Gimme Shelter

A Primer on Housing America

A friend recently asked me how we create affordable housing in the United States. It seemed a simple query. Yet, like so many questions, the deeper I delved, the more complex and frustrating it became. Too much for a single blog post. So, over the next few weeks I will offer three perspectives. Today, a brief history of providing housing for folks unable to access the private market. Next week, the current grab bag of ways that government and non-profit institutions create affordable housing. Round out September with ideas about how we can create more housing and stronger communities by reimagining the entire situation.

Techwood Homes Atlanta, GA 1935

Part One: A Brief History of Affordable Housing

Before there was ‘housing’ there were simply houses. On farms, in towns, hand built by their owners or erected by developer/builders before those labels acquired their present meaning. As cities grew, building, leasing, and maintaining dwellings became different functions from occupying them, whether you lived along a London Crescent or in a Dickensian slum. Neither The Crescent (exclusive by design) nor the slum (completely lacking in design) fit our current notion of ‘housing:’ intended for the masses yet consciously designed in a manner supposedly morally uplifting. In reality, ‘housing’ is simultaneously generic and architecturally obvious; no one who can afford a private domicile chooses to live in it.

The earliest examples of what we now call ‘affordable housing’ are New York City’s 19th century tenements. A city laid out on simple grid of regular building lots, teeming with newcomers clamoring for shelter, was the perfect place for repetitive blocks of mass housing. Dense, unsanitary, ill-ventilated. These buildings prompted the Tenement Laws of 1867, 1879, and 1901. Although there were already building codes in some US cities proscribing structural integrity and fire-safety, the tenement laws set standards for ventilation and sanitation that acknowledged the connection between private habitat and public health. These well-intentioned laws inadvertently established an operating principle of housing: navigate the law for maximum profit. Before the Tenement Law of 1879, dumbbell apartment buildings did not exist. But once entrepreneurs discovered how that shape met the letter of the law at optimal density, the dumbbell proliferated. Until the Tenement Law of 1901 outlawed such buildings that provided light and air in theory, but were unsafe and unsanitary in fact.

Dumbbell Tenement

In the twentieth century, utopian theorists turned their focus from rural ideals to urban opportunities. Ebenezer Howard and other reformers envisioned ‘garden cities’ where light and space, commerce and leisure entwined. Some failed. A few, like Forest Hills, New York, prospered too well and became instantly affluent. Still others, such as Sunnyside Gardens (also in Queens) retained communitarian ideals for a long time. Although the Garden City movement was too small and too elitist to generate housing on the scale required by 20th century America, it was instrumental in prompting the first zoning ordinances (Los Angeles, 1908; New York 1916; model ordnances by the 1920’s). Zoning restricted development more comprehensively than mere tenement laws. It also established two key attributes to our nation’s development, albeit without stating either directly: density is bad; racial segregation is good.

Forest Hills, New York

The first affordable housing project built by the Federal Government (1935), Techwood Homes in Atlanta Georgia, established the blueprint for economic, architectural, and social standards for a generation of public housing. Techwood Flats was a fourteen-block neighborhood just north of downtown Atlanta, sandwiched between Georgia Tech and Coca-Cola headquarters. The haphazard collection of wood-framed houses, many dating from the nineteenth century, was home to over 1600 families, one quarter of whom were African-American. Atlanta businessmen wanted to remove this blight. The federal government provided $2,375,000 to demolish the neighborhood and construct 604 units in its place. The faintly colonial brick buildings zig-zag across open lawns, thereby establishing one hallmark of public housing: its form does not follow conventional street frontages and is therefore easy to identify as ‘housing.’ The second hallmark: all 604 units were reserved for white people. Later, a public housing project designated for Blacks was built further out of downtown, but by that the time, the original residents of Techwood Flats were long scattered.

This prototype of public housing, in form and disruption, exists all across the United States. Public housing did not carry immediate stigma; being poor was a reality for too many of us during the Depression and through World War II. The apartments were sanitary, with many windows and cross-ventilation. Amenities like full bathrooms, overhead lights, and bedroom closets were welcome. However, during the 1950’s and 1960’s housing projects got larger and larger and became receptacles of people left behind in a society of increasing affluence. In large cities, like New York, Chicago, and St. Louis, wide lawns fronting brick townhouses were abandoned in favor of high-rise buildings. Hives of the have-nots.

Pruitt Igoe Project St. Louis

President Lyndon Johnson inadvertently spelled public housing’s doom when he signed The Fair Housing Act of 1968, which ended segregation in public housing. Richard Nixon’s HUD initiated the Section 8 program, in 1974. The program touted the virtue of the enterprise (and sidestepped integration) by providing vouchers toward private-market rents. Thus began the transition from the federal government creating housing, to the federal government subsidizing housing provided by others, to eventually providing tax credits, dedicated subsidies, and loan guarantees that pretty much ensure everyone involved in developing affordable housing will get their cut, even as creating affordable housing units grows complex and expensive.

At present, the cost of creating an affordable apartment unit is about 25% higher (2016 national average just above $200,000) than a unit in the private market. In pricey states, like California, this cost can exceed $450,00 per unit. In pricey cities, like San Francisco, an affordable unit can cost over $1 million from concept to occupancy.

In the meantime, through the 20th century, zoning restrictions grew ever-more restrictive, allowing fewer units, requiring larger lots, deeper setbacks, and more parking. All of which made housing in general more expensive, and affordable housing more scarce. A general rule of thumb is that families should pay about 30% of their income for total shelter costs: rent or mortgage, maintenance, and utilities. Yet, entering the new millennium, over 40% of all renters paid more than 30% of their income on housing and 20% paid more than 50% of their income for shelter.

Affordable Housing San Francisco

What are we doing today to alleviate the affordable housing crisis? Is it effective? Check in next week.

About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog,, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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