Women and the History of Affordable Housing

By: Alexander Hedge


March is Women's history month and the VAHC is excited to celebrate by highlighting a few of the many influential women in the affordable housing movement’s history. Since its inception, the AH movement has had women leaders at the helm. Women have been making a difference on every level: from the streets of neighborhoods all the way up to the chambers of the US capitol building. However, the path hasn't always been easy and many of the women mentioned in our spotlight had to overcome significant adversity, discrimination, and prejudice during their mission to provide safe and reliable housing to communities that need it the most.


Catherine Bauer (1905-1964)



Catherine Bauer quite literally wrote the book on affordable housing within the United States. In 1934, she authored Modern Housing while simultaneously acting as the Executive of the New Labor Housing Conference of the American Federation of Labor. Three years later, she was asked to “act as the primary author of the Housing Act of 1937 also known as the Wagner-Steagall Act, which revolutionized American housing by providing affordable, subsidized residences for low-income citizens for the very first time” (Campbell, 2021). This authorship laid the groundwork for basically all affordable housing policy in the US.


Muriel Bowser (1972-Present)


Muriel Bowser has taken up the mantle of women leading the AH movement during her two terms as Mayor of DC. Not only is Bowser the first ever woman to be re-elected to the office of Mayor of Washington DC, but she has been a champion of AH the whole time. Since 2015, “her administration has used multiple tools to develop 6,000 units of affordable housing with an additional 5,200 under construction. In October, the Bowser administration celebrated a record annual investment in affordable housing” (Kimura & Serlin, 2019). Bowser has directly changed the lives of thousands by creating safe and reliable housing opportunities for her city.

Patricia Roberts Harris (1924-1985)


Patricia Roberts Harris broke through countless gender barriers during her career as a public

In 1977, Patricia Roberts Harris was sworn in as the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – becoming the first African-American woman to hold a cabinet position.

servant. This career contained numerous positions within the federal government, including co-chair of the National Women’s Committee for Civil rights, the first African-American woman to serve as a US ambassador, and the first African American woman leader of HUD. While the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development she “developed a Neighborhood Strategy Program that subsidized the renovation of apartments in deteriorated areas. In addition, she expanded the Urban Homesteading Plan and initiated Urban Development Action Grants to lure businesses into blighted areas” (Mercy Housing, 2019).


Maria Torres-Springer (1977-Present)


Finally, Maria Torres-Springer is also shaping the AH landscape as we speak. As the Commissioner of the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, she’s been instrumental in creating 300,000 new affordable housing units across the city by 2026. During her tenure, NYC has “invested billions of dollars towards the housing plan, introduced mandatory inclusionary housing policies, and been aggressive about designating city-owned properties for affordable housing” (Kimura & Serlin, 2019).


These are just a few of the many women who have fought to provide basic social services for our most vulnerable communities. The affordable housing movement was created from the hard work of these courageous and dedicated women even when they oftentimes faced undue obstacles on the basis of their gender. As the month of March continues, we encourage all those connected to the Vermont affordable housing world to research other women who have helped provide social services we enjoy and continue to fight for today.



Works Cited:

Campbell, V. (2021, March 1). Catherine Bauer Wurster: Hero of American Affordable Housing. LabGov. Retrieved March 4, 2022, from https://labgov.city/theurbanmedialab/catherine-bauer-wurster-hero-of-american-affordable-housing/

Five women that made it all possible. Mercy Housing. (2019, March 11). Retrieved March 4, 2022, from https://www.mercyhousing.org/2019/03/five-women-that-made-it-all-possible/

Serlin, C., & Kimura, D. (2019, March 8). Wonder women. Housing Finance. Retrieved March 4, 2022, from https://www.housingfinance.com/management-operations/wonder-women_o


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