Garden Homes Construction, 1923
The Garden Homes housing project is the nation’s first and only municipally-built, public housing cooperative. The property, composed of 105 living units in 93 free-standing buildings constructed between 1921 and 1923, is bounded by North 27th Street and West Ruby, North Teutonia and West Atkinson avenues. Its origins can be traced to the 1910 municipal election of the nation’s first Socialist mayor, Emil Seidel. One of the planks of the Socialist platform was construction of city-built, low-cost homes for workers. Although Seidel failed to make public housing a reality during his term, Daniel W. Hoan, the city’s second Socialist mayor, succeeded. Garden Homes Construction, 1923
In 1920, the lack of adequate working-class housing was the key issue in the community. The Garden Homes Company was formally incorporated in 1921 under new legislation that allowed the formation of public housing corporations. It was originally intended to provide housing for families earning a modest $1,200 to $1,500 a year. Occupants would purchase housing corporation common stock equal to the value of the house. Monthly payments would be spread over 20 years that were to cover interest, taxes, upkeep and other fixed costs. The project would be financed through sale of preferred stock with 5% per annum dividend which would be purchased by city and county governments and other investors. The goal was a home built at a cost of $4,500, about 25% less than a comparable home, which a family would own, or be owned by the cooperative. Aerial Section of Garden Homes, 2016
Not everyone was in favor of this project or loved the idea of public housing. According to a Milwaukee Sentinel report some opposed the plan because it "hinted something strongly of Sovietism” and some believed it did not guarantee individual ownership of the homes. Some thought success with this project would bolster the Socialist Party in the county, and other business leaders, real estate boards, and politicians were upset about the high, union scale wages being paid to the workers. The Town of Wauwatosa and Town of Milwaukee were upset about plans by the City of Milwaukee to annex the area. Milwaukee, however, eventually won a decision in 1925 in the Wisconsin Supreme Court that approved the annexation. Some disgruntled Garden Home residents wanted individual titles to their properties so that they could sell them at appreciated values. This led to the cooperative being disbanded in July of 1925. With this change to individual ownership, the Garden Homes Company functioned only to sell the housing stock and pay off all loans—a process that took more than ten years. By the late 1930s only about 40% of the original tenants still lived in the subdivision.
The Garden Homes Historic District in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
Despite its problems, Garden Homes was an exercise in American ingenuity. Costs were cut by using a standardized building plan and production line techniques utilizing the crews of tradesmen to work from one house to the next performing the same job each time. But most of all, the Socialists showed the citizens of Milwaukee that when they made a promise, they kept it.
By Steve Daily
Director, Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear