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Frank Demby

Defense Housing Crisis Grows Acute

Workers Forced to Live in Dingy Homes

(December 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 50, 15 December 1941, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The defense housing crisis is coming to a head. Newspapers are running articles on the situation; Congress has appointed committees of investigation. Within a few months the lid threatens to blow off on the biggest scandal since Teapot Dome. As an example of how serious the situation has become, it has been reliably reported in the capitalist press this past week that in one town in Connecticut where a lot of war factories are located over 700 children were found locked in automobiles or miserable shacks while their parents were working at jobs in nearby defense plants.

The background of the housing crisis is quite clear. For more than a decade, as depression took its deadly toll, the housing shortage has grown worse and worse. Private construction of homes and apartments dwindled to virtually zero. Government efforts at low-cost housing projects and slum clearance were confined to a few large cities, were far from low-cost and represented a feeble drop in the bucket. The estimate made several years ago that one-third of the nation is ill-housed is extremely conservative.

Workers Drift to Defense Centers

Then, as billions of dollars were spent for war orders, mostly concentrated in a handful of cities, workers began to drift in from all parts of the country to these few defense centers. The existing housing shortage in such towns was accentuated a thousandfold. Trailer camps, miserable shacks and hovels, sprang up like mushrooms after a rain on the outskirts of a score of cities. Rents boomed sky-high as the landlord’s and real estate interests took advantage of the tremendous demand for living quarters. Charles Abrams, of the New York Post, summarizes the effect of the housing crisis as follows:

Today workers, unable to find quarters, are leaving their jobs in defense centers all over the country. Labor turnover exceeds 500 per cent in some vital areas. Skilled craftsmen in pivotal trades refuse to migrate because they might have to give half of their wages to landlords. Inefficiency, disaffection, work stoppages due to poor housing are already in evidence.”

The government’s handling of this situation is a monumental example of capitalist inefficiency, duplicity and downright skullduggery. It was admitted that there was a need for the construction of 525,000 homes this year in defense areas. Private industry obviously could not be relied upon to build homes for the vast majority of workers who earn less than $2,000 a year; for private industry will naturally only build homes if there is a profit in it – and there cannot be any profit in building homes for workers who get $30–$40 a week. Consequently, the government undertook the responsibility for constructing 70 per cent of these needed homes, or about 360,000 houses. Of this number, only 10 per cent has so far been built!

Too Many Fingers in the Pie

At the beginning of the armament program, the only real housing machinery in existence was the United States Housing Authority, which possessed 600 local branches spread over 38 states. But the USHA was not used at all in 1940 and is only partially used now. There are a dozen different agencies of the government which have their collective fingers in the housing pie. The Public Building Administration, the Division of Defense Housing, the Defense Homes Corporation are some of the more prominent examples of bureaucratic duplication. In addition, the Army, the Navy and the Farm Security Administration also managed to horn in on the housing pie.

Having tied itself up in a maze of red tape, the government tried to ease matters a bit by appointing Charles Palmer as Defense Housing Coordinator. Palmer, however, hasn’t done any coordinating at all. All he has done is to fight with the other two big-shots of the housing program, Nathan Straus, USHA Administrator, and John Carmody, Federal Works Administrator, who controls the Division of Defense Housing. Besides these eternal scraps, in which each accuses the other of incompetence and of sabotaging the defense program, Palmer’s main activity is seeing to it that as few government homes as possible are built. Palmer is typical of most of the officials in the “defense” program. He is a firm believer in private enterprise and doesn’t want to undermine it, even if this means that defense workers go without homes or live in slums.

Palmer, it must be emphasized, is President Roosevelt’s man, appointed directly by the President to the top position in the housing pyramid. His credo is “business as usual,” which phrase, given its proper translation, means “profits for the bosses.” In spite of his support of the system of “free, private enterprise,” Palmer is accused publicly by Carmody and others of being a dictator. Straus blames him for sponsoring “the most vicious piece of legislation that has been enacted in the field of housing, under the spur and drive of selfish private interests.” Needless to say, Palmer is aided and abetted in his work by the dollar-a-year OPM representatives of monopoly capital, who have needlessly placed priorities on building materials. This has forced up the price of building materials, with a consequent rise in rents and the price of homes. It has also resulted in some very fancy speculative activities in the construction field.

A Vicious Piece of Legislation

The legislation to which Straus referred is, indeed, one of the most vicious laws ever to come out of a servile Congress. It is known as the Lanham Act The ostensible purpose, of course, was to encourage housing. It permits the Federal Housing Authority to guarantee 90 per cent of builders’ mortgages on houses put up for defense workers. The effect of this provision has been to saddle workers with homes that they cannot possibly afford to keep. The workers are forced to buy them, even though they don’t want to, by being given the choice of being without a roof over their heads or buying these homes. In all such transactions, the builders and the bankers, who finance these homes, are given 100 per cent protection against any possible loss. The workers, of course, get no protection at all. Moreover, these are hardly low-cost affairs. The worker usually has to put down a payment of $100. His monthly payments, which take the place of rent, come to almost $60; when interest and taxes are included. To be able to afford such payments, a family should have a yearly income of close to $4,000 a year. Most of the workers who are forced to buy them, however, make half of this sum or less.

Another provision of the Lanham Act, which is equally vicious in this application, is the appropriation of funds to the Federal Works Administrator for defense housing, provided that building costs are not over an average of $3,500 per family. The maximum on any housing unit is set at $3,950 under this provision. Since it is virtually impossible to figure “average” costs in advance of construction, specifications are cut down to levels below minimum health standards. The net result is that in many cases the government is actually building slum houses for many defense workers.

And a Lot of Plain Graft

On top of these difficulties and abuses, there is obviously a considerable amount of plain, ordinary graft taking place. In some cases, sites for housing projects are located in swamps or places where sewage is disposed of. Local authorities are incensed in many cities over the fact that the federal agencies do not deem it necessary to consult local officials about the housing projects.

What the situation boils down to is that private industry cannot possibly build adequate homes for American workers. It is estimated that there is a real need for at least 12,000,000 housing units in this country today, for it should be obvious that it is not only the defense workers who need decent homes, but practically all workers. Unless the government immediately appropriates several billion dollars for real, low-cost housing projects (not the measly $300,000,000 that is being recommended) the overwhelming majority of workers will find that the “defense of democracy” means living in sub-standard dwellings. Democracy, it should be obvious, cannot thrive on slums which are injurious to the health.

Labor Action is anxious to expose the whole rotten mess of the housing scandal. Only the fresh air of truth and vigorous protests can get decent housing for the mass of Americans. We should appreciate it if any of our readers who have reliable information concerning the housing situation – any data on rents, etc. – would send it to us. We promise to give it prompt publicity.

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