Friday, September 10, 2010

1920 to 1940 – Is It Déjà Vu all over Again?

The 1920s brought on one of the greatest housing booms in U.S. history. The post-World War I depression and low numbers of homes built during the war only exacerbated the problem. The 1920s saw great changes in the character and look of America whose population in 1929 was 121.5 million people and the federal budget was $3.13 billion dollars:
• Annual housing production accelerated from 449,000 units in 1921 to 937,000 units in 1925.
• For the entire period from 1921 to 1928, production totaled 6.3 million units, an annual average of 785,000 units.
• The non-farm population increased 2.2 percent annually from 1921 to 1928.
• Immigration, while somewhat curtailed, still continued with 707,000 immigrants arriving in 1924.
• Average household size dropped from 4.20 to 4.00 persons.
• The average non-farm income rose 22 percent from 1920 to 1928.
• Automobile ownership rose from 6.8 million in 1921 to 17.5 million in 1928.

The 1920s were not known for social reforms, but concepts and advances in housing made prior to World War I at the state and local level were extended and refined. These areas included building and housing codes, city planning legislation, and zoning ordinances, and the government actively supported these actions. Local zoning was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Euclid case, and other federal agencies promoted the use of model statutes for city planning, zoning and building codes.

The collapse of the stock market and banks in 1929 through the early 1930s destroyed most of what was accomplished in the 1920s. Significant planned communities, such as Radburn in New Jersey, failed after completing less than half of their intended plans.

In the spring of 1933, four years after the development of Radburn was stopped, Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated. As he held up his hand to swear to the American people his fealty as their new President, more than ten million American workers were unemployed, great numbers were homeless and many were on the verge of losing their homes. That same year, in Germany, Adolph Hitler was appointed chancellor by President von Hindenburg.

In an effort to promote housing, using the need for jobs as one of the justifications, Roosevelt placed Rexford Guy Tugwell, a member of his inner circle or “brain trust” and a true believer in the English Garden City idea, in charge of the Resettlement Administration. Tugwell was teaching economics at Columbia University when he was selected by Roosevelt as an assistant secretary of agriculture and would coauthor the Agricultural Adjustment Act. It was under his authority the Greenbelt Communities would be designed and built. The creation of these communities, due to the usual federal reorganizations, later found a home within another agency formed within the Resettlement Administration, the Suburban Resettlement Division (great name!).

Tugwell had been very interested in the concept of the satellite city regardless of its social impacts. “My idea,” he wrote in 1935, “is to, just outside centers of population, pick up cheap land, build a whole community and entice people into it. Then go back into the cities and tear down whole slums and make parks of them.” The Suburban Resettlement Bureau was set up in a mansion on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington D.C.

All government projects of that time (as now) needed justification, and the purposes for the Greenbelt Communities were officially stated:
1. To give useful work to men on unemployment relief.
2. To demonstrate in practice the soundness of planning and operating towns according to certain Garden City principles (Ebenezer Howard and the English Garden Cities).
3. To provide low-rent housing in healthful surroundings, both physical and social, for families that are in the low-income bracket.

Tugwell rejected the concept of individualism and believed that Americans had a “cooperative mentality”. He proposed a collectivist economic policy. He believed that this could be achieved through planning and public control of the economy. It was his belief that the idea of the Greenbelt Community was closer to the habits and aspirations of the American people. He was blunt and, at times, tactless in the presentation of his gospel and soon became a target of the press and a political liability for Roosevelt. Tugwell’s important legacy focused on the strength of suburban resettlement areas which he thought were more consistent with the current trends in American growth. Tugwell initially proposed that twenty-five Greenbelt towns be built close to existing urban employment; only the three (Greenbelt, Maryland, Greenhills, Ohio, and Greendale, Wisconsin) were built. It was in this decade and during the worst economic time the country has ever known, that some of the best and most creative talents in community and residential planning were hired (by the hundreds) and brought to Washington to design and develop these communities. (Excerpted from my book America’s Original GI Town, Park Forest, Illinois – new edition)

It is my great concern that the Obama administration is on the verge of trying the same thing that failed in the late 1930s: Government sponsored, designed, and built housing. It will take the form of a number of specific needs already stated by the government:
• The need to lower unemployment in the construction industry (unions)
• Repair the financial industry and the building industry (Fannie and Freddie)
• Show the American people THEY know how to do things better than private builders (the Green Movement)
• Fix housing problems as the population grows and there are no residential units to meet the need (sizes of immigrant and minority families)
• The implicit desire of academics to show they know more than the entrepreneurial builder (profits – we don’t need no stinking profits).

As during the Roosevelt years, there is an unquenchable need by this current administration to show that they are smarter than your average five year old and when it comes to the housing market they know best. Granted after the debacles and failures of the building industry, banks, congress, and the speculative buyer, I sometimes believe that a roomful of first graders, bartering over candy and ice cream, could have come up with a better system.

There will be an effort, I believe, by this administration to do the same thing that Tugwell and Roosevelt attempted to do in the late 1930s. They will enlist the building industry as their facilitators (they will find willing partners due to potential free land, egos, and fee issues), they will be marketed as the best examples of LEED building with all the administration’s pet projects included (i.e. solar, wind, water quality and reuse, global warming, green, green, and green), and they will be shown as egalitarian and wholesome places to live (I can imagine the brochures showing the Al Gore cul-de-sac).

An aside: Why is it the latest green communities I am working on have so little green in them, plants and landscaping that is – oh never mind?

The greenbelt communities failed for a number of reasons. The most important, I believe, was the then current market for homes/rentals was about $3,500 per unit. The government’s units, as badly and brutally designed as they were, cost taxpayers at least $18,350 each to produce.

Sound familiar, and I bet they can beat that number, which way – guess.

Stay tuned . . . . .

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