"The beginnings of any substantial American public housing program lay in the Great Depression of the 1930's. Viewed in an overall political sense, the New Deal era was a mixture of social reforms with innovations in state capitalism that took place during a period of profound economic and social dislocation. Often the adoption by the government of a specific welfare oriented program required the initiative, or at least the threat thereof, on the part of working-class or dispossessed middle-class groups. But the results were always confined to concessions and never extended to a restructuring of basic social and economic institutions. The dominant vision was not one of creating a new social order, but one of opening up the existing order to some of the people being excluded from its benefits.
The launching of public housing through the Housing Act of 1937 exemplified this characterization of the New Deal. Small-scale state and federal housing programs had preceded, but they lacked sufficient monetary resources and legislative mandate to construct any significant number of dwelling units. Housing reformers, trade unions and left-liberal groups, therefore, sustained a campaign over several years in order to push this new legislation through the United States Congress. In the course of the fight to create the Housing Act, real estate, mortgage banking and building interests had bitterly opposed governmental operations invading what they had considered their private preserves. This opposition helped to reinforce the aura in the public mind that the new federal housing program was a great concession wrung by the little man and the dispossessed from the vested economic interests.
The new housing program was viewed by most of those who came to support it as a pragmatic effort at stability to get the society and the economy back on track, rather than as a radical social departure. To stimulate interest in a public housing bill, the major national pressure group "appealed to any group that would give them an audience. They were quick to point out to each group – to public-health officers, to social workers, to laborers, to businessmen, to nurses, to architects, to teachers – that a long-range public-housing program would go far toward solving their particular problem." The Congressional initiators of the legislation primarily justified it on the basis of providing work for the unemployed and clearing slums for the purposes of removing hazardous social conditions. The federal courts sustained the 1937 Housing Act on the grounds that it removed housing conditions inimical to the public welfare. Public housing in the terms of these official rationales primarily had the purpose of preserving the equilibrium of the commonweal. It was not construed by the authorities as some new political right or victory on the part of the poor.
From the beginning there existed some serious limitations in the structure of the housing program. The law as finally enacted was hedged in with amendments favorable to the interests of hostile real state groups. No new housing could be built which would conceivably compete with units put on the market through private construction. Provision for the demolition of an equal number of slum housing units meant that there would be no net addition to the housing supply so as to maintain the demand for the basic stock of privately owned housing which poor people occupied. While the administration of the operating housing authorities was decentralized to independent boards in the individual cities, the ethos of the good government reformers who were influential in pushing the legislation led to the establishment of these boards in a form that was inherently paternalistic, with unpaid commissioners representing the "best of the community." This procedure eventuated in boards heavily weighted to conservative business types who were often not knowledgeable about or in sympathy with the program, and not representative of the interests of the poor families they served.
In spite of these restrictions, the early days of the public housing program were often marked by a social crusade atmosphere borne along by the enthusiasm of the pioneer staffers. Considering themselves more as members of a movement than a bureaucracy, they referred to each other by the in-group designation of "public housers" and proclaimed their primary goal to be one of providing "good homes and healthful living conditions for low-income families.” In the era of the Great Depression when the private sector of the economy was notorious in its malfunction, public housing did not bear the stigma of the charity ward. Being poor was not then considered a case of social deviance requiring appropriate social controls from the dominant institutions. The ruling norms of the day allowed that it was something that happened to regular Americans.
Nevertheless, the spirit of the public housers did have a missionary cast to it. Their work of uplift, while often requiring great devotion and personal sacrifice, was at least clouded by operating assumptions that the housers stood in a position of paternal guidance to people who could not make it on their own. By and large, the public housers failed to develop any political theory as to how and why they had gained influence and leverage at the precise time that they did. Rationality, good will and humanitarianism were held to be the basis for the changes much more frequently than was mass political involvement, either actual or potential. In effect, they operated on the premise that the reformers and the professionals, not the people of their constituency, were the ultimate agents of change. Therefore, they did not foresee the possible social and political developments which would greatly circumscribe their mode of operation."
Hal Baron, "Building Babylon: A Case of Racial Controls in Public Housing," 1971.
For more information, see:
Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Federal Controversy in Chicago, A Memorandum (Harold M. Baron, 1965)
Public Housing, Chicago Builds a Ghetto (Hal Baron, 1967)
The Web of Urban Racism (Harold M. Baron, 1968)
Building Babylon: A Case of Racial Controls in Public Housing (Harold M. Baron, 1971)