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Housing and Politics (1940)

Housing and Politics

by CHARLES ABRAMS, Survey Graphic, February 1, 1940

Editor’s Note: Charles Abrams (1902 – February 1970) was a Lithuanian-born legendary lawyer and housing expert who created the New York Housing Authority. In 1936, the US Supreme Court established, in New York City Housing Authority v. Muller, the Authority’s right to employ the power of eminent domain for slum-clearing purposes.


THROUGHOUT AMERICA’S HISTORY THE LAND QUESTION HAS been a central problem, a burning issue. The acute forms in which it confronts us now have been accumulating for a century: land use, security of tenure, the plight of farmers, sharecroppers, rural and urban slum dwellers, debt-burdened home owners, the stability of the whole land economy itself. In the last few years we have seen dramatic overtures in these fields by the federal government which now owns two fifths of all farm mortgage debt and one fifth of all urban mortgage debt. AAA, FHA, USHA have all made tentative stabs at the problems.

Today we have reached a crossroads where a choice may have to be made. What have these experiments yielded? What have these demonstrations demonstrated? Were the housing projects designed only for the lucky few who got in early, or is their construction to go on until every slum is cleared? What of the labor camps, the communities for stranded groups, the Greenbelt towns, the subsistence homesteads, the farm-buying for migrant tenants and sharecroppers, the attempts at soil conservation and restoration—are these to continue until all are provided for, or are they, too, only demonstrations that have served their political purpose and are now to be abandoned?

The answers depend largely on the public attitude. But the public attitude will depend upon how much the public knows and how earnestly it makes itself felt as a result.

A well organized minority, not too strenuously opposed, can destroy even a deserving program where the public generally has evinced little concern over it. Not that public sympathy cannot be stirred. But it won’t happen by itself. Public opinion must not only be roused to demand continuing action against the growing demand for “economy” in everything but war expenditures, but it must also be informed so that it does not mistake the shadow for the substance, does not accept a program of payments to absentee landlords in the guise of relief to farm tenants, does not accept tax exemption to private builders as a means of housing those of low income.

Low rent housing, resettlement, rural relief, soil conservation and reclamation, all these stand at the political crossroads today. The next few months may be decisive. What chance is there that public sentiment can lift these measures from their present position as experiments and stop-gaps into a realistic and adequate long range program?

There are a number of factors operating against such a development. For one thing, federal land policies are still linked in the public mind to the nightmare years that came after 1929. The scales could be tipped and all the progress so far achieved wiped out by such developments as a major recovery or a high pressure economy drive.

Not even the persons for whom the benefits are intended give any large measure of concerted support. There is no such thing as a sharecroppers’ movement, or a tenants’ movement on an adequate scale. A few organizations do good work in canalizing public opinion on zoning and tenement reform, in resisting raids on housing authorities by established political groups, and in sponsoring legislation. But these are not “movements” in the same sense we might speak of the Labor movement or even of the “Ham-and-Eggs” or Townsend movements. It is one thing to organize veterans for a bonus drive or inspire our elders to seek a $50-a-week paradise. Regardless of the merits, victory would bring immediate and tangible benefit to the humblest follower. The inspiration and intensity of feeling of such drives are absent on the depressed plane of the sharecropper or the slum tenant. To them a housing project can only mean some slight increase in their infinitesimal chances of finally being picked as tenants.

The Facts of Life

IN SEVEN CITIES REFERENDA HAVE BEEN HELD DURING THE past year to test the local attitude on public housing. In four the vote was favorable. In Flint, Mich., in Portland, Ore., and in Burlington, Vt., it was unfavorable. In all cases the turnout for the vote was poor. In Flint, which needed workers’ housing as much as any other city in the country, where the contrast between the modern General Motors factories and the archaic tumbledown human shelters furnish a sardonic commentary on modern life, less than 25 percent of the eligible voters participated. Opposition there. as in Portland and Burlington, was articulate and well organized. In New Britain, Conn., where housing just skimmed through, a combination of hardware manufacturers and misguided workers almost succeeded in depriving the city of housing. The workers who owned small houses had been told that they were sure to lose them if housing projects were built, while the manufacturers were afraid that the projects would become meeting places for CIO organizers. At some public meetings, supporters of housing were booed down, even by people in work shirts.

Yet, in spite of all these obstacles, the basis for a real housing movement exists. The newly completed projects have begun to attract a genuine sympathetic interest. The Los Angeles newspapers that recently boiled over when federal official told them their slums were the worst in the country have now begun to look at their back streets. Opposition in Yonkers, N. Y. and Detroit, Mich. is developing into keen curiosity as the actual construction proceeds. Two hundred local housing authorities have been formed in less than two years. The high courts of sixteen states have already upheld the purposes of housing authorities and the legality of tax exemption on their projects. They have condemned slum conditions in opinions which, as human documents on the background and aims of public housing, can hardly be excelled.

It is clear that, in the face of intense opposition, there has got to be even more powerful support—support which can have an infinitely broader base provided the spearhead groups which always precede mass movements keep ever. lastingly at it. Every community has a potential nucleus for action—whether it is a housing council or a women’s club or a church group. But it is not only emotional drive that is required. Housing is no longer an emotional issue alone. It has gone past that initial stage. Now, for its fullest measure of success, it requires public familiarity with techniques, procedures, alternatives, methods, norms and concepts. It requires a public able to distinguish substance from oratory, a public that must know not only why we need housing but what kind of housing, where, at what cost, for whom.

It must learn to recognize what are details, and what are fundamentals. When real estate organizations abandon their direct opposition to all housing, but insist that only slum clearance and rehousing on the same sites be allowed, then the social workers who have been insistent on the same thing must begin to realize the facts: that purchase by the government of certain high cost slum real estate bails out unlucky real estate investments and that it does little or nothing to combat the growing shortage of low rental houses of any kind. When, in 1938, a leading gubernatorial candidate in the East expressed great sympathy for the slum tenant but blasted the New Deal housing policy for invasion of states’ rights, we must recognize that he meant an end to federal aid for housing, and that that in turn means the end of the whole housing program for the present. Only two or three states would make the large appropriations required, and our cities, their finances being what they are, certainly could not do it alone.

For the public must go even further than that. It must realize that adequate housing is possible only if the states and cities are ready to carry their end of the housing load. This means that Washington must not be expected to do everything and pay for everything. There must be enough non-federal projects, locally financed and state-aided, to supplement the necessarily inadequate federal program.

Lobbies, Pressure Groups, Public Opinion

WHAT ARE THE PRESENT BASES OF A STRONG PUBLIC OPINION? Originally there were the manufacturers of building materials who wanted some program started so they could sell their goods. Social workers, local housing associations and housing councils who have done good work considering their difficulties in getting even the meager funds they require. Local housing authorities should be intensely interested in rallying support as a matter of self-preservation, but have generally failed to explain their policies adequately, and have generally cold-shouldered local housing groups who wanted information on the planning of projects. This aloofness is temporarily an easier policy, but in the long run fails to build up enthusiasm for housing, fails to build support for further expansion of housing activities, fails to build resistance for the almost inevitable when the local political administration starts to move in on the supposedly independent position of the Housing Authority and starts to take it over and make it over, statute or no statute.

On the other side we have the well organized real estate boards, the building and loan associations, taxpayers’ associations, economy leagues. They act in the full vigor of maturity in lobbying, with the fine confidence of ample funds. To combat them, to combat inertia, to combat the intensifying economy drive is not hopeless, but it’s a big job, a job that must start not a very great distance from scratch, and it must be done now before it is too late. Tentants’ associations formed within the new housing projects, groups excluded from good housing until more projects are available, labor which has a strong interest both as employed producer and as housing consumer, architects and engineers, social workers and enlightened business—all these groups are the potential supporters who must become active supporters. Nuclei sometimes exist around which these may rally. The local Housing Authority should always be available.

On All Fronts

ACTION IS REQUIRED ON TWO FRONTS NOW—LOCAL and Federal. States should be made to follow. Locally there is the problem of freedom from favoritism and politics, for nothing will so soon discredit the movement as the impression that it furnishes an opportunity for favored contracts or for favored political henchmen either as officials or as tenants, the suspicion or prospect of “slum-mandering” by which a project is located in a hostile political district and then loaded with tenants who will vote “right.” There is the need to see that the local council or selectmen or board of aldermen will grant the necessary funds for projects to proceed. Nationally, the problem is to make Congress see the fundamental importance of continuing the program it has begun, to make it really affect the pattern of our lives, so that we shall not be content merely with tantalizing experiments and models. Possibly we may even hope to succeed in making housing, land use control, soil reclamation an integral part of both party platforms as in England.

Difficult as the job is, a good many things have happened in the last few years to help make possible the creation of strong public backing. We have the challenging new communities themselves, incomparably better physically, socially, recreationally, than anything those of low seven higher income have been able to achieve. We have the stirring and popular films such as “The City,” “The River,” “The Plough That Broke the Plains.” We have excellent traveling exhibits such as that of the Museum of Modern Art. John Steinbeck has written his heartrending best seller, “The Grapes of Wrath.”

In addition to an aroused and educated public opinion, we must seek to train men and women who will work in: the projects, for unless this is done, and unless there is a pool of qualified applicants for housing positions, there is danger that employees will be chosen for their political contacts rather than for their merits.

From Negative to Positive Impulses

THUS FAR EDUCATION IN HOUSING HAS MADE SLOW PROGRESS. There are few persons qualified to teach it, and most of these few hold office in Washington or with local housing authorities. There are few suitable textbooks. Both practice and policy are in a constant and somewhat bewildering state of flux. Nevertheless a considerably greater degree of interest in the subject has been developing in American colleges and universities, and a few courses are currently being given under the auspices of the departments of public administration, architecture and sociology. In other cases visiting lecturers may present rough outlines of specific aspects. But while about two hundred schools and colleges touch on the subject in some form, no effort has yet been made to develop those courses which will train people in all branches of the subject, qualify project directors, adequately instruct managers in theory and technique as well as in management, train teachers so that they can go out and, in their turn, train others. This is the responsibility of the larger universities as well as of the local authorities.

The future of the housing program and of other federal land activities depends largely on what happens during the coming year. Much will depend on whether the people as well as the administration assume responsibility for the program, lead the fight for its continuance, make it one of their “must” measures. The cooperation of local authorities and a real effort by unofficial groups would do much to bring that about. For among the many measures that come before Congress, with many new issues presented by the present war, with much opinion favoring the limitation of federal operations, the President cannot be expected to press most strongly for measures on which there is only public apathy.

If enough demonstrations can be completed, if enough public interest is stirred to warrant their continuance, housing, rural resettlement and similar measures may reach out of their present place as temporary expedients into something whole, rational, real and permanent. Housing has here been singled out for discussion because space does not permit developing the thesis in the other equally important and related fields in which similar action is necessary and similar techniques must be applied. If confusion or the clamor for economy are allowed to erase the progress so far achieved, it may be years before another similar opportunity presents itself. And in the meantime the situation will continue to deteriorate, for the forces that have brought us to our present position are still the dominant springs of action.

Source:   Abrams, Charles, “Housing and Politics,” Survey Graphic, Vol. 29, No. 2, p. 91 (February 1, 1940), New Deal Network,, (June 9, 2014).

The work may also be read on the Internet Archive.