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Blighted Ambitions: Federal Policy, Public Housing, and Redevelopment on the West Coast, 1937-1954


In 1937, the U.S. Congress passed the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act, authorizing federal funds for the development of public housing. Twelve years later, Congress reauthorized this legislation with the American Housing Act of 1949. In the process,Congress converted a federal housing program into a redevelopment program that only sometimes funded housing.

Key to understanding this change is the rise of a planning concept called “blight.” In the first half of the 20th century, planners, public officials, scholars, and intellectuals struggled to reshape the word “blight” into a description of urban conditions, with little resulting consensus. Despite this, Congress included no legislative definition for “blight,” allowing local leaders great discretion about where and what parts of the city were suitable for clearance and replacement. While previous legislation had restricted federally funded intervention to addressing “slum” conditions, “blight” freed cities from this requirement.

This dissertation has two components. First, at the national scale, it examines struggles to define “blight,” how this term came to be excluded from the Housing Act of 1937, and how pressure from the real estate industry placed it into the Housing Act of 1949. Second, it examines two case studies from the U.S. West Coast: Oakland, California’s efforts to map “blight” citywide from 1949-1951, and Portland, Oregon’s first attempt to create an urban redevelopment program from 1950-1953. Both show how cities without “slum” conditions attempted to leverage the logic of “blight”--seemingly empirical, but actually political--to achieve goals that had little or nothing to do with public housing.

This, then, is the twin story told in this dissertation—first, of how the term “blight” appeared to have empirical meaning without in fact having empirical dimensions, and second how the real estate industry made use of the slipperiness of “blight” to justify projects that largely supplanted public housing.

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