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Unformatted text preview: n the face of frustration and failure, housers reluctantly accepted that a single public housing program for the majority of Americans was unfeasible and abandoned the notion of introducing new architectural styles through low-income housing projects. Yet visionary idealism, in particular environmental determinism, persists in the housing movement. Today heterogeneous communities are latter-day versions of the public housing and high-rise environments that housers once believed would eradicate the evils of the slum. Thus, some contend that programs of mixed-income housing development, scattered-site public housing, and geographical dispersal of low-income families will achieve social betterment for the urban poor. But the shattered dreams of the past are a warning that today’s popular housing policies are not panaceas. The future of public housing and related programs depends on setting goals that the movement can reasonably and readily address. Early public housing programs
The idea that living environments influence people’s lives has been a part of the housing movement from its earliest days. Beginning in the mid–19th century, idealistic philanthropists and moral reformers attempted to solve problems related to the housing of the urban poor. They firmly believed that the slums of the city were a malevolent environment that threatened the safety, health, and morals of the poor who inhabited them. By clearing slums and convincing or coercing property owners to improve the housing in the slum, reformers hoped to create a better environment that would uplift the poor. By the time of the New Deal, housing reformers had accomplished the passage of High Ambitions: American Low-Income Housing Policy 425 stringent building regulations, the construction of dozens of model tenements and industrial villages, and, most important, the dissemination of the belief that housing reform was necessary to solve the social problems related to urban poverty (Birch and Gardner 1981; Cousineau 1989; Lubove 1962; Wright 1981). The economic crisis of the Great Depression created a favorable climate for federal government intervention in the housing industry. The housing industry had been in recession since the late 1920s, unemployment rates reached painfully high levels, and many American homeowners could not make their mortgage payments. Overwhelmed by soaring demand for relief and by plummeting tax revenues, local governments could only look on helplessly. During the 1930s, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt responded by propping up the financial system of credit that supported homeownership.1 At the same time, Roosevelt’s New Deal programs intervened directly in the production and maintenance of housing for middle- and lower-class Americans. Besides the planning experiments of the Resettlement Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority, the government’s initial housing production program came as part of an employment program. When New Dealers and their congressional supporters drafted a jobs bill during the spring of 1933 to cope with the unemployment crisis, veteran housing reformers such as Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch and Edith Elmer Wood persuaded them to include provisions for slum clearance and low-income...
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