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“The Ruins of Their Postwar Dream Homes”: Housing Reform Advocates Testify before Congress

New home construction declined dramatically during the Great Depression as rents rose, reaching an all-time high in 1940. A persistent housing shortage continuing into the early 1950s forced families to separate and apartment dwellers to “double-up.” The housing reform movement, largely ineffectual in the 1920s and 1930s, gathered strength in the postwar period. Labor and veteran groups pressured Congress and the White House to enact a comprehensive housing policy with money for public housing and continued wartime rent control. President Harry S. Truman, echoing reformers, wrote to Congress, “A decent standard of housing for all is one of the irreducible obligations of modern civilization.” Despite opposition from real estate interests, the Housing Act of 1949 passed. Although the Act called for the construction of 810,000 units of public housing over six years—and two additional housing acts in 1961 and 1965 promised substantial increases—by the mid-1960s, more people lived in substandard housing than in 1949. In addition, many blamed public housing itself for destroying neighborhoods and fostering social problems. In the following 1947 testimony before a joint Congressional committee created by anti-housing reform legislators to stall action, four spokespersons for housing reform—including social worker Mary K. Simkhovitch, a leading reform advocate since the 1920s—presented views and proposals.


Mrs. SIMKHOVITCH. My name is Mrs. Mary K. Simkhovitch, and I am chairman of the housing committee of the National Council of Women, which represents about 5,000,000 women, and who are deeply interested in this problem, and who believe that something should be done about it from the point of view of the American home. They are interested in the American home life, that is what they are thinking about all the time, which is very natural, and they do not believe that the proper home life is being given to these young veterans that have come back and don’t have a chance at it.

We all know that these veterans' families are all separated. Some of them live with their mothers, the woman will live with her mother and the husband will live with his mother, and these young people don’t have a chance to live a proper married life at all.

We feel that that is a very serious thing, and really fundamental to this all, and that while we are talking construction costs, which is perfectly proper, and I certainly think that General Farrell’s testimony—I have the honor to serve with him as vice chairman of the local New York City Housing Authority—I certainly think that was very cogent, but I certainly want to say this additional word in regard to the maintenance of the American home as the fundamental and basic thing in our whole civilization, and the women feel very deeply, indeed, that their young people have been let down, especially, and that it really is a thing which our Congress probably could think a little more about than they have up to the present time. . . .


I speak on behalf of approximately 3,000 department store workers in Gimbel Bros. and Saks-Thirty-fourth Street, New York, department stores.

The average wage of these workers is $37 per week before tax deductions. Ninety-five percent of these workers earn from $26 to $45 a week, which puts them in the lower-income bracket.

Among them are many who come to consult us about their rent and housing problems.

We have found numerous instances of families living doubled up in small crowded apartments with inadequate and broken down facilities.

Many young women, who comprise an important segment of the people employed in department stores, are being forced to pay rents beyond their means because there are no rent-control provisions for rooms rented in private homes. Their conditions are a direct result of the serious shortage of housing accommodations.

We have several hundred veterans employed in these stores, many of them with families who have returned to a community already overburdened with a serious housing shortage. Rent and food consume practically the entire paycheck of a department store worker.

Our workers are now spending at least 50 percent of their inadequate incomes on food, and there is no prospect of relief on food costs.

They are foregoing needed medical care, adequate clothing, and occasional recreations necessary to every individual’s mental health.

Such conditions, added to the housing shortage, are contributing to an increasing break-down of normal family living.

Because of their low incomes and because of the existing housing shortage our workers are facing an apparently insoluble dilemma.

Private building had given no indication that it can solve the housing problems of low-income groups such as ours. Apartment houses now being erected charge rents far beyond the means of our workers. Nor can our workers take advantage of the alternative of purchasing their own homes since these almost invariably sell for a minimum of $10,000.

Therefore it is our opinion and we have so advised our workers that the only possible solution to their housing difficulties lies in the passage by Congress of such a low-cost public-housing long-range program as is embodied in the Taft-Wagner-Ellender housing commission bill (S. 866).


Mrs. GATES. My name is Mrs. Lillian Gates, 45–18 Forty-second Street, Long Island City, and I represent the New York State Communist Party.

First of all, we want to make very strongly the point that despite innumerable investigations, and various investigations of Congress, and Gallup polls, and every conceivable form of statistics and questionnaires, nothing effective is being done about housing.

I would say that proof of this is shown particularly in a statement made by Governor Dewey the other day when he said that rent control must be continued because there is a housing shortage.

And I say that even when Governor Dewey makes such a statement, there must be a housing shortage. And, it is hardly necessary to add additional statistics, reams of which exist and have been presented to this committee, and which exist in innumerable publications in Government bulletins that have been issued.

Now, why isn’t this housing shortage being solved? Even though everyone can see that it exists, that it is desperate.

In our opinion, it isn’t being solved because the Government has not taken effective action. And there is no conceivable way of solving the housing shortage unless the Government does take effective action.

We know that the National Real Estate Board, and the various subsidiaries it has organized, has presented a big bogey-man to the country in the form of the fear of Government intervention.

Yes, it is quite interesting to note that the real-estate interests in our country have absolutely no objection to one kind of Government intervention, and that is, particularly, the provisions of 608, of the National Housing Act, under which over $4,000,000,000 have been authorized to insure so-called rental housing. . . .

Well, I simply wanted to make a point in this connection, that the real-estate lobby doesn’t object to Government intervention—

The CHAIRMAN. We found that out.

Mrs. GATES. When it lines their own pockets with guaranteed profits.

But yet, when it comes to Government action for low-rent housing, or self-supporting housing which could be built in our city, the real-estate lobby is standing pat, and we have real-estate politics controlling our Congress and our national administration. . . .

Now, the reason that this project is being held up is the real-estate lobby, and it is backed up by Commissioner Moses who has refused to really go ahead with these 35,000 units.

Another thing in this connection is that not only has the city failed to agree to the full amount of 35,000 units which could be erected, but, where housing projects have been approved, the real estate groups in our city are trying to forestall their erection through the use of anti-Semitic, anti-Negro and antidemocratic commitments.

For example, in Jackson Heights, where a project had been approved, the real-estate lobby got together there, spread all sorts of rumors over the neighborhood that Negroes and Jews and other minority groups are going to move in here, and they succeeded in forcing the removal of that project from Jackson Heights to Woodside.

Every place you go, you see the real-estate lobby. And I say here that this real-estate lobby controls Congress at the present time in respect to housing, and is preventing any action on housing.

We will not solve the housing problem unless Congress listens to the people and stops playing real estate politics.

Now, I want to give some proposals for action.

In our opinion, the minimum program, not the maximum program, is the Taft-Ellender-Wagner bill. Far from being socialistic, the Taft-Ellender-Wagner bill is seriously limited by the fact that it is so concerned with private enterprise in every aspect of that bill that its total result would fall far short of what is needed.

Nonetheless, we support it as a minimum step forward, getting something done on housing.

But we feel that Congress should go further, and it should undertake immediately to build 1,000,000 housing units for the next 5 years with guaranties against discrimination.

That price controls and allocations of building materials be reestablished; and that the Government take over the lumber, steel, and other aspects of the building materials industries, if these industries do not prove capable of supplying the needs of building materials for the people at prices within reach.

There has been a great deal said at this hearing and other places about the Taft-Ellender-Wagner bill and socialism. I think the Communist Party is best qualified to speak on socialism, and I have no hesitation on saying there isn’t an ounce of socialism in the Taft-Ellender-Wagner bill.

At the same time, we Communists are certainly willing to support any minimum program, provided that it will advance the interests of the people.

I think there is one other thing that must be done by Congress, and that is to eliminate the shameful block of Jim Crow, and discrimination in housing. The restrictive covenant must be outlawed. All sorts of so-called and misnamed gentleman’s agreements must be outlawed specifically by law.

Now, I want to say in conclusion, Mr. Gamble, that the committee hearings and perpetual investigations are not going to fool the American people. They have intelligence enough to know that the Government can solve tremendous production problems in time of war; it could, if so desired, solve the problems of housing in times of peace.

You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

Something has to be done about housing, or the veterans and the people of our Nation are going to hold both political parties accountable for the failure to act.


“Thousands of children in New York City potential criminals and misfits.” This fact has not yet made the headlines. Yet every day the material for such an exposé is accumulating in overcrowded, unsanitary, nerve-wracked houses—houses which cannot spell homes for the 600,000 New York residents who, Mayor O’Dwyer states, are living in substandard dwellings or the 150,000 men, women, and children who are sharing misery in doubled-up living arrangements.

When veterans set up pup tents in Central Park or a suicide note is scribbled by a despairing father whose family faces eviction, the truth is borne home upon us that lives of American citizens are being warped or wrecked not because of their individual wrong doing but because of criminal social neglect. The damage caused by the housing shortage adds up to more than a set of personal tragedies, intolerable and unjustified as they are. It means social waste—wasted human potential through the break-up of families, the spread of disease, and rise of industrial accidents and crime.

As an organization dedicated to the betterment of living standards, UE District No. 4 has at all times been concerned with the chronic housing problem of this city. We are alarmed at the slums which are rotting out the heart of New York and the slow progress that has been made toward assuring decent, safe, and sanitary housing to the lowest income group. The shambles which are used for shelter by the 600,000 cited by the mayor are a menace to health and must be replaced.

Yet the housing problem today goes far beyond the scope of providing for the lowest paid third of the city or Nation. Our 40,000 union members in the metropolitan area, up until recently, were considered part of the “middle group” able to afford modest but decent homes. That situation no longer exists and has not existed for years. UE workers are unable to rent or to buy suitable living quarters without assuming a heavy burden of indebtedness. Housing units are being built by private industry today. True, that last year the industry nationally started 441,000 units in the face of an immediate annual need estimated at more than 1 1/2 million units by Wilson W. Wyatt, former Housing Expediter. True, the number of “starts” in New York City was proportionally smaller. But let us take a look into even this inadequate private housing and see for whom it is being built. In spite of scanty information, there is no doubt that the bulk of rental units built in New York during the past year were offered for rentals well above $46. Yet the United States Bureau of Census reports that as of October 1946 the average employed veteran wanting to rent apartments could not afford to pay more than $46 a month. Is it any wonder that many vets are forced to continue living doubled up with other families or that workers in our industry with an average wage of $51.88 are in the same situation?

Many of us have been thinking in terms of buying homes. It would not be reasonable to expect to find even a modest house today that is being built for less than $10,000. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland has shown that even with a down payment of $1,000 and the generous terms of the GI loan, the gross monthly charge was $74 in that area. The higher tax and other expenses make that a conservative estimate for this area. There is no question that veterans and civilians alike are seeing the ruins of their postwar dream homes.

This tragic gap between the activities of the building interests and the needs of the overwhelming majority of the American people is not new. Wall Street’s building lobby appears not to be interested in building homes. It is in the real-estate lobby’s interest to have scarce housing so people will have to pay high rents. Even in the prewar period, private industry built mainly for the “upper brackets.” Although the preponderant need for housing today is for homes that can be rented by the middle- or lower-income groups, it appears that few houses built this year will be offered for rent or sale at a price the average family can afford.

The shortages and overcrowding that exist today are a mighty indictment of the housing industry: of the real-estate operators who manage property, of the contractors who built property, and of the investors who own and finance property. The building industry has never produced homes in a quantity equal to the Nation’s needs. It has resisted mass production of houses; through profiteering and speculation, it has forced a rise of 36 percent in the wholesale prices of building materials since OPA controls were eliminated, providing further excuse for exorbitant sales fees and rentals (United States Bureau of Labor Statistics Wholesale Price Index). Private builders have brutally ignored the housing needs of minority groups and have deliberately forced upon the people of the country discriminatory rental practices which are repugnant to our democratic traditions.

The outright failure of the housing industry to provide for the general welfare was well recognized by the Congress during the war years. The demand for housing to meet the manpower needs of industry was so desperate that the government stepped into the housing program, constructing many units through its own agencies. With the need for housing at the end of the war one of the most critical phases of our preparation for peacetime living and with private industry unable and unwilling to meet the need, how can the American people feel about the Government’s weakness in opposing the narrow and selfish aims of the real estate interests?

Our membership cannot understand why the President, shortly after VJ-day, repealed the Government’s orders controlling nonessential building and holding the price of new houses to $8,000. They cannot understand why, when thousands of veterans have no roofs at all, the veterans‘ emergency housing program was scuttled by the decontrol of building materials prices. And how the Congress, familiar with the desperate plight of Americans, could repeal the act on which the veterans’ housing program was based and could approve “voluntary” 15-percent rent increases, to be followed by complete decontrol of rents in 1948.

UE workers who are suffering all manner of deprivations because of inflationary prices can no longer excuse Government idleness on the fundamental question of decent shelter. They have reduced their purchases of food; they have gone without new clothes; they cannot continue to devote the greater part of their pay envelopes to inadequate and demoralizing shelter.

Therefore, delegates to the twelfth UE convention held in Boston a few months ago, acting in behalf of the 600,000 UE members throughout the country called for the adoption of the following program in the interests of the American people:

1. That the Government itself must produce low-cost, low-rent homes for veterans and other needy persons by utilizing subsidies, materials controls, and other techniques used to get needed production in wartime. As a step in this direction, we support the Taylor-Douglas bill providing $1,000,000,000 in Federal loans to public housing authorities to build rental units for veterans for rents of $30 to $50 a month.

2. We condemn further delay in passage of the Wagner-Ellender-Taft long-range housing bill, providing for construction of 1,500,000 units a year, as an irreparable blot on the record of both parties, but especially on the Republican Party which has full power to pass this bill.

3. Restrictions on use of available housing, through restrictive covenants which discriminate on the basis of creed and color, must be wiped out by effective legislation.

4. We urge immediate repeal of the Wolcott bill providing for termination of Federal rent control in 1948. We demand reestablishment of Federal rent control by second session of the Eightieth Congress. We demand Federal legislation prohibiting evictions until there is an adequate supply of housing for all income groups.

5. We call for a relentless investigation of the role of the National Association of Real Estate Boards in sabotaging construction and rent control.

Source: Congress, Study and Investigation of Housing: Hearings before the Joint Committee on Housing, 80th Congress, 1st Session, Proceedings at New York, N.Y., November 10, 12, and December 29, 1947 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1948), 2894–95, 2959, 2975, 2977–78, 3022–24.

See Also:"The Right to Housing Is a Civil Right Due Without Discrimination": Racial Bias in Public and Private Housing
"A Decent Home . . . for Every American Family": Postwar Housing Shortage Victims Testify before Congress