The American Affordable Housing Crisis Explained: 1850-1940

The American Affordable Housing Crisis Explained: 1850-1940

"This law mandated that all tenement apartments have an outside window and that each apartment required its own toilet facilities."

By: Lauren Orr
Dallas, Texas


The term “affordable housing crisis” has become part of American vernacular and is first thought of as a wholly modern issue. However, citizens of the United States have been struggling to find adequate housing since the country’s conception.What is known as the “affordable housing crisis” began in the mid-late 1800’s during the rise of urban American cities and has continued in some way for almost 200 years. In part one of “The American Affordable Housing Crisis Explained”, we take a look at the first 100 years of its history.


Tenement housing in New York City and the beginning of low-income housing



Urban American cities have faced housing issues for the entirety of their existence. This struggle for affordable and low-income housing began in the famous (or infamous) New York City in the mid-19th century.


Robert W. Deforest, the president of the National Housing Coalition of New York in the early 1900’s, wrote in his article “A Brief History of the Housing Movement in America”, “Housing reform in America began in the city of New York… The subject was forced upon the attention of the city… by overcrowding… and by unsanitary conditions created as a result of attempting to house immigrants in old houses not originally intended for such occupation.”


As the first complexes in the U.S. to resemble apartment-style living, tenement houses were meant to solve housing issues for low-income populations. In the end, however, New York City tenements became unmaintained habitations of squalor and overpopulation. By the start of the 20th century, 2.3 million people lived in tenement housing in New York City, two-thirds of the city’s population.


The Tenement House Act of 1867 was the first legislative reform passed in the state of New York regarding tenement housing, and became the first official low-income housing legislation in the U.S. This law defined the term tenement and set construction regulations for future construction within New York City. However, it was not heavily enforced, and residents continued to live in deplorable conditions.


Jacob Riis, a journalist and social and cultural photographer in the late 1800’s, released “How the Other Half Lives” in 1890. This infamous book of photos explicitly shows what living in tenement housing was like in 19th century New York City. The publication of “How the Other Half Lives” birthed the low-income and affordable housing movement after middle and upper-middle class Americans realized the substandard way of living for tenement residents.


In 1901, the third Tenement Housing Act was passed in New York City, bringing the most change to tenement housing that city had seen. This law mandated that all tenement apartments have an outside window and that each apartment required its own toilet facilities. In 1903, the Tenement House Department was created and took over the inspection of tenement housing from other city departments in accordance with new housing laws.


In 1929, New York City established the “Multiple Dwelling Law”, which includes 161 pages detailing the legal requirements for apartment living in the city which is used to this day. Starting in the 1930’s, New York City focused on “slum clearance” when it came to tenement housing policy, which continued until the 1960’s.


Public Housing in the New Deal Era



After the economic crash in 1929, housing became a national topic as people defaulted on their mortgages and millions of Americans became homeless.


The National Housing Act was enacted in 1934, creating the Federal Housing Administration and the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation. A majority of the law deals with mortgages rather than public housing/low-income housing, but Section 207 insures lenders in the case of mortgage default on properties with five or more inhabitable units. The goal in including this section was to increase the supply of affordable, safe housing for Americans who were impacted by the housing crash.


In his State of the Union Address in 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated, “There are far-reaching problems still with us… [M]any millions of Americans still live in habitations which not only fail to provide the physical benefits of modern civilization but breed disease and impair the health of future generations. The menace exists not only in the slum areas of the very large cities, but in many smaller cities as well.”


In 1937, President Roosevelt signed the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act, also known as the Housing Act of 1937, into law. This established the United States Housing Authority which acted as a loan granting agency for both state and local housing authorities so that low-income housing and public housing could be built in urban and rural areas. In just over a decade, the USHA had completed or were in the process of building over 500 projects with loan contracts of $691 million.


Conclusion to Part One


            After the New Deal era, the US took a step backward when it came to affordable housing availability and hasn’t caught up to the level it was in 1940. In the next article, we will be tackling the more recent history and developments in affordable housing that has resulted in the state of the issue today.


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