Searching for affordable housing history: a call for ideas
I’m asking for your help.
It’s already too late for that
On my company’s conference room wall is an 1855 map of old
given to me twenty years ago when I left my old firm (and eventually started Recap), and on the peninsula then known as Dorchester Heights, and now known as South Boston, in delicate pinks and greens, is a small cluster of black buildings:
The house of correction (jail)
The lunatic asylum
The house of industry a/k/a the poorhouse a/k/a nineteenth century affordable housing
A century and a half later, that same site now houses Harbor Point, formerly the infamous Columbia Point public housing ghetto,
A pile of pre-rubble, in splendid isolation
You can all live in that warren, can’t you?
reborn a quarter century ago as mixed-income public-private affordable housing.
What money can do
Finding that little black icon, I think, set me on my ongoing quest to discover the history of affordable housing. Ever since I got into this business, it’s been my lot to work in an area that is, as far as I can tell, woefully under-studied. Except for occasional works (like Larry Vale’s excellent From the Puritans to the Projects), there’s almost no structural or general scholarship about affordable housing. I’ve been reduced to catching fleeting glimpses referenced in other histories by historians who are pursuing something else.
The lack of examples is a pity. Affordable housing does not exist in economic nature, which means that somebody has to create it, and sustain it. Historical examples matter because they show us what can be done in low-tech, low-information, low-democracy environments — and they therefore give us clues as to the assembly sequence to move from a less-complex ecosystem to a more complex one.
So far I’ve posted on:
The world’s first planned unit development (Pharaonic Luxor workers’ village)
The workers’ village, 1,500 years older than
The world’s first apartments (Roman insulae)
Built of brick, probably unplastered and little ornamented, they were entered from exterior stairs that led up, over a ground floor of shops, to corridors off which opened single rooms that were numbered. Each room had its own window of mica or selenite, translucent enough to remind you morning had arrived. Some rooms had small balconies for taking the evening air (and disposing of garbage and night soil).
Despite variations in quality and allegations of questionable safety and sanitation, the apartment block became the most common form of Roman housing, as families began moving into rented spaces owned by landlords.
Most apartment blocks were made with timber and mud brick, making them prone to fire and collapse. The upper floors were without heating or running water and only sometimes had lavatories. Later designs seemed to have been built more safely, with fired brick and concrete, but there were no other improvements as far as sanitation and standard of living.
The world’s first homeownership subsidy (
If, as I’ve postulated, we are living in the century of cities, and if cities will compete based on comparative advantage, then workforce housing isn’t a luxury, it’s a competitive necessity, and the cities that crack the problem first will win the century relative to those that do not.
He who had the best workforce housing ruled the world
The world’s first affordable apartments (English 13th century almshouses)
The first recorded Almshouse was founded by King Athelstan in
King Athelstan of
The world’s first high-rise flats (
By 1900, as discussed in Bob Bruegmann’s book Sprawl, the
They typically housed twenty different families who shared one toilet, and in winter influenza swept through the freezing rooms and thinned the population for the next year’s wave of newcomers.
For some, tenements were at least an improvement over housing for the poor prior to the 1850s, when 20,000 New Yorkers were literally submerged and lived in cellars or unheated shacks in and around Five Points (new Foley Square), New York’s notorious first and worst slum.
The Old Brewery, Five Points
Five Points, the setting for Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York
By 1890, when the police reporter and photographer Jacob Riis published his watershed book about the degradation of tenement life, How the Other Half Lives, there were over 32,000 tenement houses in
Children sleeping on
I’m especially interested in discriminatory taxation (especially of property) that had influence on affordability of housing configuration. Several examples about which I’d like to know more are:
Window tax. In seventeenth-century
If you want to flaunt your wealth, build a lot of windows
The bastide of Monflanquin, Lot et
Have reference for any of the above? Know of any others? Send me an email, or leave a comment below.
Come up with some answers or I’ll defenestrate you