Housing policy in the United States first rose to national prominence during the Great Depression and funding for it only accelerated during the lead up to World War Two. Although it resulted in the loss of four percent of the entire human population, the immediate aftermath of that wartime mobilization meant that many Americans now possessed a certain level of infrastructure that they, and their congressmen, thought right to maintain. As such, the transition from ‘war housing’ to ‘public housing’ proved surprisingly smooth in Huntsville.*
Throughout the rest of the series I’ll be referencing a variety of housing laws that stretch from the earliest investments in Alabama infrastructure to the most important housing law of the 1950’s. We’ll briefly review them below.
A Chronology of Early Housing Laws:
1933 – NIRA, Title II
The National Industrial Recovery Act proved to be the first widescale federal investment in southern housing. Previous to this there had been tepid attempts to provide more adequate public housing in New York, but Title II of the NIRA “provide[d] for aiding the redistribution of the overbalance of population in industrial centers.” Think of it as a government mandated exodus from the cities.
Now, the Supreme Court eventually declared the NIRA unconstitutional. Not because of its housing components but because other parts of the law interfered with interstate commerce. The actual case that ended everything was A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corporation vs. United States, because sometimes government just does too much to regulate chickens.
1937 – Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act
A surprisingly large number of early housing regulations focused in on rural and farm poverty instead of the growing urban blights. The Bankhead- Jones Act not only provided low interest loans to farming families but also made provisions for the “retirement of submarginal land,” in effect creating new wilderness areas to help protect the “health, safety, and welfare” of the American public.
This focus on health and welfare belied a much deeper trend towards revitalization during the Great Depression. People understood that the world around them was changing, especially in the quickly industrializing south. Southerners no longer accepted the miasmas, fevers, and social conditions of old. They wanted a cleaner, more just, world. One that substituted tenants, sharecroppers, and hard scrabble land for small farmers and modern-day yeomen working decent soil.
By 1936, both Democrats and the GOP integrated farm tenancy issues into their platforms, vowing to find a solution to the poverty and exploitation that stalked all who worked another man’s fields. Which is why John Bankhead, a senator from Alabama, and Marvin Jones, a representative from Texas, introduced legislation that directly attacked the social and economic systems of their home states.
1937 – Wagner-Steagall Housing Act
At the same time that John Bankhead attempted to alleviate rural poverty through the ownership of land; a Democrat from south Alabama, Henry B. Steagall, partnered with New York Democrat and German immigrant turned senator, Robert Wagner, to tackle the issue of slums and urban renewal.
Suddenly an actual federal agency, the United States Housing Authority, possessed the ability to disperse funds to a variety of localities around the nation. Prior to this, subsections of the Public Works Administration undertook the construction of fifty-two various public housing units around the nation; including Atlanta’s Techwood Homes and New York City’s First Houses, which hilariously came second.** Although a previous effort existed, the PWA only possessed the resources to attack the most horrendous cases of urban neglect.
This short-term alliance between the rural south and the heavily urbanized north marked America’s opening salvo in the war on inadequate housing. Within two years, some fifty thousand new homes cropped up across the United States.
1940 – Lanham War Housing Act
It was clear that we would go to war. By June 1940, Continental Europe lay in the waste, Britain stood alone, and the Japanese cut away swathes of Asia daily. The reality dawned by Dunkirk. Americans knew that somehow, some way, they’d be dragged into this global war.
Factories must be constructed, arsenals incorporated, and emergency housing built. Into this gap emerged the 1940 Lanham War Housing Act. Fritz G. Lanham, a House member from Texas, worried about the accessibility of affordable housing for defense workers along the Gulf Coast and in his own Dallas-Fort Worth area. Although Lanham might be remembered for his strong stance on trademark laws, he introduced “the most significant piece of public housing legislation for the 1940s.”
Although some previous war housing existed under the authority of the USHA and the American military the Lanham Act centralized all the activities under the Federal Works Agency, a suddenly revitalized New Deal program, and kept in place the previous defense housing coordinator – an Atlanta real estate man named Charles Palmer.
Charles Palmer spent most of his adult life advocating for public housing and slum clearance programs throughout the southeast and the nation. He toured pre-war Europe, Mexico, and South Africa to investigate their housing programs. Much of his expertise came to bear when he led the fight for Techwood Homes in his native Atlanta, famously joking in his autobiography Adventures of a Slum Fighter that by 1940, “after 76 years Uncle Sam helped rebuild more than Sherman burned.”
With Palmer at the forefront defense housing boomed. Although it initially differed from traditional notions of public housing – defense housing, for example, often popped up on the edges of industrial sectors and outside of major cities. These early experiences with housing industrial and defense workers prompted a variety of smaller cities, like Huntsville, to invest more heavily in their slum clearance and housing initiatives during the post war period.
1949 – Housing Act of 1949
On January 5, 1949, President Truman issued his fourth State of the Union. He spoke of rising medical costs, drilling for undersea oil, and the absurdities of “trickledown” economics. Topics that modern readers might difficult to identify with or understand. However, one of his greatest rallying cries (and the one most apropos for this update) occurred about halfway through his speech:
“Five million families are still living in slums and firetraps. Three million families share their homes with others… The housing shortage continues to be acute. As an immediate step, the Congress should enact the provisions for low-rent public housing, slum clearance, farm housing, and housing research which I have repeatedly recommended. The number of low-rent public housing units provided for in the legislation should be increased to one million units in the next seven years. Even this number of units will not begin to meet our needs for new housing.”
What emerged from Truman’s call, and a bipartisan push propelled by innate feelings of national shame over substandard housing, was “a shotgun wedding between enemy lobbying groups.” The Housing Act of 1949 took literal years to pass. It began life in 1945 as the Wagner-Ellender-Taft Bill, usually abbreviated as either WET or TEW, and gradually grew in the national consciousness. Whatever you called it, the original bill passed the Senate multiple times.
All that stood in its way was a bastard from Michigan.
Jesse Wolcott built his legislative career around a few things; hating the New Deal, fighting socialism, and obstructing basic housing reform. As the chairman of the Banking and Currency Committee he possessed the ability to consistently bury the TEW in various subcommittees. Aided by reactionary anti-housing Democrats and hardline Republicans, along with McCarthy’s early coalition partners, Wolcott effectively stalled a good housing law for almost an entire presidential term.
Until Truman made it a leading issue of his 1948 campaign. Congressional inaction made for a grand strategy, people rallied behind their president. Senate members began to show signs of weariness, John Sparkman (D – Alabama) headed the subcommittee attached to the TEW. Over a four year period of constant bickering and filibusters the housing bills produced “9,224 pages of testimony,” or something nine times as long as the collector’s edition of the Lord of the Rings. Sparkman, who later became a major figure in housing legislation, lamented this fact when he said “few pieces of legislation had been so exhaustingly studied.”
After a long fight, a good fight, the 1949 Housing Act became law. It represented the only win for Truman’s Fair Deal during his entire time in office. Sure Democrats managed to expand Social Security and other New Deal measures but that was all Roosevelt era legislation, practically sacred by the end of the war. No, this housing act represented all of Truman’s reforms.
On July 15, 1949, it passed.
1954 – Sparkman Act
John Sparkman, a Democratic Senator from north Alabama, introduced housing legislation that broadened several provisions from the 1949 housing act. However, the 1954 Act took a proactive stance. Now local housing authorities possessed the ability to stymie the supposed advance of slums, when coupled with new stipulations regarding urban renewal (new developments only had to be at least half housing), then one effectively found a license to redesign a city however one felt. All you had to do was fill out the correct paperwork.
The stage was set. A series of laws and regulations (inordinately influenced and designed by Bankhead, Sparkman, Hill, and other congressmen from Alabama) laid the framework for a reshaping of the modern American city. Huntsville proved an active testing ground.
*Although the growth of early public housing out of WW2 infrastructure, on like the national scale, is a pretty cool topic that someone with more time and inclination might pursue.
**It’s worth noting that ATL tore down Techwood Homes, while NYC still operates First Houses.
Alexander Hoffman, “A Study in Contradictions: The Origins and Legacy of the Housing Act of 1949,” Harvard University, https://www.innovations.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/hpd_1102_hoffman.pdf
“A Chronolgy of Housing Legislation and Selected Executive Actions, 1892-2003,” U.S. Government Printing Office, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CPRT-108HPRT92629/html/CPRT-108HPRT92629.htm
“Harry S. Truman,” University of California Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=13293
“Housing Act of 1949 S 1070 – P.L. 171,” CQ Almanac, http://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/document.php?id=cqal49-1399761
James G. Maddox, “The Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act,” Duke University, http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1875&context=lcp
Sarah Jo Peterson, Planning the Home Front: Building Bombers and Communities at Willow Run (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 83-90.