Newsletter #51: Social Housing for a Socialist Future, w/ Gail Radford

by Maia Silber

During World War I, Francis Lewis, an agent of the US Fuel Administration charged with rationing energy supplies, ordered residents of Philadelphia to purchase their coal in bulk ahead of the winter season. When Philadelphians protested, Lewis learned that many of the city’s tenants anticipated their imminent eviction — and knew that they could not carry a heavy load of coal from apartment to apartment. So Lewis came up with a novel solution: he told the city’s landlords that he would revoke their fuel access if they evicted tenants between the months of October and April.

In the early twentieth century, housing prices skyrocketed as new lending practices accelerated the transformation of basic shelter into a speculative commodity. While the growing real estate industry promoted the owner-occupied, single-family home as the signal marker of the American dream, a majority-tenant population struggled to pay the “rent sharks” who gobbled up ever larger shares of the housing stock. The longstanding housing crisis came to a head during the war, when workers flocked to northern cities for military manufacturing jobs.

The question, argues historian Gail Radford in this week’s episode, wasn’t so much if the federal government would intervene in the emergency but how. Lewis’s denial of coal to landlords obviously wasn’t a sustainable solution, but it was characteristic of the improvisational era of housing policy during and after World War I. In the war and interwar years, government officials, architects, and tenants alike experimented with federally funded housing for war workers, local rent controls, and worker-owned housing cooperatives. On this week’s episode of The Dig, Radford tells the story of Catherine Bauer, one of the period’s key innovators.

Listening to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

An architecture critic and activist, Bauer was inspired by European programs for “modern housing”: large-scale, mixed-income public housing funded and constructed by a central government but designed according to the needs and input of local residents. Bauer sought not only to promote affordability but also sociability, envisioning housing projects that incorporated amenities and design elements that facilitated walkability, outdoor congregation, and even communal childcare.

Bauer helped create a few such projects in the early, experimental years of the New Deal. But the Roosevelt administration ultimately rejected her vision in favor of what Radford calls a “two-tier” housing policy characterized by indirect subsidies for a private market to serve the middle classes and direct funding of limited, means- and morals-tested housing for the poor. Instead of social housing, we got single-family homes in the suburbs.

Since the 1996 publication of Radford’s now-classic book Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era, housing historians building on Radford’s scholarship have shown how the distinction between those tiers eventually broke down. Even the limited, racially and economically segregated public housing projects that the US government did build faced fierce opposition, and in the past half-century, the federal government has shifted its approach towards supplying low-income housing through the private market. From the establishment of perverse incentives for private lenders to exploit Black homebuyers following the dismantling of redlining in the 1960s and 1970s, to the demolition of public housing to make way for developer-approved voucher programs in the 1990s, federal policies have reincorporated the poor back into private housing markets on vastly unequal terms. Meanwhile, the failure to regulate the speculative practices of the real estate industry during the New Deal or since has finally put homeownership out of reach even for large segments of the middle classes.

The result, then, is the convergence of racially and socioeconomically diverse tenants in a private rental market increasingly unaffordable for all but the wealthiest few. In that sense, we’ve returned to a housing landscape not unlike that which Catherine Bauer encountered in the New Deal era. Her work has experienced a renaissance among housing activists no doubt because crisis conditions have once again pushed activists toward experimentation.

Learning from Bauer and Radford, the main lesson we might take from the past is that we can and should demand so much more than affordability from our housing. We can imagine housing that creates new possibilities for our relationships, our communities, our politics, and our world.

Further Reading To understand why Bauer’s vision failed and what replaced it, I highly recommend Margaret Garb’s City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform in Chicago, 1871-1919. It shows how Americans came to see a certain kind of property — the single-family, owner-occupied suburban house — as the ideal home. (The gendered construction of that ideal also helps us see Bauer’s vision as a distinctly feminist alternative).

On post-1970s housing history, two of my go-tos are Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Race for Profit: How Banks and the Rea Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership and Lily Geismer’s chapter on the HOPE VI program in Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. We’ve interviewed both Taylor and Geismer on The Dig. Finally, I’ve written about the tenant activism that flourished in Bauer’s era for The Journal of Urban History.