Friday, September 27, 2013

The History of Hamlin Park Part VII: Early Housing Acts and the Start of Urban Renewal

Now that Hamlin Park has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places I've decided to do a short series of the history of the neighborhood. This information comes directly from the National Register nomination that Preservation Studios completed. Check back for additional installations in the series in the coming weeks. Stay up to date with all things Hamlin Park by liking the Hamlin Park Historic District on Facebook.

Like many large American cities, Buffalo’s mid-twentieth century history was significantly influenced by federal urban renewal programs. The roots of urban renewal in the United States can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when industrialization and mass immigration led to the proliferation of overcrowded and unsanitary urban slums.  

"Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement--'Five Cents a Spot'" by Jacob Riis
During the Progressive Era, reformers began to create social awareness of the poor living conditions of the impoverished in our urban centers and to call for housing reform.  Tenement reform laws and the design and construction of model tenements were some of the early efforts to ameliorate these conditions in New York City.   Nevertheless, the small groups of model tenements constructed in the city between 1855 and 1905 paled in comparison to the fifty thousand speculative tenements erected in the same period.   In the early twentieth century urban planners such as Grosvenor Atterbury, Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, among others, experimented with planned communities; however, most were outside the city limits, in deference to Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City model.  Stein and Wright’s Sunnyside Gardens (1924-28) in Queens was one notable example of a complex that used urban forms, such as the rowhouse and the city grid, to best advantage.  Although Sunnyside was funded by a limited dividend corporation, it primarily benefitted skilled workers and the middle class, not the dwellers of substandard tenements.  

Sunnyside Gardens by Stein & Wright. Image courtesy of City Land NYC
In 1929, at the height of the prosperity in this country just prior to the Great Depression, about 50 percent of families were living at minimum subsistence level.  According to a period government inventory of sixty-four cities, only 37.7 percent of the housing was in good condition and 2.3 percent was unfit for human habitation.  The onset of the Depression only made these conditions worse.  Between 1928 and 1933, housing construction fell 95 percent and in 1932 alone, 273,000 homeowners lost their homes to foreclosures.

Prior to the 1930s, the federal government exercised a limited role in providing for the social welfare of its citizens and had no role in the debate over housing reform.  Nineteenth-century reformers never considered the possibility that government would play a role in building or subsidizing housing.   However, the overwhelming need for housing combined with a stagnant economy and the desperate need to create jobs as a result of the Depression sparked the federal government’s first efforts to create housing for the urban poor.    Thus, during the 1930s the federal government began passing legislation to encourage private investment in the construction of housing for low to moderate income families.  The Federal Home Loan Bank System, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and the Federal National Mortgage Association were all established to encourage mortgage credit flows, aiding in financing construction and purchase of housing for low-income families.  But while these programs aided middle-class families, they did very little for low-income homeowners, as the FHA discouraged loans to low priced homes and rental properties.  In 1933, the National Industrial Recovery Act, in an effort to help bring the country out of the Depression, provided for a federal housing program administered by the housing director of the federal Public Works Administration (PWA), which sponsored slum-clearance and the construction and operation of low-rent public housing.  Under this program, which had no state or local participation, the PWA’s own slum clearance and direct build housing program cleared 10,000 substandard units and provided housing for 22,000 families in thirty cities.   Neither local communities nor members of the real estate industry were enthusiastic about slum clearance and public housing, but while there were limitations, the PWA program paved the way for future programs by producing the first government subsidized housing projects for low-income families.

The U.S. Housing Act of 1937

After the reelection of Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, Congress passed the Wagner-Steagall low-rent housing bill, which created the United States Housing Authority and established a clear federal commitment to providing decent low-cost housing to America’s poor.   The act established a system for the federal government to provide loans and grants to local agencies for low-rent public housing.  Federal approval was required for sites, plans, costs and rents, and local authorities oversaw site acquisition, development, administration and ownership.  Although the act required the building of one unit of housing for every slum dwelling eliminated, the provisions of the bill only provided for a half billion dollars over a three-year period, far less than was required to address the housing needs of the time.   The United States Housing Authority ultimately constructed 370 public housing projects, accommodating 120,000 families and spending more than $540,000,000.

These shacks in Atlanta, GA were cleared to make way for the Capital Homes public housing project as part of the 1937 U.S. Housing Act. 
There was another force at work on urban issues at the beginning of the twentieth century.  This group consisted of business interests, real estate investors, and city politicians who were alarmed over the decentralization of American cities, as wealthy urban dwellers began to desert the metropolis for the suburbs.  This flight was associated by urban experts and leaders with the spread of slums and blight in the downtown areas, thus compromising real estate values.  Concerned over the loss of tax revenue, members of this groups called for the replacement of obsolete building stock, the redrawing of street plans, and the promotion of downtown areas. 

Many members of the real estate industry felt that the solution to deteriorated downtowns, surrounding industrial buildings, and low-income housing was to replace these run-down structures with expensive residences and office buildings. As early as the 1930s, the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) looked for urban redevelopment through private investment rather than public housing programs.  The NAREB called for cities to acquire properties in blighted areas through eminent domain and sell them to private developers at below-value prices.  The board proposed that the government provide subsidies to cover the difference between the purchase price and the value after redevelopment.  While several states complied and passed statutes to encourage urban redevelopment by private enterprise, the success of these programs was limited due to the lukewarm response of developers, who believed that they were not lucrative investments.  The reluctance by developers to invest in slum areas was a continual problem in the history of urban development.

The Housing Act of 1949

During World War II, housing was needed in and around newly created war-related industries, and the federal government issued a substantial number of housing contracts for defense workers.  Low-rent public housing complexes that were under construction or near completion were converted to defense housing, more than 625,000 inexpensive or temporary units were built in the most congested areas, and local housing authorities  built numerous units of new housing for the defense industry.    In 1941 members of the home building industry formed the Home Builders Emergency Committee so that private industry could participate in the building campaign.  In 1943 home builders formed the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), which became one of the country’s most influential lobbies.  

As World War II ended, a political battle began in the United States between liberal housing reformers and members of the real estate community over federal legislation for urban redevelopment, especially concerning the question of public housing.  In 1944 Senators Robert A. Taft, Allen J. Ellender, and Robert Wagner sponsored federal legislation that included a provision to assist local agencies in purchasing and clearing slum properties and selling the cleared land to private developers. Because of the provision for more public housing, the NAREB joined forces with the NAHB to fight the bill.   This bill, finally passed in 1949, provided federal aid to localities specifically for projects that would result in more residential development. Although not intended to subsidize wholesale rebuilding of aging urban centers, the Taft-Ellender-Wagner bill, later renamed the US Housing Act of 1949, recognized slums as a national problem and described two impediments to slum clearance: cost and lack of housing for displaced families. The cost of the land, its clearance and redevelopment was frequently more than its value after its redevelopment as affordable housing.

The 1949 Housing Act paved the way for massive "slum clearance" projects to construct new public housing like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis for example. Here it appears shiny and new before everything went to hell.
Title I of the 1949 housing act, “Slum Clearance and Redevelopment,” provided a federal financial assistance program for local communities for clearance, site preparation and sale of federally and locally approved redevelopment projects.  While the act did not specifically join public housing to urban redevelopment projects, it did make the provision that for projects to qualify, the site must be “predominantly residential” before or after redevelopment.  Title I specified that the slum clearance and redevelopment projects had to be locally planned, managed and serve local needs. Communities had to meet certain requirements, including a process to provide temporary housing for displaced families and permanent sound, affordable housing.  The 1949 housing act did not achieve its framers’ goals for clearing slums and providing low-income housing.  Only a small percentage of the substandard housing units were eliminated and redevelopment of these areas into public housing did not occur, primarily because it was not economically feasible. The areas were frequently lacking in supporting facilities, such as commercial and recreational services.  And, although the 1949 law appeared to provide a substantial increase in federal aid, in reality none of the urban renewal grants between 1949 and 1958 rivaled the amounts spent on highways, airports or water and sanitation projects.

Less than 20 years after it was constructed and heralded as a masterpiece of modern architecture, the complex designed by Minoru Yamasaki was leveled. If you haven't seen The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, it's worth a watch for the full story
While the supply of standard housing decreased, the demand increased.  The housing situation was compounded after World War II by millions of returning soldiers, most eager to marry and start new households.  Existing urban areas simply lacked enough housing units of any kind to shelter these new families, leading to a profound housing shortage, which in part fueled a massive exodus of middle-class families to burgeoning neighborhoods of single family houses being constructed outside the city.  This further reduced the economic viability of urban neighborhoods, which now consisted of people who were poorer and less able to invest in their neighborhoods.

The Baltimore Plan

During the 1950s, some city planners and real estate industry organizations believed that rehabilitation and conservation of neighborhoods could be as effective as slum clearance projects in bringing life to declining cities. A number of cities experimented with rehabilitation of existing buildings and preservation of neighborhoods.   Building repair and rehabilitation, clean-up crusades, and strict enforcement of building codes became priorities.  This plan had been developed in Baltimore as early as the 1940s.  The horrific conditions of Baltimore’s impoverished neighborhoods were publicized in the 1930s and the city government’s measures to correct these ills were ineffective.  A citizen’s group, the Citizen’s Housing and Planning Association, called for Baltimore’s government to create an independent department to make and enforce housing standards and, if necessary, demolish buildings that could not measure up to the standards.  The group also called for a rehabilitation commission, which would buy and rehabilitate substandard structures and then sell or lease the structures.  In 1947 the city created a housing court to address only those concerns resulting from residential code violations.  The so-called “Baltimore Plan,” was touted as a national symbol of how to transform blighted areas. 

At least twelve cities, including Boston, Detroit, Miami and St. Louis, followed this approach in an effort to avoid slum clearance. Some cities, including Chicago and Milwaukee, tried this approach through the initiative of local citizens groups. This theory of code enforcement and rehabilitation for urban change was expressed by industry consultant Miles Colean in his 1953 book, Renewing Our Cities.  Colean stated that urban problems were interrelated with economic problems, including decentralization, suburban spread, downtown congestion, and slums.  Rather than replacing slums with new housing, Colean recommended a more comprehensive approach, including improving the city’s infrastructure and schools, aimed at rehabilitating the city as a whole.  Colean had a major influence on the phrase of urban renewal that included code enforcement and rehabilitation.   However, the failure to address social issues completely led to a lack of sustainability for many of the Baltimore Plan experiments.  By 1951, Baltimore’s own planning commission noted that “relief can be only partial and sometimes temporary in nature.”   Nevertheless, the holistic “Baltimore Plan” contained the seeds of the Model Cities Program developed a decade later.

The Housing Act of 1954

In the early 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Advisory Committee on Government Housing Policies and Programs, which introduced the concept of “urban renewal,” drafted the main tenets of the Housing Act of 1954, which, among other provisions, expanded the definition of an urban renewal project to include the restoration of deteriorating structures, as well as projects involving clearance and redevelopment.  The law also required local agencies to have a ‘workable plan’ to meet overall problems of slum and blight in order to be eligible for urban renewal grants and loans and to receive federal assistance on low-rent public housing.  The law also offered FHA mortgage assistance for private developers building residences that helped meet the goals of urban renewal programs and matching grants to state planning agencies providing assistance to small cities.

In spite of the hope that this act would reduce urban problems, there were difficulties from the outset.  First, the programs were costly and complicated to initiate.  Interest by developers never materialized to build or rehabilitate in slum areas and builders found that the provisions for loans hindered projects.  Even after Congress loosened loan terms, builders encountered difficulties obtaining land from government agencies.  As of 1960, only 15,550 residences were built under Section 221 by developers and 1,500 under Section 220.    Code enforcement was not strengthened; local authorities continued to be lax and the federal government did not compel them to comply.  Funds continued to be supplied to local governments for urban renewal projects without effective code enforcement.  Citizen group efforts to implement code enforcement disintegrated by the end of the 1950s.  Despite being encouraged to undertake comprehensive planning, most cities continued to proceed on a project by project basis.  By 1959, the federal government began to offer planning assistance to any city willing to design a comprehensive Community Renewal Program, which would analyze the redevelopment and housing needs, inventory existing resources, and prioritize needs and resources. 

Urban Renewal and the 1960s

A shift in emphasis from requiring projects to be ‘predominantly residential’ to allowing an increasing percentage to be non-residential between the 1949 act and the 1954 act gave local governments an incentive to apply for federal funding to build non-housing projects.  The 10 percent exception allowed in the 1954 act was increased to 20 percent in 1959, 30 percent in 1961, and 35 percent in 1965.   Consequently, cities took this provision as license to demolish thousands of homes and build highways, civic centers, and other projects.  Between 1958 and 1963, federal urban renewal programs finally began to have a much greater effect on American cities – especially in comparison to the earlier period, when they primarily targeted housing projects.   

By the early 1960s, cities were experimenting with a wide variety of different options in an effort to reverse urban decline, taking full advantage of the federal funding to create everything from downtown government centers and plazas to sprawling industrial parks.  In cities across the country, some of the grandest and most optimistic schemes were proposed during this period.   Many of them shared common characteristics, such as focusing on marginal areas adjacent to central business districts, targeting waterfront areas, and being conceptualized as multi-purpose projects that combined building types such as housing, hotels, entertainment, offices, and government centers.   At the same time complaints and protests about the justice and economic feasibility of urban renewal projects that involved demolition and displacement and redevelopment of neighborhoods of low and moderate income housing with unaffordable alternatives began to be heard across the country.   

After the dense Italian neighborhood of Dante Place was cleared, the Marine Drive apartments were erected in its place on Buffalo's waterfront. Image courtesy of WNY Heritage Press
In 1965 the Department of Housing and Urban Development Act was passed, creating the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an agency with cabinet status that replaced the Housing and Home Finance Agency, the previous administrative agency for urban renewal.  The first major legislation passed under HUD was the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966 (Model Cities Act).  Incorporating some of the theories embodied in the Baltimore plan, the model cities act was an attempt to create and administer an integrated program of social services and citizen participation.   In response to criticism from groups that felt that their communities had been taken from them, the Model Cities program required a considerable amount of public participation in the decision making process.   The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 combined the Model Cities Act with legislation for new housing as well as the community development tools to make social and economic change more effective.  In addition to the loans and grants for programs authorized under the Model Cities Act, the 1968 act adopted a target of 26 million new or rehabilitated homes to be built between 1968 and 1978; six million of them were designated for low and moderate income occupants. 

In spite of the good intentions and various innovative methods of urban reformers, government officials, and business interests, by the 1970s, urban renewal had become synonymous with the demolition of low-income inner city housing and the displacement of its residents.  Given the disproportionate numbers of minority groups affected by these projects, critics of the program called it racist.  By 1974 the program had become so unpopular that Congress ended it as a federal program.  Not only had urban renewal failed to solve the problems of slum housing that had inspired it, it also failed to solve the problems of aging city centers, many of which continued to be plagued by the migration of businesses and commercial enterprises, lack of new construction starts and job opportunities, decaying infrastructure, loss of interest in downtown areas, and crime.

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