A government initiative to clear houses and buildings for new infrastructure and development–which oftentimes meant the destruction and removal of Black, Hispanic, and sometimes integrated neighborhoods.

Key Takeaways:

  • From its inception and up to the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, publicly-owned housing was often one of the few new, non-substandard housing options available to Black residents of cities, particularly in the North. 
  • By undermining public housing funding and pushing for its allocation and construction on a segregated basis from the onset, organized real estate helped ensure public housing’s decline and ultimate demise. This occurred to the detriment of the institution’s disproportionately Black population, and to the benefit of slumlords.

Urban renewal programs, ushered by provisions in the 1949 Housing Act, displaced at least 300,000 households in the U.S. by clearing over 400,000 housing units for new development from 1950 to 1966. (One scholar estimates this number rose to nearly a million by 1980). Highway renewal, its oft-mistaken close cousin, displaced nearly 500,000 households containing roughly 1 million people over two decades. It did so with even more meager programs for relocation than the infamously inadequate ones for families facing displacement from urban renewal, with no resources even earmarked for relocation until close to the program’s end.

Enthusiasm for urban renewal by the National Association of Real Estate Boards and their local branches varied over time and according to location, but ultimately skewed toward support and approval. NAREB and its former research arm of the Urban Land Institute had initially drafted a federal bill for slum clearance during the early 1940s, but it temporarily lost interest in the project after realizing urban renewal at first would not come without the coupling of more public housing. By the 1950s, however, spurred by a change to urban renewal programs that allowed for neighborhood “conservation,” the creation of middle-income housing on cleared land, and the changing of cleared land to commercial developments, real estate boards and Chambers of Commerce fell in line with the idea because they found it self-benefiting.


Those displaced from neighborhoods had to buy or lease new homes, giving realtors two avenues to profit from urban renewal: First, they could profit from urban renewal through the sale of real estate financed by special government loans dedicated to rehabilitate or create new housing for low-income households and households displaced by renewal.


For Chambers of Commerce, meanwhile, government-funded renewal allowed them to redevelop land for commerce at a discount and spur early downtown “renaissances” designed to draw back suburban middle classes to cities from the 1960s onward.

On the matter of highway renewal, one of NAREB’s former research arms, the Urban Land Institute, vigorously promoted highway construction in addition to urban renewal as a means of clearing away districts it perceived as less desirable from downtowns. They found support from Chambers of Commerce in cities across the country like BaltimoreDenver, and Dallas, all of whom considered gridlocked traffic an impediment to business and saw much of the housing cleared for through-ways as eyesores. Per the federal government’s recommendation, that support could manifest through Chamber participation in highway planning commissions as well as highway boosterism. A publication from Connecticut General Life Insurance, a company later absorbed into the modern-day entity of Cigna that belongs to local Chambers of Commerce across the U.S., said. “Highways can be landscaped to add beauty to the surrounding area instead of blight,” read its report. “Roads built through areas of urban decay can provide the means of clearing out obsolete sections of the city and razing substandard buildings.”

Whether highways ultimately provided the beauty or relief of gridlock desired, however remains an open matter of dispute.