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Housing In The Depression: A Speech by Senator Robert F. Wagner 1936

Portrait of Robert F. Wagner in the U.S. Senate Reception Room United States Senator from New York In office March 4, 1927 – June 28, 1949
Portrait of Robert F. Wagner in the U.S. Senate Reception Room
United States Senator from New York
In office March 4, 1927 – June 28, 1949

Editor’s Note: The National Housing Conference, Inc. (NHC) was founded at the Public Housing Conference in New York City on March 22, 1932. A major contributor in founding the Public Housing Conference (PHC) was Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, social worker, reformer and founder of Greenwich House settlement in New York City in 1902.

The purpose of the PHC as to bring together social workers and housing experts to lobby on the state and federal level for housing legislation. Some of the early members were: Helen Alfred, a social worker; Edith Elmer Wood, a consultant to the housing division of the federal Public Works Administration (PWA); Louis H. Pink, a member of the New York State Board of Housing; Paul Blanchard, an ordained Congregationalist minister who served as field secretary of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID); and Father John O’Grady, secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Charities.

The stated goal of the PHC was: “To Promote Slum Clearance and Low Rent Housing Through An Established Federal-Local Service.”  On the state level, they lobbied for an extension of the New York State housing laws that would permit the financing of cooperative building projects through the issuance of state bonds.  At the federal level, the PHC pressed to have housing constructed as part of the public works program incorporated into the Federal Relief and Reconstruction Act of 1932.

In July 1933, the PHC changed its name to the National Public Housing Conference (NPHC) in order to meet the need for a national housing program that was being proposed by U.S. Senator Robert Wagner of New York. At the time, the organization’s long range goal was to support the construction of low-cost housing through slum clearance.  In the 1970’s, the NPHC changed into the National Housing Conference NHC and became an ally of the federal housing bureaucracy because its membership included primary builders, construction unions, and real estate developers. NHC’s research affiliate, the Center for Housing Policy, specializes in developing solutions through research. In partnership with NHC and its members, the Center works to broaden understanding of the nation’s housing challenges and to examine the impact of policies and programs developed to address these needs.


From:                                                                                                               For release:

National Public Housing Conference,                                                  Saturday Morning, Jan. 25th

Room 113, Hotel Willard,

Washington, D. C.







_ _ _ _ _ _ _

My Friends:

Those of us here tonight who have been devoted to social welfare for a quarter-century or more have good reason to feel somewhat elated. None will gainsay that our appeals have met with a quicker and more complete public response during the past few years.  To my mind, however, the more increase in volume is far less significant tha the profound change in quality that has come about.  The causes for this change lie much deeper that the exigencies of an emergency, or the fortunes of politics.  They represent a gradual shift of emphasis from the surface to the core, from the mere alleviation of human suffering to prevention at its source.  They reflect our desire as a practical people to get at the essential.  It is curious that our search for the essential has taken so many years to reach even the threshold of the housing problem.  It has long been known that many of the evils confronting philanthropy and education are rooted in bad living conditions.  With such conditions are associated an abundance of death in infancy, an excess of physical and mental deformities in childhood, and a high rate of disease among the adult population. We know that juvenile delinquency, the harbinger of mature crime, receives its incentive among sordid surroundings. We are aware also that the bitterest anti-social attitudes are nursed by the juxtaposition of affluence and wretchedness.  Reformatories and asylums, prisons hospitals, are in large measure parasites upon misery.  In a healthier atmosphere, they would become almost depopulated.

The central importance of the housing problem exists everywhere.  The fifteen million families in America who are shabbily quartered do not all reside in New York or Chicago.  They are to be found in the small mining towns of Pennsylvania, in the tenanted areas of Arkansas and Mississippi, and in the remote mountain villages of the great Northwest.  Hardly a county in the nation has escaped the searing influence of characterizing even during the times of relative prosperity.

We are now prepared to attack this fundamental problem.  At the same time, let us not forget that an even deeper, though not entirely unrelated, issue must be met.  It is true that demoralizing living conditions multiply hardships of poverty, and make its victims unfit to utilize even those opportunities that better days may offer.  But none the less [sic], the slum is primarily a by-product of poverty.  If we eradicate bad housing but forget the causes that produce it, we shall be as short sighted as those who build reformatories but leave children living under conditions that induce crime. If we house everyone comfortably today, and allow millions of men to remain unemployed or underpaid, we shall have done a praiseworthy  but entirely inadequate job. But is we  can also provide full-time employment and decent incomes, the major manifestations of poverty will gradually vanish.

The attack on poverty must be an attack upon unemployment.  I am vitally interested in a housing program because it fuses our major and our minor objectives.  While providing better living conditions at once, it also offers the most fertile field for the large-scale cultivation of reemployment.  Mother than that. It will reemploy millions, not as a matter of relief or made work, but in an industry catering to a tremendous shortage of homes throughout the nation.  every nail driven in a housing program will serve a useful and permanent purpose.

In this connection, let us glance at the unemployment situation today.  Very recently, I read one of the most convincing testimonials to the progress of industrial recovery.  It was contained in a report that has no tint of partisan propaganda.  I refer to the monthly bulletin of one of the largest and most conservative business and financial institutions in the country, with its hand constantly upon the pulse of the economic activity.

The very first page of this report stated:

“The year 1935 closed with business activity at the highest level in more than 5 years, and with signs of recovery more widespread than at any time since the turn of the depression was reached…..the values of most kinds of poverty, including stocks, bonds and both city and farm real estate have improved….. the list of industries which have exceeded even the 1929 peak, setting all-time high records in production or sales, is a fairly long one.”

This business advance, accompanied by a commensurate rise in profits, has revealed a paradox of startling import. While industrial production has mounted to 91 percent of normal, factory employment has risen to only 81 percent, and factory payrolls only 69 percent.  While so many all-time records are being made in the fabrication of goods, the weekly earning of the average employee have regained only half of the ground lost between 1929 and 1933.

This trend may be due in part to hours that are too long and wages that are too low.  But this can not be the whole case, nor can the solution be found solely within the factories of existing business.  We are confronted by the results of long-range technological changes.  We are witnessing a rapid acceleration in the evolution of industrial techniques.

A simple example of the introduction of labor saving devices may be found in two of our major industries, automobiles and steel.  If we contrast November 1934 with November 1935, we find that while automobile production increased 185 percent, employment in that industry increased only 70 percent.  In the steel trade, while production increased almost 100 percent, only 35 percent.

No one desires to rob civilization of wealth that flows from the development of new machine processes.  In the long run, machinery contributes to the progress of the race. But to satisfy the immediate needs of millions who are still unemployed, and to face the immediate threat to business and to additional thousands of workers that is implicit in these technological developments, new enterprises must be developed on the broadest possible base.  Housing offers a unique opportunity.  Half of our people are inadequately sheltered.  Fourteen million families will need new quarters during the next decade, involving an investment, mainly of private capital under private business control, of over $65,000,000,000. Despite the recent flurry of building activity, only 75,000 new family quarters were completed last year, while our normal population increase has been 400,000 families annually.  The index of residential construction still lags at 22 percent of normal.

I have stressed these broader considerations because I believe that they are necessary to place housing in its proper setting.  Once this is done, the course of a housing program is fairly well mapped out in general terms.  It must not be confined to demonstration projects, or to the improvement of conditions in limited through well-selected areas.  it must encompass the basic housing need of the population as a whole, and must visualize the general economic potentialities that lie in satisfying them.  More than one-third of our famiies incomes of less than $1000 per year.  Even a program limited to providing them with barely decent housing is an undertaking primarily for the construction industry throughout the nation.  The Government’s part should be to strike the keynote for the revival and acceleration of that industry.  The government can do this by financing a small portion of the cost of the low-rental part of a general building program.

But while our program should bear all of these objectives in mind, it should but sacrifice any of them.  While we should see to encourage reemployment and business revival, and this remove the most potent cause of poverty, we must not forget that the poorest section of the population are entitled to better housing than they can pay for in full, before the millennium arrives.  We must not allow them to be forgotten in the spotty excesses of an old-fashioned building boom.  to the extent necessary to cover the needs of the poor, the low cost phase of a general housing program must be disassociated from other construction activity and receive some public assistance.  It must be an immediate though indirect method of augmenting the real incomes of the underprivileged.

For this limited portion of new construction, the Federal Government should utilize its unique revenue producing powers to extend partial aid to local authorities.  As a necessary incident to this, Washington should also prescribe some of the standards upon which help shall be based.  But decentralization must be the general rule.  The task of construction, of planning, of supervision, and of financial detail, should be entrusted to the people in their community capacities.  If there is any human activity that should be associated with the people, who are the ultimate source of all good government, it is the building of homes.

During the next few days at this conference, a number of technical experts are going to discuss the details of low cost housing.  Their suggestions will prove invaluable to me and to others in framing legislation. I have endeavored merely to outline certain broad objectives and general principles that may help to guide inquiry along relevant lines.  I hope that most of you here are in accord with me on these fundamentals, and that differences respecting technical details will not distract anyone from them.  There is nothing so important as that we who are bound together by similar objectives should retain our unity and our unswerving purpose.

The struggle for low cost housing is likely to be beset by all the difficulties that have confronted every progressive and humane program.  But no proposal has been more worthy and inspiring than this one to bring sunshine and health into the dreary life of the slums while stimulating business and providing wider employment opportunities for eager and industrious men and women.  If you give this campaign the degree of intelligent and powerful support that you have given to other causes, success in the end will be complete.

Source: National Housing Conference, Inc., records. Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Library. More information is available at:

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