The History and Harm of Federal Urban Renewal Policy in New York State

By Ann Pfau, David Hochfelder, and Stacy Sewell

In the 1990s, psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove came to realize that the “urban epidemics” she was studying had roots in an earlier era, when the federal urban renewal program resulted in the destruction of hundreds of Black and low-income communities. Since then, many scholars have followed her lead, including urban planner Tanya McGee, whose recent essay opens with a description of how displacement combined with disinvestment has proved “detrimental to the well-being of Black families for generations to come.”

This blog focuses on the history of—and harms resulting from—the post-World War II federal urban renewal program. It draws on archival research (encompassing hundreds of cubic feet of government documents) in Albany, Kingston, and Newburgh, as well as coauthor David Hochfelder’s ongoing effort to inventory surviving records across New York State. Together, these archival collections shine a light on an unjust federal policy implemented by local governments in the name of progress. The work to identify who was harmed, as well as how and why, is important not just to establish historical facts but also to inform policies intended to remedy past injuries and prevent future ones.

Federal Grants, State Subsidies, Local Plans

In the language of successive federal laws, between 1949 and 1974, the urban renewal program was designed to help cities combat “blight” via large-scale “slum clearance.” Local governments applied for federal grants that funded most of the cost of urban planning, property acquisition, relocation of residents and businesses, and demolition of “substandard” structures. Once cleared, a municipality could assemble this land into larger parcels for resale to public agencies or private developers willing to build new structures in line with local redevelopment plans.1

In practice, as federal law changed and the program expanded, construction of new (especially affordable and unsegregated) housing failed to keep pace with displacement or local needs.

The goal of this program, as set out in the Housing Act of 1949, was to remedy the post-World War II housing shortage and ensure “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.” “Decent, safe, and sanitary” dwelling units included amenities we now take for granted, such as central heating and hot-and-cold running water. In practice, as federal law changed and the program expanded, construction of new (especially affordable and unsegregated) housing failed to keep pace with displacement or local needs.

New York State policy helped make urban renewal attractive to cities in search of a solution to the postwar problems of declining population and diminished tax rolls. State agencies, like the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, the Urban Development Corporation, and the Department of Transportation, facilitated redevelopment and subsidized local costs by building new highways, housing developments, and other public facilities on urban renewal land. In 1959, the state began paying up to half of the local urban renewal cost-share, a total of more than $350 million over the course of the program.2 Partly as a result of such assistance, New York was second only to Pennsylvania in the amount of federal funding received (over $1.6 billion) and in the number of projects started (251) and municipalities affected (91), per the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 1974 Urban Renewal Directory.

Inadequate Assistance

Of the more than $13 billion in federal funds invested over the course of 25 years, very little went to the people who lived and worked in urban renewal areas. Between 1950 and 1966, relocation represented just 0.4 percent of gross project costs. In Congress, academic researchers testified, and a 1964 Census survey confirmed, that after relocation, housing costs were higher and commutes longer for a significant portion of displaced residents. Furthermore, displaced businesses were prone to dissolution. These findings prodded Congress to act. Beginning with the Housing Act of 1964 and culminating in the Uniform Relocation Act of 1970 (URA), changes to federal law improved reimbursement payments to people who were forced to move.

The URA’s goal was to ensure that displaced persons “not suffer disproportionate injuries as a result of programs designed for the benefit of the public as a whole.” It included additional payments of up to $15,000 to help homeowners purchase replacement housing without taking on new debt, up to $10,000 to help businesses survive relocation, and up to $4,000 to help low-income residential tenants find “decent, safe, and sanitary” apartments they could afford to rent. Yet harm done to the roughly 1.35 million people forced out of homes and businesses before 1972,3 when the URA went into effect, was never remedied. Furthermore, by that time, large-scale redevelopment (and thus displacement) was already on the wane. In 1974, the Nixon administration ended the federal urban renewal program.

Disproportionate Harm

Federal data reveals that more than half of the families displaced by urban renewal projects were “nonwhite,” a category formerly used by both HUD and the Census, at a time when the nation’s (and New York State’s) population was roughly 87 percent white. In New York, nonwhite families represented 41 percent of the 39,647 families displaced or threatened with displacement between 1950 and 1966, the last year that HUD reported city- and state-specific relocation data.4

The disproportionate impact of urban renewal on Black households and communities was not simply a matter of the numbers displaced. Due to persistent residential segregation, local political leaders in places like Newburgh could effectively target whole communities for removal. Limited enforcement of state and federal fair housing laws meant that homeowners, realtors, and landlords were able to prevent Black displacees from moving into white neighborhoods. At the same time, public authorities failed to build sufficient affordable replacement housing. As a result, tenants and homeowners had little choice but to look for housing in the overcrowded, under-resourced, and overpriced urban areas open to Black residents. In 1961, the New York State Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights predicted, based on past experience, that the net effect of urban renewal would be “to increase the nonwhite concentration in peripheral areas and to accelerate blight because of overcrowding, landlord exploitation, and neglect of repairs of buildings.”

Redlining was not just a barrier to homeownership, it also gave rise to unscrupulous real estate investors who pioneered exploitive land contracts.

Redlining, the practice of refusing to write mortgages or insurance policies in “undesirable” (mostly Black) neighborhoods, put property owners at a disadvantage. Redlining was not just a barrier to homeownership, it also gave rise to unscrupulous real estate investors who pioneered exploitive land contracts. Without access to bank mortgages, many would-be homeowners signed deals that prevented them from building equity; the seller retained title until the contract was paid off. In the context of urban renewal, this was a problem for many Black homeowners, because the owner-occupier was not the property owner of record. In his 1968 testimony before the Senate Committee on Public Works, economist Anthony Downs estimated that the majority of property transfers in Black neighborhoods were financed via such contracts and that less than half of contract buyers had been reimbursed for seized property. Even those who received reimbursement likely lost money. Contract sellers typically charged inflated prices to get around usury laws capping interest rates. However, reimbursement was based on appraisers’ “fair market value,” which failed to take purchase price into consideration.

Archival Research

To understand the scope and impact of urban renewal in New York State, a great deal of historical research remains to be done. Over the course of 25+ years, each of the 91 municipal renewal agencies generated many cubic feet of documents. Renewal agency records are key to identifying the people displaced and figuring out what happened to them. Where did they move? What, if any, financial or advisory assistance did they receive? Property acquisition files reveal how owners were reimbursed, including whether they lost money on these forced transactions. Other records show what happened to displaced businesses. Many closed rather than reopening in a new location, particularly if the owner was elderly and the clientele neighborhood based.

Not all cities have retained renewal agency records, but we estimate that about half have. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and help from the New York State Archives, local historians, and town clerks, coauthor David Hochfelder is currently in the process of tracking down and creating inventories of existing archival collections. These inventories will eventually be available via the State Archives. In the course of this work, Hochfelder has been digitizing documents, maps, and photographs for use on the Archives’ Consider the Source educational website and in teacher workshops.

Research on the history of post-World War II displacements and property seizures cannot, however, be confined to federally-funded urban renewal projects. Highway construction along with state-funded redevelopment projects, like the South Mall (a.k.a. Empire State Plaza) in Albany, deserve the same scrutiny. By the mid-1960s, the pace of displacement for highways may have overtaken urban renewal. (Federal data is incomplete.) Although colloquially described as “urban renewal,” the federal highway program was funded through different legislation and implemented by different local agents. As a result, figuring out who was affected and how will require different research strategies.

Beyond the Archives

To document the full scope of damage, researchers must look beyond the archives. Not only have many of these records been lost or destroyed but they also tend to reflect the attitudes and priorities of the people who created them—those officials charged with planning and implementing redevelopment programs. But these records are not the only available sources of information about urban renewal. Some of the people whose lives were disrupted remember what happened. These memories form the basis of some recent documentary films, including Lost Rondout, The Neighborhood that Disappeared, and What Happened to Jackson Avenue. They are also the focus of community history projects in cities like Saratoga Springs, Newburgh, and Beacon.

The trauma of community destruction, what Fullilove calls “root shock,” reverberates to the present day, most crucially in the form of racial disparities of health and wealth. A bill recently passed the Assembly and Senate to create a Community Commission on Reparations and Remedies to study and redress damages caused by both the institution of slavery and “de jure and de facto discrimination against freed enslaved Africans, their descendants, and people of African descent … between the end of the Civil War and the present.” If this bill is enacted, the Commission will have to grapple with the causes and results of our state’s history of segregation, displacement, and dispossession due to urban renewal and other government programs. Our research demonstrates how existing archival collections could support that work. It also illustrates some of the challenges moving forward.

We invite interested researchers and policymakers to contact coauthor David Hochfelder at [email protected].

To see more of the authors’ research go to “Researching Urban Renewal” and “Picturing Urban Renewal.”


Ann Pfau is an independent scholar

David Hochfelder is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University at Albany

Stacy Sewell is assistant dean of the School of Arts & Sciences and professor of history at St. Thomas Aquinas College

[1] Developers were able to acquire renewal land for considerably less than municipalities paid to acquire, clear, and improve it. This write-down was intended to spur private investment in formerly “blighted” areas.

[2] This figure includes funding for some state-local redevelopment projects, including $6,425,000 for the Ten Eyck Hotel project in Albany but not the South Mall (aka the Empire State Plaza). It does not include state-assisted housing or highway construction in urban renewal areas.

[3] 334,010 families x 3.58 (average family size per 1970 Census) + 169,428 individuals displaced by UR as of June 30, 1971. Data on displacees taken from the 1972 HUD Statistical Yearbook.

[4] Urban Renewal Project Characteristics reports can be found in the “Sources and Methods” essay on Renewing Inequality.