On August 1, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill that he declared “the most farsighted, the most comprehensive, the most massive housing program in all American history,” a bill that promised to ensure “the very precious American right to a roof over your head—a decent home.”
Johnson wasn’t talking about the Fair Housing Act, which had passed three months earlier—one week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What animated Johnson was the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968. It was known at the time as “the housing act.” Writing in Shelterforce, Fred McGhee contends that this second bill, not the Fair Housing Act, was “the most important housing law passed in 1968.”
“This misremembering,” McGhee adds, “is not accidental—it reflects the race and class trajectory of America over the past five decades…had its promise been fulfilled, many of the problems beleaguering American cities today might have been avoided or at least mitigated.”
The 1968 housing act included a smorgasbord of housing ideas…[including] a robust increase in public housing construction. The act set a national goal of constructing or rehabilitating 26 million housing units, including six million for low- and moderate-income families.
In his signing statement, Johnson noted that, “Over the 10 years of this program, the production rate of federally subsidized housing will be 10 times higher than it has been in the last decade.”
The election of Richard Nixon three months later did not immediately end the housing program. McGhee notes that “the HUD secretary who presided over the single largest construction of federally subsidized housing in American history was George Romney, father of former Massachusetts governor and current Senate candidate from Utah Mitt Romney. American housing production between 1968 and 1972 was both robust and diverse.”