The Depression-Era Book That Wanted to Cancel the Rent

A family in their living room.
A family living in Public Works Administration housing in 1937. The writer and organizer Catherin Bauer wanted a system that would go further than simply providing affordable places to live.Photograph from AP

The celebrated urbanist Jane Jacobs never hesitated to name an adversary in print. In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” from 1961, she takes special care to criticize Catherine Bauer, the most influential member of a cadre of city planners that Jacobs calls “the Decentrists,” though they were more commonly known as “the housers.” Jacobs accused Bauer and her circle of wanting to stifle the organic growth of cities, siphoning their tumultuous energy into sterile satellite settlements that “resist future change,” since “every significant detail must be controlled by the planners from the start and then stuck to.”
Sixty years later, Jacobs’s paean to city life, still in wide circulation, is the place readers are likeliest to encounter Bauer’s name. They might reasonably picture a city planner in the mold of Robert Moses—Jacobs’ most famous opponent, who fought to build a highway through Greenwich Village—though in fact Bauer disliked Moses’ ideas almost as much as Jacobs did. Jacobs presented a democratic vision of urban neighborhoods, in which self-governance naturally gave rise to good places to live; Bauer, by contrast, wanted the state to play the role of both developer and landlord. The planned communities of Bauer’s imagination were indeed designed to resist a form of change: the creeping increase of property values that put decent housing out of reach for many Americans. Jacobs had faith that the old buildings in places like Greenwich Village, as long as they were left standing, would remain affordable. Bauer, convinced the market would always compel people to pay too much for too little, better anticipated the world we live in today.
Bauer’s only major book, “Modern Housing,” published in 1934, was a staple of college reading lists when Jacobs lambasted the housers’ “city-destroying ideas” in “Death and Life.” It spent decades out of print, until its reissue this past April, by the University of Minnesota Press, into the teeth of an economic disaster that may prove as dire as the one that shaped its author. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Bauer was a twenty-four-year-old architecture critic; the beginnings of the Great Depression propelled what she later described as her development from “an aesthete into a housing reformer.” In “Modern Housing,” Bauer makes the case for what critics at the time denounced, more or less accurately, as socialized housing, although she herself framed the issue as a matter of making decent housing a “public utility” and a basic right. She did not think, however, that writing books alone would bring her vision into being. “Movements are not made, when all is said and done, by a handful of specialists,” she writes in the final pages. Change would come only when Americans “demanded a positive program of good housing—not merely for some vague, hypothetical ‘slum-dwellers,’ but for themselves and their families.” After the book’s publication, Bauer put aside her literary career to become a labor organizer and political lobbyist, working to drum up the broad demand she found wanting. She fought to encode her ideas in the New Deal, and largely failed.
In our current economic crisis, there are signs of the kind of mass housing movement that never materialized during the Great Depression. Across the country, activists are urging elected officials to cancel the rent. More than seven hundred and ninety thousand households have gone on rent strike since March, according to the housing-justice coalition We Strike Together, and it seems likely that more will join them when pandemic unemployment assistance runs dry. Many state-level eviction moratoriums are set to expire this summer, and one real-estate analytics firm estimates that twenty-eight million renters may soon be at risk of being turned onto the streets. Black and Latino tenants, more than half of whom were “cost-burdened” before the pandemic—meaning they devoted more than thirty per cent of their earnings to keeping a roof over their families’ heads—will disproportionately struggle to hold onto their homes. Could the cruelty of evicting people in a pandemic finally elevate the demand for a right to housing into a mainstream political issue?
Bauer once wrote, in letters quoted in the architectural historian Barbara Penner’s new foreword to “Modern Housing,” that planners and experts could offer, at best, “something to stir up the imagination” and “strike the spark” to ignite broad desire for change. Almost a century later, the ideas in her book still burn. She draws her utopian image of a different America in so much detail that it begins to feel like a real destination. Republished at an opportune moment, her dispatch from another crisis provides context, and perhaps inspiration, for a movement whose like she desperately longed to see.
Bauer grew up unconcerned about shelter. She was born in 1905 to upper-middle-class parents—her father was a highway engineer—and raised in a three-story house in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a suburb of New York. After graduating from Vassar College in 1926, she discovered modernism on a European tour. She felt drawn to the social ideals expressed in functionalist buildings by architects like Le Corbusier, who famously called a house a “machine” that should generate maximal well being. Bauer was tall and blond, with a frank charisma; “she walked with an enormous stride—you had to run to keep up with her—and always smoked,” one acquaintance remembered. She also possessed a gift for getting to know the right people. Out dancing in Paris, she met the famous Viennese architect Adolf Loos and persuaded him to hire her by the end of the evening. Back in New York, she kept company with artists like Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, and began to make her name as a writer.
Her door to the subject that would define her life was a love affair with an older man. In 1929, she met the acclaimed cultural critic Lewis Mumford, who wrote about cities and architecture for The New Yorker, and who would be the “potter,” she once wrote, to her “clay.” The intellectual influence ran both ways: Mumford once wrote that Bauer was “the only pupil and collaborator whom I fully respected.” He introduced her to the Regional Planning Association of America (R.P.A.A.), a star-studded group that included the architects Henry Wright and Clarence Stein and the housing reformer Edith Elmer Wood, and which advocated for American housing that reflected the principles of the English Garden City movement, a plan to create bucolic but socially vibrant suburbs.
Mumford also helped Bauer arrange two trips to Europe to study modernist housing, the second of which they took together, funded by Fortune magazine, which had commissioned Mumford to write a five-article series on European architecture. He brought Bauer as his assistant, which in practice meant that she researched and wrote drafts that appeared, with his edits, under his sole byline. Bauer and Mumford, soon to break up, spent the trip at loggerheads, but were aligned in their aim to mount an argument for the kind of state-subsidized housing then on the rise in countries like England, the Netherlands, and Austria. Their leftist politics scandalized the conservative Fortune, which cancelled the project after three installments. Bauer decided to turn her research into a book in her own name.

“Modern Housing” begins with a history of the Depression-era housing crisis that will sound familiar to contemporary readers. The supposed prosperity of the nineteen-twenties masked rising rents, stagnant wages, and a significant shortage of low-income and middle-class housing. Only the “upper-third income group” could afford the new homes being built, Bauer writes. The problem, she argues, was not so much the real-estate industry as the basic function of the free market. The cost of housing is tied to the value of land, which is determined by “the most intensive”—which is to say, overcrowded—“future use to which a speculator estimates that the plot can be put.” The price of land thus reflects “the lowest housing standards permissible,” driving down standards of living even for the affluent, and consigning the poor to the slums. This is the basis of Bauer’s core argument, which is that housing must be decommodified. Good housing that is “available to the average citizen is not a ‘normal’ product of a capitalist society,” she writes.
The dwellings Bauer aspired to see in America, which she terms “modern housing,” must therefore be “non-speculative”: owned by public entities or nonprofit coöperatives. They must be affordable, with the help of government subsidies, to people on the lowest incomes, while also attracting middle-class residents, who will find them airier and more attractive than the free-market alternatives. That these groups should have access to equal amenities was axiomatic for Bauer. “If you start with sun and air and biological requirements, you cannot say that because this family has only half the income of that family, they should have only half as good an outlook or half as big a playground or half as much water or half a toilet,” she writes. Modern housing cannot be designed one building at a time but rather must be conceived as a town or neighborhood, a practice that controls costs while maximizing shared green space, granting “sunlight, quiet, and a pleasant outlook from every window.”
Such places existed, though not in America. During the twenties, while the U.S. doubled down on a laissez-faire notion of economic prosperity, European nations responded to a post-First World War housing shortage by building at least six million state-subsidized dwellings, four and a half million of which, by Bauer’s calculation, housed “about one seventh” of the families in England, Holland, Germany, and several other countries. (Some survive: more than sixty per cent of residents of Vienna live in social housing today.) The centralized planning of these communities was intended to be more than aesthetically pleasing. Bauer wrote that no modern housing development was complete without a nursery school, and probably also a café. As the historian Gail Radford notes in her classic study of New Deal housing policy, “Modern Housing for America,” Bauer would later promote these shared amenities in the hopes that they would form the basis of “cross-class coalitions” between residents, which could then be converted into political support for more modern housing.
“Modern Housing” was not only a proposal of something new, but also a rejection of what it would replace. “The ideology of individual Home Ownership must go,” Bauer proclaimed. The idea that every American, if he worked hard enough, could someday afford his own plot of land was part of “the realm of mythology,” she wrote—and the Depression had revealed it to be a damaging myth, as half of all mortgages entered default, wiping out the life savings of millions of families. Culturally, Bauer believed that aspiring to homeownership encouraged people “to approach the housing problem in the role of petty capitalists rather than as workers and consumers,” stifling solidarity between people who might benefit from a different system. She concluded her book: “If only a small part of the vast energy which was once directed toward individual home-ownership were now organized to demand a realistic program of modern housing, … then there would be an American housing movement indeed.”
As Bauer was writing “Modern Housing,” the U.S. was beginning to build public housing as part of the Public Works Administration. From the start, the new projects hinted at the troubled place they would hold in American life. Due to a deliberate policy of building housing for Black people in what the agency designated Black neighborhoods, the new developments intensified segregation in cities, or sometimes created it. At the same time, the historian Radford notes that P.W.A. projects for both Black and white residents were far better funded than the public housing of future eras, and were seen as desirable places to live.
The P.W.A. was a temporary agency, but many hoped it would give way to a permanent policy of public housing. The most sustained advocacy arose in the labor movement, which recruited Bauer to lead a new lobbying arm, the Labor Housing Conference, and sent her around the country in search of supporters. “It’s a long jump from a Radical Intellectual to a Labor Skate,” she wrote to a friend from the road, where she lived in cheap hotels or with friends on a budget of six dollars a day. “My old arty self of 1927-Paris would commit suicide at the spectacle—if she were not so thoroughly dead.” In 1935, Senator Robert Wagner, of New York, enlisted Bauer to help draw up a housing bill. The draft legislation would have funded developments for middle- and low-income Americans. Perhaps most radically, Bauer wrote, it included “machinery whereby groups of people who desire to secure better housing for themselves may participate directly in the program,” by forming coöperatives and applying to the government to build developments that they would live in, but not own. The law would have granted tenants control of their surroundings that only homeowners have ever enjoyed.
Bauer’s timing was off. The real-estate industry, on its knees only a few years earlier, had been revived by the New Deal invention of federally backed mortgages, which continue to benefit homeowners today. It succeeded in quashing Bauer’s vision. By the time the U.S. Housing Act passed in 1937, its purview was confined to the poor, a clientele that the real-estate lobby cared little about losing. Like the P.W.A. projects, the new housing would be racially segregated—an abomination that none of the bill’s authors, including Bauer, insisted against. Bauer did try and fail to prevent an amendment tying public housing to so-called slum clearance, which confined most new developments to run-down neighborhoods and left developers the more desirable land in the suburbs. The bill also capped the construction cost of each new dwelling at levels far below the standard set by the P.W.A. Instead of challenging the primacy of private ownership, the resulting housing attached stigma to the idea of a public alternative. As Bauer later wrote, most American public housing “proclaims, visually, that it serves the ‘lowest income group.’ ”
As we face the possibility of repeating this battle, it’s worth knowing what happened last time, and how close we came to living in a different world. As Radford observes, Bauer hoped to tackle the housing crisis with a universalist policy that might have united the poor and the middle class in broad support of a new entitlement. Instead, the New Deal ushered in a two-tiered system that persists to this day: generous tax deductions for the most secure homeowners, and underfunded public housing for the least fortunate. “America’s national housing policy gives affluent homeowners large benefits; middle-class homeowners, smaller benefits; and most renters, who are disproportionately poor, nothing,” the Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond has written. “It is difficult to think of another social policy that more successfully multiplies America’s inequality.”
The gulf is growing wider in the pandemic. The cares Act granted anyone with a federally backed mortgage—about seventy per cent of mortgages—the ability to pause payments for up to a year. In June, the real-estate-data-analytics firm Black Knight calculated that the accumulated unpaid principal added up to a trillion-dollar bailout so far. In comparison, the cares Act earmarked twelve billion dollars for housing, almost all of which was directed to public and subsidized housing and services for the homeless, leaving virtually nothing for low-income tenants struggling to stave off eviction from market-rate rentals.
As in the New Deal era, the map to a different society is sitting on the table, already written. Representative Ilhan Omar has drawn up a bill to cancel rent and mortgage payments for as long as the crisis lasts; Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote another that would halt evictions through March, 2021. In November, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders introduced the Green New Deal for Public Housing, a plan to update and decarbonize more than a million units. Just under a week later, Omar introduced the Homes for All Act, a trillion-dollar plan to build twelve million new units of affordable housing—enough to serve the more than ten million Americans, disproportionately Black and Latino, who spend more than half their income on rent. Omar worked with People’s Action, a progressive coalition of grassroots groups; their proposal for a “Homes Guarantee” would build social housing, institute rent control, and pay reparations to Black and Native Americans and other groups harmed by racist housing policies. As Tara Raghuveer, the group’s housing policy lead, said in September, “The theory of the Homes Guarantee is that the market failure has been so profound, we can’t wait around for the market to work.”
Conventional wisdom has it that Americans will never embrace plans like these, that they aspire instead to all the freedoms embodied in one’s own plot of land. Bauer agreed with Jacobs that the power to shape one’s surroundings was paramount; she called “Death and Life” “brilliant,” despite the way it pressed her into service as a useful foil. A home is an intimate incarnation of an individual life, even if it is provided by public means. “Freedom and flexibility are probably the hardest things to achieve with public policy,” Bauer wrote in 1957. “But a country that can devise the insured mortgage (in all its different forms)” can surely “provide some real selection at all economic and social levels.”
It’s easy to abandon hope that we will ever accomplish what “Modern Housing” prescribes, but the book prompts us to remember that history is never as predictable as it looks in hindsight. Bauer emphasizes that there was “no ‘inevitability’” preventing achievements like those of Europe: it took a political movement, including mass protests, to create social housing. Bauer’s defeat wasn’t preordained, either. Radford, finding evidence of excitement about modern housing among union members in the thirties, argues that Bauer simply didn’t have enough time to amass the necessary grassroots support. Picturing a world where she did is a ward against cynicism. The New Deal helped tie homeownership to success in our national imagination. But a country where no one would have to fight for a home is also a longstanding American dream.