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Can a 1952 speech provide a window on the present?

It would probably have been difficult for the men and women who founded NHC to imagine that an organization begun in 1931 to address slum housing in urban communities following the Great Depression would still be going strong in 2016. As the oldest affordable housing advocacy group in the country, NHC has been a vital voice in everything from passing of the National Housing Act of 1934 to the Low Income Housing Tax Credit to the ongoing push for housing finance reform. Today, 85 years later, we continue to tackle some of the nation’s greatest housing challenges as we work to ensure that everyone has access to safe, decent and affordable housing. 

Draft text from Sen. Humphrey’s speech

In 1952, then-senator Hubert H. Humphrey gave a speech to a National Housing Conference convening. National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) founder and 1995 NHC Housing Person of the Year Award honoree Cushing Dolbeare, then in one of her first jobs as speechwriter for Sen. Humphrey, drafted the senator’s remarks. At the time, future Vice President Humphrey was still a Minnesota lawmaker and public housing was still a relatively new program. The focus of federal housing policy was the elimination of substandard housing for the nation’s poorest citizens and clearing communities plagued by blight.

It is interesting to read Sen. Humphrey’s remarks, passed on to us from NLIHC’s archives, as they provide insight into what the housing landscape was like in the 1950s and help us see how much—and how little—has changed. He vividly describes the impact of the Housing Act of 1937, where the federal government funded new local public housing agencies to improve substandard housing for low-income families.  As Sen. Humphrey describes, the act, through public-private partnership, succeeded in providing nearly 192,000 affordable homes in 278 localities, thus turning a “housing problem” into a “housing opportunity.” The Housing Act of 1937 “scratched the surface,” as Sen. Humphrey says, but it was only the beginning.
Sen. Humphrey goes on to describe several factors stunting the progress of affordable housing development at that time. While the Housing Act of 1949 was passed “largely thanks to [NHC’s] efforts in rousing people to the need… for action,” appropriations cuts, a shortage of key building materials and pockets of opposition to public housing all slowed construction and rehabilitation of housing affordable to America’s growing population. Short the needed affordable housing, Sen. Humphrey says, the only affordable housing option available to many Americans was the housing built for the top third of the market that, with age, would eventually “filter down” to those with lower incomes.
We can see some parallels between what Sen. Humphrey describes and our housing landscape today. As we work to ensure affordable housing is a reality for all Americans, obstacles like limited (or reduced) funding often make this reality difficult to achieve. While it’s still true that market-rate housing does not “filter” all the way down to the lowest income people, local programs like inclusionary zoning are now in place in many cities, making neighborhoods of opportunity more affordable to lower-income people. The public housing program created by the 1949 act “only takes care of a small part of the bottom part of our population [and] does not begin to fill the tremendous need of middle income groups for rental housing,” according to the senator. LIHTC, HOME and the countless local housing programs have made great strides in filling that gap, though as our “Paycheck to Paycheck” continues to show, there is often a mismatch between the incomes of working people and the cost of housing in their communities. And public-private partnerships are still vitally important across the continuum of housing. As NHC makes clear in our principles for housing finance reform, restoring the balance between private risk-bearing capital and the government guarantee is essential to serving the housing needs of all in America.
The purpose of Sen. Humphrey’s speech to the NHC gathering was in part to rally support for public housing appropriations, saying that “only overwhelming public pressure can save” public housing. We still have far to go before we can truly say we’ve achieved the goal of the 1949 Housing Act of “a decent home in a suitable living environment for all Americans.” Decent, affordable housing in communities of opportunity remains out of reach for many Americans. As long as this remains true, there is a need for NHC and our colleagues in advocacy in D.C. and across the country. So while we joyfully celebrate our 85th anniversary and all that we’ve accomplished together, we must continue to focus on strengthening the movement for affordable housing.
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