In September of last year, in the midst of what appeared to be the height of the pandemic in this country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an agency order under Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act to temporarily halt residential evictions to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. (At the time this order was issued, fewer than 175,000 deaths had been attributed to the pandemic.) The order effectively extended a moratorium originally put in place by the CARES Act issued by Congress at the very beginning of the pandemic as an economic relief bill.
And while recently the Supreme Court struck down attempts to further extend this protection for renters at the federal level, there now exists a complex of tapestry of city and state moratoria with varying levels of protection, restrictions, and subsidies. The panic subsided and the partisan politics moved back in. (At the time of this writing, nearly 700,000 deaths have been attributed to the pandemic.) But we are left with a very telling series of events that first cast stable housing as economic relief, and then as protection from what the CDC described as a “historic threat to public health.”
“Housers”—those of us who work in housing and community development—are known for trying to tie housing provision to various sectors and segments of society beyond the simple concept of a house: housing is infrastructure, housing is healthcare, housing is the economy, housing is the building block of cities. This constant effort of creative coupling is largely an attempt to raise a broader awareness for an issue that seems unable to get enough attention on its own, except when it is the vehicle for misplaced blame like the 2008 housing crisis, and to foster the understanding that housing is a complex, politically charged socioeconomic system that doesn’t operate on its own.
“Furthermore, housing stability helps protect public health…” oddly echoes a sentiment found in our nation’s first piece of housing legislation, the Wagner-Steagall Act of 1937, which created the federal agency that would become the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That legislation, and its follow-up in 1949, linked housing that was “decent, safe, and sanitary” to reducing unemployment, stimulating business activity, and being required to protect the “general welfare and security of the Nation.”
It is no small coincidence that this optimism directly coincides with the emergence of modernist architecture in this country—and its strongly held socially minded underpinnings. Public housing advocate Catherine Bauer, largely credited for being the driving force behind the 1937 legislation, drew great inspiration from the social housing projects of early European modernists, which she witnessed firsthand and captured in her seminal work Modern Housing. Among an unprecedented amalgamation of innovative ideas and new technologies, many of these projects sought to use architecture and planned housing to address the great public health crisis of that time, tuberculosis.
Architect-designers Bruno Taut, Josef Hoffman, and Peter Behrens, in particular, spent considerable time focused on how building design and construction could affect the spread of this public health crisis, inventing new forms and ways to celebrate access to sun, light, and air. Paul Overy, in his 2008 book Light, Air and Openness, links the model of the sanatorium to many of the designs featured in the largely influential “Deutscher Werkbund” exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1927. And, while the sanatoriums found in places like Davos, Switzerland, were primarily reserved for the upper class, the transmission of large windows, open-air balconies, and the health benefits that came with them were a key fixture of the worker housing of early modernism and the social housing that would soon follow. For Behrens, the disproportionate impact of tuberculosis on poor people located in overcrowded urban areas rendered it a “social evil” that needed to be addressed, as much as it was a public health crisis, and a spatial one at that.
Turning back to the housing of the present day, which by regulations and incentives was on a trajectory toward smaller and smaller units with shared amenities favored over personal space, many of us are looking to see what innovations and benefits to residents this current public health crisis might bring. At the local level, two of the most important agencies to provide funding for affordable housing in the city—Housing Preservation and Development, and Homes and Community Renewal—were weeks away from releasing updates to their respective design guidelines when the pandemic hit. Whether it was opportunism or just logistics, when both sets of guidelines were finally issued many months later, they included accommodations for “offices or workspaces,” emphasized “quality of life” amenities and features, introduced parameters around “equitable and healthy buildings,” encouraged maximizing outdoor spaces, and seemed to relax strict maximum sizes with specific minimums and “target areas.”
Just as these two agencies quickly shifted their focus to requiring amenities that enhance the quality of life, health, and equity for residents, we would do well as designers, developers, and providers of housing to follow their lead. There are two cautionary tales before us, however, as we consider what the intersection of health and housing could do, mean, and look like in the not-too-distant future. The first is simple and involves not being satisfied with little tremors in the way we regulate and incentivize housing, but to challenge ourselves and our colleagues to find new forms and ways to celebrate health and housing—to take these initial offerings and push them as far as we can.
The second is much more complicated and requires us to look at the historical precedents that saw a similar intersection between health and housing over a hundred years ago. “Decent, safe, and sanitary” was a mantra that quickly became its own trajectory. It carried sentiments of providing for basic human needs toward a classist and often racist commentary on the social conditions that impacted those needs, which would be used as a moral justification for slum clearance and eradication of anything that was “unsanitary.” Following the creation of the United States Housing Authority in 1937, the WPA released a series of what can only be called propaganda posters that included slogans like “Slums Breed Crime,” “Planned Housing Fights Disease,” “Cure Juvenile Delinquency in the Slums by Planned Housing,” “Rotten Living Decent Living through Planned Housing,” and “The Solution to Infant Mortality in the Slums: Better Housing.” And every piece of housing legislation that came after 1937 carried with it the acknowledgement that “healthy housing” was needed and the requirement that “unhealthy housing” be demolished.
Social reformer Jacob Riis once described the progressive movement that pushed for the tenement reform laws in our city as a confluence of “the cynically-minded with the civic-minded.” Let’s be careful to prioritize the latter over the former as we consider what makes better housing.
Brian Loughlin, AIA, APA, is the director of planning and urban design at Magnusson Architecture and Planning PC. He co-chairs the Housing Committee for AIANY, is the chair of American Planning Association Housing and Community Development Division, and is a faculty member at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.