Mutual Ownership Defense Housing

On January 26, 2014 · Comments Off on Mutual Ownership Defense Housing

My reference to Audubon Park, New Jersey in For More Birds revealed an historic experiment in middle class public housing. In that instance the earlier residents of Audubon voted the newly-arrived shipyard workers out of their borough which led to the creation of a separate Audubon Park borough. That anecdote revealed a short-lived and little known corner of the United States government’s Federal Works Agency, a unit called the Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division. Eight housing developments were constructed under the auspices of the program circa 1940-1942, one of which was Audubon Park.



View Mutual Ownership Defense Housing in a larger map

The original idea had been pitched a few years earlier by Col. Lawrence Westbrook within the spirit of a latter phase of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Administration promptly mothballed it. The underlying concept was rooted in Progressivism. In this instance middle class home ownership was considered socially desirable and beneficial, and the government should take steps to promote it.

Increased home ownership could be fostered by mutual or cooperative arrangements according to the theory. The government would leverage its capabilities to construct housing and would then ease ownership over to cooperative boards as residents could support it. This was a type of ownership still not very common in the United States; where co-op boards owned all of the property and leased units back to individual residents, each of whom owned a share in the company. One sees this arrangement in places such as New York City and environs — particularly Manhattan — and only rarely elsewhere, especially for typical suburban settings.

There were other New Deal era cooperative developments elsewhere by 1940. The twist here was the program’s specific focus on national defense. The United States had already began a military buildup in the years prior to Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into the Second World War. This required a large influx of skilled labor for factories that manufactured the machinery of war, and the workers had to live somewhere. The government dusted-off Westbrook’s idea and he moved forward with several prototypes. As described by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Cooperative housing in the United States, 1949 and 1950.

Under the defense housing program of the Federal Works Agency eight projects (the so called Westbrook projects) were designated for eventual sale to nonprofit housing corporations formed by the tenants. During the war however the dwellings were placed on a rental basis managed under the direction of the Public Housing Administration in order to insure their being available for war workers… By January 1951 the first five had successfully negotiated a purchase contract the sixth was operating the project under a lease and the last two were still under PHA management.

The eight developments totaled 4,050 units according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They had been designed and constructed with Progressive elements including abundant shared open spaces in park-like settings. Some of them also incorporated interesting themes into their road designs and names, which I’ve done my best to describe based on my observations:

  • Audubon Park (map): Semi-Circles; Birds
  • Avion Village (map): Teardrop; Aviation Pioneers
  • Bellmawr Park (map): Ribs; Trees
  • Dallas Park: privatized – unknown
  • Pennyback Woods (map): Cul-de-sacs; Flowers and Universities
  • Greenmont Village (map): Oval; People who were notable in the 1940’s
  • Walnut Grove (map): Native American Breastplate; Trees
  • Winfield Park (map): Arcs and Geographic Contours; Oceans and Waves

My descriptions probably said more about my psychological point of view than any actually intended shapes. Feel free to provide your own Rorschach interpretations as appropriate.

I already describe Audubon Park in that earlier article so I decided to focus on a couple of other Mutual Ownership Defense Housing properties, both in Texas. One may wonder why Texas had two outliers while other projects sprouted closer to industrial areas of the Northeast and Great Lakes. Lawrence Westbrook was a Texan and he was the boss. That probably explained it.


Avion Village



Avion Village, Grand Prairie, Texas, USA

Avion Village grew next Hensley Field, later Naval Air Station Dallas and now the Grand Prairie Armed Forces Reserve Complex. The first residents of Avion Village were "civilian employees of the North American Aviation Company" who built B-24 bombers and other aircraft for the war effort.


Maxwell B-24
Consolidated B-24 Liberator
By U.S. Air Force photos [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An historical marker erected at the site provided additional explanation.



Avion Village, Grand Prairie Texas Historical Marker by Nicolas Henderson on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

As early as the mid-1940s, housing was scarce in Dallas as well as in other centers of defense production and military activity throughout the nation. The private housing industry was unable to keep up with the demand for shelter in these areas. Some federal officials saw the situation as an opportunity for experimentation in architecture and planning, as well as establishment of a pilot program aimed at lowering the cost of quality housing through the use of prefabrication and mass production building techniques. Defense housing officials also wanted to introduce industrial workers to mutual home ownership as an alternative to traditional suburban home ownership.


The Mystery of Dallas Park

I don’t have a map of Dallas Park. Seven of the eight Mutual Ownership Defense Housing properties passed successfully through the intended process and now operate as cooperative enterprises more than seventy years later. Dallas Park failed. The name seemed to have been wiped from the map; I could not locate it precisely through Intertubes searches and the Geographic Names Information System didn’t list it at all. Gone. Vanished. I gave up after longer than I’d care to admit. I’d probably offer a small reward to the first 12MC reader who could locate it on a map with definitive supporting evidence (maybe I’ll write an article about your hometown or something, like I did for Peter).

I found contemporary information from Get Your Own Home the Cooperative Way (1949),

The development of the Dallas Park Mutual Ownership Corporation covers 114 acres and is in Dallas proper… The rental for a one-bedroom apartment is $22.50 per month; and for the three-bedroom single dwelling, from $32 to $34 a month. In addition, the residents pay $6.75 to $8.50 a month for gas, light, and water. Buildings at Dallas Park are of frame and brick and were completed January 1, 1942.

Dallas Park probably reverted to private ownership soon thereafter because the switch was described as having taken place a few years earlier when reported upon in 1955. Privatization was then under consideration for other mutual ownership properties: "Basically, the conversion would involve nothing more than exchange of perpetual use contracts for warranty deeds, with accrued funds due the tenant to be applied toward the purchase price principal."

Building materials became increasingly scarce once the U.S. entered the war as a combatant. Additionally, real estate developers applied political pressure, arguing that residential construction wasn’t a government function. The experiment, while seemingly successful given the longevity of all but one of the mutual housing corporations, lost its sponsorship and support. The Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division disbanded.

On January 26, 2014 · Comments Off on Mutual Ownership Defense Housing

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