United States Housing Authority (USHA)
UNITED STATES HOUSING AUTHORITY (USHA)
On February 24, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the consolidation of more than a dozen federal housing agencies into the National Housing Agency. The United States Housing Authority (USHA), the agency that had overseen the nation's controversial, federally subsidized, low-income public housing program since the passage of the United States Housing Act in 1937, was abolished and its activities were transferred to the National Housing Agency's Federal Public Housing Authority.
The USHA was the second agency to administer the public housing program started under the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works in 1933 with the primary goal of aiding the economic recovery of the construction industry. Under the terms of the United States Housing Act, popularly known as the Wagner-Steagall Act, the USHA loaned funds to public housing authorities formed by local governments for the construction and operation of public housing developments. Local public housing authorities were required to meet the USHA's design and construction standards, resident selection policies, and management procedures. Ownership of USHA-aided public housing developments rested with the sponsoring local public housing authorities, not the federal government.
The USHA and the public housing program were supported by representatives of secular and nonsecular social work and civic organizations, architectural and planning agencies, and labor unions who believed that the private housing market had failed to provide an adequate supply of housing for persons of low to moderate income. Under the leadership of Administrator Nathan Straus, a former New York City social worker, the USHA offered down-on-their-luck, wage-earning families a temporary escape from the slums so they could recover both their finances and dignity. The Wilmington, North Carolina Housing Authority, for example, demonstrated that public housing worked as intended by publicizing the case of Benjamin Jenkins, a fertilizer factory worker. After living in the city's (racially segregated) USHA-subsidized New Brooklyn Homes for a brief time, Jenkins and his wife purchased a home in a nearby neighborhood.
The most outspoken opponents of public housing were home-building, real estate, and banking interests who saw the USHA as a threat to the private residential construction industry and the cherished ideal of home ownership. Homeowners from neighborhoods or areas targeted for public housing who were convinced that real estate values would decline frequently joined campaigns to stop public housing.
The USHA staff worked with officials from local public housing authorities to create the local support necessary to build public housing and raze the equivalent number of substandard housing units. Their task was aided by the policy whereby existing racial patterns determined whether the housing would be designated as "white," "Negro" or "mixed occupancy." The USHA furthered racial segregation and at the same time, worked to empower residents in small ways. Classes, health clinics, childcare centers, and newly created resident councils were intended to combine with architecture and planning to foster community identity. The severe construction cost restrictions added to the Wagner-Steagall Act by the opponents of public housing had their desired effect: The USHA and local housing authorities were forced to decrease the size of dwelling units and eliminate nonessentials such as closet doors; increase overall project density; and trim community facilities that were supposed to help integrate the developments into the larger urban fabric.
In the months prior to the implementation of the 1942 housing reorganization plan, the USHA was the subject of bitter partisan attacks that ultimately led to the resignation of Administrator Straus. At the heart of these political battles was the future of public housing. Congressional opponents were determined that the public housing program would not benefit from the appropriation of funds for the construction of housing for civilians employed by the armed forces or defense contractors under the National Defense Housing Act of October 1940. Straus unsuccessfully maintained that the United States should continue building housing for impoverished families and at the same time, erect housing for defense workers.
During the five brief years of its existence, the USHA helped thousands of families escape the slums—at least temporarily. Attitudes and beliefs concerning public housing and the men, women, and children who reside there hardened during this time, and continue to influence legislation and public policy regarding housing, urban development, poverty, and homelessness today.
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McDonnell, Timothy. The Wagner Housing Act: A Case of the Legislative Process. 1957.
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Vale, Lawrence. From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors. 2000.
Wright, Gwendolyn. Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in the United States. 1981.
Kristin M. Szylvian