The United States of America are one of the world’s most urban nations. They have a strong rural sense of its own history. Inevitably, the two main American parties, Republican and Democrat, have conceived and implemented in the past and still do at present, policy frameworks that differed and differ from each others, including in urban policy. Having into account America’s very specific reality, the evaluation of successes and failures of urban policy may not necessarily show a scenario where differences due to style and philosophy of government are clearly perceptible.
In its form and structure, the American city was born in the 19th century, which was a century of dramatic transformations on practically every front.1
America was essentially a rural nation and there were no national policies in order to upgrade the quality of life in the cities. It was not until the end of the 19th century that political scientists, social workers, landscape architects, and engineers started to classify and analyse the problems of the city and lay the foundations for modern urban planning and urban studies. The 20th century was, in turn, the century of the public housing (inexistent before in America) and the suburbia transformation in America. Problems of the city became a prosperous industry for a number of scholars and reform-minded experts.
In the United States there are two major kinds of government; either they are territorial and corporate including counties and states or they contemplate cities which have corporate governments, and their territorial boundaries are not rigidly set. On E. Monkkonen’s definition, “American cities are more akin to the business corporation than to other governmental entities, being corporations, purely legal entities constitutionally protected ‘persons’, and a form of the private corporation”.2 For him, cities are ‘public’ corporations and as such cannot quite do everything their commercial counterparts can.
The corporate status in US cities was taken by that of commercial, profit-oriented corporations which were able to act with few limitations other than their politicians’ imaginations. This new, powerful, corporate borrowing privileges of the mid-nineteenth century set the political preconditions which determined the creation or seize of economic advantages in unprecedented ways.
Still according to Monkkonen, it was only after the Civil War that local governments “experienced formal limitations on their financial activities being the corporate status the basis for minimal and the maximal, promotional, service providing city, allowing them to create the environment for economic growth and its population expansion”. In his view, the city services became the basis of “our modern expectation that cities will protect from crime, keep order, protect the citizens from threats to their health and welfare, both physical and social, and these organizations made possible the orderly expansion of cities filled with strangers, conflicting ethnic and racial groups, and highly fluid and mobile populations”.3
Monkkonen points out in “America Becomes Urban” that R. Hofstadter emphasised that the United States was the “first post-feudal nation, the first nation in the world to be formed and to grow from its earliest under the influence of Protestantism, nationalism, and modern capitalism enterprise”, and that this meant that by the 19th century, when the US city formation began, cities began building under the protective support of the nation state, which in its seize for political power assumed the cost and management of the military.
For J. Teaford, the age of the city arrived in the 19th century and a dynamic urban growth of the late 19th C was surging in the direction of the city with only six American cities in 1850 with 100.000 inhabitants. While only 5 percent of the population lived in urban places, in 1900 thirty-eight cities could claim this distinction and up to19 percent of city streets were reaching out miles from metropolitan centres and acre after acre of farmland was succumbing to urban development.
Politicians, academics, journalists, and preachers had to recognise the offensive of urbanization and the conditions to accommodate the expansion of the population and could not simply ignore evidence of urban growth visible everywhere such as thousands of miles of new roads and water, sewer, and gas along with metropolitan borders.
According to Teaford’s account, it can be said that for America the turn of the century was an dominant problem for the present and the future at that time with contrast between poverty and wealth; “its debilitating congestion, its diversity and its crime was the nation’s biggest social problem”. “A considerable number of immigrants who concentrated in the cities, speaking foreign languages practising strange customs and adhering to new religions, appeared to threaten the very unity of the nation, and it seemed that its problems were gravitating more than its people”- he adds. By then, reformers like Jacobs Riis were already divulging the evils of urban slums. 4
In America, the advent of the automobile started to pose a new problem by 1920s for urban areas and by 1930s the economic depression brought again the dilemma of poverty to the forefront. In a scenario where 25 percent of the work force was jobless in some cities, such as Chicago, Saint Louis, and Detroit where unemployment topped 30 percent, people who kept their job has experienced a considerable drop on their finances. As an example, Chicagoans still were employed in factories but were earning only half as much as four years earlier. The situation was so severe that thousands of Americans not only lost their jobs and incomes but also saw their savings wiped out by banks, building societies and loan associations.
The period comprised between 1900 to 1940 saw the continuous increase of a mass of urban problems with one generation of social workers, city planners, municipal reformers. Between 1930 and 1960, giant slum clearance and public housing projects seemed to promise a better existence for deprived city inhabitants and the small public projects, rent subsidies and the transplantation of low income residents to the suburbs appeared to be a solution for metropolitan housing problems.
President Herbert Hoover, (1929 – 1933), repeatedly said that local and private initiatives should be pioneered in order to deal with the nation’s economic troubles. By 1932, voters and city officials became tired with Hoover’s rethoric and a new era arrived in 1933 with Franklin Roosevelt as President and his Democratic Congress, as Teaford signals.5
The beginning of the Cold War diverted the attention from domestic problems, but after 1945, a new wave of concern appeared and the cities were decaying; shoppers were avoiding the central business districts and the slums seemed to be spreading. In the following years social reformers called for more public housing.
Still according to Teaford, close to 1960 there was an anathema among progressive planners; public housing it was as much a problem as a solution, and during the post war era new migrants from southern states and Latin America concentrated in the nation’s cities. This commentator also adds that the assimilation process was very slow and unsteady, marked by riots that frightened middle-class whites and by a rising of the crime rate that seemed to endanger the safety of established urbanites, a situation that even the media qualified as ‘urban crisis’.
The development of new initiatives in housing were taken up by Rooselvelt and his Democratic majority and one of the efforts of the New Deal was the Greenbelt Town Program inspired by Rexford G. Tugwell, whose programme was explicitly intended to foster de-concentration, and aimed to build ideal ‘greenbelt’ communities. These communities were to be characterised by decent housing and a high level of social and educational services and were surrounded by a belt of open land to prevent collapse, a programme that came under conservative attack6.
For J. Kenneth, one of the more pervasive and powerful impact on the American people over the past half century was the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) adopted of the National Housing Act on June 1934 during Rooselvelt’s Administration. At least one program was notorious which could stimulate building without government spending and that would rely instead on private enterprise and intended to “encourage improvement in housing standards and conditions to facilitate home financing on reasonable terms, and to exert a stabilising influence on the mortgage market”. The reason was that a need to alleviate unemployment was the primary priority given that it absorbed about a quarter of the total work force in 1934 and when unemployment was particularly high in the construction industry7.
Before this program began, the first mortgages were limited to one half or two – thirds of the value of the property. As an example, during the 1920s, savings and loan associations held one-half of America’s outstanding mortgage debt which averaged 58 per percent of the estimated property value. The prospective buyers needed a down payment of at least 30 per percent to close a deal. In contrast, the lender was able to offer for an FHA-secured loan about 93 per percent with down payments of no more than 10 percent.
The FHA managed to establish a minimum of standards for home construction that became almost standard in the industry. There were two features of the new system; one was that the standards were objective, uniform and in writing and the second were that they were enforced by actual on-site inspection – prior to insurance commitment in the case of an existing property, and at various fixed stages in the course of construction of new housing. After the second World War the largest private contractors have built all their new houses to meet FHA standards and in some cases without FHA aid for finance.8
The New Deal Program experimented with a number of agencies and schemes aimed at priming the economic pump and restoring national prosperity. Among programmes adopted were several that had a significant impact on the nation’s inflexible cities. The Congress established the Federal Relief Administration (FERA) and authorised it to grant $500 million to state and local agencies charged with distributing handouts to the poor.
The above idea was distasteful to many Americans who believed that such charity undermined individual dignity and self-respect. In response, the administration embarked on a work relief program supervised by the Civil Works Administration (CVA), a temporary programme intended to help the poor survive the winter of 1933-34, that employed more than four million of people at an impressive range of tasks, such as repairing 12 million of sewer pipe, renovated – built and patched – road networks, streets and roads, modernized school buildings, employed artists and musicians and conducted real estate surveys and archaeological digs. The agency ceased to exist at the end of March 1934. Other federal agencies were also investing in urban construction projects, for example, the Public Works Administration (PWA).
Roosevelt’s first two terms in office demanded for more public works money from the federal government and less restrictions on the existing agencies.9
In the meantime, the Public Work Administration and the United States Housing Authority projects consisted of a collection low rise brick apartment buildings or row houses, very low rent developments, with a prevailing architectural style that was functional and plain, but in many ways superior to the structures that it replaced. Whereas slum dwellings often lacked hot running water and contained a toilet shared by several households, the PWA and USHA units boasted the latest plumbing and appliances and a fully equipped private bathroom for each family . The objective of the Government was to encourage people to buy their houses, in suitable areas where slums might sink .
According to P. Drier in “Putting the Urban Crisis in a National Agenda”, four years after the Los Angeles riots a urban crisis remained marginal to the political debate and no other major industrial nation has allowed its cities to face the type of fiscal and social troubles confronting America’s cities. Comparing with Canada, for example, which has a similar economy and distribution of wealth in the same terms as the Americans, the everyday consequences, range from the deadly levels of crime and violence, to the Third World levels of infant mortality, to the growing army of homeless people sleeping on park benches and vacant buildings.10
On Drier’s perspective, the most fundamental problems faced by American cities, are poverty and racism. It is estimated that almost 38 million of poor people live in American cities and being concentrated in ‘ghettos’ and ‘barrios’. Their poverty derives from unemployment and low – wage work and their concentration is a result of racial discrimination, with 62% of non- Hispanics blacks living in blocks that are 60% or more blacks and 40% percent of the Hispanic population live in blocks that are 60% or more Hispanic.11
On the contrary, he still ascertains, at least two out of every three white Americans live in essentially all-white neighbourhoods. “Essential services such health centres, hospitals, schools, police stations and fire stations have closed in order to avoid fiscal collapse. This included basic services for the maintenance of parks, repairing roads, and enforcing housing and health codes and reduced their employees substantially so that what they could have maintained was the minimum possible level of service. As the local government ‘downsized’ their operations, the poor and the working class were rutted against each other for these shrinking resources leading to a social and racial tension, and makes more difficult for local officials to govern effectively”.12
In America at present, major cities such as Los Angeles, Indianapolis, New York City and Jersey City adopted the tune of privatisation and business-like urban government and progressive tend to focus on large-scale economic forces, the globalisation the de-industrialization of the economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, the persistent racism between landlords and lenders.
The post war period was a period during which federal government policies pushed people out of the cities and pulled them into suburbs and these included the construction of highways that opened up the hinterlands to speculation and development; housing and tax policies that offered government insured mortgages and tax breaks to whites in suburbia and bulldozer urban renewal policies that destroyed working class neighbourhoods, spreading their residents to blue-collar suburbs, to make way for downtown business development and by 1970 most federal programs suffered cuts, whether ‘people’ programme or ‘place’ programmes as well as housing subsidies, revenue sharing AFDC benefits levels.
Suburbs in the United States of America are, as defined by M. Baldassare, where a plurality of Americans live and work. These have emerged as a dominant form changing forever the American landscape, many changes occurred in the American society during the 1970s which had a profound impact on suburbia, where the economy shifted from industrial to information and service-oriented work.
As a result, costs on housing and energy consumption have increased, the nuclear family became less prominent as single life, childless marriages, and divorces grew more commonplace, civil rights activities lifted some of the barriers that kept races and ethnic groups geographically separated, confidence in government and its ability to solve problems was shaken, the public monies available to improve community life declined, the meeting of basic service needs has become more complex constituting the fundamental changes in America society which led to the formation of a new suburbia.13
One of the consequences was that millions of people have moved to the suburbs in the last two decades, with an increase in housing developments replacing the wastelands outside city limits, and shopping centres have taken the place of groves and strawberries patches, major highways and arteries have covered over the country roads. To symbolise the suburban revolution is the surge of the bulldozer, indicating the swiftness, power, and permanence of this change, being the housing one crucial area of concerning.14
The housing is one very important area in America urban analysis. Beyond the historical events, there are also cultural factors that relate to housing. Is known that America has a strong rural folklore, small town living and the country atmosphere highly praised and urban are considered foreign, unhealthy, and unnatural.
America is a nation of immigrants, and there is a built-in bias against the crowding of city life and housing away from the city was a mass-produced to a large and waiting market in a way that suburbia became the realistic outlet for the American dream with suburban communities growing at rates that brought fantastic profits to real estate agents and builders. For example, the Detroit suburb grew in 1950 from 727 inhabitants to 89.000 in 1960; St. Louis grew from a village of 3.700 into a city of 38.000 and, in Southern California, the population of Anaheim soared from 15.000 to 104.000. Generally, as Teaford explains, it could be seen everywhere suburban land sprouting a new crop of housing, shopping centres , and motels drawing millions of dollars and luring people from the older central cities.15
Other factor in urban America was the mass production of houses in look-alike communities from New York to California, known as Levittowns in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, which consisted in building houses in an assembly line method, with all the houses identical in measurements and floor plans and little time wasted on individuality with some differences in exterior trim distinguished one from another and the number of houses built an average of 150 per week and young people had a guaranteed long-term low interest mortgages through the FHA together with the VA (Veterans Administration) with federal government backing.16
After World War II, the American nation was prosperous and in need for the creation of any residential form and a good deal of money was spent on it being the federal government on spending spree that included road building and home mortgages for military service veterans, the private sector, including bankers and developers, had the capital to invest huge sums of money in new homes and communities. As Mohl indicates there was a surplus of money, seeking investments and a daring spirit guiding its use fuelled the suburban explosion and, at the same time, there was pressure on the housing supply. New household formation fuelled the demand for new dwelling units and there also seemed to be an urgency to rebuild the nuclear family perhaps because children had been postponed during the war years.
On the other hand, the basic economic facts that allowed housing development in suburbia cannot be forgotten.
When Bill Clinton was elected President many progressive activities hoped for a new era. But as he was elected without a majority mandate with only 43% of the vote and even thought the Democrat party captured a majority of the seats in Congress, it was deeply divided with many members closed linked to big business interests who opposed progressive taxation, Keynesian management of the economy characterised by an increase in social spending could not be implemented. In 1994 the Republican Party took over Congress and aggravated the political isolation of cities symbolised by Clinton’s proposal a month later to dramatically cut the HUD budget.
America is now a suburbia country with very important political consequences. More than three-quarters of all Americans live in metropolitan areas, and as a result, America’s cities face a shrinking tax base and fiscal traumas with disparities in the post war era of median incomes of cities. Suburbs have widened and the figures in 1960 were per capita income of cities was 5% greater than their surrounding suburbs, by 1989, it had fallen to 84% of suburban income.
Peter Dreier ascertained in the ‘Planners Network Conference’ in 1996, that “a major difference between conservative, liberal and progressive city governments is their willingness to constantly test how far government can go before business acts on its threats to leave, cut back, expand elsewhere, or organise political opposition”, and that in order to challenge business prerogatives they need to have a strong political constituency that will support them despite the potential threats of business.17
The period between 1961 to 1968 was a period in which the White House and the Congress were under the Democratic Party influence with a large majority acquired in the central cities. New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit and Cleveland could always be counted towards the Democratic column on the election day.
As Teaford explains, during Lyndson Johnson presidency, more precisely in November 1963, the National Democrats created an unprecedented array of urban programs, which consisted in the transfer of federal tax dollar to distressed central cities and from 44 federal grant programs allocating 3.9 billion annually to over five hundred”. In 1969, it had climbed to 14 billion, with the authorisation of the Urban Mass Transportation Act which authorised federal grants for capital improvements in bus, subway, and elevated lines. Democratic legislators sought to balance the scale of federal largeness that had formerly tipped in favour of Republican suburbia.18
Throughout the mid 1960s, the Democrats maintained themselves committed to visionary promises of urban revitalization. President Johnson said in one of his speeches that the range of choice available to all people should be extend not just the fortunate so that “all can have access to decent homes and schools to recreation and culture”. As a response, the Congress enacted the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 authorizing the construction of 240.000 additional units of public housing. However, the most notable domestic programme was his War on Poverty, financing head start centres, nursery schools for preschoolers from disadvantaged homes, job training programs provided vocational education for thousands of the urban unemployed. In fact, the programs were designed to enhance political of the disadvantage and aid them in securing what they want, not only from the federal government from the local authorities as well.19
The situation in relation to crime in the late 1960s mounted and the Federal government distributed $20 million in grants to aid local police, in 1969 $100 million and in 1973 $1.75 billion.
The Republicans moved into White House when Nixon became President in 1969 and they did not sustain this flow of federal funding. Instead, federal aid to the cities rose from $14 billion to $26.8 billion in 1974 and the administration favoured a restructuring of urban aid programs, convincing the Congress to terminate the Model Cities Program from the previous administration the revenue-sharing program was to divert more than $30 billion of the federal funds to the state and local treasuries, and the state and local officials use the money as they deemed proper, meaning that there were few strings attached to this bounty from Washington.
America under both party became increasingly dependent on the federal government and all the federal money and federal programs seem to have brought very little and in 1975 few Americans regarded the Model Cities Program as “model” neighbourhoods, districts worthy of emulation or admiration, and the mid 1970 urban crime rates remained high, sales of security systems continued to soar and urban Americans felt no safer in 1975 than in 1968.
Teaford noted as a new symptom the fact that the central city collapsed after 1970 drawing the attention of public officials away from the social and ethnic conflicts. This new disorder was called fiscal stress and the late 1960s and 1970s witnessed a rise in the political influence of urban blacks and the election of a number of black mayors, as whites moved to suburbia leaving the central city to blacks who entered in the city halls and found that whites had carted away the wealth of the metropolis to suburban communities beyond central-city jurisdiction. He emphasised that these black victories were not however symptoms of a new era of racial harmony, but instead revealed a polarization of racial attitudes20.
America of the 1990s contrasted with its ancestor of nine decades early. From a diverse ethnic background, social classes in 1900 shared one umbrella government; rich and poor, old-stock Americans and immigrants, whites and blacks sharing the same mayor and city council who had to mediate among the divergent social, economic and ethnic interests within the city. Some suburban municipalities existed, but the majority of metropolitan residents lived within the boundaries of the central city, there was not one dominant economic, intellectual, or cultural centre to the metropolis but instead there were many, and the 1900 economic and governmental bonds held together the diverse lot of urban Americans. By 1990 the bonds had broken and clashing ethnic and social groups had escaped from one another.
The rise of non metropolitan America reflected the shifting character of the nation’s urban and industrial economy. A dramatic transformation took place and was reflected on the significant decline in the manufacturing economies which has not been shifted to non metropolitan areas but to less developed nations as well as the actions of multi-nationals corporations that shut down factories in the old industrial belt and transferred production to South Korea, China, Taiwan, Mexico, and Third World nations. Therefore, high costs of labour in the US, stiff competition, higher energy costs, corporate mergers and buyouts, led as a result a massive reorganization of the American economy.
During the period comprised between 1960s and 1980s, over 38 million new service jobs were created in the United States and many of these jobs are now held by women who entered the labour force in large numbers in the post war era with the service economy employing now over 75 millions workers about 70 percent of the entire workforce. Central to the rapidly growing service economy has been expansion in governmental services, education, medical care, computer technology, information and data processing, business services, recreational activities, shopping malls, fast-food and motel chains, airline travel, and these became an essential part of the American economy. By 1980, the government employed at all levels more than 16 million civilian workers. As a consequence, a decline in populations of the older, heavily industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest.
According to Mohl, the newcomers – the blacks, Hispanics and other immigrants lack training or skill required for most ‘high-tech’ jobs in the information processing sector and as a consequence city employment suffered as well.
The sunbelt cities are a result of the shift in America economy and demographic activity which made a big difference in the regional distribution of urban and metropolitan population. By 1990, six of the ten largest cities were located in the Southwest: Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, San Diego, and San Antonio, among metropolitan areas in 1990, five out of ten were in the sunbelt, never experienced the industrial revolution in 19th century, and they are, nevertheless, 20th century automobile cities, less densely settled and more widely extended over the urban and suburban landscape.21
The development of high-tech industries such as electronics and computers, along with energy development in the south western ‘oil patch’ gave important stimuli to urbanisation. With President Roosevelt’s New Deal era in the 1930s, the federal government initiated for the first time a political partnership with cities, built a new Democratic Party coalition relying heavily on the urban electorate for his political success, and a federal intervention, initiative, and activism became the order of the day. Social legislation and public works programmes flowed out of New Deal Washington and aimed at city people and urban problems.
Started with President Roosevelt, the cities have sought out and become reliant on the federal connection, public housing, urban renewal, mass transit, highway and public works construction and public welfare were all funded with massive infusions of federal dollars. The next president revived the New Deal spirit with great Society initiatives, the war on Poverty, community development efforts, the Model Cities programme and the civil rights crusade all had their roots in the cities urban crisis especially when explosions of racial violence spread the cities across the nation, from Harlem to Watts, from Chicago and Detroit to Newark and Washington.
In order to get access to federal funding, city governments had to modernize their operations and planning procedures and more efficient management practices, and President Johnson urban policies were plagued by mismanagement and political infighting. The War on Poverty succeeded in raising 15 million American families above the official poverty line by 1968. A shift was verified in the Nixon-Ford-Carter Administrations when difficulties of urban policymaking, along with a changing national climate brought a dramatic reversal of public policy and federal activism in the urban area by the mid – 1970.
The Reagan era witnessed massive federal cutbacks in the public works and social programmes which had moved the cities forward in the 1960s, and an effort seeking to turn back the governmental intervention that marked the New Deal and the Great society. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, with Republican supporters attempted to restore social policy to the marketplace and to urge the unemployed in declining cities to vote with their feet and seek new jobs in regions of the country with thriving economies. This was the Reagan’s idea urban policy which created policy dilemmas that have persisted into the 1990s.
In turn, in the Clinton-Gore era, with even fewer financial resources and greater responsibilities, the cities were once more approaching crisis stage especially in the provision of human and social services. According to Secretary Cisneros of HUD, in 1993, “American cities were worse off in the 1990s than they were in the 1960s, when first was declared an urban crisis by the Kerner Commission. However, it is admitted that substantial progress was made during the Clinton administration in reversing the downward slide and that “cities are recovering”, said Cisneros.22
For instance, the Clinton Administration was marked by a pragmatic and centrist approach with enterprise zones when investors where prepared to invest, backed up by Federal assistance. Even though with more teachers, more police, but with very little money for public housing. The present Bush era is being marked by a return to a compassionate conservatism, the turning of voluntarism into welfare, Christian right and religious groups increasingly acquiring influence in the setting of the political agenda.
Even though there are multiple variables to urban policy, this issue in America resides essentially in the political and economic axis. It is an issue of management of the economy on one hand, and of consolidation of political power on the other hand. The rest is mere consequence of the actions taken by the President and executive in function. In this respect, the offer of new housing stock to market is the most noticeable side of any urban policy planning. As analysed, despite the fact that both Democrats and Republicans spend and have spent money with housing has not always meant that they pursued identical social objectives.
For instance, something ‘strange’ has just appeared in the middle of the “war on terrorism” and homeland security preparations. George Bush proposes to spend $200 million a year in subsidies to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to help 400,000 families with the down payment and closing costs on a home and to provide tax credits to encourage home builders to build homes for 200,000 low- and moderate-income families, all by 2010. This plan, targeted to minority home buyers, is designed to increase the number of homeowners to 5.5 million by that time.23
Ron Walters states sustains that evidence shows that urban policy has traditionally been a favorite whipping post for Republicans. However, the point here seems to be politics and as the campaign season has already started, and showing that Bush’s popularity has fallen from the high of 88 percent last September after 9/11 to 75 percent now, even conservatives in his own party feel that he is spending his declining political capital mostly on the war, as opposed to their domestic agenda.
So, Bush has gone on the offensive with some handholding and has promised irritated House Republicans that he will hit the campaign trail and raise $20-$30 million for their campaigns and support their issues, such as making tax cuts permanent, preventing cloning, aiding religious charities and others. Nevertheless, throwing in the domestic issue of housing is a surprise because that was not on the conservative immediate list. It just proves that ultimately, federal government expenditure has always been used to expand the offer and satisfy a demand that exists, thus, activating the economy and appeasing the political and social climate, that is buying votes and clinging on to power.