Governing the Single-Family House: A (Brief) Legal History

58 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2016

See all articles by Priya S. Gupta

Priya S. Gupta

McGill University Faculty of Law

Date Written: 2015


This Article investigates connections between the extensive New Deal law and regulation that led to the proliferation of single-family detached houses and the continuing racial disparities in housing security and ownership in the United States. Too often, the pervasiveness of the single-family house as the ideal form of ownership and racial inequalities in accessing it have been treated as merely results of free market forces or social preferences. This Article complicates that narrative by bringing to the forefront the extensive federal and local governance that profoundly shaped the US. housing market and social preferences as well as the physical landscape of residences in America.

Drawing on the work of urban historians, architects, and geographers as its foundation, this analysis studies the physical landscape of the single-family house (its form, intended occupants, and location) against the myriad of case law, zoning ordinances, and federal regulation that built it across America. This historical account of government intervention and ideology enables us to understand the current crises in housing, from municipal bankruptcies to the disparate racial impacts of the Foreclosure Crisis, in the much larger context of the creation of suburbia and single-family houses at the expense of cities and racial minorities in them. Against this historical backdrop, these current crises appear not as distinct phenomena, but rather as closely intertwined events. Their disparate racial impacts also appear less accidental or unexpected. This Article argues that these phenomena - depleted cities, the Foreclosure Crisis, and racial disparities in housing - are not the "natural" results of a free market. They are the inevitable results of a century's worth of deliberate policy choices, all of them aimed at inscribing a particular societal structure - the white nuclear family - into the physical landscape of American housing.

Keywords: Property, housing, New Deal, Foreclosure Crisis, Financial Crisis, Detroit, Families, Local Government, Suburbs, Zoning, Race, Law & Geography

JEL Classification: K00, K11, D60, I3

Suggested Citation

Gupta, Priya S., Governing the Single-Family House: A (Brief) Legal History (2015). University of Hawaii Law Review, Vol. 37, 2015, p.187, Available at SSRN:

Priya S. Gupta (Contact Author)

McGill University Faculty of Law

3644 Peel Street
Montreal, Quebec H3A 1W9

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