Urban Renewal refers to major government-sponsored projects aimed at boosting economic activity in cities. In the United States, the process refers specifically to federally-funded initiatives enabled through a series of laws which shaped the nation's urban policies after the Great Depression and World War II. In Birmingham, federal Urban Renewal projects assisted in the construction of several public housing projects and to the clearing of property for UAB and the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. Though the idea of clearing a large section of downtown Birmingham for redevelopment was studied, Birmingham leaders did not, like many other cities, use Urban Renewal to clear underutilized areas in the downtown core. In later decades, the historic building fabric thus preserved has come to be viewed as an asset to the city.
Housing Act of 1934
The National Housing Act of 1934 (Pub.L. 84–345, 48 Stat. 847) aimed to make housing and home mortgages more affordable to the American public. It created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation, and the United States Housing Authority. The USHA made low-interest, long term loans to local public agencies for slum clearance and construction of low-income dwellings.
The Birmingham Housing Authority was incorporated in 1935 to serve as Birmingham's local housing authority. The Smithfield Court housing projects were constructed under the provisions of the 1934 act and with assistance from the Works Progress Administration.
Housing Act of 1937
The Housing Act of 1937 (Pub.L. 75–412, 50 Stat. 888), co-sponsored by Henry Steagall of Alabama, first provided federal subsidies to local public housing agencies in an effort to improve living conditions for low-income families. Much of the act's language was drafted by activist Cahterine Bauer, who was appointed the Authority's first director.
Birmingham's Elyton Village housing project was constructed under the provisions of the 1937 act.
In 1945 Birmingham's legislative delegation pushed through a state law supported by real estate developers to prevent the city from accepting any federal funds designated for public housing. That law, which was unpopular with veterans groups, was overturned by the Alabama Supreme Court in 1946.
Housing Act of 1949
The American Housing Act of 1949 (Title V of P.L. 81-171) established a major role for the U.S. government in backing mortgages and mortgage insurance and funding construction of public housing to address a crisis of insufficient and inadequate housing. It was enacted as part of President Harry Truman's "Fair Deal" of domestic social programs. Truman explained in his 1949 State of the Union address that millions of families were sharing space in "slums and firetraps" and that the private sector would need to change its practices to meet the public need.
Unlike previous housing acts, the 1949 legislation provided federal funds to state and local governments for "slum clearance" (condemnation and demolition of unsafe housing) to make way for planned projects. It also encouraged private residential developers to fill the need for affordable housing through Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance and FHA loans for rural housing construction. In addition, the law expanded financing for low-rent public housing and funded research into housing construction and economics. Truman also used his executive authority to support the aims of the legislation.
The Housing Act was a major influence in the post-war development of American cities. Individual home ownership increased markedly and the massive number of new households helped fuel a boom in commercial activity. On the other hand, new public housing fell short of projections, and in many cases actually provided fewer housing units than were demolished by slum clearance projects. Because many of the slums torn down housed black families and the projects that were constructed were often reserved for whites, the implementation of Urban Renewal was criticized by some as "Negro Removal".
Birmingham leaders, spurred by Birmingham Housing Authority executive secretary Harold Harper (who was soon promoted to executive director) quickly identified three slum areas that would most benefit from federally-funded redevelopment. The first of those to proceed was a scheme to clear dilapidated housing for expansion of the University of Alabama Medical Center in Southside.
Housing Act of 1954
The Housing Act of 1954, (Pub.L. 83–560, 68 Stat. 590) was an expansion of the Federal Housing Association's mandate, passed during Dwight Eisenhower's administration. The act sought to fund 140,000 additional units of public housing and to provide preferential treatment to residents displaced by slum clearance.
In 1960, after congress passed critical amendments to the law, an initiative was put forward by the Birmingham Downtown Improvement Association to study the feasibility of acquiring a large section of downtown's central business district which was "not living up to its potential", from 22nd to 26th Street between 1st and 6th Avenue North for an urban renewal project connected to the Design for Progress project being studied for downtown revitalization. In defending an application for federal funds for the study, BDIA president Elton B. Stephens explained that, "We can no longer wait for the majority of our downtown property owners and businessmen to take the lead in their own behalf."1. The initiative was opposed by the Birmingham Property Owners Association and was labeled a "socialist scheme to confiscate private property" by detractors.
In 1965 the Public Housing Administration, the U.S. Housing Authority, and the House and Home Financing Agency were combined into the newly formed and re-organized United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Housing and Community Development Act of 1974
The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 amended the Housing Act of 1937 to create Section 8 housing grants to be awarded by HUD, and created the National Institute of Building Sciences.
- Stephens, Elton B. (June 8, 1960) Letter to William S. Pritchard, Chairman of the Birmingham Property Owners Association. in the Theophilus Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor Papers, 1959-1963 at Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections
- Frye, Robert J. (1965) Housing and Urban Renewal in Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Bureau of Public Administration
- LaMonte, Edward Shannon (1995) "Politics and Welfare in Birmingham, 1900-1975. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0817307540
- Scribner, Christopher MacGregor (2002) Renewing Birmingham: Federal Funding and the Promise of Change, 1929-1979 Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press ISBN 9780820323282
- Connerly, Charles E. (2005) "The Most Segregated City in America": City Planning and Civil Rights in Birmingham, 1920-1980. University of Virginia Press ISBN 0813923344