History of US Housing Policy 1 of 4: Eras of Housing Policy – Progressive Era

Affordable housing, a major issue of current US policy, ties back to the mid 1800s.  As US housing policies evolved over time, we can segment them into four historical periods; Progressive Era (1865 – 1929), Great Depression (1929 – 1941), Postwar Era (1945 - 1973), Neoliberal era (1974 - ?). 

We’ll begin our series with the Progressive Era…

The Progressive Era

With rapid industrialization and urbanization slums were created. Poor city dwellers crowded into unsanitary, overcrowded, and unsafe housing creating a host of problems; health issues (drunkenness, Cholera, Tuberculosis, Diphtheria), sloth, and unemployment.

Bitter sweet - the conditions sprung some of the United States’ first building codes and solutions; In 1815, the use of wood for construction was limited in dense areas and NYC required fire escapes in 1862.  These codes, among requirements for windows in every room that faced fresh source of air, were included in the Tenement Act.

Early supporters of these reforms were philanthropists and civic minded developers as most returns were limited to only 5%.  Additionally, the sequence of reforms and developments served as an example of the Progressive belief that cleaner cities made better citizens. 

Another enacted reform current policy makers still struggle with today are zoning guidelines.  Rienhard Baumeister made the case for separating cities into distinct areas with the first modern zoning implemented in Frankfurt in 1891.  However, it wasn’t until 1916 that NYC passed the first comprehensive zoning in the US.  Zoning then spread slowly before 1920 across the country as Americans gave it mixed views as urban corrupt and incompetent politicians brought it about.

Between 1920-1930 zoning spread quicker and single-family homes in particular benefited with Americans viewing it as a means to protect property rights.  Finally, Euclid v Ambler 1926, Supreme Court decision established the constitutionality of zoning. 

Then came the Great Depression…

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