A Rambling Edifice: American Housing Policy in the Twentieth Century

Alexander von Hoffman

W12-9: How and why American housing policy got so complicated are questions scholars have largely neglected to answer.  Historians, for their part, have conceived of the federal approach, in Gail Radford’s useful phrase, as a two-tier policy.  In the upper tier are programs aimed at financially assisting the private banking, real estate, and home building sector to produce homes for the affluent and some portion of the middle class.  Historians have credited this tier – generally associated with the FHA – with the proliferation of single-family homes, most suburban development, and racial discriminatory practices.  The lower policy tier consists of programs that serve low-income populations.  Of these programs historians have paid most attention to public housing, which they distinguished from the top-tier programs as existing outside the private, for-profit market and operated by centralized government agencies. 

But if it has been built on two tiers, American housing policy is an edifice cluttered with balconies, back halls, and rambling wings that bear a strange resemblance to the main building.  Since the nation’s fundamental housing laws were passed in the 1930s, government officials added haphazardly to the basic housing-policy structure.  The government put in dozens of new programs and, in some cases, whole divisions to serve specific groups of citizens.  These efforts have created something that looks less like a single two-tiered structure and more like a complex of housing policies.