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Home Sweet Home

On the early years of the real estate industry, and the racist effort to convince white Americans to buy single-family homes.

Herbert Hoover breaking ground for model home in Washington, DC, 1923. [Library of Congress]

Herbert Hoover’s 1931 presidential address to the President’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership was filled with references to songs. Despite the conference’s social science emphasis, the president’s opening remarks — delivered live to three thousand delegates and broadcast to many more through the NBC and CBS radio networks—largely centered on the claim that “the sentiment for homeownership” was “embedded in the American heart.” To support this idea, Hoover turned to one of the great vehicles for sentimentality in the period, the American songbook:

There is a wide distinction between homes and mere housing. Those immortal ballads, “Home, Sweet Home”; “My Old Kentucky Home”; and the “Little Gray Home in the West,” were not written about tenements or apartments. They are the expressions of racial longing which find outlet in the living poetry and songs of our people.

Hoover went on to wryly contend that Americans “never sing songs about a pile of rent receipts,” before concluding that “to own one’s own home is a physical expression of individualism, of enterprise, of independence, and of the freedom of spirit.”

By 1931, Hoover was a decade into his project of homeownership boosterism, which he first began as secretary of commerce in 1921. Following the housing shortages caused by World War I and concerns about Bolshevism after the 1917 Russian Revolution, state officials worked alongside realtors and developers during the 1920s to zealously promote homeownership as America’s greatest defense against social upheaval on the home front. This initial public-private partnership, setting the stage for the more extensive collaborations enacted by the New Deal, endorsed homeownership as not just a savvy financial decision but as an innate yearning at the heart of American identity and, by extension, a requirement for a model civic and moral life. Although the mass foreclosures instigated by the Great Depression interrupted these efforts to enshrine homeownership, Hoover’s 1931 address finds the president nonetheless doubling down on its promotional rhetoric. His remarks, the most prominent endorsement of a version of the American Dream anchored by homeownership in this era, mark the pivotal role Hoover played in shaping the trajectory of mass homeownership in the U.S. for the rest of the century.

But Hoover also insists in his address that “the sentiment for homeownership” embedded in the “American heart” did not originate in America or with Americans. He instead identifies this sentiment as being first and foremost a “racial longing” that both precedes and supersedes the nation. Given Hoover’s reputation as a technocrat who waged war on waste and inefficiency, his turn to affective evidence is somewhat surprising. The ravages of the Great Depression, still being uncovered in 1931, may have shaded Hoover’s decision to offer a stirring aesthetic and affective rationale for homeownership. But his turn to the more specific tenor of racial emotion alleged to animate artistic production from “immortal ballads” of the past through the “living poetry and songs of our people” is more inexplicable. Hoover, who first came to national fame for his successful efforts in convincing Americans during World War I to curb their desires for sugar, fat, and meat on behalf of U.S. troops and allies, treats “racial longing” for ownership as an undeniable sacred truth that must be indulged. The longing he finds enshrined in the aesthetic record allows Hoover to intimate that homeownership is most desired by — and perhaps desirable for — select Americans in possession of the right pedigree.


The priorities for the 1931 President’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership were largely set by the real estate industry. The National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB), founded in 1908 and known today as the National Association of Realtors, most powerfully represented these private interests. The NAREB first partnered with the state in 1915 to shape housing policy. Hoover began working closely with the association in 1921 as Commerce Secretary while promoting the Better Homes in America program designed to “educate the American people to the higher standards of home life.” The federal government hired NAREB affiliates during World War I to help coordinate wartime housing for workers and its members would continue to shape housing policy following the mass foreclosures exacerbating the Great Depression and through the New Deal.

The NAREB was well represented at the 1931 White House conference, steering the meeting’s agenda towards strengthening the private market and away from supplementing its shortcomings through public housing programs. These priorities would go on to shape the state’s more full-throated subsidization of the private housing market in the years to come while impeding a more comprehensive commitment to public housing. Hoover’s business background as well as his dedication to what he termed “cooperative individualism” predisposed him to such a path. But the pride of place homeownership held in his governmental agenda as well as the arguments and tropes he deployed when arguing for its necessity — including those relating to race—were positions honed by realtors decades prior. 

The founding of the National Association of Real Estate Exchanges — the first national organization of its kind—took place in a YMCA auditorium in Chicago in 1908. (The group would change its name to the National Association of Real Estate Boards, or NAREB, in 1916, and to the National Association of Realtors, or NAR in 1972) Merging nineteen local boards and 120 founding members, the association aimed to “unite the real estate men of America, for the purpose of exerting effectively a combined influence upon matters affecting real estate interests.” The organization disseminated its efforts in its journal, the National Real Estate Journal, launched in 1910 and circulated to each of its members. In addition to publicizing convention happenings, sharing information from local boards, and flagging key legal decisions related to property, the journal’s articles — generally written by members or guests at its conventions — ranged in subject from technical treatises on appraisal and taxation to sales tips, comics, and poems praising the realtor and the homeowner.

As described by historian Jeffrey M. Hornstein in his history of the NAREB, the National Real Estate Journal facilitated “the creation of a common language and the rudiments of an occupational culture with which men scattered in local boards across the continent could imagine themselves as a community of interest.” Racial ideology helped to further unify the association across the various regions it served. Hornstein recovers the efforts of realtors to render mass homeownership as “the universal and natural interests of ‘the middle class.’” He pays particular attention to the association’s incubation of a “national masculine vocational ethos” that unified realtors within the shared professional and moral project of property sales. But whiteness proved just as crucial to the association’s collective ethos, underwriting its vision of masculinity, patriotism, and moral virtue. “Members of the NAREB,” as historian Paige Glotzer notes, “tended to have little in common during the organization’s first decade aside from the fact that they were white men involved in real estate.” 

The NAREB most infamously enshrined racial discrimination as a requirement for professionalization in 1924 when it adopted a code of ethics prohibiting realtors from selling homes to blacks in white neighborhoods, at the risk of expulsion. In 1927, Nathan William MacChesney, then general counsel to the NAREB, drafted a standard form for racial covenants barring anyone “having any appreciable admixture of negro blood and every person who is what is commonly known as colored” from renting or buying a covenanted property except as an employee. But we find the rationale for such policies first emerging during the association’s first decade, with NAREB members promoting the need for professionalization in its house journal alongside aspirational invocations of the Anglo-Saxon’s innate capacity for all property — residential or otherwise. These efforts coexisted with the association’s ambitions to promote mass homeownership as serving an increasingly urbanizing, wage-driven white American public. 

The association’s concentrated efforts to promote the ideology of homeownership reflects the sense of looming crisis that realtors either felt or opportunistically encouraged in response to falling homeownership rates at the turn of the twentieth century. The Jeffersonian vision of the U.S. as a nation largely made up of white yeoman farmers and further perpetuated by Western migration was interrupted in the 1890s by the mass movement of Americans and recent immigrants away from agricultural homesteads to industrial hubs where they labored increasingly outside the home. While governmental incentives such as the Preemption Act of 1841 and the Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged continued settler colonialism in the Western frontier, the industrializing economy of the late nineteenth century drove a growing number of Americans toward urban centers.

The changing use value of the home contributed to falling ownership rates. By the early 1900s, as historian Margaret Garb writes, “ownership of residential property, which was clearly distinguished from manufacturing sites, no longer provided families with the ability to generate income enough to sustain the household’s independence.” For an increasing number of Americans, to own one’s home was no longer to own the means of production, making residential ownership a luxury rather than a necessity or even a goal. “Whether a resident owned or rented his or her home was a matter of indifference to many urban dwellers,” as Garb writes. “The family home, in theory, stood outside market relations; its economic value was obscured by its sentimental functions.”

Even for the upper classes who could afford to own homes, apartment renting was promoted as the more chic and fashionable option. A 1931 article in Architecture Record notes that thirty years earlier, “every good Knickerbocker, with even the modest pretensions, considered it his duty to house his family within four walls wherein he would be the sole lord and master.” Yet “today,” as this author declares, “New York is a city of apartments,” before attesting to the virtues of renting: “In our busy city many New Yorkers who have tasted the sweets of apartment house life, with its freedom from many of the vexations of housekeeping, will never wish to return to the older method.” 

Suburban Apartments, by Lloyd Goff, 1934. [Smithsonian American Art Museum]

In the wake of these economic, spatial, and cultural shifts, homeownership rates in the U.S. stalled out between 1890 and 1920, hovering around 45 percent. The difficulty of home financing coupled with a plethora of new investment options other than the home further contributed to ownership’s slow decline. For those with the means to buy, the home was one investment choice among many — including stocks, bonds, and commodity futures — rather than an inherently moral or noble pursuit. For those of lesser means, home financing was far more onerous at the turn of the century than it would become after the state interventions following the Great Depression. Lenders generally required down payments of as much as 50 percent and granted mortgages for the much shorter terms of five to ten years, making homeownership difficult for many working adults. Holding so much debt was not just onerous for many Americans but morally distasteful. “Fearful of the sin or stigma of indebtedness,” as Thomas Sugrue writes, “many middle-class Americans, even those with a taste for single-family homes—rented or spent years saving money so they would not have to take on large amounts of debt to buy a home.”42 Those most likely to own in this period were those who built their own homes, which allowed them to avoid a mortgage entirely; older Americans who could leverage a lifetime of savings for this purchase; or the wealthy who could afford to purchase outright.

Facing eroding ownership rates, the NAREB aggressively promoted real estate investments not just as a choice but as an instinct, a duty, and the noblest aspiration. One tactic of property boosterism featured in the NREJ involved connecting the real estate market of the present with nostalgia for the pioneering past. “The Realtor is the immediate successor to the pioneer,” declared the president of the University of Wisconsin in a 1928 realtor convention speech. If the pioneer “cleared the forest to make farms,” he charged, “the Realtor is clearing the farms to create cities.” A 1923 article in the NREJ forged similar connections to the frontier past, claiming the modern homeowner to be “the pioneer of today and of tomorrow standing on the doorstep of his own home who is going to safeguard and advance this Democracy of ours.”

But more often, the arguments made in the NREJ for ownership’s virtues turned away from visions of pioneering to better cater to an urbanizing American population looking for homes with modern amenities more suited to cosmopolitan ways of life. W.W. Hannan, the association’s first president, said as much in a 1911 speech delivered at its third national convention. While “the history of the race has been that of endless movement, of constant progress and always westward,” Hannan insisted that “today there is no West — we have reached the end.” He went on to triumphantly declare that “America is entering upon a new phase of national life; one whose problems are to be largely the problems of her cities, of life as it is lived en masse.” The modern realtor must be prepared to enter this new phase alongside his clients.

If the rhetoric of pioneering risked sounding too old-fashioned—potentially reminding Americans of the age and outdatedness of much of its housing stock — Anglo-Saxon heritage proved a more palatable rallying cry. The earliest invocation of Anglo-Saxon superiority in the NREJ appears in one of its inaugural issues from 1910. An article by a professor of real estate law at Northwestern University calling for a better system of land transfers cites the intensity of white feeling for property and its protection to underscore the necessity of land transfer reforms. “There is in the Anglo-Saxon heart a feeling inherited from ancestors of centuries ago, and amounting almost to an instinct that the ground upon which we live is entitled to a protection more careful, more perfect, than that given to any other form of property.”

Not all realtors could afford to be so racially selective given that non-whites also bought property during this period. But as a trade journal, the NREJ was not designed for wide circulation. The language realtors used to promote their profession to each other could diverge from their individual sales practices. One of the NREJ’s aims was to remake the image of real estate — tinged with the stain of disrepute for much of the nineteenth century — into something of civilizational import. Realtors were not mere salesmen in the journal’s pages but “empire builders,” “Scouts of Civilization,” and “aiders and abettors in the creation of wealth.” But even if the vision the industry sold of itself did not always line up with individual sales practices, the association’s espousal of white supremacy had real implications for the practices of residential apartheid it would actively support.

The NAREB’s racial discourse of property capacity would be adopted by the state with whom the association would first lobby and eventually partner. A 1912 convention speech delivered by journalist Allen D. Albert appearing in the NREJ matches Hoover’s 1931 racial interpretation of the American songbook’s property hymnals almost beat for beat. Albert begins his speech by citing an efficiency expert’s claim that a yearning for home was common to all people. But Albert goes on to revise this expert’s claim of universal longing, insisting “that strong as it is among the savages, strong as it is among the primitive people, in civilization no language other than our own contains a word for ‘home’ to which the word ‘sweet’ can be prefixed without incongruity.” “We Anglo Saxons,” he insists, “are the only people in all the world who would compose a poem or sing a hymn with those words, ‘Home Sweet Home.’” 

Excerpted from The Residential Is Racial: A Perceptual History of Mass Homeownership by Adrienne Brown, published by Stanford University Press, ©2024 by Adrienne Brown. All Rights Reserved.







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