For a brief window between the late 1930s and the late 1940s, life insurance companies built approximately 50,000 middle-income rental apartments across the United States. At the time, life insurers controlled the largest pool of capital funds in the nation, and believed that large-scale housing offered a secure and profitable investment — as well as good publicity for the industry. Most projects took the form of large-scale, racially-segregated complexes, often with their own private streets, parks, and playgrounds. Most were also market-rate, though economies of scale in financing and construction produced relatively affordable prices.
While the volume of life insurance housing soon paled in the face of the postwar suburban boom — built for much the same demographic and often financed by life insurance dollars — life insurers’ brief venture into multifamily development represents a significant and understudied episode in the history of affordable housing. This corporatized community development model represented a short-lived “third way” between public housing and the suburban home, the primary levers of postwar federal housing policy.
This paper provides an overview of the “rise and fall” of life insurance housing, with a focus on New York City, where the majority of insurance-sponsored apartments were located. The paper argues that, when it came to middle-income urban housing, the 1940s represented a moment of unusual convergence between corporate need and municipal interest. While incentives were aligned, tens of thousands of relatively low-cost apartments were built in America’s most expensive housing market. Mixed-use and transit-oriented decades before the terms gained currency, these projects proved a panacea for white families who earned too much for public housing but not enough to purchase suburban homes. As soon as civic and corporate needs began to diverge, however, insurance capital shifted towards the suburban mortgage market, which offered higher returns with fewer political obstacles. In the context of today’s continued shortage of affordable housing — particularly for middle-income renters in high-cost cities, a group underserved by federal subsidies — the story of life insurance housing can be read as both a cautionary tale of corporate hubris and a missed opportunity to tap deep-pocketed fiduciary funds for large-scale, low-cost housing.