A housing crisis for every decade

A housing crisis for every decade

The current realities of our housing situation often seem new.

The media regularly speaks of a “housing crisis” driven chiefly by a supply shortage. This shortage is often characterized as a result of recent underbuilding. But media headlines throughout the 20th century have consistently proclaimed the existence of a “housing crisis.”

When evaluating arguments in the discourse of housing, we should pay keen attention to how these arguments may be new versions of the same old story of housing control borne out in past experiences.

A housing crisis
for every decade

Selected excerpts from
The New York Times

For ease of searching via the TimesMachine, here’s a smattering of headlines that have declared crisis housing conditions in New York City throughout the 20th and early 21st century.

April 6, 1919
“Housing crisis faces the city, which is 33 percent underbuilt”

Dec. 20, 1927
“Mayor take fling at building owners: criticizes those aided by tax exemption in housing crisis who now get high rents.”

Dec. 18, 1936
“2,000,000 in slums face housing crisis…home shortage looms.”

March 31, 1942
“Housing crisis hits Detroit war zone…speedy erection being planned by government to care for 109,000 additional men.”

May 25, 1947
“Many factors involved in the housing crisis: skyrocketing costs blamed for failure of program to meet heavy demand”

Feb. 28, 1964
“Mayor asks state for aid on housing…to stimulate the construction of new low-income and middle-income housing here.”

Nov. 6, 1969
“State hearing due today on city housing crisis…New York City faces the worst housing crisis since the London blitz.”

Aug. 10, 1970
“Shortage of housing here expected to grow worse…The housing shortage has begun to figure in large corporations’ decisions about moving their headquarters to New York.”

May 11, 1975
“Housing for the poor: Crisis is too mild a word”

June 20, 1985
“Housing getting scarcer for city, says a U.S. aide…the housing shortage cannot be resolved by private builders alone.”

Sept. 8, 1997
“Many tenants are struggling to pay rent…Especially in New York City, rising rents have forced many people to live doubled and tripled up with other family members, often in dangerous or unhealthy conditions.”

July 9, 2000
“Housing crisis confounds a prosperous city”

The recurrent framing of the core problem of affordable shelter as one of supply is convenient, since the solution to a supply crisis is not to fundamentally change the relationship our society has with housing provision. It’s simply to build more housing.

While supply is a critical component of literally housing more people, the role of power and control of housing infrastructure must be duly considered. Housing insecurity has been an endemic feature of our housing provision system, not an intermittent bug.