Good Housing You Deserve? Not Possible By Capitalist Speculation

photo portrait of Catherine Bauer
Catherine Bauer photo by Unknown is licensed under the public domain
Catherine Bauer strongly advocated the need for public housing, beginning in the 1930's.

The ultimate degradation of the term ‘affordable housing’ has been reached by returning it to a strictly individual expression. Pat YOUR pockets. Is it affordable to YOU? How much do YOU have to spend?

Speculators embedded in the capitalist economic system, according to Catherine Bauer, ensure that you will never have enough. Even if you are wealthy, you will get less than you bargained for. And if you are poor, Bauer’s vision of capitalist speculation offers you only a slum.

Bauer was an architect, urban planner, civil servant and academic, who began her career in the early 20th century. She wrote, spoke and taught on a wide range of issues, including urban development, architecture, and public housing. Her legacy is evident in US legislation, popular media, academic journals and numerous books.

She saw housing as a right that, if necessary, should be provided as a public service. Her book Modern Housing was published in 1934, a time of high unemployment and homelessness.  The book was reprinted in 2019, and is reviewed in the New Yorker: The Depression-Era Book That Wanted to Cancel the Rent

The New Yorker article makes a big deal of a conflict between Bauer and Jane Jacobs, an urban philosopher and author, who fought urban renewal plans for New York City and Toronto.1 Jacobs saw Bauer’s “socialist” housing philosophies stultifying to the human imagination. Left to its own devices, unshackled in a world of free enterprise, Jacobs believed that capitalism plus unfettered human imagination would effectively deliver the best possible housing to all citizens.2

Yet on many points, Jacobs and Bauer were in agreement. Evidence to this effect is presented by Barbara Penner, who described Bauer’s extensive career in Places Journal in 2018. Penner sets Modern Housing in a much larger context.

Penner’s comments introduce a reprint of The (Still) Dreary Deadlock of Public Housing, which Bauer wrote in 1957. The article is frank in discussing the failings of public housing within the context of US housing and the role of the dynamic interplay across many interest groups. These include the development industry, housing advocates, local housing authorities, and local and national governments. Looking ahead, she also forecasts how segregation and discrimination (already evident) would be exacerbated.

Both Penner’s introduction and Bauer’s article suggest ways for moving toward a future where public housing has a respected place. In view of today’s rising homelessness and high unemployment, it is particularly timely. See their full comments in Places Journal: The (Still) Dreary Deadlock of Public Housing

Footnotes

  1. Jacobs’ The Death And Life Of Great American Cities critiqued urban renewal strategies of the 1950s and 60s, which featured building freeways and removing blighted housing in urban centres. Read more here
  2. Jacobs herself had doubts towards the end of her life, which are reflected in her final book Dark Age Ahead. See more here.