Better housing happens where determined campaigns meet political will. That’s what produced the UK’s first council estate, the Boundary (1900) in Bethnal Green and the first public housing in the US, ‘First Houses’ (1935) on 3rd Street in the Lower East Side. Like its UK counterpart, First Houses has defied the predatory forces around it and wears the years well.
The inter-war years were politically stormy in America. After 1918 an upsurge or radicalism led to significant victories and defeats. In New York, campaigns for better housing involved thousands of people and rent strikes were common across the city. Several Socialist Party candidates were elected to local and State bodies and a process began that culminated in the rent stabilisation that has been in place ever since (though it’s currently under threat). The political establishment responded with the ‘red scare’ that saw thousands of people arrested and the elected Socialist Party representatives denied their seats. The Great Depression renewed focus on the shortage of decent, affordable homes and led to the first public housing authority under reforming New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Using similar powers to demolish slums and build new homes that enabled the London County Council to build the Boundary estate, First Houses was completed in 1935. At the opening ceremony, one of FDR’s key advisors, Harry Hopkins, said:
‘Private capital has never spent a dime to build a house for a poor person.’
Visiting First Houses on Wednesday I spoke to a tenant who told me how much more affordable and comfortable (apart from the lack of a lift) her apartment is compared to the alternative, which she said was ‘being on the street’. I also chatted to Mary and her son Jim who were sitting outside the building Mary has lived in for 70 years. Jim described how good a place it was to grow up in a community of ‘Catholics and Jews where everybody knew each other.’
First Houses from 3rd Street
Mary and Jim
The affection that Mary and Jim hold for First Houses is not shared by other New Yorkers or Americans when they think about public housing. Yesterday evening I took part in a big meeting organised by a tenant campaign about the future of the Bronx. We discussed the current housing shortage in the city and possible solutions, but as one person put it ‘We don’t want a repeat of NYCHA’. (New York City Housing Authority]. NYCHA has a particularly bad reputation and faces a financial crisis that is shared by other public housing authorities (like Boston), but magnified in proportion because NYCHA houses 400,000 people. Today I met with a senior executive at the Jersey City Housing Authority (where I was an intern in 1992) who said:
‘Federal government is trying to get out of the housing business. That’s going to be hard to do because there are 3,200 housing authorities and 2 million tenants. You can’t make them all homeless.’
As in the UK, they’ll give it a go! Some of the housing sites I knew in Jersey City have been redeveloped along similar lines to what’s happening in Boston, New York and London. ‘Private capital’ is driving these changes, so Harry Hopkins’ words from 1935 are worth remembering.