"I never really took much notice": The FHA and suburbanization in the Providence Metropolitan Area, 1934--1955

Date of Completion

January 2005


History, United States




Mid-twentieth century suburbanization was fueled by federal housing policy first articulated in the National Housing Act of 1934 and enacted through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) that the Act created. Under Title II, the FHA helped reshape the nation's private housing market by insuring self-amortizing mortgages; insisting on modern design and minimum housing standards for newly built small homes; and encouraging the implementation of pastoral planning ideals in neighborhoods designed for those of modest means. These efforts marked the first time the federal government directly intervened in the private housing market. Using FHA technical bulletins, local newspaper coverage, census statistics, town records, and oral history interviews, this dissertation wrestles with the fact that most citizens overlooked the connection between the FHA and the rise of small, single-family housing subdivisions and asks what made federal aid to the private housing market invisible. ^ Examining the Providence metropolitan area as a case study, the author argues that the state disappeared because the FHA utilized local business interests as its intermediaries, providing a filter of experience that made the state and its citizens invisible to each other. While FHA policies had consequences for the lives of homeowners, the housing industry shielded consumers from direct interaction with the federal government. This meant that direct intervention in the private housing market looked different from above and below. By making comparisons between information left behind in textual records and interviews with Rhode Islanders, significant differences in the historical narratives of the FHA and homeowners become evident. First, the state focused on housing for nuclear families while citizens continued to be involved in extended family living. Second, the FHA ascribed the ability of low-income citizens to afford homeownership to institutional reforms while many Rhode Islanders credited kinship resources for their ability to finance a home. Finally, the rising housing expectations that encouraged mid-twentieth century suburbanization were attributed to minimum housing standards and pastoral planning principles by the federal government while homeowners saw evidence of personal achievement. In acknowledging these inconsistencies, this dissertation illuminates the haphazard process of policy implementation behind one of the New Deal's most successful programs. ^