Chapter 1: Housing History and Purpose

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“Safe, affordable housing is a basic necessity for every family. Without a decent place to live, people cannot be productive members of society, children cannot learn and families cannot thrive.”

Tracy Kaufman, Research Associate
National Low Income Housing Coalition/
Low Income Housing Information Service; 2003

The term “shelter,” which is often used to define housing, has a strong connection to the ultimate purpose of housing throughout the world. The mental image of a shelter is of a safe, secure place that provides both privacy and protection from the elements and the temperature extremes of the outside world. This vision of shelter, however, is complex. The earthquake in Bam, Iran, before dawn on December 26, 2003, killed in excess of 30,000 people, most of whom were sleeping in their homes. Although the homes were made of the most simple construction materials, many were well over a thousand years old. Living in a home where generation after generation had been raised should provide an enormous sense of security. Nevertheless, the world press has repeatedly implied that the construction of these homes destined this disaster. The homes in Iran were constructed of sun-dried mud-brick and mud.

We should think of our homes as a legacy to future generations and consider the negative environmental effects of building them to serve only one or two generations before razing or reconstructing them. Homes should be built for sustainability and for ease in future modification. We need to learn the lessons of the earthquake in Iran, as well as the 2003 heat wave in France that killed in excess of 15,000 people because of the lack of climate control systems in their homes. We must use our experience, history, and knowledge of both engineering and human health needs to construct housing that meets the need for privacy, comfort, recreation, and health maintenance.

Health, home construction, and home maintenance are inseparable because of their overlapping goals. Many highly trained individuals must work together to achieve quality, safe, and healthy housing. Contractors, builders, code inspectors, housing inspectors, environmental health officers, injury control specialists, and epidemiologists all are indispensable to achieving the goal of the best housing in the world for U.S. citizens. This goal is the basis for the collaboration of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC).

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Preurban Housing
Early dwelling designs were probably the result of cultural, socioeconomic, and physical forces intrinsic to the environment of their inhabitants. The housing similarities among civilizations separated by vast distances may have been a result of a shared heritage, common influences, or chance.

Caves were accepted as dwellings, perhaps because they were ready made and required little or no construction. However, in areas with no caves, simple shelters were constructed and adapted to the availability of resources and the needs of the population. Classification systems have been developed to demonstrate how dwelling types evolved in preurban indigenous settings [1].

Ephemeral Dwellings
Ephemeral dwellings, also known as transient dwellings, were typical of nomadic peoples. The African bushmen and Australia’s aborigines are examples of societies whose existence depends on an economy of hunting and food gathering in its simple form. Habitation of an ephemeral dwelling is generally a matter of days.

Episodic Dwellings
Episodic housing is exemplified by the Inuit igloo, the tents of the Tungus of eastern Siberia, and the very similar tents of the Lapps of northern Europe. These groups are more sophisticated than those living in ephemeral dwellings, tend to be more skilled in hunting or fishing, inhabit a dwelling for a period of weeks, and have a greater effect on the environment. These groups also construct communal housing and often practice slash-and-burn cultivation, which is the least productive use of cropland and has a greater environmental impact than the hunting and gathering of ephemeral dwellers.

Periodic Dwellings
Periodic dwellings are also defined as regular temporary dwellings used by nomadic tribal societies living in a pastoral economy. This type of housing is reflected in the yurt used by the Mongolian and Kirgizian groups and the Bedouins of North Africa and western Asia. These groups’ dwellings essentially demonstrate the next step in the evolution of housing, which is linked to societal development. Pastoral nomads are distinguished from people living in episodic dwellings by their homogenous cultures and the beginnings of political organization. Their environmental impact increases with their increased dependence on agriculture rather than livestock.

Seasonal Dwellings
Schoenauer [1] describes seasonal dwellings as reflective of societies that are tribal in nature, seminomadic, and based on agricultural pursuits that are both pastoral and marginal. Housing used by seminomads for several months or for a season can be considered semisedentary and reflective of the advancement of the concept of property, which is lacking in the preceding societies. This concept of property is primarily of communal property, as opposed to individual or personal property. This type of housing is found in diverse environmental conditions and is demonstrated in North America by the hogans and armadas of the Navajo Indians. Similar housing can be found in Tanzania (Barabaig) and in Kenya and Tanzania (Masai).

Semipermanent Dwellings
According to Schoenauer [1], sedentary folk societies or hoe peasants practicing subsistence agriculture by cultivating staple crops use semipermanent dwellings. These groups tend to live in their dwellings various amounts of time, usually years, as defined by their crop yields. When land needs to lie fallow, they move to more fertile areas. Groups in the Americas that used semipermanent dwellings included the Mayans with their oval houses and the Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma Indians in the southwestern United States with their pueblos.

Permanent Dwellings
The homes of sedentary agricultural societies, whose political and social organizations are defined as nations and who possess surplus agricultural products, exemplify this type of dwelling. Surplus agricultural products allowed the division of labor and the introduction of other pursuits aside from food production; however, agriculture is still the primary occupation for a significant portion of the population. Although they occurred at different points in time, examples of early sedentary agricultural housing can be found in English cottages, such as the Suffolk, Cornwall, and Kent cottages [1].

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Permanent dwellings went beyond simply providing shelter and protection and moved to the consideration of comfort. These structures began to find their way into what is now known as the urban setting. The earliest available evidence suggests that towns came into existence around 4000 BC. Thus began the social and public health problems that would increase as the population of cities increased in number and in sophistication. In preurban housing, the sparse concentration of people allowed for movement away from human pollution or allowed the dilution of pollution at its location. The movement of populations into urban settings placed individuals in close proximity, without the benefit of previous linkages and without the ability to relocate away from pollution or other people.

Urbanization was relatively slow to begin, but once started, it accelerated rapidly. In the 1800s, only about 3% of the population of the world could be found in urban settings in excess of 5,000 people. This was soon to change. The year 1900 saw the percentage increase to 13.6% and subsequently to 29.8% in 1950. The world’s urban population has grown since that time. By 1975, more than one in three of the world’s population lived in an urban setting, with almost one out of every two living in urban areas by 1997. Industrialized countries currently find approximately 75% of their population in an urban setting. The United Nations projects that in 2015 the world’s urban population will rise to approximately 55% and that in industrialized nations it will rise to just over 80%.

In the Western world, one of the primary forces driving urbanization was the Industrial Revolution. The basic source of energy in the earliest phase of the Industrial Revolution was water provided by flowing rivers. Therefore, towns and cities grew next to the great waterways. Factory buildings were of wood and stone and matched the houses in which the workers lived, both in construction and in location. Workers’ homes were little different in the urban setting than the agricultural homes from whence they came. However, living close to the workplace was a definite advantage for the worker of the time. When the power source for factories changed from water to coal, steam became the driver and the construction materials became brick and cast iron, which later evolved into steel. Increasing populations in cities and towns increased social problems in overcrowded slums. The lack of inexpensive, rapid public transportation forced many workers to live close to their work. These factory areas were not the pastoral areas with which many were familiar, but were bleak with smoke and other pollutants.

The inhabitants of rural areas migrated to ever-expanding cities looking for work. Between 1861 and 1911 the population of England grew by 80%. The cities and towns of England were woefully unprepared to cope with the resulting environmental problems, such as the lack of potable water and insufficient sewerage.

In this atmosphere, cholera was rampant; and death rates resembled those of Third World countries today. Children had a one in six chance of dying before the age of 1 year. Because of urban housing problems, social reformers such as Edwin Chadwick began to appear. Chadwick’s Report on an Enquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain and on the Means of its Improvement [2] sought many reforms, some of which concerned building ventilation and open spaces around the buildings. However, Chadwick’s primary contention was that the health of the working classes could be improved by proper street cleaning, drainage, sewage, ventilation, and water supplies. In the United States, Shattuck et al. [3] wrote the Report of the Sanitary Commission of Massachusetts, which was printed in 1850. In the report, 50 recommendations were made. Among those related to housing and building issues were recommendations for protecting school children by ventilation and sanitation of school buildings, emphasizing town planning and controlling overcrowded tenements and cellar dwellings. Figure 1.1 demonstrates the conditions common in the tenements.

In 1845, Dr. John H. Griscom, the City Inspector of New York, published The Sanitary Condition of the Laboring Population of New York [4]. His document expressed once again the argument for housing reform and sanitation. Griscom is credited with being the first to use the phrase “how the other half lives.” During this time, the poor were not only subjected to the physical problems of poor housing, but also were victimized by corrupt landlords and builders.

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Trends in Housing
The term “tenement house” was first used in America and dates from the mid-nineteenth century. It was often intertwined with the term “slum.” Wright [5] notes that in English, tenement meant “an abode for a person or for the soul, when someone else owned the property.” Slum, on the other hand, initially was used at the beginning of the 19th century as a slang term for a room. By the middle of the century, slum had evolved into a term for a back dwelling occupied by the lowest members of society. Von Hoffman [6] states that this term had, by the end of the century, begun to be used interchangeably with the term tenement. The author noted additionally that in the larger cities of the United States, the apartment house emerged in the 1830s as a housing unit of two to five stories, with each story containing apartments of two to four rooms. It was originally built for the upper group of the working class. The tenement house emerged in the 1830s when landlords converted warehouses into inexpensive housing designed to accommodate Irish and black workers. Additionally, existing large homes were subdivided and new structures were added, creating rear houses and, in the process, eliminating the traditional gardens and yards behind them. These rear houses, although new, were no healthier than the front house, often housing up to 10 families. When this strategy became inadequate to satisfy demand, the epoch period of the tenements began.

Although unpopular, the tenement house grew in numbers, and, by 1850 in New York and Boston, each tenement housed an average of 65 people. During the 1850s, the railroad house or railroad tenement was introduced. This structure was a solid, rectangular block with a narrow alley in the back. The structure was typically 90 feet long and had 12 to 16 rooms, each about 6 feet by 6 feet and holding around four people. The facility allowed no direct light or air into rooms except those facing the street or alley. Further complicating this structure was the lack of privacy for the tenants. A lack of hallways eliminated any semblance of privacy. Open sewers, a single privy in the back of the building, and uncollected garbage resulted in an objectionable and unhygienic place to live. Additionally, the wood construction common at the time, coupled with coal and wood heating, made fire an ever-present danger. As a result of a series of tenement fires in 1860 in New York, such terms as death-trap and fire-trap were coined to describe the poorly constructed living facilities [6].

The two last decades of the 19th century saw the introduction and development of dumbbell tenements, a front and rear tenement connected by a long hall. These tenements were typically five stories, with a basement and no elevator (elevators were not required for any building of less than six stories). Dumbbell tenements, like other tenements, resulted in unaesthetic and unhealthy places to live. Garbage was often thrown down the airshafts, natural light was confined to the first floor hallway and the public hallways only contained one or two toilets and a sink. This apparent lack of sanitary facilities was compounded by the fact that many families took in boarders to help with expenses. In fact, 44,000 families rented space to boarders in New York in 1890, with this increasing to 164,000 families in 1910. In the early 1890s, New York had a population of more than 1 million, of which 70% were residents of multifamily dwellings. Of this group, 80% lived in tenements consisting mostly of dumbbell tenements.

The passage of the New York Tenement House Act of 1901 spelled the end of the dumbbells and acceptance of a new tenement type developed in the 1890s—the park or central court tenement, which was distinguished by a park or open space in the middle of a group of buildings. This design was implemented to reduce the activity on the front street and to enhance the opportunity for fresh air and recreation in the courtyard. The design often included roof playgrounds, kindergartens, communal laundries, and stairways on the courtyard side.

Although the tenements did not go away, reform groups supported ideas such as suburban cottages to be developed for the working class. These cottages were two-story brick and timber, with a porch and a gabled roof. According to Wright [5], a Brooklyn project called Homewood consisted of 53 acres of homes in a planned neighborhood from which multifamily dwellings, saloons, and factories were banned.

Although there were many large homes for the well-to-do, single homes for the not-so-wealthy were not abundant. The first small house designed for the individual of modest means was the bungalow. According to Schoenauer [1], bungalows originated in India. The bungalow was introduced into the United States in 1880 with the construction of a home in Cape Cod. The bungalow, derived for use in tropical climates, was especially popular in California.

Company towns were another trend in housing in the 19th century. George Pullman, who built railway cars in the 1880s, and John H. Patterson, of the National Cash Register Company, developed notable company towns. Wright [5] notes that in 1917 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Standards estimated that at least 1,000 industrial firms were providing housing for their employees. The provision of housing was not necessarily altruistic. The motivation for providing housing varied from company to company. Such motivations included the use of housing as a recruitment incentive for skilled workers, a method of linking the individual to the company, and a belief that a better home life would make the employees happier and more productive in their jobs. Some companies, such as Firestone and Goodyear, went beyond the company town and allowed their employees to obtain loans for homes from company-established banks. A prime motivator of company town planning was sanitation, because maintaining the worker’s health could potentially lead to fewer workdays lost due to illness. Thus, in the development of the town, significant consideration was given to sanitary issues such as window screens, sewage treatment, drainage, and water supplies.

Before World War I there was a shortage of adequate dwellings. Even after World War I, insufficient funding, a shortage of skilled labor, and a dearth of building materials compounded the problem. However, the design of homes after the war was driven in part by health considerations, such as providing good ventilation, sun orientation and exposure, potable pressurized water, and at least one private toilet. Schoenauer [1] notes that, during the postwar years, the improved mobility of the public led to an increase in the growth of suburban areas, exemplified by the detached and sumptuous communities outside New York, such as Oyster Bay. In the meantime, the conditions of working populations consisting of many immigrants began to improve with the improving economy of the 1920s. The garden apartment became popular. These units were well lighted and ventilated and had a courtyard, which was open to all and well maintained.

Immediately after World War I and during the 1920s, city population growth was outpaced by population growth in the suburbs by a factor of two. The focus at the time was on the single-family suburban dwelling. The 1920s were a time of growth, but the decade following the Great Depression, beginning in 1929, was one of deflation, cessation of building, loss of mortgage financing, and the plunge into unemployment of large numbers of building trade workers. Additionally, 1.5 million home loans were foreclosed during this period. In 1936, the housing market began to make a comeback; however, the 1930s would come to be known as the beginning of public housing, with increased public involvement in housing construction, as demonstrated by the many laws passed during the era [5]. The National Housing Act was passed by Congress in 1934 and set up the Federal Housing Administration. This agency encouraged banks, building and loan associations, and others to make loans for building homes, small business establishments, and farm buildings. If the Federal Housing Administration approved the plans, it would insure the loan. In 1937, Congress passed another National Housing Act that enabled the Federal Housing Administration to take control of slum clearance. It made 60-year loans at low interest to local governments to help them build apartment blocks. Rents in these homes were fixed and were only available to low-income families. By 1941, the agency had assisted in the construction of more than 120,000 family units.

During World War II, the focus of home building was on housing for workers who were involved in the war effort. Homes were being built through federal agencies such as the newly formed Federal Housing Administration, formed in 1934 and transferred to HUD in 1965. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (USCB) [7], in the years since World War II, the types of homes Americans live in have changed dramatically. In 1940, most homes were considered attached houses (row houses, townhouses, and duplexes). Small apartment houses with two to four apartments had their zenith in the 1950s. In the 1960 census, two-thirds of the housing inventory was made up of one-family detached houses, which declined to less than 60% in the 1990 census.

The postwar years saw the expansion of suburban housing led by William J. Levitt’s Levittown, on Long Island, which had a strong influence on postwar building and initiated the subdivisions and tract houses of the following decades Figure 1.2. The 1950s and 1960s saw continued suburban development, with the growing ease of transportation marked by the expansion of the interstate highway system. As the cost of housing began to increase as a result of increased demand, a grassroots movement to provide adequate housing for the poor began to emerge. According to Wright [5], in the 1970s only about 25% of the population could afford a $35,000 home. According to Gaillard [8], Koinonia Partners, a religious organization founded in 1942 by Clarence Jordan near Albany, Georgia, was the seed for Habitat for Humanity. Habitat for Humanity, founded in 1976 by Millard Fuller, is known for its international efforts and has constructed more than 150,000 houses in 80 countries; 50,000 of these houses are in the United States. The homes are energy-efficient and environmentally friendly to conserve resources and reduce long-term costs to the homeowners.

Builders also began promoting one-floor mini homes and no-frills homes of approximately 900 to 1,200 square feet. Manufactured housing began to increase in popularity, with mobile home manufacturers becoming some of the most profitable corporations in the United States in the early 1970s. In the 1940 census, manufactured housing were lumped into the “other” category with boats and tourist cabins: by the 1990 census, manufactured housing made up 7% of the total housing inventory. Many communities ban manufactured housing from residential neighborhoods.

According to Hart et al. [9], nearly 30% of all home sales nationwide are of manufactured housing, and more than 90% of those homes are never moved once they are anchored. According to a 2001 industry report, the demand for prefabricated housing is expected to increase in excess of 3% annually to $20 billion in 2005, with most units being manufactured homes. The largest market is expected to continue in the southern part of the United States, with the most rapid growth occurring in the western part of the country. As of 2000, five manufactured-home producers, representing 35% of the market, dominated the industry. This industry, over the past 20 to 25 years, has been affected by two pieces of federal legislation. The first, the Mobile Home Construction and Safety Standards Act, adopted by HUD in 1974, was passed to aid consumers through regulation and enforcement of HUD design and construction standards for manufactured homes. The second, the 1980 Housing Act, required the federal government to change the term “mobile home” to “manufactured housing” in all federal laws and literature. One of the prime reasons for this change was that these homes were in reality no longer mobile in the true sense.

The energy crisis in the United States between 1973 and 1974 had a major effect on the way Americans lived, drove, and built their homes. The high cost of both heating and cooling homes required action, and some of the action taken was ill advised or failed to consider healthy housing concerns. Sealing homes and using untried insulation materials and other energy conservation actions often resulted in major and sometimes dangerous buildups of indoor air pollutants. These buildups of toxins occurred both in homes and offices. Sealing buildings for energy efficiency and using off-gassing building materials containing urea-formaldehyde, vinyl, and other new plastic surfaces, new glues, and even wallpapers created toxic environments. These newly sealed environments were not refreshed with makeup air and resulted in the accumulation of both chemical and biologic pollutants and moisture leading to mold growth, representing new threats to both short-term and long-term health. The results of these actions are still being dealt with today.

Click here for a history of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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  1. Schoenauer N. 6,000 years of housing. New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.; 2000.
  2. Chadwick E. Report on an enquiry into the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain and on the means of its improvements. London: Clowes and Sons; 1842.
  3. Shattuck L, Banks N Jr, Abbot J. Report of the Sanitary
    Commission of Massachusetts, 1850. Boston: Dutton and Wentworth; 1850. Available from URL: [PDF -876 KB].
  4. Griscom JH. The sanitary condition of the labouring population of New York. New York: Harper; 1845.
  5. Wright G. Building the dream—a social history of housing in America. Cambridge, MA/London: The MIT Press; 1998.
  6. Von Hoffman A. The origins of American housing reform. Cambridge, MA: Joint Center for Housing Studies—Harvard University; August 1998. p. W98-2.
  7. US Census Bureau. Historical census of housing tables—units in structure; 2002. Washington, DC: US Census Bureau; 2002. Available from URL:
  8. Gaillard F. If I were a carpenter, twenty years of Habitat for Humanity. Winston-Salem, NC: John E. Blair; 1996.
  9. Hart JF, Rhodes MJ, Morgan JT, Lindberg MB. The unknown world of the mobile home. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2002.

Additional Sources of Information

Dolkart A. The 1901 Tenement House Act: chapter 6, cleaning up the toilets. New York: Lower East Side Tenement Museum; no date. Available from URL:

Hale EE. Workingmen’s homes, essays and stories, on the homes of men who work in large towns. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company; 1874.

History of plumbing in America. Plumbing and Mechanical Magazine 1987 Jul. Available from URL:

Housing Act of 1949, The US Committee on Agriculture Glossary.

Lang RE, Sohmer RR. Editors’ introduction, legacy of the Housing Act of 1949: the past, present, and future of federal housing and urban policy.
Housing Policy Debate 2000; 11(2) 291–8. Available from URL: [PDF – 131 KB].

Mason JB. History of housing in the US. 1930–1980. Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing Company; 1982.

Passic F. Urban renewal. Morning Star [Albion, Michigan] 1997 Feb 13; 6. Available from URL:

Red-lining [definition of], 535A.1 Definitions, Iowa Code 2001: Section 535A.1. Des Moines, IA: The Iowa Legislature. Available from URL:

Rental Housing On Line. Federal housing acts. Port Huron,
MI: Rental Housing On Line; no date. Available from URL:

Rental Housing On Line. Government’s role in low income housing. Port Huron, MI: Rental Housing On Line; no date. Available from URL:

Texas Low Income Housing Information Service. The past: special interests, race, and local control; Housing Act of 1949: bipartisan support for public housing. Austin, TX: Texas Low Income Housing Information Service; no date. Available from URL:

US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Fair housing laws and presidential Executive Orders. Washington, DC: US Department of Housing and Urban Development; no date. Available from URL:

US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Homes and communities. Washington, DC: US Department of Housing and Urban Development; no date. Available from URL:

Warth G. Research project looking at red-lining. North County [California] Times 2002 May 5. Available from URL: .