Modern Housing for America

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Gail Radford, “Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era”(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997) ISBN: 0226702235, 9780226702230



In her book “Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era,” Gail Radford looks at the Public Works Administration (PWA). By focusing on the short lived New Deal administration, Radford hopes to shed light on a moment in time when government sponsored housing could have produced centralized, attractive, community based, garden style apartments for middle and even upper class citizens. This style of housing was part of the “modern housing” movement. (pp 59) Modern housing, supported by architectural reformers of the time, such as the influential Catherine Bauer, had the potential to foster Americans who would be more community focused and less individualistic, while government control of the housing market would have made Americans less vulnerable to extreme housing bubbles.

The tenets of modern housing were that housing developments should be made for use and not for profit, they should foster entire neighborhoods and communities by providing social services in addition to shelter, they should be built with attractive architecture, and they should have controlled rents that would provide moderate priced housing. (pp 76-77) Though developments such as the Carl Mackley Houses and the Harlem River Houses attempted to implement these social ideals through government assistantship, they were only partly successful. While each provided attractive living spaces with social services, such as child care, they lacked any education programs, leaving residents unaware of the hopes of community builders to shape their ideologies toward collectivism. At the same time the Wagner Bill, which effectively killed the PWA, established a type of government sponsored housing program which was only for the extremely poor, created cold and industrial homes, and did not foster any community involvement. These factors meant that the social goals of the modern housing movement were never attained.


Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012

The greatest weakness of this book can be seen be the reader almost immediately, as evidence of it exists in the title of the book. By calling it “Modern Housing for America” and not “Modern Housing in America” Radford reveals her extreme bias towards the leaders and ideologies of the modern housing movement. Her inability to see any wrong doing on the part of these people can be seen most clearly in chapter six dealing with the Harlem River Houses. First, Radford completely dismisses any blame for PWA officials for the fact that these were segregated residences. She holds that this had nothing to do with the agency's own biases and instead was based on “their decision not to disrupt pre-existing racial patterns of neighborhoods.” (pp 104) Then she goes on to excuse the discriminatory application process biased towards nuclear families with ‘good morals’ and monthly inspections of African American homes. Using the notoriously unreliable source of personal interviews of the children who lived in these homes years after the fact, Radford says that the development was run by “capable, honest, and committed managers” who “provided humane and liveable environments” as evidenced by the fact that “to residents... having their apartments examined struck them as trivial.” (pp 175, 170)

Though not outright weaknesses, the book could have been strengthened by adding analysis of a few key areas. One such area would be an analysis of environmental impacts. These walk-able, centralized neighborhoods described by Radford are also better for the environment. Perhaps if the book had been written any later than 1996 these concerns would have occurred to Radford and would have added another social benefit of these neighborhoods. Another, would be by adding analysis of cities and housing in the North and West. Finally, even though the goal of her book was to show public housing's reform potential on the middle class, I do wish that her narrative contained more about the lower classes who would end up being the sole consumers of modern public housing.

Despite this weakness in bias, Radford still created a strong narrative. Her work convincingly showed that America’s views of public housing, individualism, and home ownership could, and (given the current state of the housing market) perhaps should, have been changed during the New Deal era. By connecting public housing to middle and upper class residents and by showing the lovely, popular, and livable communities created by the PWA in Philadelphia and New York, Radford convincingly removes the stigma of public housing for a modern audience. She shows the New Deal era as a moment in time when governmental control could have stopped the suburban sprawl and extreme class stratification of the 1950's before it started.

Daniel Curry, Spring 2014

Gail Radford’s book, Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era is a thoughtful work that analyzes the possibilities and attempts in early 20th century America to establish policies that “more fairly, coherently, and democratically” addressed housing issues than those eventually established in the American political system. It also chronicles an area that adds to the study of how and why the state “expanded into new spheres of formerly private activity” (p. 2). Radford focuses her narrative around Catherine Bauer, who led the small but vocal group advocating the “Modern Housing” concept as an alternative to the two-tiered system of subsidized commercial middle-class housing and public housing for the poor. Bauer and her supporters argued that public housing projects for both the lower and middle classes would reshape society as well as provide better quality of life for all.

Radford’s choice of topic is a significant example of the internal factions and debate within the New Deal regarding public policy strategy. Her analysis of the topic reveals the complexities of prioritizing goals such as slum clearance with construction of new facilities as well as the difficulty in deciding on the most efficient and appropriate means of enacting the increasing power of Washington over Wall Street. Radford’s analysis provides a fair assessment of the many difficulties inherent in the Modern Housing concept such as financial viability and public acceptance of such a radical change. She also does a wonderful job mixing a description of architectural trends with the debate regarding housing issues. She also convincingly argues that Modern Housing would have had an appeal to the middle class if it had been widely implemented through her examination of the Carl Mackley case study and a comparison of the American and European housing models.

Radford’s argument could have been further legitimized through a deeper analysis into policy motivations of progressive supporters of subsidized private housing. These political adversaries of Bauer also had the best interests of the public in mind, but the only clear motivation Radford gives them is a fear of abandoning a housing industry based on capitalism.

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