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Subsistence Homesteads

In response to the Great Depression, a Federal housing program was created in 1933 that aimed to improve the living conditions of people coming from overcrowded urban centers, while simultaneously giving them a new opportunity to experience small-scale farming and home ownership.


The homesteads were organized as examples of how the country could benefit from a proliferation of semirural neighborhoods, where part-time farming on inexpensive but desirable land would encourage uplifting social functions and help establish a better way of life. Combining the benefits of rural and urban living (rurban), the communities were to encompass a new expression of some basic American values and demonstrate the path toward a healthier and more economically secure future.

Carriker, R.M. (2010). Urban Farming in the West: A New Deal Experiment in Subsistence Homesteads. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, p. 3.

After being transferred among several different agencies, the program officially ended in 1937.

This review of the Subsistence Homestead program showcases the materials produced by the Department of Agriculture to help the public take part in this form of "rurban" life.

Executive Order

The Division of Subsistence Homesteads was created by an Order of the Secretary of the Interior as part of The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. It fulfilled a section of the Act of the 73rd Congress making $25 million available to the ''President, to be used by him through such agencies as he may establish and under such regulations he may make, for making loans for and otherwise aiding in the purchase of subsistence homesteads."

A Homestead and Hope. U.S. Department of the Interior - Division of Subsistence Homesteads. Federal Subsistence Homesteads Corporation, p. 23

Wilson Portrait

Milburn Lincoln Wilson (1930). Montana State University (MSU) Historical Photographs Collection.

Milburn Lincoln Wilson, then of the USDA's Agricultural Adjustment Administration, was selected personally by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to lead the new Division. The Division was placed within the Department of the Interior and Wilson served under its Secretary, Harold Ickes.

Southern Type 4 Room Frame House

Southern Type 4 Room Frame House. Designed by the Division of Subsistence Homesteads. A Homestead and Hope (1935). U.S. Department of the Interior - Division of Subsistence Homesteads. Federal Subsistence Homesteads Corporation, p. 19

Wilson formed an advisory committee that set some requirements for the homestead communities:

  1. They should all be considered as pilot projects.
  2. Areas hit especially hard by the Depression should be prioritized.
  3. The price of each home should not exceed $2,000.
  4. The homesteads would be under the administration of the Division and a local non-profit corporation.
Children at the El Monte subsistence homesteads

Children at the El Monte subsistence homesteads, California (1936). Dorothea Lange, Photographer. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Director Wilson decided that the Homesteads should be organized around four categories:

  1. Workingmen's Garden Homes for employed city workers who wanted to move to semi-rural areas
  2. Homesteads for unemployed factory workers who lost their jobs due to workplace closures
  3. Homesteads for newly relocated part-time urban workers
  4. Homesteads for farm workers who moved from rural to semi-rural areas
Eleanor Roosevelt in Arthurdale, West Virginia

Eleanor Roosevelt in Arthurdale, West Virginia (1933) Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, 1882 - 1962. National Archives and Records Administration.

Eleanor Roosevelt took a keen interest in the development of the new homesteads. She visited the site of the Arthurdale Homes many times and provided personal support to its residents.

House at Meridian

House at Meridian (Magnolia Homesteads), Mississippi (1935) Arthur Rothstein, Photographer. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

By March 17, 1934 thirty projects had been started: 21 were garden-home projects, 2 were full-time farming projects near cities to assure a steady customer base, 5 were for unemployed miners, and 2 were combination of types.

A Mule and a Plow

A Mule and a Plow--Resettlement Administration--Small Loans Give Farmers a New Start (1935-1937). Bryson, Bernarda, Artist. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

On June 16, 1935 the powers for the DSH granted under the National Industrial Recovery Act expired. On April 30, Executive Order No. 7027 created the Resettlement Administration. Part of the RA's mandate included the authority "to administer approved projects involving resettlement of destitute or low-income families from rural and urban areas, including the establishment, maintenance and operation, in such connection, of communities in rural and suburban areas."

In 1936, as part of another Executive Order: No. 7530, the Subsistence Housing Project was transferred from the Department of the Interior to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At this point, M.L. Wilson, the first Director was an Undersecretary of Agriculture under Secretary Henry A. Wallace.

In 1937 after being transferred to the Federal Public Housing Authority, the Subsistence Housing Project was formally abolished. Some of the original homesteads remain, however as reminders of this novel program.

The National Agricultural Library holds several monographs detailing the administration and history of the Subsistence Housing project.

Information Concerning the Purposes and Policies of the Division of Subsistence Homesteads

Information Concerning the Purposes and Policies of the Division of Subsistence Homesteads (1933). U.S. Department of the Interior - Division of Subsistence Homesteads, Federal Subsistence Homesteads Corporation.

This bulletin is intended to provide general information concerning the purposes of the Subsistence Homesteads section of the National Industrial Recovery Act and the policies formulated for the administration thereof.

The Division of Subsistence Homesteads is a unit of the United States Department of the Interior, subject to such policies and regulations as the Secretary of the Interior may prescribe. The Division was organized pursuant to an executive order dated July 21, 1933, and a subsequent order issued by the Secretary of the Interior on December 2, 1933, creating the Federal Subsistence Homesteads Corporation through which the work of the Division is executed.

The text of the National Industrial Recovery Act, Section 208, and the executive and departmental orders will be found on pages 9 and 10 of this bulletin.

The $25,000,000 appropriated for the purpose of carrying out the program of the Division is a revolving fund. Homesteaders' payments, applied against the purchase price of their home, are returned to the fund for use in new projects.

The part of the Federal Government is that of experimenter and demonstrator. Projects are selected with a view to testing varying sets of conditions found in the several parts of the United States and among different types of people.

This booklet is intended to provide information concerning the type of house recommended by the Division of Subsistence Homesteads, under the Department of the Interior, in its low-cost housing demonstration. In publishing these plans, the Division hopes it will help individuals of small means to realize their desire for a home, well planned, and of good architectural design, yet within their financial range.

Under Section 208 of the National Industrial Recovery Act, $25,000,000 was made available for "making loans for and otherwise aiding in the purchase of subsistence homesteads”. Through a program of test and demonstration, the Division aims to show that families can move from poverty-stricken and over-crowded shanties and squalid tenements into decent modern homes where they may learn a new happiness and achieve a new hope.

The subsistence homestead program provides an opportunity for home ownership. In its housing program, the Division will demonstrate the practicability of home ownership through means of long-term loans which necessitate a small down payment or, in some projects, none at all. These housing demonstrations located as they will be in the various sections of the country, will point the way, it is hoped, for private enterprise and other groups in providing better homes for low-income groups.

A Homestead and Hope

A Homestead and Hope (1935) U.S. Department of the Interior. Division of Subsistence Homesteads; Federal Subsistence Homesteads Corporation.

'SUBSISTENCE HOMESTEAD' consists of a modern but inexpensive house and outbuildings, located on a plot of land upon which a family may produce a considerable portion of the food required for home consumption.

THE DIVISION of Subsistence Homesteads is engaged in developing communities composed of from twenty-five to two or three hundred of such individual homesteads. The homesteads, when completed, are sold on liberal terms to families with annual incomes of less than $1,200. A 30-year purchase period is provided. The sales price of the average homestead is approximately $3,000. The Division's purchase plan enables a family to buy such a $3,000 homestead by making payments of $12.65 a month.

SINCE production of garden and farm commodities is for family use and not for commercial sale, it follows that a homesteader must have a small but reasonably assured cash income, or at least reasonably certain prospects of an income, once he is settled on his homestead. The homesteader’s cash income normally is derived from wage employment of some type. In a large proportion of cases this employment is of a part-time or seasonal nature.

THE SUBSISTENCE HOMESTEADS program assists an intermediate group. It accommodates persons who, on the one hand, are above the sheer relief level, but who, on the other hand, lack the savings and the income to enable them to obtain financing from private sources. Thus the subsistence homesteads program does not burden with further debt or tie down to a fixed locality persons who must seek employment actively, and neither does it compete with private enterprise in the financing of the more fortunate.

A Place on Earth

A Place on Earth: A Critical Appraisal of Subsistence Homesteads (1945). U. S. Department of Agriculture. Bureau of Agricultural Economics. Lord, Russell and Johnstone, Paul H. (editors)

The nine subsistence-homesteads projects included here were first established by the Subsistence Homesteads Division of the Department of the Interior under the provisions of Section 208 of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Administration of these projects was transferred to the Resettlement Administration in 1935 and was finally lodged within the Department of Agriculture in 1937 as one of the many functions of the Farm Security Administration.

This report has three main parts. Part I gives a historical account of the movements and forces that resulted in a federally sponsored subsistence- homesteads program, and contains information concerning the events and developments that have influenced the program on the national level. Part II gets down to specific cases. Each chapter tells the story of a particular project -how it began, what it was intended to be, and how it has worked out. Part III attempts to summarize, so far as possible, the lessons about subsistence homesteads that were learned in the course of gathering information for part II.

The study was requested by the Farm Security Administration in 1939. The original purpose was to procure information that would be valuable in the administration of subsistence-homesteads projects. Stated briefly, the Farm Security Administration wanted to know what things had worked, what things had not worked, and, if possible, what social, psychological, and economic factors were responsible for certain developments in the projects that were not easily or superficially explainable.

This report deals specifically with only nine out of a great many subsistence-homesteads communities that were established under Federal sponsorship during the first years after 1933. The Farm Security Administration, when it was established in 1937, inherited a variety of undertakings -various not only in kind, but also in respect to original sponsorship and administrative history. The Division of Subsistence Homesteads initiated 33 projects that were eventually completed, some under its own auspices, and some under those of the Resettlement Administration after that administration inherited the functions of the earlier agency. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration set up 34 somewhat similar projects which were eventually turned over to the Resettlement Administration. Later, nearly 100 projects, most of them full-time farming projects and to be distinguished sharply from the subsistence-homesteads communities, were set up by the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration.

Emily Marsh, Ph.D., MLS

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