left to local officials; communities that did not want public housing could reject it. Local housing authorities determined the size and location of the housing developments, and set rents, managed tenants, and oversaw maintenance. An “equivalent elimination” provision required the clearance of one slum unit for each new public housing unit; public housing would not add to the cities’ overall supply of housing. The bill set maximum construction costs. The program was pushed forward with the passage in 1949 of the Taft-Ellender-Wagner Housing Act, which provided for the construction of 810,000 additional units of public housing over the following six years.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, public housing tenants were a mix of poor and working-class families, white and black residents. Moving from run-down housing—tenants often were recent arrivals from the rural south—many residents enjoyed the sleek modern apartments. Some low-rise row house-style apartments in Philadelphia and Brooklyn were, for over a decade, stable communities with social services for lower-income families. Some of New York City’s high-rise public housing proved a long-term practical alternative to the city’s high-priced market-rate housing. But in many places, mismanagement and corruption by local officials charged with administering public housing led to the rapid deterioration of the buildings. Public housing, though intended to solve the problem of over-crowded tenements, was under-funded and poorly maintained; in some cases, it deteriorated into communities plagued by crime and poverty.
Most public housing built after World War II was high-rises, the “tower in the park” design promoted by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier in the 1920s. Federal urban renewal funds were used to tear down older working-class neighborhoods, which were replaced by high-rise developments of 150 to more than 4,000 apartments. The massive buildings often were built on super-blocks, eliminating the neighborhood street grid. In some, like the notorious Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, contractors saved construction costs by installing elevators that stopped on every other floor, leaving mothers to carry babies and groceries up and down dirty stairwells. Cutting costs meant cheaply built and easily broken bathroom sinks and toilets, and few of the once-touted playgrounds.
Public housing came to signal racially segregated cities and the cruel marginalization of impoverished black families. Residents in Baltimore, San Francisco, and Chicago responded by establishing community groups and pressuring officials to fund improvements in public housing. The efforts of residents, though significant, largely failed. By the late 20th century, most cities were tearing down high-rise buildings. Some municipalities used a new stream of federal housing funds under the HOPE VI program to build mixed-income communities and renovate low-rise public housing developments.
By the early 1960s, shoddy construction, poor maintenance of public housing, and the use of federal funds to subsidize suburban development, combined with rising unemployment among the black working class, led to rapid deterioration of living conditions in American cities. In 1960, more than 11 million units of urban housing were considered substandard; these units—some public housing, some run-down privately owned tenements—were occupied almost exclusively by African Americans. In 1968, in the aftermath of half a decade of urban riots and President Lyndon Johnson’s massive anti-poverty program, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, which banned redlining and promoted home ownership for the urban poor. Johnson also pushed through the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act, often called “Model Cities,” which called for the federal government to partner with real estate and banking industries to create new home owners in American cities. After a decade of protest, Model Cities finally emphasized the rehabilitation of housing and neighborhoods rather than clearance.
The 1968 housing program was, however, riddled with fraud and incompetence. In some cities, real estate brokers, recognizing black buyers as a lucrative new market, engaged in the longstanding practice of “block-busting,” frightening working-class white home owners with the threat of black neighbors who, brokers claimed, would pull down property values. White owners quickly sold to speculators who could then raise housing prices when they sold to desperate black buyers. Neighborhoods rapidly flipped from white to black residents with real estate entrepreneurs reaping great profits. Even worse, in some cities, real estate brokers hid housing defects and glossed the cost of taxes and maintenance, pushing bankers to provide FHA-insured mortgages on run-down houses to low-income buyers. A rash of new foreclosures followed as the new buyers realized they could not afford repairs. In some cases, banks rushed to foreclose so the agencies could resell and refinance the house, illegally pushing black homeowners out of their homes. In 1975, the Chicago Tribune published an investigation of the HUD programs in Chicago, reporting more than 7,000 defaults, 4,000 actual foreclosures, and more than 12,000 abandoned homes owned by HUD. Bankers continued to profit as the federal government insured all the mortgages, while struggling families lost their houses.
But the federal model of public-private partnerships proved useful to a new generation of reformers seeking to revive low-income urban communities in the 1970s and 1980s. Working with local officials, housing activists formed community development corporations (CDC), non-profit corporations designed to provide grants for housing repairs and low-interest loans to homebuyers in low-income communities. The CDCs typically were launched with federal or state grants and were buttressed by funds from private philanthropies, like the Ford Foundation. Among the most successful CDCs was the New Community Corporation, which was started in Newark, New Jersey, in 1968. Over the following two decades, it built more than 2,500 houses for low-income people, a childcare center, and housing and services for people with HIV and AIDS. In the 1980s, community efforts were supported by national funds; the two most prominent national housing organizations were Neighborhood Housing Services and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which raised millions of dollars to support construction and renovation of low-income housing, and commercial development in hundreds of urban neighborhoods.
In addition, housing activists used the courts to challenge racial segregation in housing. In a series of decisions across the 20th century, the Supreme Court ruled that laws segregating housing by race or wealth were unconstitutional. In Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), the court ruled racial covenants were “unenforceable as law and contrary to public policy.” Nearly thirty years later, the NAACP in Mount Laurel Township, New Jersey, challenged the use of land use ordinances to effectively exclude low and moderate-income households. In major opinions issued in 1975 and 1983, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the use of zoning regulations that required, for example, such large lot sizes that all single-family houses were prohibitively expensive. Municipalities, the court ruled, must plan for and make available opportunities for the construction of low-income housing, and accept a share of the state’s low-income residents. The Court rulings never eliminated the practices of racial steering by real estate sales people, racially tainted lending practices, or the class-segregation of housing markets.
New Deal housing programs dramatically expanded home ownership rates in the United States. Some New Deal programs sought to surmount racial and class divisions in residential communities. The Greenbelt towns, like Greenbelt, Maryland, included a mix of rental apartments and single-family houses with cooperatively owned commercial spaces. Similarly, the Public Works Administration built several apartment buildings, like the Hosiery Workers Housing in Philadelphia and the Harlem River Houses, which, while promoted to black New Yorkers, aimed for households of varied incomes. Yet, federal intervention created what historian Gail Radford calls a “two-tiered” housing market. The federal government built multi-family dwellings for the urban poor while subsidizing the construction of largely white single-family suburban houses.
Suburbs and Cities
Affluent Americans began moving to semi-rural enclaves in the 19th century. Some, like Llewellyn Haskell, the developer of Llewellyn Park in Bloomfield, New Jersey, in the 1850s, sought a spiritual retreat outside the city. After the Civil War, the construction of new streetcar lines spurred construction of “street-car suburbs,” like the frame houses built in Dorchester and Roxbury outside of Boston in the 1890s. But it was only in the years after World War II that suburban housing came to typify the white working and middle-class home. Demand for housing skyrocketed at the end of World War II. Home construction came to a near halt during the Depression and, during the war years, most builders were diverted to military projects. As veterans returned from Europe and the Pacific theatre, many young couples jammed into their parents’ city row houses and apartments.
Developers responded to the pent-up demand for housing by making use of federal programs and by mass-producing suburban dwellings. The most widely known of the new generation of builders was the Levitt Company, which provided custom-built housing on Long Island in the 1920s. A contract with the War Department to produce houses for military personnel during the war led the firm’s owners, brothers William J. and Alfred Levitt, to develop a system to build houses quickly and efficiently. After the war, the firm bought up 4,000 acres of potato fields on Long Island and applied their system to suburban Cape Cod-style single-family houses. The Levitts treated home building like an assembly line with teams of workers moving from lot to lot, each adding a portion of the house. The firm rejected labor unions, under-cutting the wages of local tradesmen. With their system, the Levitts constructed about 35 houses per week and charged as little as $6,999 for an 800-square-foot house. Ranch houses sold for $9,500. Veterans, using VA-insured loans, lined up for hours to purchase Levittown houses. William Levitt appeared on the cover of Time magazine in July 1950.
Developers throughout the United States followed Levitt’s model. Joseph Kelly in Boston, Fritz Burns in Los Angeles, and Del Web in Phoenix were among the leading developers of the nation’s suburbs in the post-war years.
New techniques of home construction, combined with the expansion of interstate highways, produced a variety of new fringe communities. Sociologist William M. Dobriner used the term “reluctant suburbs” for the subdivisions appearing on farmland surrounding older rural towns. Dobriner was writing about a Connecticut coastal community outside of New Haven, opened for development by the construction of Interstate 95. Fringe housing included inexpensive communities of trailers or manufactured houses. Trailers made up 10 to 20 percent of new housing units in 2000. Retirement communities of mixed multi-family and single-family dwellings appeared in semi-rural districts. In the 1990s, affluent fringe suburbs saw ever-larger houses, “McMansions” with multi-car garages, expansive family rooms and home offices. In 1999, the average new house was 2,250 square feet, sited on a 12,910 square foot lot. Whether living in a trailer or a McMansion, residents of fringe communities relied on their cars to travel to work, shopping, and entertainment.
Even as growing numbers of Americans purchased single-family houses, a lack of safe, affordable housing remained a serious problem for many. In the 19th century, impoverished adults might move into crowded tenements or turn to the “poorhouse,” state-run institutions that might house dozens of impoverished or ill adults. Police stations were also used to shelter the homeless, especially during cold winter nights. The Great Depression led to new forms of housing for the homeless. Hoovervilles, rows of run-down shacks named for the president, could be found on the edges of many cities. Seattle’s Hooverville was among the largest, covering nine acres and housing as many as 1,200 people. Impoverished men and women also found shelter in single-room occupancy hotels (SROs), four and five-story buildings along what became known in many cities as “skid row.” In districts like Pioneer Square in Seattle or San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, men and women rented tiny rooms. In the 1980s, developers began purchasing and tearing down SROs as many skid row districts, like the Bowery in New York and Uptown in Chicago, were gradually gentrified. Homeless shelters, funded by non-profit organizations and municipalities, became the housing of last resort for homeless single adults and families.
In the final decades of the 20th century, gentrification transformed urban neighborhoods, replacing older communities of working-class families living in row houses with, in many cases, modern high-rise buildings and brownstones rehabilitated into single-family dwellings. Older manufacturing buildings were transformed into loft apartments. Artists and young people who initially remade urban industrial spaces into housing were, by the 1990s, replaced by more affluent households buying million-dollar loft condominiums in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago.
Co-owned multi-family housing—the condominium and the co-op apartments, which originated in New York in the 1880s—allowed owners to share costs of maintaining large apartment buildings while also gaining the tax benefits of home ownership. Centralized management of condominium communities, whether high-rise buildings or town-house communities, meant that owners turned over maintenance and governance to an elected board of residents. Streets in townhouse communities, like atriums in high-rises, were considered the community’s private property, policed by private security guards and maintained by private companies. Condominium development allowed developers to generate quick profits from new construction or gut renovation of older manufacturing or rental buildings. Developers in Chicago, Atlanta, and Dallas, aiming to attract middle-class and elite households, fitted condominium buildings with a host of amenities like gyms, pools, and indoor shopping centers. By 2000, as many as one-fifth of urban dwellers were living in condominiums or co-operative buildings.
Booming real estate markets in some urban centers put new pressure on housing markets in residential neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs. In Manhattan, the growth of investment banking and a finance-driven economy, attracted very wealthy families and pushed middle-class families into working-class neighborhoods, forcing up housing prices in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Washington Heights. Similarly, the Silicon Valley boom sent housing prices in San Francisco to dramatic heights, transforming the working-class Tenderloin into a high-priced district. Poorer and working-class residents were forced ever further away from jobs in business districts.
Some communities fought gentrification. Renters in West Hollywood, feeling the pressure of rising property prices, incorporated the city in 1984, and then imposed rigid rent controls to protect housing for lower-income residents. Tenants in Oakland, California similarly sought to control skyrocketing housing costs with municipal regulation of rents. Most cities in the late 20th century experienced uneven development as housing prices climbed in commercial centers, while some neighborhoods and edge suburbs, often of African American or Latino residents, were stuck with deteriorated housing, poorly performing schools, and few decent-paying jobs.
In the final decades of the 20th century, a gradual movement of middle-class people to city houses, apartments, and condominiums, following the historical preservation and home rehabbing movements, helped to gentrify urban neighborhoods. Expanding concerns for the environment spurred some Americans to seek housing within walking (or biking) distance of jobs, schools, and work. At the turn of the 21st century, while some cities, like Detroit and St. Louis continued to struggle with declining populations and decaying housing stock; others, like San Francisco, Atlanta, and Seattle faced soaring housing prices and expanding affluent communities.
Discussion of the Literature
The history of housing in America, often combining advocacy with empirical research, derives from both academic scholarship and social reform literature of the early 20th century. The earliest housing studies came from tenement reformers determined to document housing conditions in rapidly industrializing cities at the turn of the 20th century. Housing advocates like Edith Elmer Wood and Laurence Villier in New York, W. E. B. Du Bois working in Philadelphia, and Sophonisba Breckinridge in Chicago toured the homes of the urban poor—generally European immigrants and African Americans—and wrote detailed reports on housing conditions. They aimed to draw public attention to run-down and over-crowded living conditions, and to urge municipal officials to regulate urban housing. Reports published with Hull House Maps and Papers (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1895) or Du Bois’ Philadelphia Negro (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1899) have been widely used by scholars of urban housing.
Housing studies entered the university in the 1920s. The University of Chicago’s new sociology department, under the leadership of Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, launched a series of studies of urban residential patterns. Park’s The City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1925) introduced the ecological theory, which, though largely discredited today, powerfully influenced research on immigrant life in American cities for much of the 20th century. At the University of Wisconsin, economist Richard T. Ely and his students produced a series of studies of real estate markets and housing finance. Several of Ely’s students, including Helen Munchow, later went to Washington to work with the Roosevelt administration in developing housing policies. Scholars of urban housing in the 1920s and 1930s often moved from academic to government jobs, and back again.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, scholars, influenced by the political movements of the 1960s, published a series of studies on working-class housing, middle-class domesticity, household labor, and urban real estate. Among the first histories of the homes of ordinary people were Carl Bridenbaugh’s voluminous studies of colonial American cities. Stephen Thernstrom’s path-breaking book on Irish immigrants in Newburyport, MA, was an early history of the American ideal of home ownership. Thernstrom demonstrated that Irish immigrants in the late 19th century often put their children to work for wages, sacrificing education, to purchase a house. Elizabeth Blackmar’s remarkable study of rental housing markets in Manhattan traced the emergence of class-segregated neighborhoods and vividly linked wages to housing conditions and public health. Feminist historians like Christine Stansell and Jeanne Boydston, along with legal scholars like Jan Lewis and Norma Basch, highlighted the connections between prescriptive gender order and housing forms, property law, and housework. Architectural historians, most prominently Delores Hayden and Gwendolyn Wright, published studies of housing design history. The urban home, and the family relations it contained, was, in these late 20th century studies, a product of a host of intersecting social forces concerning relations between men and women, black and white, rich and poor Americans.
Sociologist Nels Anderson’s Depression-era studies of homeless men made the lack of housing or inadequate housing a significant piece of urban social science. Research on homelessness was revived in the 1980s, as homeless people became a common site in American cities. Scholars tracked the tramps and hoboes of the late 19th century, the rise and decline of single-room occupancy hotels and skid rows, and the shifting demographics of America’s homeless across the 20th century. These studies, some by sociologists engaged in ethnographic research, traced populations who slipped in and out of homelessness and called attention to instabilities in urban housing markets in the late 20th century.
Expanding anger over the deterioration of high-rise public housing and massive mid-century urban renewal programs prompted new studies of federal housing policies and post-war deindustrialization. Arnold Hirsch’s, Making the Second Ghetto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983) proved a devastating critique of urban renewal on Chicago’s South Side and launched a reconsideration of post-war urban housing. It was followed by studies of Detroit, Oakland, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami. Historians, sociologists and journalists took on public housing, offering powerful indictments of federal policies, while also highlighting the resilience of households headed largely by women living in urban public housing. In the early 21st century, new technology spurred new efforts to document the impact of urban renewal. Colin Gordon’s Mapping Decline (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), a study of St. Louis, was among the first to use geographic information systems (GIS) mapping techniques to provide a nearly block-level analysis of federal land clearance programs.
Histories of suburbia appeared alongside studies of declining urban centers. Sam Bass Warner’s Streetcar Suburbs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), Robert Fishman’s Bourgeois Utopias (New York: Basic Books, 1987) and Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), among others, emphasized the uniformity of housing styles and homogeneity of white, middle-class suburbs. A new suburban history emerged in the 1990s, highlighting working-class suburbs, self-built suburban housing, African American suburbs and, generally, the wide variety among housing forms and residents in American suburbs. Much of this scholarship noted the racial segregation in suburban communities, and continued to emphasize the unequal distribution of public resources, with suburban developments gaining significantly more federal housing subsidies.
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(1.) Harriet Plunkett, Women, Plumbers and Doctors: Household Sanitation (New York: D. Appleton, 1885), 109–110.
(2.) Richard Harris, Unplanned Suburbs: Toronto’s American Tragedy, 1900–1950 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).
(3.) Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820–2000 (New York: Vintage, 2004), 105.
(4.) Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the Modern American City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 70–71.
(5.) Gordon, Mapping Decline.70.
(6.) Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 196–197.