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Reforms in the United States

In the United States, housing problems—in particular the growth of slums—became acute during the 19th cent. in the cities of the eastern seaboard and in the larger Midwestern cities. A leading cause was the heavy immigration from Europe that began in the middle of the 19th cent. and reached a peak at the turn of the century. The first housing law (the 1867 New York City tenement house law) was revised in 1879 to prohibit windowless rooms. The findings of a tenement house commission resulted in a new law in 1901, requiring better provision for light and ventilation, fire protection, and sanitation. Most U.S. city and state housing laws in the following years were based on those of New York City.

Until World War I there was no government housing in the United States. Then temporary dwellings were put up for defense workers. The U.S. government lapsed into almost complete inaction with regard to building housing until the advent of the New Deal. The National Housing Act (1934) created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to undertake a nationwide system of home loan insurance. It also established, by means of mortgage insurance regulation, minimum standards for construction, for design, and for location.

Low-cost housing projects, including farm-family homes sponsored by the Resettlement Administration, were coordinated in 1937 under the U.S. Housing Authority, which financed urban low-rent and slum clearance developments by making loans at low interest rates. Such loans were later extended to rural housing. The Lanham Act (1940) authorized federal operation of a large-scale housing program for defense workers.

To unify the many federal housing agencies, President Roosevelt created (1942) the National Housing Agency, which included the Federal Public Housing Authority, the Federal Home Loan Bank Administration, and the FHA. But the total wartime construction of permanent homes was far below peacetime levels, while the demand for housing rose sharply with a high marriage rate, migration from farms to cities, greater buying power, and later the return of veterans. Complicated by building codes, union practices, and labor and material shortages, the housing deficiency remained serious after the war, and federal rent controls continued for some time.

A national housing policy began to emerge when Congress passed the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954, aimed at easing the housing shortage and eliminating slums; their goal was a decent home for every family. The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 created a separate cabinet-level Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In 1966 the Model Cities Act coordinated government assistance to selected low-income areas of cities.

Housing since then often has been caught up in debate over rent controls, homelessness, the failure of savings and loan associations, and the buying and selling of political influence by government administrators and building developers. From 1980 to 1987, 2.5 million low-cost housing units were lost, and the federal government reduced its subsidies for construction by 60%. In response, some private groups like Habitat for Humanity have tried to help individuals buy and renovate low-cost housing. Housing advocates have argued for public housing reform, including controls on speculation and on rent (about 36% of occupied U.S. housing units are rentals).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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