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Housing Reform

A major item on the agenda of nineteenth-century urban reformers was the condition of housing for the urban poor.5 The issue of housing for those who do not have enough income to obtain adequate housing on the private market has been on the planning agenda ever since. In the nineteenth century, housing reform largely took the form of pressing for legislation that mandated minimum standards for housing quality.

In New York City the first legislation regulating tenement construction was passed in 1867, and other legislation followed at intervals thereafter. The city's 1901 Tenement House Act is considered a landmark in this tradition. It cut lot coverage back to 70 percent and required a separate

Riverside, a Chicago suburb, was planned by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvin Vaux shortly after the Civil War. The curvilinear street pattern, close attention to fitting the street pattern to the topography, preservation of green areas, and separation of through traffic from local traffic are all commonly used design techniques today.

bathroom for each apartment, courtyards (for light and ventilation) whose width was determined by building height, and improved fire safety measures. It also set up a Tenement House Commission, with a staff of inspectors and enforcement powers. By 1920 at least 40 other cities had enacted building codes backed by some enforcement machinery.6

Although much was accomplished through housing regulation, we must also note what was not done. Housing reform in the United States took a conservative direction. The more far-reaching housing policies that had been adopted in some European countries were rejected here, much to the disappointment of the more radical reformers. In Europe much public money was invested in building housing for workers of modest means. Municipal governments often played the roles of landowner, developer, and financier. Local and national governments took the view that it was a responsibility of government to provide adequate housing at acceptable cost. The sort of policy that appealed to the more radical U.S. housing reformers was exemplified by the city of Ulm, Germany. The city acquired 1,400 acres of suburban land, planned the area, built housing, and sold it at cost to working-class families. The city also subsidized the building of cooperative apartments along with related community facili- ties.7 But the view that prevailed in the United States was that housing is to be provided by the market and that the most government should do is to regulate the market. Government was not to be a landowner, a developer, or a source of housing capital. Even Lawrence Veiller, the moving force behind the 1901 Tenement House Act, believed that only local government should concern itself with housing and that such concern should be limited to regulatory matters and general planning issues such as street layout. He opposed the idea that public monies should be spent on housing.

The United States subsequently did move toward public housing and housing subsidies (see Chapter 4) but, in contrast to Great Britain, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and other European nations, has never gone very far in that direction. The great majority of Americans live in housing that has been built for profit by the private market. Whether the United States would have been wise to follow the European approach is arguable. But, regardless of its merits or demerits, the European approach looked too much like socialism to be accepted in the United States.

 
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