Women Advocates for Quality Housing

The observance of Women's History Month presents an opportunity to learn more about women who are responsible for the advancement of equity and progress in society. Here are two women who influenced the planning field through their passion and pursuit of affordable housing.

Dorothy Mae Richardson

Dorothy Mae Richardson. Used with permission from NeighborWorks America.

Dorothy Mae Richardson

In the early 1960s, Dorothy Mae Richardson was a wife, mother, and resident of a predominantly Black community in north central Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The homes in her community, however, were crumbling from neglect. Richardson, concerned about these conditions and displacement in the era of urban renewal, became an activist for safe, quality, affordable housing.

Richardson mobilized fellow stakeholders to form a neighborhood advocacy group, which worked with landlords to make much-needed property improvements. The all-female-led group became known as Citizens Against Slum Housing (CASH), an organization with a mission to lift Black neighborhoods out of poverty and blight.

CASH pushed for the accountability of derelict landlords and government officials for racist policies such as redlining. Through their activism and organizing efforts, Richardson and CASH enlisted banks to offer loans to shore up improvement efforts and grant Black people a path to home ownership.

As this community-led model for the revitalization of Black neighborhoods grew, CASH expanded further, and by 1968, the organization became known as Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS). NHS succeeded in formalizing a partnership with 16 financial institutions, securing upwards of $1 million in funding for home repairs and homeownership for underrepresented communities.

Although the loans were initially designated high-risk due to institutional racism, the model for this arrangement grew in popularity, and by 1977 the Community Reinvestment Act was signed into law, ensuring banks meet the credit needs of low– and moderate-income neighborhoods, broadening accessibility and equity in the path to home ownership.

Today, NHS is known as NeighborWorks America, which has more than 240 organizations in operation across all 50 states. In honor of Richardson, who passed away in 1991, NeighborWorks recognizes the work of community leaders annually with an award in her name. Richardson is also memorialized with a historical marker in Pittsburgh.

Clara Fox

Clara Fox. Used with permission from Settlement Housing Fund.

Clara Fox

When Dorothy Mae Richardson was convening her neighbors to combat blight in their Pittsburgh community, Clara Fox embarked on a similar mission in New York City. Early in her career, Fox worked for the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal as a Community Relations Specialist. In this role, she developed and oversaw training programs for shareholders in government-financed cooperatives.

In the 1960s, Fox became the first coordinator of the city's Head Start pre-kindergarten education program, working with families struggling with poverty. Witnessing the deplorable conditions children and families lived in through her work with Head Start, Fox shifted her focus from early childhood education to affordable housing.

In 1965, Fox became housing coordinator for United Neighborhood Houses, a collaborative of multiple settlement houses, but by 1969 she left to establish the Settlement Housing Fund. As executive director of the Settlement Housing Fund, Fox originated the idea of mixed-income housing.

In the mid-1970s, Manhattan Plaza, a nearly bankrupt development near Times Square, was one of the first to undergo mixed-income occupancy under the stewardship of the Settlement Housing Fund. The project was a success — Manhattan Plaza, originally designated for middle-income residents, provided accessible housing for theater professionals and those receiving federal housing subsidies. People who, without the advocacy of Fox's organization, could not otherwise afford to live there. Fox believed that with the mixed-income model, community leaders could live in these buildings and exert some influence for equity and progress.

In addition to mixed-income housing, the Settlement Housing Fund was one of the first organizations to establish supportive housing developments. A hybrid of affordable housing and social services, supportive housing helps vulnerable people obtain and maintain stable housing. Fox wanted people to have access to healthcare and other social services where they live, which greatly improved their ability to achieve long-term and even permanent housing security.

In 2007, Fox passed away at her home in Manhattan Plaza, where the mixed-income housing movement began. The New York Housing Conference, which Fox helped found and co-chaired until her death, established the Clara Fox Outstanding Achievement Award in her memory.

Examples for Future Generations

These housing champions left a lasting imprint, advancing equity and improving the lives of countless people by improving access to stable, affordable, quality housing. Richardson and Fox are two examples of trailblazing women. Read about more women trailblazers, including Patricia Roberts Harris, one of three women appointed as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Equity in Zoning Policy Guide cover

Equity in zoning policy guide

Learn how to be an advocate for housing in your community. The Equity in Zoning Policy Guide provides community planners with solutions that allow communities to boost housing supply, production, and fairness.

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About the author
Dina Walters is a member of APA's prioritize equity team.


March 11, 2024

By Dina Walters