Shall I Build a House after the War?
By Anthony Netboy
Editorial Staff, Department of Agriculture
(Published October 1944)
No army recruiting poster ever carried the slogan “Join the Army and See How America Lives.” But in the months since Pearl Harbor millions of men in uniform—traveling from camp to camp, on maneuvers, on furlough, or perhaps taking a long last look on the way to a port of embarkation—have had a chance to see their own country and how their countrymen live.
Staring out of the windows of speeding trains or sauntering along the streets of strange towns they have seen farm buildings of all kinds and city dwellings of every description. Perhaps, thinking even then of coming back to a home of their own, they have taken a closer look at the differences in the kinds of houses that Americans live in.
For there is no more striking contrast that meets the eye of the traveler than the American crazy quilt of good and bad housing, of beauty and ugliness, luxury and poverty almost side by side. In every part of the country there are these same sharp contrasts between neighborhoods of neat, substantial dwellings and districts of shabby, run-down houses.
In the better areas, especially in the suburbs of towns and cities, houses are generally good. They are mainly one-family houses. Many are relatively new, in good condition, well insulated, large enough to shelter the family with comfort and convenience.
These houses usually have central heating, electricity, both hot and cold running water, tubs and showers, and a variety of labor-saving gadgets, such as automatic refrigerators, electric washing machines, mangles, and so on. Usually they have wide lawns, shrubs and flowers. Shady trees overhang the streets, and each house has its own single or double garage. The neighborhoods are quiet and restful, with plenty of space for adults to enjoy and children to play in.
This is the way a part of America lives. But millions of families have no such comfortable homes. They live in the slums of our cities, towns, and villages, and in run-down, rickety farmhouses.
Slum houses in towns and smaller cities are usually shabby and unpainted, crowded on small lots, often without yards, lawns, or green surroundings. There are few or no trees to shade the dwellings. Many have leaky roofs, broken floors, or poor plumbing. Many have no indoor plumbing at all. In smaller communities they are often lighted by kerosene lamps or candles and heated by wood stoves. Many of the slum dwellings are drafty in winter and unbearably hot in summer, dangerous to health and comfort, and too small and dingy for the large families that often live in them. In large cities, the slums are usually crowded tenement districts.
Americans live in different kinds of houses partly because they like different kinds of houses. Some like old houses that have rich family memories or are historically or architecturally interesting. To many people, houses, like music and books, are a part of our American culture, tied in with a lot of other things that add variety to life. And there are people who are not greatly interested in gadgets.
It is true that many people dwelling in what housing experts consider “substandard” homes-whether on farms, in villages or small towns, or in large cities-are well adjusted to their environment and lead happy, healthy, and useful lives. But it is also true that the spirit of bettering one’s living conditions is characteristic of most Americans. Certainly many families now going without the conveniences and comforts of modern housing hope one day to have them-and are doing what they can to make the hope come true.
Nobody would argue that gadgets and conveniences are the measures of human happiness. On the other hand, many rural housewives who draw water from a well, cook on a wood stove, and work by kerosene lamps look forward to the time when they will have an indoor water system, electric lights, and a gas or electric stove. Many city slum dwellers, cramped in dingy, airless flats, dream of apartments from which they can see the sun and a bit of greenery. Probably they would also like a good plumbing system and room enough to house their families more adequately.
Many experts who have investigated housing say that a considerable part-perhaps as many as a third-of the American people live under housing conditions that greatly need improvement.
The census of 1940 collected a lot of figures that seem to bear out this picture. According to the census definition a “dwelling unit” means a detached house, a tenement, a flat, or an apartment, even an automobile trailer or a boat if the people who live in it have no other residence; in short, any kind of shelter for a separate household. There were about 37 million such dwelling units in the United States at the time of the 1940 census.
Large numbers of them were in bad condition or had few of the comforts for good modern living. Nearly 7 million dwellings needed major repairs; over 16 million had no private bath; almost 8 million no gas or electricity; about 10 million no refrigeration equipment; and about 4 million no central heating or stoves. In country towns the houses seemed to be, on the whole, in worse condition than in the cities. And on the farms they were worse still because farmers have had on the average lower incomes than city folk and must also maintain barns and outbuildings on which their business depends.
These figures suggest in a general way how inadequately housed a portion of the American people are. They do not tell, however, how old many of the dwelling units are, how out of date their design, or how poorly equipped with labor-saving devices.
Since 1940 American housing has grown worse. Except for defense areas, house building virtually stopped when we got into the war. The War Production Board limits the amount which a home owner may spend on repairs or alterations. Materials like lumber, pipe, hardware, and electrical equipment are hard to get, and even in defense areas, house building has not kept up with growing needs. Thousands of war workers have not found decent shelter. They have had to live in trailers, tourist camps, stores converted into flats, and other makeshift homes. This picture suggests that after the war we may possibly have the biggest housing boom in American history.
Millions of families not satisfied with their present homes probably will be seeking better ones: soldiers back from the war; people who have been in the market for houses but couldn’t find what they wanted; people tired of living in inadequate houses; families that have doubled up; folks who have lived in trailers, camps, and other temporary shelters and will be looking for places of their own; and home owners who will want to make repairs and alterations that were put off during the war.