Characterized by crime, isolation, destitution and poor social controls, the portrait of public housing in the United States is a bleak one. The bland, towering clusters of sub-par structures that skirt U.S. inner cities seem to provide a glaring portal into what went wrong, yet a closer reading of history reveals that the contemporary notoriety of public housing is not a direct reflection of some of the program’s earliest visions. Notably, the work of two ambitious, well-connected women demonstrate the sociopolitical nuances of the 1930s public housing discourse. These women’s stories and experiences demonstrate that progressive thinkers in the 1930s foresaw what planners recognize today as some of the failures of public housing, but that they encountered significant sociopolitical barriers in pursuing agendas that might have mitigated these failures.


Catherine Bauer—Crafting the Housing Act of 1987

Early legislative compromise dilutes Bauer’s complex, communitarian ideals

Catherine Bauer envisioned that public housing legislation would create low-rise, working-class rental communities that were well-connected, locally managed, and built on vacant land. Bauer’s vision did not include the massive, cheaply-built towers we see today, but instead reflected values of community connectivity and quality of life.  From a rather modest secretarial position at the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA), Bauer rose to become one of the most influential drafters of the Housing Act of 1937. Bradford Hunt offers an intimate review of Bauer’s laudable organizational efforts leading up to the Act’s passage, debunking assumptions that the initial bill was corrupted by conservative and real estate interests, and ultimately arguing that the legislation was an overall progressive victory. [1]  Having defeated the real estate lobby, Catherine Bauer was only forced to compromise at the hands of another Progressive group—the slum reformers—and her version of the legislation was largely favored by policymakers charged with the bill’s passage.

Catherine Bauer.tif.jpg

Catherine Bauer


Designated a "planning pioneer" by the American Institute of Certified Planners, she was a major theorist in the field of planning between 1934 and 1964, a critical era for the profession. [2] She forever changed the concept of public housing in the United States―and inspired a generation of urban activists to include housing in welfare planning in the mid-20th century. [3]

 (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Both Bauer and the Progressive slum reformers believed in the fundamental need for government-sponsored public housing for those who would not otherwise be able to afford adequate living arrangements, yet they disagreed over where to locate new public housing units. Bauer believed that new developments should be erected on vacant land, whereas Progressive slum reformers held that public housing should replace old slums. Though technically a debate over location, in practice, this became a question of the Housing Act’s overall purpose—either to expand low-income housing options, or to push slum clearance. In the end, the latter prevailed, and to maintain political clout, Catherine Bauer was forced to scale back her opposition to building new public housing on razed slum land.


Contemporary public housing critiques echo Bauer’s early reservations

Today, slum clearance is widely understood as a destructive practice that ravaged low-income communities, and at a time when slum clearance was of high political priority, Catherine Bauer was adamantly against it. She predicted that slum clearance “would exacerbate housing shortages and reward slum lords,” yet widespread moral opposition to the very existence of slums made it difficult to approach the issue strategically, and emotional arguments prevailed in the political sphere. [4]  Instead of incentivizing the development of public housing on vacant land as Bauer had initially envisioned, the 1937 Housing Act evolved to create a direct linkage between public housing development and slum clearance. Further amendments to the bill that included lower construction cost mandates, weaker federal control and stricter income limits largely corrupted Bauer’s vision for high-quality, communitarian public housing

Bauer’s own writings show that her visions for housing the poor were much more idealistic than her “successful” legislation could have ever been. The bare bones of her initial ideals shone through the legislation, but they were shrouded by overly simplistic attempts to cut costs and house as many low-income people as possible. These simplifications enabled the displacement of low income, largely black communities, the construction of hostile housing towers, and ultimately the racial and economic segregation facilitated by local public housing implementation. It was Bauer who predicted that “the conscious planning and rigid enforcement of residential segregation by economic, racial and national groups” would be “potentially disastrous at the neighborhood level,” and she turned out to be eerily correct. [5]


Josephine Gomon—Implementing Public Housing in Detroit, MI

Bauer’s vision manifests itself through Gomon’s work

 Though the two may have never met, Josephine Gomon was Bauer’s community-level counterpart. Gomon served on the Detroit Housing Commission from 1933 to 1938, and like Bauer, was lauded for her capacity to organize communities, stakeholders and other important actors in favor of her cause. She leveraged her local and federal connections in the fight to provide decent, sanitary, family-oriented living arrangements for poor Detroiters. She, too, was against indiscriminate slum clearance; her proximity to poor communities throughout her social welfare career granted her a more intimate appreciation for the structures and social fabrics worth preserving in slum settlements. Just as Bauer wrestled substantial influence over public housing legislation, Gomon worked her way to the forefront of organizing, theorizing and ultimately developing the first successful public housing development in Detroit. [6]


Josephine Gomon & First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, 1935

(Source: U-M Library Digital Collections. Bentley Image Bank, Bentley Historical Library. Accessed: January 26, 2018.)

Josephine Gomon’s first project, the Brewster Homes, exemplified what Bauer hoped would become standard in public housing development—aside from the project’s conformity to segregationist neighborhood patterns. The Brewster Homes were meant to be an integrated development, a primary point on which Gomon was forced to compromise. Her civil rights track record was well-established; her role in assisting attorney Clarence Darrow in his defense for the famous Ossian Sweet case granted her a respectable reputation in the black community. Gomon actively engaged with poor black communities as she worked to gain political and financial support for the Brewster Homes, yet she was unsuccessful at fighting the white opposition, who would have destroyed the initiative altogether if the development were not segregated.

Nonetheless, what resulted from her efforts was a series of townhouse-style multifamily developments adorned with playgrounds and adjacent to black commercial enterprises. The developments were designed to be conducive to family and social life. Furthermore, Gomon handled relocation and resettlement with care and finesse, and the Brewster Homes ultimately became a community that many black residents looked upon with pride. [7]

However, like Bauer, Gomon could not institutionalize her nuanced, community-based approach to public housing, and public housing development took a sharp turn once Gomon was controversially fired from the Detroit Housing Commission. The Brewster Homes were eventually torn down and replaced with modernist towers, abruptly extinguishing the former communal pride and coherent black family life that characterized the initial development’s obscure vibrancy. Later public housing efforts like the Sojourner Truth housing project would fail epically at racial mediation, and the passage of the 1937 Housing Act a year before Gomon’s departure killed any political will to deviate from the incentives set up by the legislation. [8]  In other words, the combination of Gomon’s departure and the Housing Act’s passage effectively froze efforts to employ public housing beyond its linkage with slum clearance. June Thomas laments the eventual dissolution of Gomon’s work, “consider[ing] retroactively the potential that existed” back in the mid-1930s to create the very style of public housing we might characterize as ideal today. [9]


The Frederick Douglass

Housing Project

Now vacant, it was built immediately to the south of the Brewster Homes in 1942 and is representative of how the structure of public housing evolved after the passage of the 1937 Housing Act.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In short, current reform efforts should not merely consult history in search of failure and assume that final policies reflect the most evolved thoughts of a given era. Instead, it is essential to evaluate the glimmers of untapped potential present in the work of forward-thinking actors like Bauer and Gomon, who teach us that the right ideas will be inevitably constrained when proposed at the wrong time in history.



[1]  Bradford Hunt, “Was the 1937 U.S. Housing Act a Pyrrhic Victory?,” Journal of Planning History 4, no.3 (2005): 195-221.

[2]  Eugenie Ladner Birch. "An urban view: Catherine Bauer's five questions," Journal of Planning Literature 4, no. 3 (1989): 239-258.

[3]  Eva Newbrun and H. Peter Oberlander, Houser: The Life and Work of Catherine Bauer. (Canada: UBC Press, 2011).

[4]  Ibid, 198.

[5]  Catherine Bauer, “Good Neighborhoods,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political Science and Social Science 4, no.2 (1945): 107.

[6]  June Thomas, “Josephine Gomon Plans for Detroit’s Rehabilitation,” Journal of Planning History, (2017): 1-21.

[7]  Ibid.

[8]  Ibid.

[9]  Ibid, 15.