The Enforced Cycle

How housing, economic, and labor policy contributed to the de jure segregation of public housing in the 20th century

Pittsburgh, PA
Diane Shaw
Fall 2020

In this country, the history of public housing is inseparably intertwined with that of economic and labor politics. Clearly racially motivated housing policy put into place between 1937 and 1954 worked in tandem with federal regulations on wage labor to create a true War on (Black) Poverty. Rather than working to eliminate it, the baleful results of this war were warehousing and concentrating poverty, ideally out of sight from the city’s middle- and upper-class denizens.[1]The prevailing contemporary image of public housing projects is that of the most famous failed initiatives, but the beginnings of public housing were anything but that. To appropriately examine the legacy of public (or perhaps better said as social) housing, we must flip back and forth between the options provided and the means to move through them. This essay will attempt to weave a thread between these two sides in order to illustrate a wider timeline and propose an alteration to two key events in housing and labor policy that would have had the potential to shift the trajectory of socio-economic decline that has done near irreconcilable damage to an entire demographic of (mostly African) Americans.

Public Housing in America was racially biased from the very beginning. Beginning mostly as a war-time measure to increase industrial output, the Government developed residential areas near critical shipyards, munitions, and manufacturing plants for white workers and their families. Despite high employment rates at many of the northern factories, African Americans were not allowed into these developments.[2]During the great depression and following into the 1950s there was an enormous housing shortage, and the government programs were largely aimed at providing shelter not for those too poor to afford it but rather for those who had the means but were living in unsuitable conditions due to the lack of housing stock. The first major civilian housing initiative came with Roosevelt’s New Deal. Entrenched in this program were principles of segregation and racial bias, either excluding African Americans from developments entirely or firmly segregating buildings by race. [3]

These New Deal programs were by and large administrated by the Public Works Administration (PWA), which interestingly was directed by Harold Ickes. Ickes was the former President of the Chicago NAACP, and one of the few racially progressive members of the administration. Despite this, I believe he is the perpetrator of a critical decision that led to the grisly fate of many housing projects in the latter half of the century. Ickes advocated strongly for African Americans to have access to public housing, resulting in nearly a third of the available units being designated colored – an unprecedented level of governmental support.[4]However he did not advocate against segregation, and instead established what we know as the Neighborhood Composition Rule: that federal projects must reflect the previous racial composition of their neighborhood. While perhaps well intentioned, the rule allowed the PWA to segregate neighborhoods which were previously mixed. By designating an area as white or colored regardless of its factual racial composition, they were able to force the nomenclature into reality by constructing whites-only or blacks-only projects in those neighborhoods.[5]This decision calcified the informal segregation present in most cities, concentrating and intensifying poverty and racial divides, restricting access to employment, amenities, and upward mobility in general.

While this decision marked the beginning of a downwards spiral, there would have been an escape route had the economic means to do so been available. In addition to the geographic separation that the PWA policies promoted, we must consider the economic separation that has accumulated between races due to unjust legislation and markets. Trapped between low wages, high taxes, and segregated neighborhoods, African Americans were largely in a situation in which they could not avoid being exploited.[6]

In 1935, the same year the PWA began building its first housing projects, Roosevelt approved the National Labor Relations Act. This legislation legitimized the bargaining power of Labor Unions, granting them the agency to negotiate contracts and control the workforce.[7]While this was a huge milestone for American workers, it did not prevent racial discrimination. The American Federation of Labor lobbied for the removal of a clause within the original bill which would have prevented government certification of unions which denied African Americans membership. This effectively sanctioned the practice of workplace discrimination based on race, practically eliminating a set of constitutionally held rights for the next thirty years. Unions such as those of the Building Service Employees, the Steamfitters, Boilermakers, Shipbuilders, etc. all either denied African Americans membership, systematically gave them subpar contracts, or had them fired entirely.[8] Even today, labor discrimination continues in unions across the country. And although occasionally compensation payments are made, the accumulated generational wealth that would have been established had African Americans been able to afford middle class homes like their white counterparts is borderline irreparable.[9]

These discriminatory labor practices were in full force during World War II, and even those that elected to fight rather than produce were no better off. The G.I. Bill introduced in 1944 was intended to support returning veterans by offering them mortgage subsidies and retraining in other professions. African American soldiers were denied the mortgages, forcing them back into tenements or public housing projects, and were denied meaningful educational opportunities – instead being sent to vocational schools to continue in the low pay jobs their parents had before them.[10]

After the war these problems only became more entrenched. To combat the enormous housing shortage for veterans and their baby-boom families, Truman introduced a new Public Housing Act in 1949. To add insult to injury, in a move of impressive political gymnastics, Conservatives proposed to integrate the projects and prohibit segregation. They knew that if such an amendment was approved, the southern factions would shoot it down and it would never see the light of day. On the other hand, it made the Democrats lose favor by uncomfortably having to argue for segregation in order to get the bill passed at all.[11]Whether this was actually beneficial is unclear. Without the bill, many African Americans would have remained in inhospitable tenements. The alternative was the concentration of poverty, removal from society, restrictions on employment, and rises in crime that we know were the harbingers of the end of public housing. Congressman Vito Marcantonio of New York said it more eloquently than I could: “You have no right to use housing against civil rights… housing is advanced in the interest of the general welfare and in the interest of strengthening democracy. When you separate civil rights from housing you weaken that general welfare.”[12]

The geographic separation reinforced with these policies lead to even further economic discrimination. Unjust and unlawful tax assessments left those lucky enough to have acquired their own property with little money left over for education, investments, or even simple maintenance of their homes. Government assessors would undermine tax fairness by overassessing properties in black neighborhoods, and underassessing those in white areas.[13] A 1979 study of Chicago tax assessments found that discrepancies in property values were 99% attributable to racial bias. Almost certainly influenced by Mayor Daley, his home neighborhood of Bridgeport was assessed at about half of its market value, while the predominantly African American neighborhoods such as North Lawndale or Woodlawn (where I was born) were up to 200% higher than the legally prescribed ratio.[14]

Not only did this discriminatory extraction of wealth influence the decline of African American neighborhoods, it also caused many to be forced back into public housing. If a family was unable to pay its taxes in full speculators were permitted to pay off the delinquent tax liabilities, seize the property, evict the residents, and put it on market for an enormous profit. These racial ghettos were essentially self-perpetuating. If one managed to get out of a public housing project, there were very few other options available, leading to higher rent and property prices. By constricting the supply, landlords and developers were able to take advantage of a fabricated increase in demand.[15]

If we are to imagine an alternate timeline where one or two critical decisions are changed, I believe we must start with the foundations of the problem. Ideally one would like to retroactively strike the entire practice of slavery from the history books, but in the scope of social housing there are two events that stand out as instigators of the downwards cycle of poverty. The first deals with the origins of governmental segregation of housing projects. Had Harold Ickes firmly advocated for integration during the initial stages of the PWA instead of settling for the Neighborhood Composition Rule, perhaps the federally sponsored housing projects would have turned into agents of change instead of perpetuators of segregation.

The second decision deals with the ability for those in public housing to be able to utilize it as the steppingstone it was initially intended to be. Without the proper economic means, housing projects became traps from which one could hardly imagine escaping. The decision of Senator Robert Wagner to concede to the American Federation of Labor and remove the clause prohibiting certification of discriminatory unions from the National Labor Regulations Act resulted in the economic crippling of an entire generation.

I cannot say whether or not changing these two events would have resulted in a more prosperous future, but with certainty I will claim that only altering one and not the other would have done no good. The legacy of public housing in America is not one of providing for the people. Rather, there were structured initiatives from local, state, and federal governmental agencies which forced the largely black poor into an area and served to keep them there. With the limited support given, it is no wonder that the contemporary perception of public housing is characterized by its catastrophic downfall. A combination of historical negligence and malice on the behalf of our government has led quite directly to the political turmoil we currently find ourselves in.[16]It perpetuated separations and unfamiliarity within our people, polarizing our country and allowing it to be manipulated in the ways we have borne witness to for the last four years.  

[1]Hirsch, Choosing Segregation, 206

[2]Rothstein, Color of Law, 18

[3]Rothstein, Color of Law, 19

[4]Rothstein, Color of Law, 20

[5]Rothstein, Color of Law, 21

[6]Rothstein, Color of Law, 154

[7]Rothstein, Color of Law, 158

[8]Rothstein, Color of Law, 159-161

[9] Rothstein,Color of Law, 169

[10]Rothstein, Color of Law, 167

[11]Rothstein, Color of Law, 31

[12]Rothstein, Color of Law, 32

[13]Rothstein, Color of Law, 170

[14]Rothstein, Color of Law, 171

[15]Rothstein, Color of Law, 171-172

[16]Rothstein, Color of Law, 195