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“A Decent Home . . . for Every American Family”: Postwar Housing Shortage Victims 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, including Frank L. Sundstrom, Representative of New Jersey, created by anti-housing reform legislators to stall action, New Jersey spokespersons for tenants quoted the proposed Taft-Ellender-Wagner legislation and described housing conditions, while a number of tenants related their own difficult living situations.


Miss KOWALOFF. Mr. Congressman, so far the people who have spoken have represented different professional groups or housing authorities. I speak as a tenant of low-cost housing in Newark.

I happen to be the secretary of the Inter-Project Council of the City of Newark which represents seven low-cost housing projects.

Many of the tenants in the low-cost housing projects at this time are faced with evictions because of raises in salaries. The people are making too much money—not too much money for themselves, but the housing authority feels they should be evicted.

The people would gladly leave if there were more housing.

The Newark Inter-Project Council states that the lack of housing is an emergency situation and as an emergency situation immediate and positive action should be taken to provide adequate housing.

Since there is no housing available, or at exorbitantly high rentals, these tenants and also tenants in private housing are faced with a dilemma—and a frightening one. Private enterprise is not supplying the housing demand for low- and moderate-income families and the Committee on Banking and Currency has done nothing on the Taft-Ellender-Wagner bill for a considerable period of time. The Newark Inter-Project Council feels the solution lies with S. 866, the Taft-Ellender-Wagner bill, and that with the reconvening of Congress the bill should be passed without delay.

This is section 101:

The Congress hereby declares that the general welfare and security of the Nation and the health and living standards of its people require a production of residential construction and related community development sufficient to remedy its serious cumulative housing shortage, to eliminate slums and blighted areas, to realize as soon as feasible the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family, and to develop and redevelop communities so as to advance the growth and wealth of the Nation. The Congress further declares that such production is necessary to enable the housing industry to make its full contribution toward an economy of maximum employment, production, and purchasing power.

The plight of hundreds of thousands of evictees and doubled-up families is a national crisis and we are looking to the Government to help us. . . .


Mr. HOLDERMAN. I would just like to say that we believe this problem will not be solved unless there is a return to rationing and control of building materials, and, second, there must be a public-housing program such as the Taft-Ellender-Wagner bill.

So little has been said on behalf of the tenants that I would like to file with the committee our statement of the reasons why we believe this is a proper program and some photographic evidence of the conditions that exist.

Mr. SUNDSTROM. I am not sure the photographs will be reproduced but we would like to have them anyway.

Mr. HOLDERMAN. We will leave them with you. I would like to call upon several of the victims of the housing shortage now to give you one or two case histories.

Mr. SUNDSTROM. Very well.

Mr. HOLDERMAN. First, Mr. Woolridge, a veteran and a member of the CIO and a victim of the housing shortage.


Mr. SUNDSTROM. Tell the clerk your name and address.

Mr. WOOLRIDGE. Andrew Woolridge, 108 Warren Street, Newark. All I have to say is I am very much in need of a place. I have been going up to the housing authority for 3 years.

Mr. HOLDERMAN. Where do you live now?

Mr. WOOLRIDGE. With my mother-in-law.

Mr. HOLDERMAN. How long have you lived there?

Mr. WOOLRIDGE. Three years.

Mr. HOLDERMAN. How many in your family?

Mr. WOOLRIDGE. My wife and three children.

Mr. HOLDERMAN. How many live with your mother-in-law altogether?

Mr. WOOLRIDGE. I guess about nine.

Mr. HOLDERMAN. In how big a house?

Mr. WOOLRIDGE. A seven-room house.

Mr. HOLDERMAN. That is all.

Mr. SUNDSTROM. Thank you.


Mr. SUNDSTROM. Tell the clerk your name and address.

Mr. FLECKENSTEIN. Joseph Fleckenstein, 18 Cedar Hill Avenue, Belleville, N.J.

Mr. SUNDSTROM. You may proceed in any way you wish.

Mr. FLECKENSTEIN. I was evicted in February of this year. I have a wife and three children. My three children have to be separated in two different institutions, and my wife is in East Orange with her sister, and I live in Belleville with mine. My wife is ill and we have several doctor bills, and I cannot afford to buy a home. I have been to the housing authority, and I wrote to the mayor of Newark without results. I would appreciate anything that could be done to find rooms and get my family together again.

Mr. HOLDERMAN. These are the conditions under which they live [indicating photographs]. Each of these are identified.

Now I will call Mrs. Raymond Burke.


Mr. SUNDSTROM. Just give the clerk your name and address, and proceed any way you wish.

Mrs. BURKE. Mrs. Raymond Burke, 9 Ellwood Place, Newark.

Mr. HOLDERMAN. Will you tell under what conditions you live?

Mrs. BURKE. When my husband came out of the Army we went to live with his mother, seven in two rooms.

Then we went to live with his sister in four rooms, and she has two children and we have two. Then we had to move again, and my aunt took me in, and nine of us live in seven rooms. Now we have to move again because the house is sold and I have no place to go.

Mr. SUNDSTROM. Thank you.


Mr. SUNDSTROM. Give the clerk your name and address and proceed in any way you wish.

Mrs. PATILLO. My husband’s name is Austin Patillo, 433 John Street, Plainfield.

Mr. HOLDERMAN. Tell under what conditions you are living at the present time.

Mrs. PATILLO. My husband is a member of local 441, UE-CIO.

We were evicted May 10 of this year. We have six children, and we are forced to go into one room and are paying more for the one room than we did for our home. In fact, it is three times as much.

All my washing must be taken out, and the house has four families including mine.

The cooking facilities are so difficult that if we don’t eat in rotation my children have to eat around 8:30 or 9 by the time my turn comes back.

Since September my four children have had the whooping cough, all at one time.

My husband and I sleep on a twin bed and the children have the big bed. I know when the children were coughing and I had to be up to take care of them, each time I would get up I had to put a light on and our nerves are being affected.

We had to let our insurance go and our bills are way behind. It seems like the end.

Because my husband and I are not veterans there seems to be no help at all. I have written to different authorities.

Mr. SUNDSTROM. Thank you.


Mr. HOLDERMAN. Give your name.

Mr. TORSIELLO. Anthony Torsiello, 561 North Eleventh Street.

Mr. HOLDERMAN. Will you tell the conditions under which you are living?

Mr. TORSIELLO. Right now, Mr. Congressman, I have two children and a wife and I have been going around to housing projects, and one in particular, the Borden.

I served in the Army 1 month and 8 days, and they told me to put an application in for veterans' housing, which I did. In the meantime I am trying to get in the project, and they say I am making too much money.

I am only making $1.16 an hour which comes to around $46 a week.

In the meantime my wife was with her mother. I have one child and she has one child.

While I have this application for veterans' housing, I am disqualified because of my length of service. I don’t know how they operate or how they go about it. I don’t have any credit at all as far as being in the service.

I have a child 1 week and she has the other child 1 week. It is costing more and I am falling behind. I can’t catch up.

Mr. SUNDSTROM. Thank you.

Mr. HOLDERMAN. I want to leave these pictures. . . .


Mr. SCHOFIELD. Gentlemen, I don’t know whether I was hearing right or not, but I reside in Bergen County. I have been living apart from my wife and children since last July, and I just heard a statement a few moments ago that there is no housing shortage in Bergen County.

Well, my wife tells me that if I don’t get a house pretty soon I am also going to be short a wife.

I would like to know where some of those houses are in Bergen County.

I remember at a conference in Trenton a short time ago, that when the veterans asked about the houses in Bergen County, one of the builders said, “We have 1,000 houses lying idle there,” and he wanted $14,000, and the veteran said, “You can build another thousand and you will have 2,000. We haven’t that kind of money.”

I have been looking for a house for 6 months, not only for myself but for hundreds of members of our organization who are split up and living apart.

If houses are to be had, we would like to know where they are.

Now, there are two things. On little thing that I came across in my position as president of the New Jersey State Association and being a member of the Mayor’s Housing Committee for North Arlington, happened in that section.

We were considering applicants for the veterans' State housing and a candidate and myself visited an applicant living in a cellar. There was an opening so high [indicating] about as high as the table, with a board against the opening, and we knocked on the cellar door. A lady came and said, “Wait a minute. You have to put the board back there,” she said, “If you don’t, the rats will get in before you.”

We opened the door and went in, and there was a child of 4 sleeping, and there was a rat crawling across that kiddie’s face.

You ought to be in that position—not daring to move, not knowing what was going to happen next. That will live in my memory.

Another case came up in court. A veteran bought a home, and he wanted to get in. The lady living in the house was sickly and under a doctor’s care. She appeared in court, and got 21 days' stay three times. The third time she was told it was final, and I interceded with the judge to see if we could get her out of bed before she got out.

The landlord said, “She is not sick.” The court asked if the landlord’s doctor could go in and examine her, and he reported she was not sick. The judge said, “I give her 5 days.”

On the first of the month, she was out, but she was carried out in a wooden box, and it took the doctors 2 weeks to determine the cause of death. We could have told them even before she died what it was going to be, and that was a broken heart.

I try to make a date with my wife approximately once a week. My little girl, 10 years old, is with another family in the same town of Kearny.

You people should travel with me and see some of these things. I can’t eat sometimes; I can’t sleep; you can’t eat and you can’t forget those things.

One thing I am going to ask you to do is this: There are hundreds and thousands of those families throughout the State of New Jersey who are hanging today to a lifeline and that lifeline is just the Federal rent control, and if ever we cut that line and let those people flounder, you will have thousands more cases down in cellars and in backyards and garages or anywhere they can get, and that is not very good for the morale of the people.

Mr. SUNDSTROM. Thank you very much.

Mr. SCHOFIELD. One more thing I would like to say to you. What we try to do in North Arlington is that we have developed a plan whereby the borough has tried to help as much as possible. They have decided to let us bid for a plot of land and the town people have seen us bid and accepted that bid for $100. The builders have agreed to build houses for the sum of $6,400. Today or tomorrow, we expect to have word from FHA in regard to mortgages, and if that is received, the first group in the State of New Jersey that I know of will start to build their own homes next Monday, and that is something we didn’t think would happen.

I would like to see that condition prevail throughout the rest of New Jersey. If we don’t we will have our friend Joe from across the pond over here. . .

Source: Congress, Study and Investigation of Housing: Hearings before the Joint Committee on Housing, 80th Congress, 1st Session, Proceedings at Newark, N.J. November 14, 1947 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1948), 3167–68, 3172–74, 3252–53.

See Also:"The Right to Housing Is a Civil Right Due Without Discrimination": Racial Bias in Public and Private Housing
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