The Lanham Act: Public Housing in a Time of War
The Defense Housing and Community Facilities and Services Act, known as the Lanham Act for its conservative sponsor Fritz Lanham, was passed by the United States Congress in October, 1940. It was part of a broad effort to prepare the United States for the industrial challenge of entering WWII. Federal policymakers recognized the need for housing in major industrial centers in cities across the country and sought ways to quickly address this potential weakness in the country’s war effort.
The Lanham act authorized the Federal Works Agency, an independent agency of the federal government, to take action necessary to build housing quickly and cheaply. The FWA was authorized to establish the Division of Defense Public Works and to spend an initial $150 million on land acquisition and construction costs. These funds were disbursed mostly through local housing authorities to construct and manage the new developments. The Act was amended several times and a total of nearly $1 billion was ultimately disbursed under its authority, resulting in the construction of 625,000 units of housing across the country.
Political Situation – Real Estate Interests vs. The New Deal
The process that resulted in the passage of the Lanham Act reflected political struggles which had been playing out in the United States in the previous decade. Federally funded public housing got its start as part of a New Deal program in response to the Great Depression. In 1933 the Public Works Administration was created with the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act with the primary goal of increasing employment through construction projects. The PWA began financing construction of public housing through loans and direct contracts, constructing 51 projects with a total of 26,000 units of housing in four and a half years. The PWA ceased public housing construction and financing when the Housing Act of 1937 put federal public housing programs under the aegis of the newly created United States Housing Authority, an agency of the Department of the Interior.
The Housing Act of 1937 created the modern paradigm for public housing in the US by incentivizing the establishment of local housing authorities in cities and towns across the country. Rather than directly leading site development, as in many PWA housing projects, the USHA financed local housing authorities to build and administer projects, while imposing strict funding requirements.
The 1937 Act was a compromise reached between advocates of public housing and conservative defenders of the private real estate sector. It created, a large, permanent federal bureaucracy charged with financing low-income public housing, but included strong cost-controlling measures and a requirement that new housing units could only be constructed if an equivalent number of units were razed in slums. The head of the USHA, Nathan Strauss and his deputy, Catherine Bauer, interpreted these restrictions liberally, with the goal of driving down rents in high-demand markets. By 1942 the USHA had constructed more than 100,000 units of new housing, while destroying less than 70,000 units of slum housing. In 1938 total funding to the USHA was increased from $500,000 to $800,000, however the election that year brought a change in national sentiment against New Deal programs and public housing amidst a growing national economy.
In 1940 when congress and the president began crafting a program to house war-time defense workers, political power had shifted in favor of real estate interests at the expense of public housing advocates. The Lanham Act funded the construction of housing for defense workers that would be temporary in nature, designed to be disassembled after the completion of the war effort so as not to compete with private-sector housing. It intentionally excluded the USHA from a central role in creating war-time housing and imposed much tighter cost controls than did the Housing Act of 1937. To further stimulate private sector home development, the Lanham Act was followed by an expanded federal mortgage guarantee by the FHA in 1941.
By 1944 the DDPW had financed 625,000 units of housing for defense workers during the war at a cost of $1 billion dollars. Only 48,000 of these units were considered to be of permanent construction, however, many temporary units were converted to veterans’ housing after war when demand for housing remained extremely high. The Housing Act of 1950 authorized the transfer of Lanham Act projects to local housing authorities or other non-profit institutions. More than 24,000 such units in 82 projects were transferred to local housing authorities in this way. 
Racial Segregation and the Lanham Act
At the beginning of the war effort many local housing authorities neglected minority workers, however by 1944 11.2% of Lanham Act units were reserved for African Americans. This figure reflects the fact that most housing authorities enforced racial segregation in public housing. Still, the massive internal migration brought African Americans and other minorities in large numbers to areas that had had previously had negligible minority populations, especially on the west coast. Local residents often begrudgingly accepted the new arrivals provided that they only stay as long as the war effort required. Adding to the volatility of this situation, large numbers of rural Southern whites also joined the migration to industrial cities. The conflict between established local populations and newly arrived white and black workers sharply intensified America’s racial politics in many cities.
In Detroit, thousands of residents of the rural South came to work in retooled automotive factories. The siting of one Lanham project designated for black workers, the Sojourner Truth Houses, near white neighborhoods lead to intense confrontations between black and white residents and ultimately to race riots. The riots and street battles lasted two days in 1943 that left 34 dead.
The Vanport project near Portland, OR housed 44,000 workers, making it the largest single Lanham Act project in the country. Although African Americans never made up more than 25% of the population of Vanport during the war, the African American population of Oregon increased tenfold from 1940-1946. The influx of this population into an overwhelmingly white state (with a large KKK membership) led to intense local political conflict and a lasting change in the cultural landscape of Portland.
While Portland and Detroit experienced conflict and change as a result of housing pressures and recent arrivals, smaller cities like Richmond and Marin City in California were completely transformed. The population of Richmond quadrupled during the war as people arrived from all over the country to work in the Kaiser Shipyards located there. The temporary housing was constructed on swampy land and cut off from services or amenities. After the war ended many people remained and in 1950 half of the population of the city was still living in Lanham Act projects, including 75% of the city’s African American population. As suburbanization unfolded, WWII-era projects in Richmond and Marin City became new ghettos surrounded by affluent white suburbs.
Childcare and the Lanham Act
The first generation of public housing projects constructed by the PWA and USHA emphasized provision of social services to help improve the lives of residents and help lift them from poverty. By the time the Lanham Act was passed funding for such programs had been significantly curtailed, however the war-time need for universal employment transformed the provision of universal childcare into a national interest. Recognizing the need for women to be able to work on assembly lines, Congress amended the Lanham Act in 1942 to provide funds for childcare during the war. Ultimately $51 million in federal funds were spent on childcare from 1942 until the program was terminated in 1946. In California, where ¼ of all Lanham Act childcare service recipients were enrolled, the public successfully demanded that the state take over funding of children’s centers. The Lanham Act childcare service became the foundation of a childcare program that continues to be offered by the California Department of Education to income-qualified families.
Unlike earlier USHA and PWA projects that emphasized slum-clearance, Lanham required that project be sited in unoccupied land. As a result, Lanham projects were often placed on marginal land with environmental challenges. In Richmond, CA, several of the Kaiser Shipyards sites were built in swampy land that turned to impenetrable mud. The Vanport, OR project was built alongside the Columbia River and was destroyed completely by a flood in 1948. Seattle’s High Point project was constructed on a steep hillside with severe drainage issues that contributed to the rapid deterioration of buildings and infrastructure.
The Lanham Act in Seattle
As a major center for airplane and ship-building, Seattle became a key industrial center during WWII and the influx of defense workers soon increased the city’s population by 30%. Upon securing Lanham Act funding, Seattle Housing Authority began construction of 500 units of housing at Rainier Vista in September 1941. By the end of 1942 Seattle Housing Authority had completed Rainier Vista and also made significant progress on two new larger developments, Holly Park and High Point (originally Gatewood Heights), for a total of more than 3,000 units of public housing for defense workers. Expansion of these complexes continued during the war and SHA also began establishing more temporary defense worker housing at Duwamish Bend, Delridge, and Columbia City.
After the war, SHA’s three large Lanham Act projects were converted to veterans’ housing. These projects were all designed using “garden city” principles that eschewed neighborhood blocks for cul-de-sacs, clustered buildings, and large public spaces. They were renovated with funds from the 1949 Housing Act and most of the temporary housing at other sites was demolished or relocated. In 1953 Rainier Vista, Holly Park, and High Point were transferred from federal ownership to Seattle Housing Authority to become low-income public housing.
With the imposition of income-qualifications many of the veterans’ families that had lived in these sites were displaced, and Seattle’s Lanham projects became areas of intense, concentrated poverty. They experienced high crime, especially drug and gang activity and very low levels of educational attainment. The poor construction quality of the buildings meant they deteriorated rapidly. By the 1970s the physical infrastructure of the developments had decayed to the point that SHA bulldozed more than one hundred buildings in the High Point project. The newly vacant land only exacerbated the feeling of exposure and emptiness that was instilled by the winding, disconnected streets and undivided open spaces.
For decades SHA attempted to mitigate the problems caused by the housing projects it had inherited from the WWII era in the face of constrained budgets. A plan was prepared in the early 1970s to revitalize High Point by adding services and creating a mixed-income community, but it was never implemented due to cuts in funding and a moratorium on housing subsidies.
In 1992 the HOPE VI program was created at the recommendation of the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing, allowing SHA to chart a course to leave behind the legacy of the Lanham Act. SHA chose first to apply for HOPE VI funds to redevelop Holly Park, the most distressed of the three Lanham Act projects. By 1992, in Holly Park floors and porches were rotting away, windows and doors were insecure, and mold, mildew and lead paint on the walls sickened residents.
Holly Park was redubbed “New Holly” and redeveloped as a mixed income development, financed in part by sales of homes to market rate buyers. New Holly was denser than Holly Park, allowing a net gain of total units and replacement of most of the demolished subsidized units on-site. The redevelopment replaced bland institutional buildings, large undefined open areas and disconnected streets with neighborhood blocks with mixed houses and apartments and clearly delineated public and private spaces. The new neighborhood also included buildings for social services. Despite public acrimony at the relocation of some low-income tenants, the project was ultimately considered a success, and SHA subsequently applied for HOPE VI funds for redevelop High Point and Rainier Vista in a similar manner.
SHA was able to apply lessons learned at New Holly to the redevelopment of High Point and Rainier Vista. With both of these projects now complete, SHA stands in vastly improved situation compared to twenty years ago. Three of its largest properties have been transformed from sprawling, inefficient, dilapidated, dangerous, and depressing slums to modern, well-designed, environmentally friendly, mixed income neighborhoods. The Lanham Act burdened SHA for decades with the consequences of poorly-planned development, but also endowed it with large amounts of buildable land in relatively central areas of the city. It also allowed many more thousands of immigrants and low-income residents to find affordable places to live, despite the drawbacks, than would otherwise been able.
The Lanham Act has a thoroughly mixed legacy. On the one hand, it was one of the largest public investments in housing ever undertaken by the federal government. Through the provision of childcare services it helped women to fully participate in the modern workplace for the first time. It allowed people of many different backgrounds to seek opportunity in parts of the country where they had never been welcome before. It also ultimately endowed some housing authorities with ample land to work with in later decades.
On the other hand, by favoring real estate interests and temporary solutions, this huge investment did very little to address long-term lack of safe and affordable housing in the country. The projects it produced were by necessity hastily designed and constructed, but a 50-year drought of federal funds for redevelopment meant that generations of low-income people were condemned to live in places that almost immediately proved to be unhealthy and unsafe. Many projects were sited in areas that exposed their tenants to environmental hazards and many others failed to provide social services or amenities, placing severe strains on their tenant populations. Massive internal migration exposed vulnerable minority populations to racist government policies and sometimes violent reactions by established residents, and as crumbling Lanham projects were converted to low-income housing many became sinks of concentrated poverty and crime.
The legacy of the Lanham Act demonstrates the difficulty of relying on a democratic government to provide for the housing needs of its citizens. With private interests, changing political coalitions, and international war dominating decision-making processes, the most vulnerable populations were left to cope with the crumbling remains of poorly planned and cheaply built housing created without them in mind.
 National Park Service, ed. "Public Housing in the United States, 1939-1949." National Register of Historic Places (2004): n. pag. 60
 National Park Service, ed. "Public Housing in the United States, 1939-1949." National Register of Historic Places (2004): n. p. 18
 Ibid. p. 41
 Ibid. pp. 43-44
 National Park Service, ed. "Public Housing in the United States, 1939-1949." National Register of Historic Places (2004): n. p. 46
 Ibid. p. 52
 Ibid. p. 60
 Ibid. p. 63
 National Park Service, ed. "Public Housing in the United States, 1939-1949." National Register of Historic Places (2004): n. pp. 60,63
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Albrecht, Donald, and Margaret Crawford. World War II and the American Dream. Washington, D.C.: National Building Museum, 1995. Print. p. 108
 Albrecht, Donald, and Margaret Crawford. World War II and the American Dream. Washington, D.C.: National Building Museum, 1995. Print. p. 111
 Maben, Manly. Vanport. Portland, Or.: Oregon Historical Society, 1987. Print.
 "Learning Center: The Vanport Flood." Oregon History Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.
 Albrecht, Donald, and Margaret Crawford. World War II and the American Dream. Washington, D.C.: National Building Museum, 1995. Print. pp. 136-138
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 Wiese, Andrew. Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2004. Print. p.135
 Albrecht, Donald, and Margaret Crawford. World War II and the American Dream. Washington, D.C.: National Building Museum, 1995. Print. p. 104
 Sutton, Sharon E., and Susan P. Kemp. The Paradox of Urban Space: Inequality and Transformation in Marginalized Communities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print. p.34
 Ibid. p.31
 "In-depth History - The Seattle Housing Authority 75th Anniversary." The Seattle Housing Authority 75th Anniversary. N.p., 02 Apr. 2014. Web.
 "In-depth History - The Seattle Housing Authority 75th Anniversary." The Seattle Housing Authority 75th Anniversary. N.p., 02 Apr. 2014. Web.
 Sutton, Sharon E., and Susan P. Kemp. The Paradox of Urban Space: Inequality and Transformation in Marginalized Communities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print. 33
 Sutton, Sharon E., and Susan P. Kemp. The Paradox of Urban Space: Inequality and Transformation in Marginalized Communities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print. 34
 Sutton, Sharon E., and Susan P. Kemp. The Paradox of Urban Space: Inequality and Transformation in Marginalized Communities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print. 35
 Cisneros, Henry, and Lora Engdahl. From Despair to Hope: HOPE VI and the New Promise of Public Housing in America's Cities. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2009. Print p. 95
 Urban Land Institute. "Engaging the Private Sector in HOPE VI." (2002): n. pag. 47 Web.