Vault vid

This is a short film produced by the U.S. Housing Authority in the 1930s to promote the construction of publicly-funded housing projects to clear slums across America.  The film highlights that the problems of the slums – poor sanitation, crowding, shoddy construction, insufficient light – are structural.  In other words, the poor conditions in the slums were not the fault of the poor living in them.

The film focuses on Jacksonville, Fla., where slums were cleared to make way for the Brentwood Park public housing development.  “You cannot tare them down unless you provide other dwellings to rehouse the people who live in slums,” the narrator proclaims.   The National Housing Act of 1934 required the elimination of one slum dwelling for every new home built with federal financing. 

What the film does not mention is the fact that, in many cities, the slum clearance was also a sort of race and class cleansing.  Many of those who lived in the slums were not rehoused in the new public housing projects.  Instead, housing authorities used the opportunity to populate housing projects not with the poorest and neediest of tenants, but those who were judged to be deserving and sufficiently possessed of middle class habits and aspirations. MIT’s Lawrence J. Vale details this process of “purging the poorest” in his new book.

Another thing you might notice is the lily-white population of “deserving Americans” in the happy new housing projects in the film. Besides just a couple of shots of black children at play in the slums, the only African-Americans we see are working in demolition, construction, landscaping, and moving roles to build the public housing paradise for the benefit of those deemed fit to enter it.  In most American cities, pre-WWII public housing projects were built for whites, and segregation in public housing persisted throughout the country even as more public housing options appeared for black families.

Much later, in 1966, the segregation of public housing was at the center of the landmark Gautreaux cases – ACLU-led lawsuits against the Chicago Housing Authority for racial discrimination.

Another interesting element of the film is the focus on public housing as a natural extension of the ideas of public education, utilities and infrastructure. Paying for public housing with taxpayer money was presented as no less important that paying for schools, sewers or roads. “Public housing is therefore in the best American tradition. Every dedication in the United States of a public low-rent housing project, is a re-dedication of our democracy to the principle that all men are created equal,”  the narrator announces triumphantly at the end of the film.

Public housing has been at the crossroads of American ideals of liberty and equality from its inception, pitting the interests and goals of private enterprise against the public good.  It is a uniquely American paradox to believe everyone deserves a fair shot in life while also reviling the granting of “unfair advantages” and “entitlements” by the programs designed to provide it. That which qualifies as unfair is usually based on a moral calculus which judges the choices and actions of the poor by a different set of standards from those used to evaluate the middle class.

Throughout its history public housing has been both celebrated as progressive feature of a social safety net and as a barrier for free market urban development and socioeconomic uplift. And though this film seems to champion the former idea, it is important not to be too charmed by its egalitarian tone.  Public housing may be celebrated as the all-American solution to the problem of poverty, but the racial exclusion that came attached to the program reminds us that equality of opportunity – embodied here by decent living conditions – was and is not always meant for everybody.

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