Housing policy in the developing world has usually been shaped by social and political considerations, yet housing can also be used to promote economic development. From the 1930s to the 1950s, it was increasingly deployed for this purpose by the agencies of colonial powers, including Britain and France; by the United States in Puerto Rico; and by the US Agency for International Development and the Inter‐American Development Bank in Latin America. By the mid‐1960s, the UN and affiliated agencies, notably the International Labour Office, had a keen and broad appreciation of its significance for economic policy. This understanding was temporarily swamped by rising social concerns and then sidelined when the World Bank began to support sites‐and‐services schemes in the 1970s. It reasserted itself in the 1980s in the form of ‘market enabling’ strategies which, however, too often became an excuse for inaction. This history underlines the importance of paying attention to the potential role of housing as a tool of economic development.