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Unformatted text preview: High Ambitions: American Low-Income Housing Policy Housing Policy Debate • Volume 7, Issue 3 © F annie Mae Foundation 1996. All Rights Reserved. 423 423 High Ambitions: The Past and Future of American Low-Income Housing Policy Alexander von Hoffman Harvard University Abstract In the 1930s, idealistic reformers attempted to create a vast public housing program using modern architectural design. Instead they created a distinctive look that would later stigmatize its occupants. After the passage of the Housing Act of 1949, visionaries attempted to rebuild American cities by placing the poor in high-rise buildings, an experiment that was soon deemed a disaster. Today some believe that placing the poor in environments inhabited by wealthier groups will help to address the problems of poverty. By focusing on three periods of the low-income housing movement, this article examines how visionary idealism has led to disillusionment with housing programs. In the future, supporters of good low-income housing should present housing programs not as panaceas for deep-rooted social problems, but rather as important elements in social welfare policy. Advocates of housing should fight for programs that will produce as many units of housing as possible. Keywords: Low-income housing; Policy; History Introduction This article explores the often unexamined assumptions that shape and delimit discussions about housing policy. Usually policy debate focuses on the efficacy of specific programs, but such debate, which often takes place in the midst of political struggles, leaves little time to examine the logic and philosophy that drive policy. To understand the underlying thinking behind American housing policy, the article examines the public housing program during the 1930s, the midlife of public housing in the 1950s, and the present situation. The argument presented here is that the failures of public housing have been less in the area of housing (despite the wellpublicized disasters of a minority of projects) than in the area of expectations. The disillusion, which has dogged the program, arose in large part from the high and idealistic ambitions of its proponents. The idealism of public housing advocates has often taken the form of environmental determinism, a belief that an 424 Alexander von Hoffman ideal or improved residential environment will better the behavior as well as the condition of its inhabitants. In the 1930s, advocates of the new federal public housing program hoped to cure the social ills of the city and aspired to rehouse up to two-thirds of the American people in European-style public housing projects that would eliminate slums forever. Although they established a public housing program, they were unable to escape political controversies over location of the projects, and their design innovations would later come back to haunt the program. After the passage of the Housing Act of 1949 created a much larger public housing program, visionaries attempted to help by placing the poor in high-rise buildings, an experiment that was soon deemed a disaster. I...
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