Book Review Preview: The Mutual Housing Experiment

By Rachel G. Bratt

Kristin M. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2015).

In the early and mid-1940s about 167,700 units of housing for civilian defense workers were constructed. At the end of World War II, some 50 of these developments were sold to the residents under a cooperative ownership scheme known as the Mutual Home Ownership Plan.  Although the creators of the model had hoped that the mutual housing idea would be widely embraced, the post-war housing agenda instead focused on expanding traditional homeownership opportunities.

Following the notion of “community modernism,” the goal of the mutual housing plan was to create relatively small, private clustered dwellings, within the context of more generous public facilities and spaces, while providing residents with considerable control over their living environment. The model was presented as a hybrid between homeownership and renting.

Advocates of the mutual housing idea repeatedly found that trying to create an innovative housing product was an easy target for the private real estate and banking industries, with complaints about how it would threaten their business interests and result in declining real estate values.

The book is at its best when it reveals nuggets of information that have been lost over the decades and that have contemporary relevance. Also of particular interest is Chapter 7, which includes discussions about various legislative initiatives that would have provided direct federal financing for cooperative housing. However, for most readers, the level of detail here and throughout the book is likely more than what is desired.

The major drawback of the book is that it does not place the mutual housing story in the context of the larger movement of the second half of the 20th century to support the range of housing types built by nonprofit organizations, as well as the broader issue of non-market housing.

We will never know whether the premise of the book – that a broad-based federal lending program for cooperative housing in the 1940s and 1950s—could have significantly altered the present-day housing landscape.  Would such an initiative have stimulated a much greater federal role supporting non-speculative cooperative and other types of nonprofit-owned housing?

The full version of this book review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Rachel G. Bratt is Professor Emerita in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.