The Housing Law of 1937
Urban renewal in the United States is rooted in the Housing Law of 1937, also known as the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act. This law, enacted during the depths of the Great Depression, was an important part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In his 1937 State of the Union address, Roosevelt specifically identified squalid housing as a pervasive problem that led to the spread of disease and impaired “the health of future generations.” Two weeks later, in his Second Inaugural Address, Roosevelt proclaimed, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
The Housing Law of 1937 provided substantial federal funding to local authorities for the construction of public housing for lower-income families and individuals. At the time, public housing was largely understood to be temporary housing for the “deserving” poor—that is, those who, due to the Great Depression, lacked resources through no fault of their own. Nearly all of those perceived as deserving were white.
Despite its progressive intent, this housing law set the stage for a half century of disruption and displacement, primarily of low-income Black communities, in urban areas across the country. The law’s requirement that one unit of “slum” or “blighted” housing be demolished per new unit of public housing built laid the groundwork for what came to be known as slum clearance and restricted the total number of new units that could be built. The law also limited the amount that could be spent to $5,000 per unit (about $100,000 in today’s dollars), which was low even in 1937 and all but guaranteed that the new public housing would be of low quality. In addition, the empowerment of local housing authorities to enact these new policies allowed the introduction of significant racial bias into urban planning decisions. Consequently, while slum clearance targeted primarily Black neighborhoods, new housing was constructed largely for white populations.
The Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954
The nationwide housing shortage only grew following World War II and the beginning of the Baby Boom, as did fears about stagnating urban downtowns. The Housing Act of 1949, also known as the Taft-Ellender-Wagner Act, built on the 1937 law and cemented policies that would drive urban renewal for decades to come. The act empowered local housing authorities to acquire land perceived as blighted. Previously cities could only use the power of eminent domain to purchase private property if it was to be used for public purposes such as parks or highways. The Housing Act of 1949 and a subsequent 1954 modification allowed cities to acquire land through condemnation proceedings and provided them with funding to buy large swaths of “blighted” land for up to 60 percent over its assessed value (which frequently amounted to less than two years’ rent). In what would become the essence of urban renewal, cities were allowed to tear down slums and resell the property to private residential, commercial, and industrial developers.
The Making of “Slums”
Many of the predominantly Black neighborhoods that came to be characterized as slums were created through decades of segregation and disinvestment. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which created the separate-but-equal doctrine, cities began passing ordinances segregating public transportation, schools, commerce, and housing. In 1912, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation permitting cities to adopt racial segregation ordinances, and by 1914 both Richmond and Norfolk had passed such measures. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1917 that residential segregation ordinances were unconstitutional, in 1924 it affirmed that racially restrictive covenants—clauses in property deeds that prevented nonwhite people from purchasing or occupying specific homes—were enforceable. This ensured that most emerging suburban housing developments would be limited to whites only, which concentrated African Americans in older homes in urban centers.
In the 1930s, the federal government, through the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, created color-coded maps that assessed the creditworthiness of neighborhoods in 250 cities across the country, including Richmond, Roanoke, and Norfolk. Based on racist assumptions, these maps “redlined” many Black neighborhoods as financially hazardous, cutting them off from housing assistance in the depths of the Great Depression and establishing mortgage loan patterns that persisted for decades. Following World War II, the new Federal Housing Administration subsidized the construction of the quintessentially American postwar suburbs but used racially restrictive covenants to ensure that these homes would be sold, as well as resold, only to whites. With limited housing options, Black communities became further concentrated in undesirable neighborhoods that were starved of basic public investment and open to exploitation by predatory landlords. By the time the 1949 Housing Act became law, a half-century of discriminatory policies had created the blighted conditions that were then used as the justification for slum clearance and urban renewal.
Slum Clearance as “Negro Removal”
With funding provided by the housing laws of 1949 and 1954, city officials worked with influential urban planners such as Robert Moses, Harland Bartholomew, and Charles Agle to implement urban renewal plans that remade cityscapes across the United States. In New York City, Moses oversaw the demolition of vast swaths of “blighted” housing to create parks, highways, bridges, tunnels, and public housing. Moses famously said that “when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat axe.” In the Bronx alone, freeway construction displaced more than 60,000 people. St. Louis–based Bartholomew developed master plans for more than 550 cities, including Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Charlottesville. An avowed segregationist, Bartholomew advocated zoning ordinances that would prevent the movement of Black people into the “finer residential districts.” The master plans prepared by his consulting firm often emphasized clearing properties in Black neighborhoods, maintaining segregated housing, and making cities more car-friendly by widening roads and building highways. Similarly, Agle’s 1956 master plan for Norfolk meticulously documented what he characterized as significant urban blight. He concluded that large-scale redevelopment was essential to modernization and that property values in Norfolk’s business district would collapse unless new freeways were built over blighted areas.
As urban renewal took hold across the country, it became clear that slum clearance often served as a guise to legitimize the forced removal of Black communities from urban land so that municipalities could repurpose these spaces. In many cities, including Alexandria, where downtown business districts were competing with new suburban shopping malls, slum clearance functioned to remove Black residents “away from downtown business districts so that white commuters, shoppers, and business elites would not be exposed to black people,” concluded Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2017). In other places, such as Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill, slum clearance put Black businesses that were in close proximity to white enterprises out of business. In Norfolk, slum clearance strengthened the lines of racial segregation by demolishing integrated neighborhoods. And in still other places, including Richmond and Norfolk, slum clearance removed Black residents to transform sought-after urban land into white neighborhoods. By the mid-twentieth century, the terms “‘slums’ and ‘blight’ were widely understood euphemisms for African American neighborhoods,” according to Rothstein. In the words of African American author and activist James Baldwin, “urban renewal” became a euphemism for “Negro removal.”
Changing Land Use
Urban renewal profoundly changed land use patterns in American cities. Local housing authorities used federal funds to acquire “slum” properties, often using coercive practices such as eminent domain and condemnation proceedings to forcibly remove residents. As a result, vast swaths of urban space that had previously been populated largely by low-income Black communities were bulldozed and repurposed. Although the construction of new housing was the ostensible goal of both the Housing Law of 1937 and the Housing Act of 1949, as implemented urban renewal meant that the construction of new public housing slowed substantially. According to one study, the number of federally funded urban renewal projects more than quadrupled from 260 in 1953 to 1,210 in 1962. In the same period, however, the number of new public housing units built per year dropped by more than 50 percent, from 58,000 to 24,000. In the end, housing was built on less than a fifth of all land cleared, with the remainder repurposed for commercial, industrial, and public infrastructure, including the nation’s growing highway system.
With car ownership increasing among middle-class households, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act into law in 1956. The measure initially provided $25 billion to build 41,000 miles of interstate highways over a ten-year period. Slum clearance almost immediately became a means of clearing urban Black communities for the expansion of the Interstate Highway System. One of the act’s lead authors reported that local officials saw building the interstates as a “good opportunity to get rid” of Black neighborhoods. According to legal scholar Deborah Archer, the new highways “disproportionately displaced Black households and cut the heart and soul out of thriving Black communities as homes, churches, schools, and businesses were destroyed. In some cases, entire Black communities were leveled.” For example, the Claiborne Expressway’s six lanes cut a stark line through the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans’s predominantly Black Seventh Ward, and the construction of I-81 obliterated the historically Black Fifteenth Ward in Syracuse, New York. Perhaps most famously, the construction of California’s East Los Angeles Interchange, a twenty-seven-lane confluence of six highways, closed off thirty-two residential and commercial streets in the middle of Boyle Heights, a primarily Mexican and Mexican American neighborhood. In Virginia, the construction of I-95 through Richmond’s Jackson Ward, I-664 through Newport News’s East End, and I-464 through the Berkeley neighborhood of Norfolk destroyed predominantly Black communities, and those areas still suffer from the highways’ environmental, health, and quality-of-life impacts.
Cleared urban land also was transformed into major public works, parks, and public institutions, including universities and hospitals. Alexandria’s Fort Ward Park was built in 1954 after a slum clearance program targeted The Fort, a community settled by formerly enslaved people at the end of the Civil War. Dulles International Airport was built in 1958 on what had been Willard, a Black community in Fairfax County. Gospel Hill, a predominantly African American neighborhood in Charlottesville, was razed to make room for the expansion of the University of Virginia Medical Center. In Norfolk, much of the present-day campus of Old Dominion University lies on what was the historic and predominantly Black Lambert’s Point neighborhood. And Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and Eastern Virginia Medical School occupy an area that was home to one of Norfolk’s few racially integrated neighborhoods in the early twentieth century.
Ownership of significant areas of cleared urban space frequently was transferred to private developers, who built high-end residential buildings, shopping malls, office complexes, and cultural and entertainment amenities such as sports complexes. Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill, a thriving African American residential and commercial district, was demolished in 1964 to make way for a four-lane thoroughfare, a six-story office building, and a car dealership. In Norfolk, the popular Waterside commercial district was built atop cleared slums.
While private development frequently resulted in the removal of Black, low-income populations to make way for high-end residential properties, affordable housing was almost always constructed in the form of cheaply built public housing concentrated in existing segregated communities. Thus, as the white middle class expanded to the emerging suburbs with the aid of federally backed mortgages, very limited public housing was constructed for displaced populations. According to Naomi Carmon, in the fifteen years after the passage of the Housing Act of 1949, only one half of one percent of all federal expenditures for urban renewal was spent on the relocation of the people removed from their homes. Furthermore, the function-over-form utilitarian modernism that dominated urban planning and architecture in this period meant that new public housing tended to be constructed as cheaply built multistory blocks surrounded by pavement, which eventually came to be seen as unfit for family life. The result was the creation of new slums in the form of the high- and low-rise public housing complexes that characterize much of inner-city America today.
Black communities were not passive in the face of decades of housing discrimination, slum clearance, and forced displacement. The Charlottesville Crusade for Voters, a Black civic organization, long demanded the appointment of an African American representative to the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and the Charlottesville chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fought the redevelopment of Vinegar Hill. In Alexandria, the Seminary Civic Association organized against forced removal, demanding that the city’s Redevelopment and Housing Authority allocate funding for Black housing and schools. And while this organizing and resistance often could not prevent the ruthless march of urban renewal, some victories occurred. Melvin Miller, who began organizing with the NAACP against urban renewal in the early 1960s, became the head of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority in 1970, a position that enabled him to change the trajectory of a planned urban renewal project in a neighborhood known as The Dip. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recognized the project as one of the few urban renewal efforts that achieved redevelopment without the displacement of longtime Black residents.
Urban renewal peaked in the early 1960s. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Fair Housing Act, the era’s third major piece of civil rights legislation. The measure outlawed racially discriminatory practices in housing, including many that had become common in Virginia. Six years later, the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 shifted low-income housing policy toward individual housing support, known as Section 8 vouchers, and away from large public housing developments. One consequence has been the continued underinvestment in public housing since the 1970s, again reproducing slumlike conditions in many inner-city neighborhoods. Beginning in the 1990s and accelerating into the present day, cities and housing authorities have increasingly targeted urban-renewal-era public housing for demolition and redevelopment, replacing public housing with privately owned mixed-use developments featuring market-rate housing units that sometimes reserve a limited number of units for lower-income households. This kind of redevelopment frequently drives gentrification, which can return public and private investment dollars to urban centers but also results in the widespread displacement of low-income and African American families from the newly profitable land. Both the St. Paul’s redevelopment project in Norfolk and the Marshall-Ridely redevelopment project in Newport News that broke ground in 2021 will replace thousands of units of public housing with private, mixed-income developments. Both projects have been criticized for contributing to displacement and gentrification.
Through urban renewal, vast swaths of American cities were remade to benefit the growing white middle class. Interstate highways increased mobility and eased the flow of commerce; universities and other public works offered new services; privately developed residential buildings offered luxury housing in sought-after downtown areas; and sporting arenas, shopping malls, and convention centers added to the cultural cachet of these remade urban spaces. At the same time, Black communities in cities across America experienced disruption, dislocation, displacement, and a vicious cycle of urban disinvestment. Urban landscapes across Virginia continue to bear the scars of urban renewal.