Like many offices, we were off on Monday celebrating Memorial Day. The holiday, as Obama reminded us in his weekend radio address, “is more than a three-day weekend.” He went on, “We honor those who loved their country enough to sacrifice their own lives for it.”
We were inspired to think of the other things we do in this country to honor soldiers- veterans and victims of war alike. Some of the oldest federal housing programs in this country were designed explicitly to ease the housing burden on WWII soldiers returning to civilian life, and laid the framework for housing programs that continue today. In 1944, the G.I. Bill of Rights provided veterans, among other things, with federally guaranteed home loans with no down payment. This was designed to both create jobs in the housing industry while providing assistance for veterans and their families.
The Federal Housing Administration and Fannie Mae were created in the years prior to the G.I. Bill of Rights to support a subsidized mortgage market but the outbreak of WWII almost immediately after their inception stalled any real impact they had in the lending market. It was the G.I. Bill of Rights after the war that threw open the floodgates of federally backed mortgages for low-to-moderate income homeowners, and laid the framework for mortgage assistance programs that are in existence today. HUD historians even further credit this home loan program to spurring a growth in construction of suburban areas, which in turn led to the need for the Housing Act of 1949. This act authorized federal spending for slum clearance, which gave way to urban renewal and public housing. (Visit a History of HUD and a History of the VA for more information.)
Veterans were often considered to be the most desirable recipients of space in public housing buildings, administered by local Public Housing Authorities. In the early years of the Chicago Housing Authority, many units were used specifically as transitional housing for returning WWII soldiers. The Amsterdam Houses development, one of NYCHA’s first major slum clearance projects on the Upper West Side, was initially developed to house low income residents from that neighborhood who had been forced out of their homes for construction. However, by the time of its completion, the project had been re-routed (partially due to political pressure from Robert Moses) to provide housing to veterans. (A CUNY study on the project reports that what happened to the original tenants remains unknown.) Reporters for a project by NYCIn Focus interview six long-time public housing residents who each attest to the projects’ early years as havens for returning soldiers.
Over the years, housing programs have evolved immensely, and we are not arguing that veteran support is the only motive driving housing policy. However, as committed housing advocates, it is interesting for us think on the ways that this support has left its mark on affordable housing. Even Rent Regulation, arguably New York’s most widespread tenant-support mechanism, began as a response to economic inflation associated with the production boom during WWII. Though that economy no longer exists, rent regulations have been renewed (in different forms), every year without fail since 1943. So, we’re a couple days past Memorial Day- we were busy barbequing and picnicking with the best of them. But we wouldn’t want this four day week to pass by without reflecting on war, soldiers, and (of course) provision of affordable housing.