History of US public housing: Part 1, the Puritans

September 25, 2008 | Cities, Essential posts, History, Markets, Public housing, Tenure, US News


Columbia Point, Boston, 1960


With the public housing inventory failing apart, with it falls the public housing system – the next President, whoever he may be, cannot avoid dismantling it.  As the nation figures out how to do so, we need to appreciate how we got here, why housing authorities are the way they are, and why the public housing inventory is in its current deplorable condition. 


[I come by these views forthrightly, having published three articles in NAHRO’s Journal of Housing and Community Development, entitled Public housing: the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (June, 2006), Public housing’s Gordian’s knot (December, 2006), and The essential housing authority (September, 2007).  My friends at least know what I think, and have thought for some time.]


Some years back, in my pre-blogging era, I read MIT Professor Lawrence Vale’s comprehensive study, From the Puritans to the Projects. 




Puritans is a book whose existence is a justification of the university setting: though massively non-commercial, it needs to be read and hence needed to be written, and in Professor Vale’s hands the subject is given a thorough, judicious, and highly interesting treatment.  Puritans, and its successor Reclaiming Public Housing, are indispensable reading for anyone who wants to understand how we got the public housing inventory we have.



Sitting on desks since 1999 or earlier: Lawrence Vale


As the book’s title implies, public housing in all its forms (including the pre-governmental almshouse) goes back before the United States‘ founding, to the bedrock principles of our Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and from its inception nearly 350 years ago, raises the same questions that bedevil us today:


Why are people poor?

What should we do about poor people?


The Mayflower, as Robert Townsend wrote in Up the Organization, was loaded to the scuppers with eggheads, and when they arrived in Massachusetts Bay, they set out to create their Utopian society, founded on Christian charitable principles.  America‘s first affordable housing (an almshouse) was constructed, on the eastern edge of Boston Common, in 1662.  Scarcely had it opened, funded with private Christian donations (alms-giving), than the question arose (1665):


Should the almshouse serve those who were “debauched and live idly” or “Honest Poor Peoples”?


In other words, did people have to earn their charity?  Were resources to be given to those whose lives were a consequence of their choices (“debauched and live idly”) or restricted to those “Honest Poor Peoples” whom fate had dealt a bad hand?



I don’t like what life dealt me


It’s a question without answer, although throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the answer tended to be only the deserving.  Calvinist doctrine solved this conundrum with a nifty bit of doublethink: God had chosen the elect via predestination, but the elect demonstrated God’s judgment through their good works on earth.  Idleness and debauchery weren’t themselves the cause of your damnation, they were its proof. 


In 1713, for instance, the almshouses would accept only:


“such are as proper objects of the charity of this town.”  The almshouse would separate “sober and aged” worthy from “those put in for vice and disorder.”  Page 29.


In the age before bankruptcy, the penalty for debt was the poorhouse, an economic black hole – once you entered, you had no means of earning money, and hence no means of leaving, short of having relatives or charities bail you out. 



Animal society in debtors’ prison


Boston opened its first poorhouse in 1735, and the debate continued through the Colonial, Revolutionary and Federalist periods – was public housing to be for all the indigent, or just the unlucky deserving poor?  


Indisputably it was intended as temporary accommodation, and accompanied by courses of study and work to bring people back to self-sufficiency:


“Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue and prepares fit tools for the design of ambition.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1785


By 1821, the almshouses had grown and been renamed into the Houses of Industry:


“designed for the comfort, support, and relief, and as far as they are competent, for the employment of the virtuous poor, and of those alone who are reduced to seek this refuge, from misfortune or age or infancy.”  Page 42.


Two centuries ago, the poor were already being divided into the three categories that come down to us to: (1) the elderly, (2) families with small children, and (3) everybody else, with the third group expected to demonstrate that their tenancy results from misfortune, not idleness and debauchery.  By 1821, this had been codified into eligibility standards:


“classes of poor [having] claims upon society. 


— 1st, the poor, by reason of age;

— 2nd, the poor, by reason of misfortune;

— 3rd, the poor, by reason of infancy;

— 4th, the poor, by reason of vice.”



Nineteenth-century English slum: why are these people poor?


Vice comes last in this set of admissions preferences.


By the mid-1830’s, a second trend had occurred in Boston – relocating the poorhouse from a desirable location (abutting the Common) into an inconvenient one.  Almshouses were situated on the city’s fringes – close enough for the supervisors to get quickly to and fro, but isolated enough so the residents are not easily able to spread out into the city.  That meant the Dorchester flats, which a century later (and after numerous infills) would become known as South Boston. 



Boston, 1855: the House of Industry


There were built, in a campus-style layout:

The House of Industry (poorhouse)

The House of Correction (jail)

The House of Reformation (juvenile jail)

The Lunatic Asylum (as it was named)

The hospital



A nice little campus of our underprivileged


Almost exactly the same mentality – out of sight, out of mind – would be designated into Columbia Point a hundred and twenty years in the future. 


Who was sent there?  An 1834 list drips with scorn:


“All rogues, vagabonds, and all idle persons going about in any town or place in the country begging, or persons using subtle craft, juggling, or unlawful games or plays, common pipers, fiddlers, runaways, stubborn children, common drunkards, common night walkers, pilferers, wanton and lascivious persons, in speech, conduct, or behavior, common railers and brawlers, such as neglect their callings or employment, misspend what they earn, and do not provide for themselves or for the support of their families.”  Page 36.


The results were predictable.  Isolated from the community, caught in a trap of entry without exit, the House of Industry became a pit of income concentration among the poorest:


“Instead of a House of Industry, the place is a general infirmary, an asylum for the insane, a refuge for the deserted and most destitute children of the city.”  Page 45.


As every new generation rediscovers, concentrating the poorest of the poor creates an observant-herd reinforcement of all the behaviors we wish to eradicate:



Victorian slum, London


“Mixed up in the great mass of society, such persons may be of use; but selected out and congregated together, they act unfavorably upon each other; they create about them a moral atmosphere in which the spirit of true life is wanting, and which is injurious to all who breathe it.”  Page 49.


Meanwhile, others saw in the same Houses of Industry inducements to sloth.  In 1846, the Committee on Expediency of Providing Better Tenements for the Poor reports that ‘those people’ want to do nothing:


“which might tend, in the slightest degree, to induce a spirit of dependence, or take away, however little, the feeling of self-respect, which is the chief support of the poor man.”  Page 59.


As the nation expanded – as New York City became the great melting pot of America, and the cradle of American apartment living – the scale of poverty relief and affordable housing similarly expanded, and the financial capacity of private charities became overstrained, leading to efforts to fund the necessary operating subsidy through directed taxation.  In 1854, President Franklin Pierce vetoed a statute to use proceeds from selected land sales to fund facilities for the care of the indigent insane:


“If Congress has power to make provision for the indigent insane … it has the same power for the indigent who are not insane.”  Over time, that would “make the Federal Government the great almoner of public charity throughout the United States.”  Page 99.


Give President Pierce credit for prescience – but his warning would be forgotten, and then ignored.



I should never agreed to pay for housing the poor!


[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]