Speaking about the World War II defense housing program, housing activist Dorothy Rosenman declared that a mutual homeownership model “would provide ‘attractive, valuable neighborhoods long after the war is over.’” Rosenman’s belief in mutual ownership came to fruition in the thirty-seven developments built during the 1940s under the obscure Mutual Home Ownership Plan (“Mutual Plan”), which continues to exist and operate as mutual housing today. This article details the origins of the Mutual Plan and its implementation through the Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division’s (MODHD) eight experimental developments.

Since their inception, the mutual programs of the 1940s were created as a secondary model to individual private homeownership, which has persisted as the dominant model. While mutual or cooperative housing has taken various forms, the term typically denotes a buyer purchasing a share in a not-for-profit mutual association where the association (made up of the residents) owns and controls the houses and land. Each of the residents has exclusive rights to a specific home. Comparatively, individual private homeownership indicates a buyer purchasing their home directly and owning the deed to the house and land.

Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division

As World War II neared, national housing legislation shifted to focus on the needs of defense workers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Defense Housing Act into law in October 1940 in response to the shortage of housing for defense workers. The legislation, better known as the Lanham Act, authorized the Federal Works Agency (FWA) to build 700,000 public housing units across the country for defense workers and their families. With the passage of the Lanham Act, John M. Carmody, FWA director, saw an opportunity to promote alternative, experimental housing programs. Carmody hoped to use Lanham Act funding to make the case for the future of public housing in the postwar years by showcasing inexpensive building techniques to produce less costly housing.

Multiple FWA sub-agencies implemented these experimental programs to house defense workers, including the Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division. Carmody assigned Lawrence Westbrook to oversee this new division. Westbrook previously worked for other New Deal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) which became the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Government officials at the FWA, including Westbrook, turned to union leaders to help create a program to house defense workers who could not afford to purchase a home but did not qualify to live in public housing. Westbrook worked with John Green, president of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, to craft the Mutual Home Ownership Plan and implement it through the MODHD.

Bellmawr Park Mutual Housing Corporation, 45, 47, 49 & 51 Victory Drive, 45, 47, 49 & 51 Victory Drive, Bellmawr, Camden County, NJ
Architectural plans for Bellmawr Park in Bellmawr, New Jersey (accessed at

MODHD Pilot Program

Along with John Green’s Marine and Shipbuilding Workers and other unions, Westbrook began the Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division pilot program. The MODHD program built eight developments in 1941 and 1942 for defense workers in five states—Texas, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The agency sought to push the boundaries compared to contemporaneous housing programs through the creation of an alternative homeownership model. The Mutual Home Ownership Plan designated the developments to be sold to non-profit mutual housing associations after the war. During the war, the MODHD developments were managed by the Federal Public Housing Authority (FPHA), which became the Public Housing Administration (PHA) in 1947. The smallest development was Walnut Grove in South Bend, Indiana with a reported 250 units and the largest was Pennypack Woods in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with 1,000 units. Two sites located in the Dallas metropolitan area, Avion Village and Dallas Park, each had 300 units. Greenmont Village in Dayton, Ohio, Audubon Park in Audubon, New Jersey, and Bellmawr Park in Bellmawr, New Jersey each had 500 units. Winfield Park in Linden, New Jersey was slightly larger with 700 units.

In addition to the different ownership structure, these developments also pushed architectural and design boundaries. The sites featured prefabricated homes designed by well-known architects, such as Richard Neutra and Louis Kahn. Most of the homes were on cul-de-sac streets and faced an interior park. Some developments, depending on their size, included an elementary school and a shopping center. At Walnut Grove, residents accessed a community center and cooperative grocery store through the interior park.

Postwar Ownership Transfer

Even as a national housing shortage persisted, the Lanham Act required defense housing to be sold to private owners or demolished after the war to eliminate the net gain of public housing units. When drafting the Lanham Act, Representative Fritz G. Lanham included this provision to secure the support of the real estate and homebuilding industries who did not otherwise support public housing. Some lobbyists from these industries argued that public housing was unfair competition for the private housing industry and thus wanted to minimize their competition by eliminating public housing at the end of the war.

By the end of 1945, nearly 168,000 defense housing units were eligible for disposition. The residents of some of these units hoped to purchase them from the federal government using an amended version of the Mutual Home Ownership Plan, which allowed the defense housing units to be sold to non-profit mutual ownership associations. By 1950, approximately 15,000 units had been or were set to be sold to mutual associations across the country. The process proved to be lengthy and complicated for some of the newly-formed mutual housing associations (also called mutual housing corporations). These associations were comprised of residents at each development who would mutually own their communities by purchasing equal shares in the mutual association. Labor unions often helped to organize the residents of the mutual associations, and those that had the assistance of union leaders or attorneys had an easier time complying with federal regulations for the transfer of ownership. Residents worked with some realtors, bankers, and government officials, including members of Congress, who were unsupportive of the concept of mutual housing and made the mutual associations seek out commercial mortgages instead of providing access to direct government lending.

Nonetheless, approximately fifty defense housing developments, including the eight MODHD projects, were sold to mutual housing associations starting in 1947 under the Mutual Home Ownership Plan. By the end of 1950, 9,822 defense housing units had been sold to mutual ownership associations. Amongst the eight MODHD developments, Greenmont Village, Walnut Grove, Avion Village, Dallas Park, and Winfield Park had completed purchase contracts with their respective mutual housing associations by January 1951. Bellmawr Park and Pennypack Woods were sold to their respective mutual associations in 1952 and Audubon Park in 1954. Although Dallas Park was sold to its mutual association, residents voted to end the association and convert to a private ownership model in 1954.

Many of the mutual associations faced internal pressure when deciding whether to purchase their respective developments. Residents debated the merits of mutual housing when voicing their concerns about the proposed rules for governance, aesthetics of the houses and grounds, and control over who should be able to live in the community. They also weighed these concerns against the ongoing post-war affordability crisis, which led some to continually pursue mutual ownership despite their hesitations.

In New Jersey, the residents at Bellmawr Park nearly opted out of their mutual association due to lengthy negotiations with the federal government regarding the terms of the mortgage. Some residents tried to convince the Public Housing Authority to sell the units to them individually. In 1952, the mutual association was able to complete the purchase process with enough residents still committed to mutual ownership.

Residents at Dallas Park ultimately chose the opposite fate for their community. In 1954, six residents – all shareholders in the mutual association – brought a lawsuit against management claiming that the president of the board of directors and the manager were profiting off of the mutual association by illegally selling homes to individual buyers. The case quickly ended, however, as the lawsuit revealed that the six plaintiffs were the only members still interested in mutual ownership. The other 294 resident-shareholders voted to end the mutual association and privately own their homes.

Racial Discrimination in Mutual Housing

Although the Mutual Plan developments implemented innovative alternatives for ownership and design, most perpetuated racial segregation in the housing market. Mutual housing residents and the federal government alike excluded on the basis of race. Existing residents denied membership for people of color into the mutual housing associations that began forming in the late 1940s. A 1952 study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that amongst the associations formed in 1949 and 1950, only a few were “officially committed to open membership.” Further, while some mutual associations attempted to evade the question of integration, other mutual associations explicitly pursued segregationist tactics, such as buying land that had racially restrictive covenants on the deed.

For their part, the federal government, specifically the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), perpetuated segregation by refusing to guarantee the loans to the mutual associations. An FHA loan guarantee was crucial to receiving a loan because it protected lending institutions, such as banks, against default since the federal government would pay the lender if the owner could no longer pay on the mortgage. The FHA loan guarantee largely revolutionized homeownership in the mid-20th century. Further, the federal government designated mutual developments based on race, and of those sold under the Mutual Plan, one African American defense housing development and three biracial communities exist today. In developments such as Avion Village and Dallas Park in Texas, the federal government deemed these “racially exclusive” and only housed white defense workers. Similarly, Greenmont Village in Ohio only allowed whites to apply for membership in the mutual association.

Attempts to build or transfer ownership of desegregated mutual housing developments faced many obstacles. At Parkway Garden Homes, a desegregated, mutually-owned apartment development in Chicago, it took five years from inception to groundbreaking in 1950 because of financial problems and other delays. At Glen Hazel Heights in Pittsburgh, an existing integrated housing development, the residents were interested in purchasing their community under the Mutual Plan; however, despite their interest, ownership of their development was transferred to the Pittsburgh Housing Authority instead. At Channel Heights in San Pedro, California, another integrated defense housing development, residents similarly hoped to use the Mutual Plan to purchase their community, but the Public Housing Administration informed them that a cash sale would be required as they would not be eligible for a loan.

Warren J. Lockwood, of the FHA, “stated that his agency had ‘never insured a project of mixed occupancy’ and made the ‘unofficial and informal statement’ that the FHA was unlikely to offer to insure a mixed-occupancy development because it would soon become ‘all-Negro or all white.’” However, Lockwood’s views were not held by everyone at the FHA. In an attempt to reach African Americans living in defense housing developments, the Public Housing Administration set forth special financing for certain housing developments interested in mutual ownership. The deal would allow an association to put 10 percent down and pay the remainder through a 20-year mortgage. This FHA financing was intended to help African American mutual associations who were excluded from private financing, but it is not clear as to which or how many associations were able to take advantage of the federal government’s financing plan.

Although the Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed discrimination of the basis of race in the selling, renting, and financing of homes, courts did not mandate that mutual housing associations must also uphold fair housing laws until the 1970s and 80s. As such, the mutual housing associations that emerged from the defense housing of the 1940s largely remain segregated today.

Home at Walnut Grove in South Bend, Indiana (accessed at
Home at Walnut Grove in South Bend, Indiana (accessed at

Into Obscurity

In the postwar years, federal policies made single-family homeownership increasingly available to white, working-class families. For Americans who had access to this market, market-rate homeownership became a safer proposition with higher wages, government-guaranteed FHA mortgages, and favorable lending terms, especially for returning veterans through the GI Bill.

While most postwar federal housing policy focused on individual homeownership, a handful of policymakers attempted to extend the reach of mutual housing in the decades after the war. In 1950, Congress introduced bills that sought to create a public-private corporate entity, the National Mortgage Corporation for Housing Cooperatives, to guarantee loans or directly lend to mutual housing associations. These bills did not pass, but from this legislation, the FHA started to guarantee mortgages to mutual associations as they had for individual mortgages. In the 1960s and into the 1970s, the Kennedy and Nixon administrations supported other measures related to mutual housing, including Operation Breakthrough, which created mixed-income cooperatives in several cities across the country. However, as millions of Americans pursued market-rate homeownership opportunities, the mutual housing programs of the 1940s became increasingly obscure.


While mutual housing has not existed without issue, many of the developments that originated as defense housing have survived since the early 1940s, which indicates the longevity of this model and its potential as a viable alternative to individual ownership. Of the eight experimental developments built by the Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division, seven continue to be mutually owned by their residents after nearly eighty years.The Mutual Plan program and its developments model a more accessible, sustainable type of homeownership. However, as we look to the future, we must contend with the legacy of racial segregation in these mutual housing developments and confront both the individual and structural racism that allowed it to happen in order to also make this model equitable.


Mutual Housing Developments in the United States

NameLocationMutual Association
Walnut GroveSouth Bend, INWalnut Grove Mutual Housing Corporation
Avion VillageGrand Prairie, TXAvion Village Housing Corporation
Dallas ParkDallas, TXno longer mutual housing
Audubon ParkAudubon, NJAudubon Mutual Housing Corporation
Bellmawr ParkBellmawr, NJBellmawr Mutual Housing Corporation
Pennyback WoodsPhiladelphia, PAPennypack Woods Home Ownership Association
Greenmont VillageKettering, OHGreenmont Village Mutual Housing Corporation
Winfield ParkWinfield, NJWinfield Park Village Mutual Housing Corporation


  1. Kristin M. Szylvian, “The Federal Housing Program During World War II,” in From Tenements to the Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America, edited by John F. Bauman, Roger Biles, and Kristin M. Szylvian, 121-138 (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2000), 127.
  2. Kristin M. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment: New Deal Communities for the Urban Middle Class (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015), 5.
  3. Szylvian, “The Federal Housing Program During World War II,” 124.
  4. Szylvian, “The Federal Housing Program During World War II,” 125.
  5. Szylvian, “The Federal Housing Program During World War II,” 127.
  6. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 2.
  7. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 41.
  8. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, Cooperative Housing in the United States, 1949 and 1950, Bulletin No. 1093 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1952), 66.
  9. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, Cooperative Housing in the United States, 1949 and 1950, 65.
  10. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 4.
  11. Szylvian, “The Federal Housing Program During World War II,” 127.
  12. Szylvian, “The Federal Housing Program During World War II,” 132-133.
  13. Szylvian, “The Federal Housing Program During World War II,” 124.
  14. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 166.
  15. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 42.
  16. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 7.
  17. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 2.
  18. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, Cooperative Housing in the United States, 1949 and 1950, 65.
  19. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 197.
  20. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 170.
  21. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 168.
  22. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 167.
  23. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 166.
  24. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 170.
  25. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 7.
  26. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 143.
  27. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 7.
  28. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 57.
  29. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 138.
  30. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 139.
  31. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 142.
  32. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 142-143.
  33. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 143.
  34. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 7.
  35. Szylvian, The Mutual Housing Experiment, 6.
  36. Alcynna Lloyd, “Home Prices Are Rising Faster than Wages in 80% of U.S. Markets,” HousingWire, January 9, 2019,
Shawn is a recent graduate of the Master of Urban and Regional Planning Planning program at UCLA. She holds an undergraduate degree in history from the University of New Mexico. Shawn's interests focus on the nexus between twentieth century urban, social, and political history, especially as they relate to housing.