Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

John F. Bauman

Works Progress Administration (WPA)

In response to the rising tide of unemployment nationally, and after the short-lived Civil Works Administration (CWA) failed to stem that tide, Congress in May 1935 created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the “alphabet soup” of economic recovery programs enacted as part of the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). Later called the Works Projects Administration, the job-creation program aimed to employ 3.5 million men and women throughout the nation, especially those living in Depression-wracked urban areas such as Greater Philadelphia. Inevitably, in Philadelphia as elsewhere, critics charged that the program was steeped in politics.

With a congressional appropriation of $4.8 billion dollars, the WPA sought to find useful jobs for the able-bodied unemployed as an alternative to the demeaning, psychologically and physically debilitating “dole” (public welfare). Moreover, WPA monies were to go into workers’ paychecks, not to be spent on materials, which would be covered by states or municipalities.

On the eve of the WPA’s creation more than ninety-three thousand needy families, many of them jobless, relied on the Philadelphia County Relief Board (CRB) for relief. Nearby industrialized cities such as Camden, New Jersey; Chester, Pennsylvania; and Wilmington, Delaware, also suffered. In Camden, per-capita annual income fell from $839 to $433 between 1929 and 1933, and the New Jersey Emergency Relief Administration shut down in 1936 for want of funds. Philadelphia’s suburban counties such as Montgomery and Bucks in Pennsylvania, being much less industrialized, endured only half the joblessness of the City of Brotherly Love.

With harsh weather predicted for the winter of 1934-35, the New Deal launched the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which put jobless relief clients to work on a host of street, road, and park projects and on white-collar work especially in town and city halls. A CWA and WPA mattress project employed many women sewing and stuffing mattresses for transient camps and for poor families with incomes under $2,000 a year. But while labor leaders in Philadelphia cheered the CWA, the city’s Republican mayor in 1934, J. Hampton Moore (1864-1950), a devout fiscal conservative and apostle of retrenchment, refused any federal assistance monies in Philadelphia.

Resisting WPA

Moore just as adamantly barred cooperation with the WPA, which in June 1935 allocated $60 million to Philadelphia to employ seventy thousand jobless. By August fewer than thirty-five thousand Philadelphians had been enlisted through the program to build city schools and work at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and in jobs outside the city in Montgomery, Chester, and Bucks Counties. It was not until December 1935 that Moore atypically approved two large WPA projects, one to pave city streets and the other to vastly improve the city’s airport at Hog Island. Founded in 1927 as the Philadelphia Municipal Airport, the facility became the S.D. Wilson Airport after the WPA modernized it by adding a terminal, and later became the Philadelphia International Airport.

[caption id="attachment_26059" align="alignright" width="301"] Philadelphia Mayor S. Davis Wilson (center) was a committed supporter of the WPA. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

In contrast to Moore, S. Davis Wilson (1881-1939), a former Republican elected city controller in 1933 and mayor in November 1935 as candidate of the Fusion Party, made cooperation with the WPA his first priority. Wilson determined to use the WPA to employ eighty-five thousand jobless city residents. Indeed, as his first act as mayor Wilson rushed to Washington, D.C., to secure for Philadelphia the 1936 Democratic Convention and WPA projects to clean both City Hall and Independence Hall. In August he returned to Washington to wheedle $100 million from WPA Administrator Henry L. Hopkins (1890-1946) for street paving, waterworks, sewers, schools, parks, and a range of white-collar jobs such as compiling records of all delinquent water rents in the city for the previous fifty years.

In terms of miles of paved streets, numbers of new schools, post offices, parks, and playgrounds, the WPA together with the Public Works Administration (PWA) and Civil Works Administration (CWA) transformed urban America. Still, in places like Philadelphia, Camden, Chester, and Wilmington, the WPA failed to fill its quota of jobs. Wilson had promised the city jobless eighty-five thousand WPA jobs, but by 1938 it employed scarcely forty-nine thousand. The problem?  In Philadelphia, as elsewhere in a region suffering from lower property values and eviscerated tax revenues, municipalities proved unable or unwilling to allocate monies for materials. They were more likely to approve projects such as one for destroying poison ivy in Philadelphia parks that required no allocation. Philadelphia benefitted from thirty-seven sanitation projects between 1935 and 1938, most costing less than $50,000 in materials. Among fifty-five park projects of the same period that did require some allocation from either the state or an agency such as the Fairmount Park Commission, the WPA built thirteen stone and log trail shelters and comfort stations in Fairmount Park. In Pastorius Park it built an attractive rustic stone restroom. At the Philadelphia National Cemetery, WPA workers erected a rostrum in the form of a Tuscan-order Temple.

The WPA created work not only for jobless factory workers but also for the nation’s unemployed writers, musicians, and artists. Low-cost WPA white-collar projects employed relatively few people, but were numerous and popular. WPA art projects included a mural celebrating Philadelphia industrialism placed in the auditorium of Olney’s Finletter Elementary School. The youthful WPA artist Jackson Pollock (1912-56) created his “Male and Female,” later added to the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ahron Ben Shmuel (1903-84) created a WPA sculpture placed at the reptile house at the Philadelphia Zoo. As part of the American Guide Series the WPA Federal Writers Project employed jobless city white collar workers to create a series of guidebooks for states and cities, including Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace (1937).

Maintaining Streets

[caption id="attachment_26073" align="alignright" width="300"] Typical work for the WPA involved building and repairing roads.  (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Large-scale, more costly projects proceeded with the sponsorship of the state or federal government. During the Great Depression Pennsylvania took over 145 miles of Philadelphia streets and maintained them with WPA assistance. In 1937 the WPA spent over $2 million on Philadelphia street projects. Another large-scale project added a rail line (later the PATCO high-speed line) across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. One of Philadelphia’s largest projects employed women sewing garments and other goods to be distributed to the needy. Pennsylvania sponsored ten sewing room projects in Philadelphia between 1935 and 1938, the first costing $300,000, the second and largest costing $1.3 million. After 1937, as the threat of war loomed in Europe, projects to renovate and enlarge military installations topped the WPA’s list. Washington spent $500,000 to renovate Philadelphia’s Frankford Arsenal, $375,000 for the Navy Yard, and $109,000 to fireproof the magazine and improve roads at Fort Mifflin.

[caption id="attachment_26072" align="alignright" width="236"] WPA workmen repainted the French Renaissance room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Nevertheless, the WPA failed to provide work sufficient to employ the mass of Philadelphia’s seventy thousand jobless families. A similar story prevailed in bankrupt Camden. Still, the region garnered a significant legacy of projects that helped Philadelphia, Camden, Chester, Wilmington and other urban places weather trying times. In Camden, for example, the WPA paved the city’s major Broadway thoroughfare, a project that provided the jobless 242 hours of labor and consumed four thousand tons of gravel and asphalt. The WPA also paved the city’s Federal Street and Haddon Avenue. In 1936 alone the WPA constructed Elijah Perry Park (replete with a swimming and wading pool), built Farnham Park, enlarged and improved Pyne Point Park, and constructed Roosevelt Plaza Park. Moreover, by uprooting rails from Camden streets and asphalting the resulting cavity, the WPA helped prepare the city and other urban areas for the end of trolley transportation and the coming age of urban bus transit. Likewise in Wilmington, the WPA undertook multiple waterworks projects, as well as major road projects, a number of which had begun with CWA. Among other Wilmington projects, the WPA improved the sewage system at all-black Delaware State College, expanded the Rock Manor Golf Course, and with PWA and WPA replaced the city’s smaller Du Pont High School with a handsome neocolonial seventy-nine-room edifice.

Despite the effort to cast the WPA as “real” as opposed to “made” work, the WPA never escaped the stigma of “leaf-raking.” Nor did it escape the charge of being “political.” Until FDR’s reelection in 1936, when forty-two of the city’s fifty wards voted for the president, the Republican machine ruled Philadelphia. The election crushed the machine that had been led by William S. Vare  (1867-1934). Seeking a scapegoat, Republicans found the WPA. Democrats never denied that politics infused the WPA. Hopkins conceded that it was impossible to expunge politics at the local level. Lorena Hickok (1893-1968), a journalist employed by Hopkins to report on economic circumstances around the country, exclaimed about the WPA in Philadelphia, “Oh, it’s plenty political alright; but the Republicans would do the same thing if they had the WPA.”  Indeed, she reported, many Democratic committeemen in Philadelphia held WPA jobs and on election day “worked like hell at the polls.” Still, the legacy of the WPA’s beautiful parks, paved streets, modernized systems, and inspiring murals not only helped maintain and upgrade a languishing urban infrastructure but also kept thousands of families in Greater Philadelphia with modest but essential livelihoods.

John F. Bauman is Professor Emeritus of California University of Pennsylvania and Visiting Research Professor at the University of Southern Maine. He has written numerous books and journal articles on a broad range of modern urban policy issues.

Schuylkill Expressway

[caption id="attachment_14078" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a highway with cars as it curves towards Philadelphia. Buildings, city hall, and the Philadelphia museum of art are in the background. The Schuylkill Expressway offers a direct route between the northwest suburbs and the heart of Philadelphia. The popularity of the route, shown here in the 1960s, has turned it into one of the most congested and accident-prone highways in Pennsylvania. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Fully opened for traffic November 25, 1958, Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Expressway was gridlocked from the first day of its operation. Envisioned by city planners as a panacea for economy-suffocating urban traffic congestion, but built on flawed engineering assumptions about traffic flows, the expressway ignored any concern for postwar social and regional realities.  Rather than being acclaimed, within years the highway was decried, ignominiously branded the “Surekill Distressway.”

Decades before it was built, traffic jammed the narrow streets of 1930s Philadelphia despite the Great Depression, and later the city’s World War II-fueled economic revival only exacerbated matters. Postwar pro-growth planners and organizations such as the Greater Philadelphia Movement (GPM) and the Citizens’ Committee on the City Plan (CCCP) saw this automobile congestion, together with slums and suburbanization, as draining the city’s lifeblood. Well-engineered express highways, they argued, would save the downtown and help restore livable urban neighborhoods.

[caption id="attachment_14166" align="alignright" width="300"]Traffic on the westbound Schuylkill Expressway backs up near the Philadelphia Museum of Art on January 29, 2015, after a minor accident blocked the left lane, resulting in a miles-long backup that affected both directions of the expressway. (Photography by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia) Traffic on the westbound Schuylkill Expressway backs up near the Philadelphia Museum of Art on January 29, 2015, after a minor accident blocked the left lane. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Highway mania had intensified in 1938 with publication of “Toll Roads and Free Roads,” prepared by the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR).  Created in 1916 to free American farmers from the mud, the engineering-oriented BPR in 1938 now advocated a modern urban-oriented highway system that one year later was rendered graphically in General Motors’ “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

After World War II, Philadelphia boosters rallied behind the idea of modern freeways and pressed for a submerged Vine Street Expressway to relieve congestion from traffic flowing into the city from New Jersey via the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.  However, Pennsylvania’s historically anti-urban state legislature, which controlled both state and federal highway funds, quashed the idea. Instead, momentum built in Harrisburg for an east-west arterial highway in 1947 called the Valley Forge Expressway, connecting Philadelphia with King of Prussia and designed to relieve traffic jams on U.S. Route 30, which served Philadelphia’s “Main Line” suburbs such as Ardmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford. Talk of such a highway dated from the 1920s and appeared in the 1931 Regional Plan of the Tri-State Regional Planning Federation.

[caption id="attachment_14077" align="alignright" width="300"]A photograph of some leveled dirt with markers and rope showing the edges of a road. Hills of dirt and people are in the background. The construction of the Schuylkill Expressway took almost ten years to complete. Excavators had to even-out hills and depressions along the Schuylkill River before the pavement process could begin. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

By 1941, the year that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Interregional Highway Commission proposed a 40,000-mile, federally funded interregional highway system (the Federal Aid System), the so-called Valley Forge Expressway appeared on Pennsylvania’s wish list of modern state highways.  Together with the widened and submerged Vine Street and the “Industrial Highway” skirting the Delaware River, the Schuylkill Expressway was featured in planner Edmund Bacon (1901-2005) and architect Oscar Stonorov’s (1905-1970) spectacular “Better Philadelphia Exhibit” in 1947.

With the Pennsylvania Turnpike nearing completion, Philadelphia’s fledgling City Planning Commission in 1947 undertook a Philadelphia-Camden origin-and-destination survey, whose data officially supported building an express highway following the Schuylkill River from the new Pennsylvania Turnpike exit at Valley Forge into the “heart of Philadelphia.”  

However, while both the Bureau of Public Roads and Edmund Bacon saw the Schuylkill Expressway relieving traffic congestion regionally, north and south of the proposed multilane highway, as well as east and west, Clark, Rapuano, Holleran, Hardesty, and Hanover, the engineering firm contracted to design the roadway, interpreted the 1947 origin-and-destination data to alleviate mainly Pennsylvania Turnpike and Philadelphia-generated traffic volumes. They ignored Broad Street traffic and other traffic flowing from Philadelphia’s burgeoning northeast where Bacon planned  garden-city communities. Nor did Clark, Rapuano’s flawed design grapple any more successfully with the topographical obstacles presented by the rugged, albeit idyllic,  Schuylkill Valley terrain as it entered the city limits.  Against protest, the historic Schuylkill canal locks and sections of Fairmount Park were sacrificed, and the narrowing of the roadway from six lanes to four as the highway approached Thirtieth Street made a bottleneck inevitable, despite frequent and dangerous turnoffs into Fairmount Park.

Constructed between 1949 and 1959, much of it before the availability of federal funds derived from the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the original Schuylkill Expressway largely predated modern highway standards. By 1962, fatal accidents occurred frequently, and experts identified ten potential deathtraps. In 1970, with federal funds, the state completely redesigned and rebuilt the complex of on- and off-ramps in the vicinity of City Line Avenue and the Roosevelt Boulevard Extension.  In the 1980s, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation added new lanes and rebuilt shoulders along the entire twenty-mile length of the highway.  Long the busiest highway in Pennsylvania, by the twenty-first century the expressway carried 163,000 vehicles daily within Philadelphia County and 109,000 more vehicles daily in adjoining suburban Montgomery County. Its heavy use profoundly impacted the growth of the Philadelphia region.  It especially opened the city’s western suburbs to intensive residential and industrial development, making Montgomery County, for example, a center of American pharmaceutical industrialism and boosting one of the largest shopping-mall complexes in America at King of Prussia. That intense growth, plus the traffic from North Philadelphia and Bucks County flowing from the Roosevelt Boulevard Extension of the expressway, daily flooded the highway with commuter vehicles. Thus, notwithstanding several rebuildings, the Schuylkill Expressway in the era 2010-2014 still ranked as one of the most dangerous and congested commuter highways in America.  Its historic failings attest to the flawed motivations and assumptions that guided its birth.

John F. Bauman is Visiting Research Professor at the Muskie School of Public Service, University of Southern Maine, and the author of books and journal articles on a broad range of urban policy issues.

Public Housing

As the dominant response to the housing needs of low-income residents since the 1930s, public housing in the Philadelphia region provided shelter for thousands. Over the years, however, as needs as well as programs changed, the city and the region struggled to provide safe, decent, and sanitary living quarters when the private market failed to produce suitable alternatives. 

Greater Philadelphia, like urban-industrial regions nationwide, faced a serious problem housing lower-income workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Because government treated housing as a private commodity, it was up to voluntary organizations such as the Philadelphia Housing  Association, formed in  1911,  to identify the evils of fetid alleys and decrepit  tenements and press city officials to pass and enforce stricter housing ordinances. However, by the 1930s housing codes, zoning, and home-ownership campaigns failed to appreciably better squalid housing conditions, and with the Great Depression jobless families faced evictions and foreclosures.

The federal government became involved with Philadelphia-area housing during World War I, when the United States Housing Commission and the Emergency Fleet Corporation constructed well-designed communities for shipyard workers at Camden’s Yorkship Village and along Oregon and Elmwood avenues in South Philadelphia. Washington disposed of these projects after the war and reverted to its tradition of staying out of the housing market until the crisis of the Greater Depression.

[caption id="attachment_3806" align="alignright" width="300"]photograph of The Carl Mackley Houses The Carl Mackley Houses, named for a worker killed during a 1930 strike, were commissioned by the American Federation of Full-Fashioned Hosiery Workers and financed by a loan from the Public Works Administration. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Among the leading voices demanding federal action was Catherine Bauer, whose writing on publicly funded modern housing complexes in Europe proved influential on the new Housing Division  of the New Deal’s Public Works Administration. As director of the Labor Housing Conference in the early 1930s, Bauer joined with David Edelman of the American Federation of Full-Fashioned Hosiery Workers to secure funds from the Housing Division for  “modern,” limited-dividend  housing for Philadelphia’s ill-housed working class. Their efforts led to construction of the city’s first public housing units in North Philadelphia’s Juniata Park neighborhood. Designed by Russian-born, Philadelphia architect Oscar Stonorov, the 184-unit Carl Mackley Houses opened in 1935. The  short-lived Housing Division built only one other project in Philadelphia, the modern, 258-unit Hill Creek Homes, located overlooking Tacony Creek Park in the Northeast.

Matters of Class and Race

This promising approach to providing well-designed, European-style, modern housing developments ended when congressional critics, citing costs, rejected Bauer’s “communitarian” approach to low-income housing.  The Wagner-Steagall legislation of 1937 opted instead for a  two-tiered policy of providing mortgage insurance to promote home ownership for the “striving” middle class while relegating public housing  to way stations for the poor. Such housing became not only class-designated, but race-segregated as the federal government applied its “prevailing neighborhood composition” rule.  Although housing needs were great among African Americans, who were excluded from suburbia by the Federal Housing Administration’s “redlining” policies, public housing such as the Carl Mackley and the Hill Creek Homes were in predominantly white neighborhoods and therefore reserved for white families. 

By the 1950s Philadelphia’s growing African American population clustered in three peripheral neighborhood areas north, south, and west of the urban core.  To meet the demand for shelter on the eve of World War II, the Philadelphia Housing Authority built the James Weldon Johnson and Richard Allen Homes (both in North Philadelphia) for black families, and the Tasker Homes in South Philadelphia for whites. Public housing during the war congealed segregation patterns. Pennypack Woods, Bartram Village, Passyunk, and Abbottsford Homes, all built under the 1941 Lanham defense housing act, housed mainly white war worker families. By war’s end the shabbily-built Shipyard Homes on the South Philadelphia “neck” housed  black families.

Under federal prompting, Philadelphia created a Housing Authority in 1937, a Planning Commission in 1942, and a Redevelopment Authority in 1946. The 1949 Wagner-Ellender-Taft Housing Act, which called for 810,000 units of public housing nationally, revived public housing in Philadelphia. The city’s “Old Guard” Republicans never embraced public housing, but with election in the 1950s of the Democratic reform administrations of Joseph Clark and Richardson Dilworth, the city embraced the 1954 Housing Act to transform public housing into the handmaiden of an exuberant city rebuilding program. Because the 1954 law required communities to build replacement units  for every family uprooted by public action, Philadelphia built 5,970 new public housing units between 1953 and 1961. Despite Bauer’s condemnation of those “God-damned skyscrapers,” 77 percent of those units were in high rise projects, such as Wilson Park, Raymond Rosen, Norris, Schuylkill Falls, Mill Creek, Harrison Village, Mantua Hall, and Hawthorne Square.  African Americans occupied two-thirds of all these units.

With “white flight” deepening  existing  segregation patterns, Philadelphia planners mobilized to use urban renewal in an effort to stabilize city neighborhoods.  The 1956 Central Urban Renewal Area program, orchestrated by City Housing Coordinator William Rafsky, aimed to “scatter” smaller low-rise public housing projects as a way of lessening segregation and propping up sagging neighborhood real estate values.  Whites in these “transitional” neighborhoods violently fought Rafsky’s plan for scattered, unobtrusive, and integrated low-rise developments, and by the late 1960s the gargantuan and racially-segregated 886-unit Southwark Plaza high rise, and the 510-unit Norman Blumberg tower (1967) attested to the failure of Rafsky’s plan for a more human-scale, integrated public housing.

[caption id="attachment_3697" align="alignright" width="300"]photograph of Westfield Acres Completed in 1938 and designed by the same architect responsible for the Mackley Homes in Philadelphia, Oscar Stonorov, Westfield Acres in Camden served low-income residents well until it was undercut by rising levels of poverty, and in the 1980s, a scourge of drugs. (St. Joe’s Carpenter Society)[/caption]


In Camden, Echoes of Philadelphia

Regionally, Camden, N.J., experienced similar problems as growth in the black population put increasing pressure on public facilities, many of which had been built to meet the war emergency on a segregated basis. When in 1954 Camden’s housing chief, Joseph McComb, refused to integrate the city’s all-black projects, the NAACP sued, but to no avail.  By 1966 Camden’s Roosevelt Manor, Chelton Terrace, and Branch Village remained segregated, and in the face of a number of demolition projects without replacement housing African Americans took protest to the streets.

In the meantime, in line with the nation’s two-tiered housing policy, after 1959 housing  authorities in Philadelphia and elsewhere authorized  politically less contentious housing projects  for the elderly, including  Holmcrest (1967), Morton II (1969), Liddonfield II (1969), Emlen Arms (1970), and Plymouth Hall (1971).  Philadelphia’s suburbs in Montgomery and Bucks  Counties, which had avoided conventional public housing, embraced the opportunity to support elderly housing. Bucks never created a housing authority. It kept its World War II-Lanham Act Warminster Heights project “affordable,” but sold the white-clapboard, barracks-type project to private owners. Under the Housing and Home Finance Administration’s 1959 Section 202 program ( government support for non-profit-owned elderly housing), however,  a number of senior complexes arose in Bucks County including Grund Hall, Galilee Village, and Gloria Dei Plaza.

Unlike Bucks, Montgomery County did create a housing authority, which built three low-rise, garden-type communities for families, Bright Hope Commons in Pottstown, Crest Manor in Norristown, and North Hills Manor in Abington Township. The Montgomery County Housing Authority also erected four attractive senior complexes: the nine-story Robert P. Smith Tower and the Sidney Pollock Homes in Pottstown, the five-story Golden Age Manor in Royersford, and the seven-story Marshall W. Lee Towers in Conshohocken.

Scattering Public Housing

Beginning in 1965, Philadelphia seized upon options in new federal legislation that encouraged using existing housing units as alternatives to the disparaged “conventional” public housing projects. Here was another means of surreptitiously scattering public housing in less segregated neighborhoods. The program appealed to Housing Coordinator William Rafsky and Philadelphia Planning Commission director Edmund Bacon, who were faced with the spectacle of neighborhoods like Ludlow, where fleeing white families bequeathed streetscapes of abandoned row houses.  Two-thirds of Ludlow homes were labeled “substandard;” 20 percent sat vacant.  Using a “turnkey” or “used housing”  approach, the Philadelphia Housing Authority  acquired and converted abandoned housing  into single-unit, scattered public housing.

More often, developers  negotiated with the Housing Authority to purchase anywhere from 50 to 100 units of “used housing,” rehabilitate them, and for an agreed upon price “turn the key over” to the authority.  Viewed as easier than conventional public housing to own and manage, by the 1990s maintenance costs for this type of housing skyrocketed.  By 2009 the Philadelphia Housing Authority owned and managed more than 4,400 occupied “scattered” single-family units, and 1,500 additional units sat empty and moldering. That year, HUD authorized the PHA to sell 1,800  “used housing” units.

The scattered-site approach received further support under the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, which introduced  Section 8 vouchers as a means of subsidizing low-income renters in the private market. Philadelphia used the program to acquire a massive stock of “substantially rehabilitated” row houses. By the turn of the twenty-first century, many of these also became a burden on the city, which sought permission to reduce its inventory

Still, publicly-owned housing did not disappear.  In the 1990s the aging, often glowering edifices built in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s continued to shelter city families. Unlike in New York City, where city and state government aid kept public housing well-managed, maintained, and policed, in Philadelphia, as in many other cities, public housing deteriorated.  The problem stemmed from the 1937 federal housing law. Through the Annual Contribution Contract and annual payments, Washington underwrote the entire capital cost of public housing projects. In return, Philadelphia exempted projects from taxes, leaving only management and maintenance costs to be covered by rents. Managers deposited rent money in reserve funds to cover anticipated maintenance costs.  This was sufficient as long as projects functioned as way stations for the upwardly mobile working class, which they did between 1941 and 1950. By 1960, however, the situation changed.

Filtering the Ineligible

As early as 1947, Washington compelled the Philadelphia Housing Authority to purge from its rolls stable “families with income over the maximum for continued occupancy.”  Between 1949 and 1960, priority for public housing went by law to the thousands of poor, largely African American families uprooted by urban renewal. By 1960 more than 40 percent of family heads living in the city’s Richard Allen Homes were jobless; more than 23 percent were out of the labor force.  The problem only worsened after 1969 when the an amendment  offered by Senator Edward Brooke limited public housing rents to not more than 25 percent of family income (it was changed to 30 percent in 1982).  At the same time both project maintenance and management costs rose, draining reserve funds and shattering the operating formula.  In 1967 HUD launched a public housing modernization program, providing grants to local housing agencies  to upgrade  increasingly vandalized, crime-ridden complexes such as the Norris Homes, Cambridge Plaza, and Raymond Rosen homes, but continued deterioration marked much of Philadelphia’s public housing stock as “troubled.” 

Hearings on “troubled” housing authorities, including Philadelphia, in 1998 disclosed mismanagement, dire budgetary problems, and outright corruption in the Philadelphia Housing Authority. The Philadelphia press lambasted the PHA as a “cesspool of patronage and inefficiency.” In response, Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell brought Carl Green to Philadelphia from the Detroit Housing Authority.  A reformer, Green proved dynamic and aggressive in turning the PHA around.  He used HUD's new HOPE VI program, which funded replacement of distressed, often high-rise, public housing with low-density, mixed income communities, to demolish one aging complex after another. In 2005  HUD recognized him for his innovation and rewarded  Philadelphia by selecting it for HUD’s flagship Moving to Work program, giving the authority maximum flexibility in how it operated city public housing.

Between 1998 and 2011 Green compiled a distinguished record of accomplishment. Much of the city’s notoriously grim public housing stock disappeared. Philadelphia toppled eight of its large residential communities, including Paschall Homes, Liddonfield,  the Martin Luther King Plaza, the giant Raymond Rosen Homes, the Norris Homes, and Mill Creek. Using HOPE VI, Philadelphia replaced not only towers like  Cambridge Plaza and Mantua Hall but also low-rise complexes such as Tasker and Richard Allen with sprightly, well-landscaped, town house villages in the style of the “New Urbanism.”  Mantua Hall became Mantua Square, Tasker, the “Greater Gray’s Ferry Estates.  Despite these accomplishments, Green was forced to leave the PHA in 2011 following revelations of financial and personal improprieties.

Funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment (Stimulus) Act helped advance the transformation of Philadelphia’s low-income housing stock.  Increasingly, after 2008 programs such as HOPE VI and Moving to Work enabled the authority to deconcentrate low-income families and to create mixed rather than monolithically poor communities and to expand local management responsibilities. Such reforms responded effectively to earlier critics, including Catherine Bauer, but they had the disadvantage of reducing the stock of affordable units.  There is little evidence that the regional housing market has compensated for the loss, and thus the challenge to meet the needs of the region’s lower-income residents continues. 

John F. Bauman is Visiting Research Professor at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine and the author of books and journal articles on a broad range of modern urban policy issues.

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