Affordable Utopias: A Report on the History of Housing

Last week we scratched the surface of affordable-housing, highlighting a company who's attained a strong level of social change in the small, yet integral sector of architecture and the society at large. This week, we'd like to go over the reality and history of low and middle class housing in the U.S., written by designer Margo Nathanson.

Affordable housing has always been a basic need for living a good quality life, but throughout history has commonly been and continues to be a problem for most middle and low-income earning people. We are affected more than we realize by what is around us. Whether it is the built or the natural environment, our lives are shaped by where we work, play, learn, live and raise families. Our communities can be shaped by us to foster growth, change, fulfillment, and well-being for our families and future generations.

We currently live in times where a good deal of the population here in the U.S. pay more than half of its household income on rent, or a 30 year mortgage. A statistics report of the United states by Habitat for Humanity says in 2008, the number of households spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing rose by one third, or 16 percent, to 18.6 million households. That’s 44.2 million Americans. If the homeless and those living in severely substandard conditions are included, roughly one in six Americans are in need of a decent, affordable place to live.

Everyone deserves the right to a good, clean, safe home in an area with decent municipal provisions, quality commerce, schools and health facilities. This is a hard achievement on a uniform and vast level, but with innovative ideas, and progressive approaches, this problem is being solved in small steps. Across the U.S., with the help of non-profit organizations, new zoning and housing ordinances, and even private investors, new communities are cropping up which serve as models for the future of good living and affordable housing.

There is excitement at the success of these new communities, like Tassafaronga Village in Oakland, Ca. Many are repurposed buildings, updated with green and sustainable finishes and systems. They are diverse communities which go beyond putting a recycled tire, solar panel clad roof over residents’ heads. They also have daycare, educational facilities, and health and nutrition facilities, along with vegetable gardens, playgrounds, and pocket parks. This is affordable housing — some government assisted, some rental, and some resident owned, with mixed cultural, racial, and ethnic residents.

Tassafaronga village, Oakland, an affordable green community


Could these communities which serve and educate residents, and continue to promote a positive social change be the future of afford-able housing for all?

Throughout history, there have always been issues of decent housing. In the late 19th century, cities like New York and Chicago suffered problems due to the influx of immigrants seeking work, and a better life. Instead many of them got extremely poor working conditions, and almost worse living situations in buildings which were commonly known as tenement houses.

New York City’s Lower East Side was one of the worst areas affected by living conditions that were extremely dysfunctional. As the population of NYC rapidly increased by the decade, due to the arrival of working class immigrants. The tenements here were highly unsafe because of poor ventilation, illness, improper plumbing, overcrowding, and crime. Landlords were only concerned with making money and had no concern about the livelihood of their tenants.

Living Quarters in a typical Lower East Side Tenement


After a Danish born photographer and writer by the name of Jacob Riis exposed these slums in his 1890 book “How the Other Half Lives”, the American public was shocked to learn that people were living under these conditions; twelve adults sleeping in a room thirteen feet wide, malaria and typhoid outbreaks and an infant mortality rate of close to 1 in 10. As a result of this discovery, city officials passed The Tenement House Law, which improved sanitary conditions and outlawed the common construction of buildings on narrow, deep lots, which is what caused a lack of windows and poor ventilation.

In 1926, New York governor Alfred E Smith, who knew all too well what life was like in a tenement, having grown up in the Lower East Side himself, signed a bill which passed the Limited Dividends Housing Companies Act, with the hope of wiping out these unsafe and unlivable conditions. He stated they were “no place for future citizens of New York to grow in”. This law served as an encouragement to private investors to construct affordable housing, but it was unappealing because of the lack of or low profit.

There are those who want to make money, and then there are those more civic-minded. Men who were more socially conscious and progressive were trying to make affordable housing possible for everyone. These men were inspired by socialist ideals and movements that were a response to industrialism, and the inhumane working conditions in factories that came with it. Unions like the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union were among the first to sponsor and organize cooperative housing. The Amalgamated Houses, in the Bronx was their first co-op, and was considered a model for the future Co-op communities. Residents had amenities like extensive educational and cultural programs.

President of the Amalgamated Clothing Worker’s Union and founder of the Amalgamated Houses Abraham E. Kazan stated: “It was offered to us to demonstrate that through cooperative efforts we can better the lot of our co-workers. We have also been given the privilege to show that where all personal gain and benefit is eliminated, greater good can be accomplished for the benefit of all. It remains too for the members of our Co-operative Community to exert their efforts to run this cooperative and make it more useful, and more interesting, for all who live in these apartments.”

The concept of the cooperative was the polar opposite of the tenant-landlord situation. Tenants were actually owners, and provided for themselves by combining finances together so that the rent could be kept as low as possible. At the year’s end, if there was a surplus of cash, it was divided and returned to the tenant/owners. Today, the Amalgamated Houses Co-op still lives and operates by the original principles of co-operative housing, offering affordable housing to over 1500 families. Amenities include daycare, a summer day camp, fitness center, visual arts committee, retirement community group, and an international group, which promotes understanding and relationships between different cultures using music and food to strengthen the diversity that makes up this community.

On another front, affordable home ownership from the west coast to chicago was sought after by the average working man. Simple one story homes with front porches, made from glass, brick, and stone, with windows of different sizes and shapes, also known as bungalows, were cropping up quickly.

Bungalow from a 1916 Sears and Roebuck catalogue 


The idea for these homes came from the English Arts and crafts movement. The movement’s pioneers, William Morris and John Ruskin, socialists who felt that craftsmanship, honesty of materials, and rejection of industrial age mass-production was ideal. They thought that the purism found in hand crafted goods made from local and honest materials should be enjoyed by even the poorest paid factory worker, but he movement did not quite succeed as only the wealthy could afford these special, handmade goods.

In the U.S., the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement was more of an aesthetic, rather than a social movement. It did not share the same goals, as socialism wasn't as popular here. But the American middle class wanted affordable homes, and aesthetically, were ready to move on from Victorian era homes, and thus the bungalow was born. An average working man in 1920 could afford a Sears and Roebuck kit house for $900, which included everything from light fixtures to plumbing, and could be put together by himself and a few friends.  At $900, that was one-third of the average annual income, whereas today it commonly takes 30 years to pay off a mortgage.

A bill signed by president Roosevelt in the 1930's called New Deal, changed low income housing in the U.S. with programs like public housing. The first government built project called First House, opened in the Lower East Side in 1936. Government funded and public housing has not been largely successful though. It has seen many problems through the 20th century and today.

One major example, and possibly the icon of failure of public housing, was the Priutt-Igoe housing projects in St. Louis, Missouri. Completed in 1955, and designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who would later design New York's World Trade Center, it was intended to be a solution to the low income housing problems for residents in the St. Louis communities. The Pruitt apartments were for blacks and the Igoe apartments for whites, but upon refusal of whites to move in, it became an all black housing project. This project was to occupy the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood, which was a poor, black and white neighborhood designated as extremely obsolete.

Original plans were to build two or three-story brownstones with a public park, but the plan was never brought to fruition because Joseph Darst, the new mayor elected in 1949, wanted to renew the city of St. Louis by erecting large modernist buildings, similar to those he admired in Manhattan, by architects like Le Corbusier. Yamasaki and his partner architect on the Pruitt-Igoe project persuaded the Public Housing Authority to administer the new, modernist style to public housing. In this vein, 33 eleven story brutalist looking structures were erected on 57 acres.

The forefront of 1950s culture was emphasized by cleanliness and uniformity, and the government was falsely promoting this on a grand scale in the Pruitt-Igoe development. Kitchens were undersized, and elevators were skip-stop, meaning, they only stopped at designated floors. this was an attempt to try to reduce congestion by making residents use stairwells for the remainder of travel to their units.

The Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project


As the population of St. Louis rapidly decreased, the residency rate in the development remained highly vacant. Public areas quickly decayed, crime and gang violence increased, and the remaining residents struggled to live, forming a tenants organization, which did help to preserve small areas of well-being, made up of clusters of apartments within the project. As the Pruitt-Igoe reached a state of disrepair, the remaining residents were encouraged to leave by the PHA, and demolition followed soon after.

The architect sadly stated that he had never seen people be so destructive, which supports the myth that these people did this to themselves. Was this government-built and maintained, modernist, high-rise development with poor ventilation, no central air conditioning, and undersized, crowded apartments really suitable for sustaining what was once a strong community of homes? Meanwhile the adjacent Carr Village, which consisted of low-rise, smaller structures never suffered any of the blight or problems that Pruitt-Igoe did at the time. In fact, it thrived.

In a recently released documentary, called The Pruitt Igoe Myth: an Urban History, the myth that the project was torn apart by residents who struggled to adapt to life in a city high-rise is broken down. Also a myth is that drugs, crime, and violence were rampant in the project from the very beginning. The film contains footage of residents including a member of the tenant organization expressing the despair, and anger toward the government at allowing people to live under those conditions. Residents express how they though it was going to look like a big, hotel resort, but they ended up feeling penalized for being poor, and only people that don't have a decent place to live are willing to take those kinds of chances.

Also discussed in the film is the idea that Pruitt-Igoe was an example of how public housing is used as a tool of racial segregation and justified the clearance of poor and working class families by the government, who created a project that it couldn't properly fund. The reasons behind Pruitt-Igoe's ultimate decline is still widely argued and unresolved, and the project is still frequently used as a resource for studies on housing, urban redevelopment, architecture and social justice.

Even with the inclusionary housing ordinances, which require that a given share of new construction be affordable to people with low to moderate incomes, the idea of affordable housing to all has been problematic. Suburban development, which started in the mid 20th century, was desirable and accessible to the middle class, who had support federal loan programs. These suburbs, whose communities ordained certain zoning codes to preserve their character, such as having minimum lot sizes, and minimum house distances from the street, were actually practicing exclusionary zoning. Lower income families had no access to these communities, because they were unaffordable. It is possible that this indirect bias contributed to ongoing racial segregation and  maintenance of inner-city ghettos.

Inclusionary housing has specific goals; to offer families across the economic spectrum better access to good jobs, schools, transportation, safe neighborhoods, quality commerce, and recreational and cultural amenities. All communities should be provided with the benefits of economic, racial, and social diversity. Like the Amalgamated Houses, the principles of the Co-op can be applied to many different housing situations.

With the help of innovative thinkers, social-minded designers, teachers, architects, and anyone willing to participate in positive change for the future, communities like Tassafaronga can successfully be implemented. They can provide more than just a beneficial and productive community for the residents by being a model and a service for our society and as a whole, increasing social and environmental awareness, understanding, while enriching our lives.

 Tassafaronga Village ribbon cutting