It feels presumptuous to “introduce” Catherine Bauer.
It feels strange to realize one might have to.
Starting in the 1930s, when she wrote her seminal Modern Housing, and continuing to the 1960s, when she was an associate dean at Berkeley, Bauer was arguably the best known of all the “housers” in America. She was certainly one of the most esteemed; her opinions on housing, planning, and urbanism were sought out by almost anyone who mattered, from activists and politicians to academics and philanthropists. She advised no fewer than three presidents.
Given her indisputable prominence in housing, it is a surprise to recall that Bauer, Zelig-like, played a part at formative moments in contemporary architecture too. Bauer curated the housing sections for both the 1932 “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” at the Museum of Modern Art and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. She was respected by all the “great men” of American architecture (and eventually married one), and she was one of the few women regularly invited to share a stage with them. It is no accident that, in 1945, she was the first woman appointed to the faculty at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
Bauer was one of the few women regularly invited to share the stage with the ‘great men’ of architecture.
When trying to describe Bauer to others, I sometimes call her the “Jane Jacobs of housing.” Though she never enjoyed the same degree of popular fame as Jacobs, she had a comparable broad-ranging impact over decades. A born communicator, Bauer laid out housing and architectural issues to the wider public in a similar no-nonsense style. Like Jacobs, Bauer never hesitated to take the great men to task. Yet unlike Jacobs, whose relevance is today everywhere affirmed, Bauer has slid into obscurity for reasons which are not entirely clear. Possibly it is to do with the fact that Bauer’s career had many phases and facets; for every article in Fortune and Architectural Forum, there was also a highly technical committee report or policy document. Her written legacy is substantial but not always easily digestible.
A born communicator, Bauer laid out housing and architectural issues to a wide public in a no-nonsense style.
Unquestionably, however, Bauer’s popular writing stands with the best. It is a model of sane, civic-minded lucidity. One hopes that by reproducing one of her classic articles, “The Dreary Deadlock of Public Housing,” published in Architectural Forum in May 1957, Bauer’s voice might again be heard. In more than three decades as an activist, Bauer consistently argued that governments had a duty to ensure that all citizens were properly housed — a clear-eyed and unequivocal position that offers a much-needed antidote to the hopelessness that now clouds America and Europe as leaders prevaricate, austerity bites, social inequity worsens, and the shelter crisis deepens. As “Dreary Deadlock” reveals, Bauer’s own faith was often tested — she was no dewy-eyed optimist — but even as she challenged the means, she never doubted the ends. She believed that democracy depended upon the provision of well-designed, high-quality housing for all citizens; and, with well justified alarm, she argued against the rise of socially homogenous and racially segregated communities, taking them as proof of the insufficient boldness of existing policies and the inability of private markets ever to address the needs of the poor — points that now feel more prescient and compelling than ever.
Houser is a curious term, not much used today, but it defines Bauer perfectly: transcending specific disciplines, a houser is a reformer, a lobbyist or activist, who seeks to influence policy and practice in order to provide good quality housing, especially — but not exclusively — for low-income families. Throughout the many twists and turns of her career, Bauer remained a houser through and through. Much of her authority derived from her intimate knowledge of American housing policy, key elements of which she helped to draft in the 1930s.
Born in New Jersey in 1905, Bauer majored in art history and literature at Vassar; for a year she studied architecture at Cornell. 1 Upon graduation, in 1926, this self-confessed dilettante went to Paris and wrote articles on French culture, notably one on “machine-age” modernism for the New York Times Magazine. Returning to New York in the late ’20s, she worked as a publicist, and met Lewis Mumford, with whom she began an affair, a passionate relationship that inspired daily letters of two or three typed pages for several years. 2 Stirred by Mumford’s commitment to housing, Bauer returned to Europe in 1930 to learn about recent developments firsthand, visiting key architects and municipal housing estates; after meeting Ernst May, she enrolled in a three-day “new construction” course in Frankfurt. Her familiarity with European housing would provide rich material for later writing and curating projects, including her 1931 prize-winning essay “Art in Industry” for Fortune (which beat out Mumford’s submission) and the MoMA exhibition. 3
Mumford also introduced Bauer to the Regional Planning Association of America, and she soon became its executive secretary. The RPAA was made up of architects (including Clarence Stein and Henry Wright) and housing reformers (including Edith Elmer Wood) who were alarmed by what they saw as uncontrolled metropolitan growth. By now fully immersed in housing issues, Bauer returned to Europe in 1932 to conduct research for a series of articles for Fortune to be authored by Mumford. 4 When Fortune reduced the scope of its commission, Bauer decided, with Mumford’s encouragement, to turn her unused research into a book.
Published in 1934, Modern Housing was not simply a piece of reportage on the latest European developments in housing, though it did introduce the subject to many Americans. Rather, strongly influenced by the RPAA’s critique of sprawling speculative development and its belief in mass production and affordability, Modern Housing was a polemic, a rallying cry for an equivalent program of planned, government-sponsored, noncommercial housing in America. Bauer’s ambition to push housing in new directions was signaled by the book’s illustrations of the planned residential developments of Stein and Wright: Radburn, New Jersey, and Sunnyside Gardens, Queens (where Mumford then lived with his family). 5 As historian Gail Radford notes, while her ideas about urban planning and architecture were not entirely novel, “Bauer’s achievement consisted of pulling [them] into a coherent whole and articulating not just a critique but a constructive proposal for basic changes in the American system of housing provision.” 6
Bauer swiftly moved from writing to campaigning: she believed genuine change would happen only if elected leaders were subjected to sustained pressure.
Entering the fray in the midst of the Depression, Modern Housing was a radical and perfectly timed intervention into contemporary housing debates — not unlike Death and Life would be three decades later. And just as Jacobs would follow her literary polemic with community activism, Bauer swiftly moved from writing to campaigning: she believed genuine change would happen only if elected leaders were subjected to sustained pressure. She applied this pressure via the trade union movement. Appointed in 1934 as executive secretary of the Labor Housing Conference, Bauer helped organize a national network to fight for direct federal involvement in housing. She undertook grueling whistle-stop lecture tours across America, laying out the benefits of European housing programs to local labor and consumer organizations. Instead of pushing for slum clearance and low-income housing, Bauer argued instead for moderately priced high-quality housing; in this way the public sector could provide decent homes for workers while also stimulating the construction trades — an appealing message for many labor councils.
Very quickly, the efforts of the labor lobbyists resulted in a federal housing bill, introduced in Congress in 1934, co-authored by Bauer and her confreres in the Labor Housing Conference. Although this bill did not pass, it led to another, which Bauer also substantially wrote; in modified form this later bill became the Housing Act of 1937, signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt. The new legislation was not without flaws. Under siege from the powerful real estate lobby, who saw the bill (rightly) as a fundamental attack on its commercial practices and policies, lawmakers introduced compromising amendments that would effectively confine the provision of government housing to the very poor. 7 But no matter these limitations — and as “Dreary Deadlock” makes clear, Bauer was aware of them — the Housing Act was a landmark law, reflecting not only Bauer’s expansive social vision but also her ability to communicate that vision to others.
Bauer substantially wrote the landmark Housing Act of 1937, signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt.
In the midst of her cross-country politicking, Bauer somehow managed to pursue other projects. She curated the shelter section for the “City of Tomorrow” exhibition at the New York World’s Fair. She planned, but reluctantly shelved, a monograph on Russian housing. (Indeed, her active campaigning would prevent her from ever again producing another major book.) In the wake of the Housing Act, she was chosen to head the newly formed U.S. Housing Authority’s Division of Research and Information. In this role Bauer inspected the Farm Settlement Administration projects in Washington State, which aimed to resettle a quarter million people in mostly uninhabited territory, a project whose very scale made it a significant testing ground for planning theories and gave her a good overview of rural as well as urban housing problems.
Often the only woman at events and meetings, Bauer was once described as a ‘handsome blonde with brunette economic ideas.’
Soon Bauer’s career would swerve once again, this time into academe, when she accepted an invitation to lecture on social housing at the University of California at Berkeley, in 1939. It was here she met the architect William Wurster; they married the following year. Interestingly, Bauer never spoke publicly about gender discrimination, although she was often the only woman at events and meetings and was regularly the victim of condescension (as when Architectural Forum called her a “handsome blonde with brunette economic ideas,” and noted — approvingly — that the “firm hand” of her husband was apparent in her new willingness to cook). 8 Her one oft-voiced complaint was that people refused to use her maiden name in a professional capacity. Wurster fully supported his wife’s wish for independence, delivering such a firm rebuke to one correspondent that it makes one want to cheer:
Catherine and I make a real effort to do all things as individuals — for many reasons — not the least being our dislike for the flying wedge of husband-wife teams. You are, therefore, correct in noting that I did not mention Catherine for she has long ago earned the right of being addressed on her own. 9
The newlyweds carried on their respective careers at a blistering pace. Bauer served as vice president of the California Housing and Planning Association, lobbying for legislation to meet the state’s acute housing shortage, and co-founded the National Committee on the Housing Emergency, a citizen’s group focused on wartime needs. She carried on consulting for the U.S. Housing Authority and served on MoMA’s Architectural Advisory Committee. In 1943, the couple moved to Cambridge, where Wurster studied planning at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and Bauer audited classes — her only formal education in planning. After Wurster became dean of architecture at MIT, and following the birth of their daughter, Bauer began teaching a ground-breaking cross-disciplinary housing seminar at the GSD for architects, planners, and, crucially, social scientists. 10 Meanwhile she campaigned for the Housing Act of 1949 and represented UNESCO at the United Nations meetings that led to the founding of the Center for Human Settlements.
In the early 1950s, the couple made one last move west, when Wurster took up the deanship of what would become the College of Environmental Design, or CED, at Berkeley. In the Bay Area Bauer taught planning courses; lobbied against sprawl, freeways, and pollution; and cofounded the conservation organization, California Tomorrow. She renewed her appreciation for regional architectures, whether the Bay Area style or Asian vernacular. Overall, her research began to focus less explicitly on housing and more on cities; she obtained funding for a study of urbanization in India, and when President Dwight Eisenhower appointed a Commission on National Goals, in 1960, Bauer authored the urban environment section. Eventually she became an associate dean at the CED. Her career was still in full flow when she died, at the age of 59, in a hiking accident on Mount Tamalpais.
The Super Connector
Even this highly condensed biography makes plain that Bauer’s was an eventful and restless life — a life of almost constant motion and travel. She was always in a rush, always looking ahead to the next big thing, often despite herself. It seems she couldn’t help but think big, bigger than anyone else, as her correspondence with Paul Ylvisaker, director of public affairs at the Ford Foundation, suggests in almost comical fashion; in 1956, even as she claimed she was too busy to take on new projects, she could not resist sketching out a hugely ambitious plan for an Institute on Urbanization with branches in India and Europe. When Bauer backed away from that idea, Ylvisaker, clearly not used to rejection, remarked, “You have a resistance to Foundation blandishments which evokes more than a bit of awe on the part of this staff member.” 11
Much of Bauer’s work was behind the scenes, as she barnstormed, lobbied, advised, criticized, and nurtured the projects of countless colleagues.
Bauer’s bibliography lists well over 120 publications, yet these insufficiently reflect her actual contribution. Perhaps this is because, as suggested above, so much of Bauer’s work happened behind the scenes, as she barnstormed, lobbied, advised, chivvied, criticized, and nurtured the projects of countless colleagues. Bauer was a consummate networker and to peruse the letters in her archive can be a dizzying experience, an encounter with a pantheon of American architects, planners, and politicians. Frank Lloyd Wright? Check. Walter Gropius? Check. There is a personal telegram from Jacqueline Kennedy in 1960 asking Bauer to join the Women’s Committee for New Frontiers; JFK reached out to her too. There are endless invitations and solicitations for advice on everything from job applicants to the best Chinese restaurant in San Francisco (Johnny Kan’s). The industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss humbly writes to ask her to recommend planning books.
Bauer made time to answer them all, even in her harried later years. She and Wurster were a serious power couple, hosting countless visitors in their rambling redwood Bay Area style house in the Berkeley hills. As befit a partnership of equals, Bauer maintained her close early friendship with Mumford and with heavyweight housers like Ernest Bohn. Many of them would write letters of support when, in 1953, she was investigated by the federal government for alleged Communist associations. 12 In his clever defense, Bohn repeated Eisenhower’s assertion that good American housing was “the best weapon against Communism,” pointing out it was a “weapon” Bauer had done more than anyone else to build. 13 A mere two months later, Bohn defiantly invited her to join a U.S. Presidential Advisory Committee on Housing.
Reading her letters makes it obvious why Bauer inspired such loyalty from friends, colleagues, funders, editors, politicians, architects, and housers: she was charismatic, funny, and tart. She was an unsparing but fair critic. She had unmatched knowledge, “analytical brilliance,” according to Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, and she was well-informed about current developments, local and international, as only someone at the center of a far-reaching network can be. Bauer was a super-connector, spanning many worlds — labor, public administration, academe; design, planning, housing — always on the lookout for new voices and talent. (In the early ’50s, Henry-Russell Hitchcock brought the young Colin Rowe to her attention, saying he was “in some ways very brilliant if a bit on the lazy side.” 14) She keenly enjoyed gossip, the essential lubricant of any network. Her letters are piquant, wide-roaming, fizzing with ideas. They feel alive.
She often used letters as a tool of protest. In March 1942, she wrote to General John DeWitt to object to the internment of Japanese-Americans in camps; with studied understatement, she pointed out “the doubtful constitutionality of the internment of citizens without due process of law.” 15 She could also take the gloves off. In 1950, she wrote a furious letter to George Koether, an editor of Architectural Forum, demanding he not “bother” her further until the magazine stopped attacking public housing. This letter evidently struck its mark. It prompted a defensive reply from the publisher, P.I. Prentice, which in turn provoked Bauer to double down on her critique. 16 This spat, however, did not mean that Bauer ceased publishing in Forum, as the article published here attests.
In fact, after 1952, when Forum began weighing in on contemporary urban issues, editor Douglas Haskell often commissioned articles from Bauer; she was an influential voice who could jumpstart national debates — although in doing so she sometimes clashed with Jane Jacobs, then the magazine’s associate editor. 17 In 1956, for instance, when Bauer wrote a feature on “future city patterns,” Jacobs was dismayed to see her focus on satellite cities rather than existing urban centers; as her biographer, Peter Laurence, recounts, Jacobs made her displeasure felt by writing a series of contrarian image captions for the piece, and even an editors’ reply to accompany the article. 18 The same tension would also be evident in the follow-on article to “Dreary Deadlock,” published in June 1957, in which Jacobs sternly opined that Bauer’s remedies missed the mark because she would not admit that “There should be no more projects, or very few.” 19
An influential voice who could jumpstart national debates, Bauer often clashed with Jane Jacobs.
It might appear, then, that the lines between these two heavy-hitting critics were already plainly drawn, with Bauer, the anti-urbanist houser on one side, and Jacobs, the anti-houser urbanist on the other — lines that would only be reinforced in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which Jacobs pilloried both Bauer and Mumford for “killing” cities with their de-centrist principles. 20 Yet the reality was by no means clear-cut. The two women maintained a friendly and respectful correspondence during these years. Bauer advised Jacobs on what to see in California (Venice and Disneyland, which Jacobs enjoyed) and warmly congratulated her on the 1958 Fortune article, “Downtown is for People,” calling it a “knockout.” She urged the Rockefeller Foundation to support Jacobs’s grant application for Death and Life, with the proviso that Jacobs be encouraged to avoid an academic tone in favor of “sharp and lively reportage.” 21 And after the book’s publication, in 1961, Bauer responded calmly to its critique; she praised the book as a “brilliant personal diatribe” even as she observed that its criticisms of planners were overstated and its “pro-city” bias meant that other ways of living were disregarded. 22
Rather than seeing the two women as opposed, it seems more accurate to say that Bauer and Jacobs were each sharpened and sometimes changed through their professional contact in this period. As Laurence notes, in his biography of Jacobs, “Dreary Deadlock” helped Jacobs work through her position on public housing and is cited in Death and Life. 23 The essay was also a significant marker for Bauer as it decisively showed how her views had evolved from her RPAA days — far more than Jacobs acknowledged — so that the two women shared many concerns. Crucial points of divergence remained, however; most significantly, Bauer consistently spoke out against entrenched racial and social segregation — a topic Jacobs never truly engaged in Death and Life. 24 Yet in light of continuing social inequality and stratification (gated communities, anyone?), Bauer now seems dead right to have insisted that segregation and its corrosive effects on democracy could and should not be ignored.
“Dreary Deadlock” exhibits little of the headiness of Bauer’s earlier pieces: her voice remains sure and clear, yet the tone has soured. “Dreary” sums it up: one feels the inadequacies of housing policy pressing down. Yet, once again, Bauer rolls up her sleeves and sets to work, diagnosing why in the two decades since the Housing Act of 1937, public housing remained controversial and unloved — in her words, “not dead but never more than half alive.” (The article feels poignantly close to a post-mortem.) Bauer does not entirely blame the real estate lobby. But she argues that it has instilled a siege mentality amongst public authorities, resulting in bland institutional designs, excessive regulation, and heavy-handed management. These, in turn, produce toxic environments that tenants seek to leave as soon as possible or avoid altogether. Housing policy has ossified, and, worse yet, has created “rigid social segregation.”
Bauer warned that socio-economic segregation posed a direct threat to American democracy.
Throughout this period, Bauer warned that socio-economic segregation posed a direct threat to American democracy. She was alarmed by social homogeneity in any form, whether all-black towers in the inner city or “lily white” suburbs. Although the result of different causes (subsidies and income qualifications in the former; FHA-backed mortgages and restrictive covenants in the latter), these problems were, in Bauer’s view, interlinked; they were also equally pernicious and in need of reform. In a powerful 1946 letter to Forum, she wrote:
It is high time for architects, planners and builders to accept their large share of responsibility for the dangerous trend toward complete racial and economic segregation. We have been far too exclusively concerned with the techniques for “neighborhood planning,” while ignoring the fact that zoning, restrictive agreements and large-scale building enterprise (public as well as private) are rapidly pushing us towards a feudal social pattern which is the very antithesis of democracy. 25
The real estate lobby, Bauer argued, had instilled a siege mentality in public authorities, resulting in bland designs and heavy-handed management.
Bauer may have recommended that Jacobs produce lively reportage, but her own writings in these years tend towards the abstract and the macro and “Dreary Deadlock” is no exception. She makes no effort to evoke the communal pleasures of diverse neighborhoods; for instance, to persuade readers of the benefits of casual social contact à la Jacobs, whose vivid rendering of Greenwich Village’s street ballet would give Death and Life so much of its power — and, undoubtedly, its staying power. Bauer did ask Haskell to commission Dorothea Lange to photograph “the human side of large-scale housing,” which would no doubt have added to the immediacy of “Dreary Deadlock,” but nothing came of it. 26 Bauer herself did little to show the human costs of segregation; with few exceptions, she resisted naming heroes or villains, instead breaking key players into camps. Thus we have “the private builders, lenders and property owners” on one side, and “public housing officials, federal and local” on the other, with “the low-income slum dweller” wedged unhappily in-between.
Even the separations between socio-economic and racial groups are drawn in broad brushstrokes. Bauer’s avoidance of personalized narratives and emotive life stories seems linked to her belief that the delivery of good housing options would ultimately not be the work of individual players. In her view, it was the larger trends — political, economic, social — that would need to shift to produce the diverse housing that would make a difference. Few other public figures so sharply diagnosed the entrenched forces that led to disenfranchisement, poverty, and segregation, or decried racial discrimination in private residential communities so strongly. In one memorable passage — one feels her gathering momentum — Bauer scornfully dismisses those who would deny these forces:
And if there were no vast backlog of outright slums, and little or no urban growth, and no racial discrimination, then a strong program of enforcement and rehabilitation might actually do the job of housing low-income families adequately. But the situation is far different.
We begin to see how Bauer’s themes and interests coalesce in the general remedies she proposes to ease the deadlock. It is no surprise to see her reassert the need for appropriate government policies and subsidies that respond to overall housing needs; this reflects her view that the existing public agencies and programs are uncoordinated and overly specialized, focused on a handful of large urban projects while ignoring the chaotic suburban fringe. But it is unexpected to see her conclude with an unsentimental repudiation of the modernist idiom she promoted in Modern Housing: to argue that Garden City planning had become rigid and formulaic. And don’t get Bauer started on high-rise housing, to her mind, the least desirable type of residential living. The aim of public programs, Bauer says, should be flexible housing in keeping with American values. Housing that allows for individualism, initiative, privacy, and “real selection” in type and location (in cities and suburbs). Options that can accommodate broader segments of the population in terms of class, ethnicity, race, demographics, and life-cycle phases.
Bauer wanted housing to accommodate broad segments of the population in terms of class, ethnicity, race, demographics, and life-cycle phases.
Bauer also wanted policies that would encourage entrepreneurialism, “the type of small-scale business enterprise that plays such an important role in most slum areas” — an assertion that featured in Jacobs’s work too. Indeed, in light of how Jacobs amplified their differences, it is striking to realize the extent to which both women were working from similar precepts: the Garden City idea was exhausted; modernist design was monolithic and isolated; urban renewal was failing; overly specialized land use and zoning were damaging; diversity was to be embraced; grass-roots activism and an engaged citizenry were essential for change. 27 All communicated in bracing and (admittedly, often overly) sweeping prose.
This is not to minimize their differences. Although no fan of indiscriminate Robert Moses-style renewal, Bauer saw the planned removal of substandard housing as justified, if — and only if — tenants were offered new and affordable places to live outside the private market. While Jacobs argued that government housing ultimately led to social separation and stigmatization (hence her belief that “projects” were beyond redemption), Bauer maintained that these outcomes could be avoided if the government provided enough well-designed housing. Bauer also never lost her faith in the ability of architects to partner with other disciplines and alleviate social problems; and she never stopped exhorting architects to embrace their social and civic responsibilities. 28
Bauer’s continued belief in the benefits of public housing undeniably bears the stamp of her youthful idealism. She never wavered in her conviction that government had not only the power but also the responsibility to fix the housing system; and that the American people, when offered worthy options, would fully back the necessary policies. The confident tone of the conclusion of “Deadlock” cuts through the drear of previous sections where the odds seem impossibly stacked against change. In our own polarized and development-driven times, Bauer’s assurance that government agencies and civic groups together can break the housing “deadlock” might appear rooted less in fact than in magical thinking, but surely this is no bad thing. Given her unmatched ability to diagnose the problems of the system, it is hopeful to see that Bauer remained a true believer — a true houser — whose drive to house democratic citizens equitably endured to the end.
The Dreary Deadlock of Public Housing
by Catherine Bauer
Low-rent public housing has not followed the normal pattern for reform movements in modern democratic countries. Every social experiment starts off as an abstract idea, frequently in an atmosphere of violent theoretical debate. But after it has been tried out for a while, one of two things usually happens. Either it dies off, an acknowledged failure, or it “takes” and is accepted as an integral part of the ordinary scheme of things. The original theories, meantime, become modified and adapted to actual conditions. In the U.S., public attitudes about social security, collective bargaining, and national economic controls have all followed the classic steps outlined years ago by George Bernard Shaw: 1) it’s impossible; 2) it’s against the Bible; 3) it’s too expensive; and 4) we knew it all the time. But public housing, after more than two decades, still drags along in a kind of limbo, continuously controversial, not dead but never more than half alive.
No obituary is yet in order for the U.S. Housing Act of 1937 “as successively [but only in minor respects] amended.” It is more a case of premature ossification. The bare bones of oversimplified New Deal theory have never been decently covered with the solid flesh of present-day reality. Even among public housing’s most tireless defenders, many would welcome a fresh start if they did not fear that in the process any program at all might get lost.
If the dreary deadlock is to be broken, it is first necessary to figure out what really ails the program. If it is purely a matter of selfish reactionary obstruction, we who want to rehouse slum-dwellers will just have to go on fighting until we win. But if there are inner weaknesses as well, it is high time we faced up to them.
Is the real estate lobby to blame?
Unquestionably private builders, lenders, and property owners have been increasing in political power ever since the mid-thirties, when Uncle Sam rescued them from ruin. And it is equally obvious that they have been all-out in their opposition to public housing.
In general, however, their tactics have been so arrogant, and most of their claims so wild, that they have often tended to backfire. In recent years, moreover, some of the National Association of Real Estate Boards’ allies (notably the National Association of Home Builders) have become more sophisticated about the slum problem and highly vocal about the need to remedy it. The current slogans are “renewal” and “rehabilitation.” But gradually it becomes clearer that Operation Fix-Up is no cure-all, and that outright clearance and redevelopment bring relocation problems that cannot be glossed over. The great national spread of anti-slum propaganda by ACTION (The American Council to Improve Our Neighborhoods) probably tends to favor the cause of public housing, however inadvertently.
Public housing officials are on the defensive, and the neuroses that come from insecurity are translated into excessive caution.
The most serious effect of all the controversy has been more subtle. Public housing officials, federal and local, have been kept continuously on the defensive, and the neuroses that come from chronic fright and insecurity are translated into excessive caution, administrative rigidity, and lack of creative initiative. Everybody tends to sit tight, clinging desperately to the beleaguered formula, instead of trying to improve it in the light of experience and public attitudes. Sporadic efforts to broaden or modify the program have usually met with as much opposition from professional public housers as from opponents of public housing. Moreover, the hostility has probably tightened management controls, making “project” housing more and more institutional.
But even so, despite the millions they have spent in a vain effort to kill it, the real estate interests can hardly be held wholly responsible for the program’s failure to take hold.
Solid support is lacking
If the public housing program in its present form had managed to achieve real popularity with the general run of ordinary citizens and their leaders, and above all with the people who live in slums and blighted areas, the real estate opposition would by now have lost its political force. The idea of public housing would be taken for granted, like old age pensions or FHA mortgage insurance.
But this has not happened. The program has never called forth the kind of pervasive and persuasive popular support that oils the wheels of change in democratic countries. The lot of public housing tenants has undoubtedly been improved in many ways. But the fact remains that only a small proportion of the people eligible for occupancy (by legal definition, low-income families living in substandard homes) actually apply for low-rent dwellings in public housing projects. And of those who do, most appear to be desperate for shelter of any kind: minority families about to be thrown on the street by clearance operations, “problem” families sent by welfare agencies, and so on.
Public housing has never inspired the kind of popular support that oils the wheels of change in democratic countries.
Moreover, general local support by civic-minded groups, such as one might reasonably have expected for such a program, has seldom developed. The U.S. Housing Act has been kept alive by the earnest annual efforts of the Washington offices of national labor, welfare, veteran, municipal, civic, and religious organizations, held together by the National Housing Conference, and sparked by the genius and devotion of its executive vice president, Lee Johnson. But despite considerable prodding, the local branches and members of these organizations have on the whole been apathetic, sometimes lending their names in a crisis but rarely showing much continuing interest. Where there are established citizens’ housing organizations, they tend to be kept going by a few devoted individuals with little general backing.
Why isn’t the program popular?
This question has never been seriously investigated, but in general terms, the answer seems quite clear. Life in the usual public housing project just is not the way most American families want to live. Nor does it reflect our accepted values as to the way people should live.
In part the weaknesses are inherent in the physical design. As architect Henry Whitney said in the first (and still one of the best ) critiques by an experienced housing official: “The typical publicly subsidized dwelling is deficient in interior space, in outdoor privacy, and in true American residential character. … Families with children generally want to live in individual homes. … A yard, a porch or a terrace is almost universally desired.” While everybody who had any choice was moving into a one-story home, the housing authorities were busily erecting high-density high-rise apartments, with no private outdoor space whatever. Significantly, perhaps, public housing is most accepted in the one American city where apartment living is also most taken for granted — New York. But even there, opinion surveys show that most tenants would prefer ground-level living if they could get it.
Any charity stigma that attaches to subsidized housing is reinforced by the institutionalized designs of the projects.
There are also more subtle social reasons for the lack of enthusiastic acceptance. Public housing projects tend to be very large and highly standardized in their design. Visually they may be no more monotonous than a typical suburban tract, but their density makes them seem much more institutional, like veterans’ hospitals or old-fashioned orphan asylums. The fact that they are usually designed as islands — “community units” turning their backs to the surrounding neighborhood which looks entirely different — only adds to this institutional quality. Any charity stigma that attaches to subsidized housing is thus reinforced. Each project proclaims, visually, that it serves the “lowest income group.”
The resulting degree of rigid social segregation is difficult to align with traditional American ideas. And in addition, if a tenant manages to increase his income beyond a certain point, out he goes, a restriction which also results in the continuous loss of natural leadership among the tenants themselves, and a trend toward problem families as the core of occupants.
On the other side of the ledger has been the considerable success of nondiscrimination and mixed racial occupancy in northern public housing projects. But even this great gain is being lost. Owing to the preponderance of minority families in the lowest income group, and in the areas slated for clearance and relocation, the proportion of minority occupancy tends to rise above the line where mixture is successful, and more and more projects become virtually all-Negro.
And finally, there is the question of management policy and practice in itself. Because of legal requirements, high densities, problem families, and sensitivity to continuous political attack, local authority landlordship tends to be rigid and heavy-handed, with all kinds of rules and regulations unknown in ordinary private rental management and unthinkable in a pattern of individual ownership. Sometimes special welfare services are provided which, under these peculiar conditions, may be admirable and necessary. But even at its best, this type of concern by one’s landlord seems paternalistic in American terms, and hardly adds to the popularity of project living for normal families.
With all their faith in private enterprise, Americans have never been purists about accepting public aid to achieve something they want.
These are the issues that keep coming up in critical analyses by housers, in conversations with all kinds of people all over the country, and in the few random studies by social scientists. And alongside these criticisms is the patent fact that, with all its drawbacks, the program is so expensive. I doubt that the fact of subsidy in itself is very important in the general public reaction, or in any stigma that may attach to public housing occupancy at present. With all their profound and well-justified faith in private enterprise, Americans have never been purists in the matter of accepting public aid where necessary to achieve something they want. The idea of subsidy is part of the American system, whether for shipping or public education, irrigation projects, redevelopment schemes or housing. Had we not enjoyed a steadily rising market, the FHA-VA system of mortgage aid would have cost the taxpayers far more than the most tremendous public housing program ever envisioned. And certainly no stigma attached to accepting the costly aid of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. But subsidies must look reasonably sensible in terms of value received. And the fact that high-rise apartments (which no one likes very much anyway), erected by local housing authorities, tend to cost more than the price of a modest FHA-insurance tract house, even allowing for a substantial speculative profit, just does not look sensible on the face of it. So the unattractive aspects of the program cannot even be justified on the grounds of economy.
And finally, with all the hullabaloo and all the expense, the program still does not meet even the most obvious immediate need of families displaced by clearance or renewal operations, let alone the need in outlying areas for families whom the FHA cannot serve. The legal income limits are so low and the other limitations so rigorous, including the territorial jurisdiction of municipal housing authorities, that only a small portion of the need can be met through public housing aid.
Premises: true or false?
How do the assumptions that shaped the public housing program stand up today under quite different economic conditions and in the light of more than 20 years of experience?
Even after a long period of prosperity, there are as many unsanitary, congested, and dilapidated homes as there were in the midst of the Depression.
Clearly the basic premises are as sound today as they were then. Even after a long period of high prosperity, there are just about as many unsanitary, congested and dilapidated homes in the US as there were in the middle of the Depression — probably with more people living in them! And today almost everyone recognizes their existence, and admits that these conditions must somehow be remedied. It is also as true as ever (if more reluctantly recognized) that you cannot get rid of slums just by tearing them down, or fixing them up. Somewhere, in a reasonably suitable location, there must be better homes available to the slum occupants, at prices they can afford to pay. And although prosperity, FHA, VA, and more efficient homebuilding techniques have expanded the effective market for new private housing, it is still true that practically no slum dwellers can afford new, privately built homes, and the few who can are often minority families who would not be accepted.
There is some “filtering up,” now that the postwar shortage at middle and upper price levels has been relieved. And if there were no vast backlog of outright slums, and little or no urban growth, and no racial discrimination, then a strong program of enforcement and rehabilitation might actually do the job of housing low-income families adequately. But the situation is far different. Millions of existing slum dwellings should be torn down as soon as possible; millions of additional low-income families are certain to migrate to urban centers (a large proportion of them Negroes). And in the light of this, how can filtration possibly be expected to solve the slum problem, now or in a thousand years! Even a slight stepping-up of the process, if it is not merely to produce a lot of new slums by stuffing several families into a dwelling intended for one, would mean a rate of devaluating decent older property that would disrupt the real estate market more than any amount of public housing. FHA financing, also, is geared to steady or rising values for the life of the house, not a reduction in monthly payments that would permit it to “filter down,” however gradually.
Apparently it is still as true as it ever was that we need some new housing within reach of families now outside the effective private market. Prosperity only makes the continuance of slum living conditions less excusable, the need for effective solutions more urgent. And the rising significance of the racial aspects of the housing problem adds to the urgency. So does the relocation problem growing from the desire to revitalize central blighted areas and from the tremendous displacement of homes for freeways and other public works.
The basic problem we tried to tackle in the U.S. Housing Act is still with us. What was wrong with our efforts to solve it?
In the light of 1957 conditions, it now seems there were two fundamental fallacies in the original approach, one a matter of basic policy formulation and administration, the other a matter of physical planning and design. The 1937 approach was natural, valid, and even necessary at the time, and it represented progress in relation to what had gone before. But it jelled too soon, became too rigid, without allowing for flexible adaptation to American values and conditions.
Two-headed housing policy
The most questionable assumption was the notion that slum rehousing should be established permanently as an independent program, with its own separate legislation and administrative machinery at both federal and local levels, quite apart from other housing policies and the overall housing picture. This insured the segregation of the low-income slum-dweller and fortified his isolation as a special charity case by permitting only public initiative and public landlordship, with narrow rules of eligibility for any form of subsidized housing that might be needed. This also contributed to the segregation of upper-income families in FHA schemes, and to that lily-white suburbia that now presents such a critical problem. And it is just as much public housing’s responsibility as the National Association of Home Builders that there is such a vast gap between the two narrow, entirely separate types of federal housing policy, with no real responsibility at any level of government to determine overall housing needs — whether on a national basis or for any given community — and to see that policies are adjusted to meet those needs.
This came about because federal housing aids were all initiated on an ad hoc emergency basis during the Depression, with little thought for long-term needs or goals. But depression-mindedness continued too long: it was a fallacious element in much postwar planning, particularly housing. Vested interests grew up and were institutionalized around each separate fragmentary program, with the result that all three major groups — lenders, builders, and public housers — have been about equally opposed to the kind of coordination that would permit more flexibility and realism in meeting the full range of local needs.
We now have a proliferation of local agencies concerned with slums and housing, with no responsibility to view the housing picture as a whole.
Similarly, while the early crusade on behalf of local initiative and responsibility was fine, and the establishment of local housing authorities (or something of the kind) was a necessary step, their permanent role should never have been defined and jelled so narrowly. We now have a proliferation of special-purpose local agencies concerned with slums and housing, with no responsibility anywhere to view the housing picture as a whole, least of all at the metropolitan level where this is the most essential. The result is a few expensive, high-density, over-controlled municipal projects, mostly on central sites, and a vast chaotic flood of middle-class individual homes in the suburbs. With all our complicated housing machinery we cannot solve either the relocation problem in central areas or the equally urgent problem of balanced development out on the fringe.
Viewed in retrospect, it would have been worthwhile, for the sake of better integrated, more flexible tools, to make some real concessions. Not the principle of subsidy, for this is absolutely essential to any solution of the slum problem. But if necessary, public landlordship might have been given up and in any case it should have been possible to subsidize various forms of private housing enterprise, including suburban tracts for individual ownership, in order to meet a wider range of need and popular desire (and, incidentally, to bring some private building interests over to advocacy of public housing).
Misapplied “community planning”
Having established machinery that could only produce a type of residential development quite alien to any American ideal of community, we then proceeded to dramatize this extreme form of paternalistic class-segregation architecturally, in the name of “modern community planning.”
We embraced too wholeheartedly functional and collectivist architectural theories that tended to ignore subtler esthetic values and social needs.
The basic ideas that stemmed from the British garden city planners, and that were rationalized by the Bauhaus school of modern architects, contributed vital concepts to American housing. The reaction against chaotic individualism and the wasteful crudity of the ubiquitous gridiron street pattern was long overdue. But in grasping for modern principles of large-scale community design, we embraced too wholeheartedly functional and collectivist architectural theories that tended to ignore certain subtler esthetic values and basic social needs. To experiment in this direction was healthy and necessary. The mistake, again, was to jell both policy and practice in rigid formulas that prevented further experimentation to adapt and humanize these principles in suitable terms for the American scene.
The public housing project therefore continues to be laid out as a “community unit,” as large as possible and entirely divorced from its neighborhood surroundings, even though this only dramatizes the segregation of charity-case families. Standardization is emphasized rather than alleviated in project design, as a glorification of efficient production methods and an expression of the goal of “decent, safe and sanitary” housing for all. But the bleak symbols of productive efficiency and “minimum standards” are hardly an adequate or satisfactory expression of the values associated with American home life. And all this is, in addition, often embodied in the skyscraper, whose refined technology gladdens the hearts of technocratic architectural sculptors but pushes its occupants into a highly organized, beehive type of community life for which most American families have no desire and little aptitude.
There is no room in such schemes for individual deviation, for personal initiative and responsibility, for outdoor freedom and privacy, for the type of small-scale business enterprise that plays such an important social role in most slum areas. Management domination is built in, a necessary corollary of architectural form.
How to reform the reformers?
A fresh start is badly needed to bring this frustrated effort to effective maturity. And the time may at last be ripe. Until recently there were only a few lonely critics within the ranks of the “housers” themselves. But now some local housing authorities are beginning to question the old formulas. The big push for redevelopment and renewal has also performed an important service in forcing all kinds of civic groups and agencies, including real estate interests and local housing authorities, to face up to hitherto insoluble problems and get together to find solutions. In some areas local and metropolitan planning agencies are beginning to assume some responsibility for determining overall housing needs, and for fitting the bits and pieces of federal aid and private and public initiative together. In several cities, the mayors have appointed housing coordinators for this purpose. And alongside central redevelopment, a new issue is just coming over the horizon officially in fast-growing regions such as California: how to encourage better balanced communities with a wider variety of homes in the fringe areas, to meet the needs of the lower-income and minority families who are more and more likely to find their employment in outlying plants and offices.
All this broader-based civic effort and sharper awareness tends to make the weaknesses in narrow, over-compartmentalized federal housing policy more apparent. Sooner or later there will be a grassroots demand for greater flexibility and better coordination, strong enough to overcome the special-interest lobbies, each trying to maintain its own little preserve. And this is the only effective and healthy way to bring about the necessary changes. For it is only when cities and metropolitan areas know what they need and want in terms of federal housing aid that greater flexibility will be justified.
What is needed, not only for low-income slum dwellers but also for middle-income families, is more choice in location, dwelling type, and neighborhood character.
It is not a matter of substituting a new legal-administrative formula for the old one. Under certain conditions the old formula is still the best answer, perhaps the only possible solution. But what is primarily needed, not only for low-income slum dwellers and minority groups but also for the great mass of middle-income families in all their infinite variety of taste and need, is more choice in location, dwelling type, and neighborhood character. The kind of home best suited to a given American family can never be decided by officials. Their highest responsibility, rather, is to make sure that public policies keep the “effective market” broad enough to provide some real selection at all economic and social levels.
Freedom and flexibility are probably the hardest things to achieve with public policy. But a country that can devise the insured mortgage (in all its different forms), Fannie Mae, the modernization loan, the annual contribution, the local authority bond, redevelopment and renewal grants, and ingenious methods for local governments to contribute their share, should certainly be able to find some way to make these excellent tools work more freely and more effectively.
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