Confessions of a Housing Policy Junkie

I spent the 1970's looking for a social policy agenda I could love. I thought I had found one in federal housing subsidies.

The image of the free family on its homestead powerfully appealed to my imagination. I saw the suburban home as heir to the Jeffersonian agrarian spirit, its bond to property stimulating the vigor, independence, and virtue once found on the yeoman farm. I agreed with Catharine Beecher, the mid-19th-century philosopher of the American home, that a proper dwelling could shape a family's moral character, promote family stability, and help preserve a decent society. I was persuaded by architect Frederick Law Olmsted's 1868 declaration that the suburbs combined the finest aspects of town and country and marked "the best application of the arts of civilization to which mankind has yet obtained." I looked with approval on the business propagandists of the 1920's who sought to chill labor unrest with the promise, "After work, the happy home," and on the opportunistic idealism of developer Bill Levitt in the 1940's, who declared; "No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do."

The politicians also persuaded me that they were, for once, doing the right thing. The monumental Housing Act of 1949, for example, had opened with a stirring declaration that "the general welfare and security of the nation . . . require . . . the...

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