In recent years, I have thought of Herbert Hoover as sort of an urban policy villan, thanks to his promotion of zoning. But I recently ran across one of his memoirs in our school’s library. (Hoover’s memoirs were a multivolume set, and this particular volume related to his service as Secretary of Commerce and President).
Hoover devotes less than a page zoning, noting that it was designed “to protect home owners from business and factory encroachment into residential areas.” He doesn’t mention the parts of zoning that have stunted housing supply in recent decades, such as the prohibition of apartments in homeowner zones, and minimum lot sizes.
In fact, he brags about increases in housing construction when he was Secretary of Commerce, writing that “The period of 1922-28 showed an increase in detached homes and in better apartments unparalleled in American history prior to that time.” In particular, he notes that 449,000 dwelling units were built in 1921, and that this number rose to 753,000 in 1928. He claims some of the credit for this, primarily because the Commerce Department helped formulate a standard building code which he believed would be less costly than existing local codes, and because the Department sought to lower interest rates on second mortgages.
One common argument against new housing is that because some new housing has been built, therefore there has been a building boom sufficient to meet demand. By contrast, Hoover was not a believer in the idea that any housing construction equals enough housing construction; he notes that “The normal minimum need of the country to replace worn-out or destroyed dwellings and to provide for increased population was estimated by the Department at 400,000-500,000 dwelling units per annum.”*
*By the way you might be wondering how these numbers compare to current levels of construction. In 1930, there were just under 30 million households. Thus, in 1928 there was roughly one new dwelling unit for every 40 households. By contrast, there are now just under 130 million households, and 1.3 million housing units were built in 2022. Thus, there was roughly one new dwelling unit for every 100 households. To put the matter another way, housing construction did not even double, while the number of households more than quadrupled.