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Defense Housing: 1942

Defense Housing: 1942


Editor’s Note:  The National Public Housing Conference (NPHC) was originally known as the Public Housing Conference (PHC). The purpose of the PHC was 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: Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, founder of Greenwich House settlement;  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.

Speech by C. F. Palmer, Coordinator of Defense Housing


The National Public Housing Conference

Washington Hotel, February 6, 1942

You who are here today probably know a good deal more about public housing than any other group in this country. I am glad to have an opportunity to report to you on the present public housing situation which as you know is abnormal because of the effect of the war. In these abnormal circumstances we are obliged to adopt as our guiding principle the determination that no war activity shall be held back by lack of housing.  All of us, who have worked for many years in this field, are acutely conscious of the fact that the urgency of war housing creates and uncomfortable strain on some of the normal principles of good housing, as we understand them in peacetime.  But however uncomfortable we may be, the necessity of war has to be met.  Where the war calls for houses, we must supply houses.

In the twelve months ending next June 30th, we expect that an enormous army of two to three million men, women, and children will have been involved in the essential migration required by war industry and military concentration. The arrival of these millions of people in defense areas is creating a complexity of problems, in which the largest is the supply of shelter.

The work of housing coordination naturally begins with surveying the approaching shortages in defense areas, and making whatever provisions can be made to meet these emergency conditions.  However possible, an effort is made to direct the flow of war work into areas where idle labor is already living in existing housing, or to obtain the fullest possible use of local workers, by retraining for war work, so as to avoid as far as possible bringing in outside workers.  Every effort possible is being made to encourage the improvement of mass transportation so as to enlarge the effective size of the community from which the workers can be drawn without requiring the restrictions on private use of automobiles.  But with all that can be along these lines, the bulk of the war housing need must be met by building houses.

During the past 18 months, the greatest public housing program in our history has been put in the works.  It involves about 275,000 houses and extends into 42 states, the District of Columbia, and half a dozen outlying territories, being distributed among some 255 separate localities.  Aside from trailers and dormitories, we have 75,000 houses completed and are now completing others at the rate of 10,000 per month.  About 60,000 more are under contract.  Appropriations of one and a quarter billion dollars have already been made for war housing.

The responsibility to survey the various locality situations and to recommend such public housing as may be needed is that of the Division of Defense Housing Coordination.  In determining the need for public housing, it is necessary to estimate the amount that private enterprise will do, and to correct these estimates as circumstances change.  In particular we have to gauge as well as we can the probable situation in each locality after the war, so as to determine whether the housing should be permanent or temporary.

But we can make the cleaning up somewhat less difficult and expensive by taking advantage of demountability.  In addition, of course, we shall have the advantage in some places of using transportation as a means of utilizing available housing in connection with new industrial jobs in nearby centers. The post war condition will not be ideal, but the waste involved in our present urgency is a minor matter compared with the tremendous wastes that have come from failure to get going on city planning and public housing for so many empty years.

The planning of war housing has to be carried through under three more or less conflicting sets of criteria.  The war requires speed.  Congress and public opinion demand economy.  The needs of the future demand that the emergency housing be well located and well built.  None of these conflicting objectives can be entirely attained, but when speed can be obtained by any means, speed has to take first priority.

The local Housing Authorities established as a result of the U.S.H.A. have, I believe, been of great value to both in the pre-war period and during the emergency.  I am prejudiced in favor of local planning and operation of public housing, having acted as Chairman of the Atlanta Authority from 1938 to 1940.  To the 1200 units of public housing built in P.W.A. days, we succeeded in adding 3600 more in the next two years which makes a total of more houses than Sherman destroyed when he visited our city back in the 60’s.

All over the country, where housing authorities had been set up and had time to gain some experience, their help in the defense housing program has been of vital importance.  At present, out of our total allocations to date of 225,000 dwelling units, the number to be constructed or converted by U.S.H.A. and the local authorities is 80,000.  That is equivalent to about 50% of the entire U.S.H.A. original program.  Practically all of these, and some others constructed by the P.B.A. will be managed by local authorities, which have shown a capacity to deal with local conditions that bodes well for dramatic methods in future housing programs.  At present 138 local authorities are engaged in construction under the defense housing acts.

As might be expected, we suffer from the newness of the public housing program in America, and the lack of well developed city and regional plans in many parts of this country.  It is significant that about 200 localities are getting their first experience of public housing under the abnormal stress of war conditions. If we had a set of good city plans we could better fit our war housing into the long-term plan so that none of it would be wasted in the readjustment from war to peace.  In the absence of such plans we make the best provision we can for the future.

Most of our direct provision for future planning has to consist of the use of demountable houses which give an element of flexibility. War is war, and if there is some cleaning up to be done after we have won the war none of us need to apologize, provided we win.

Despite all the distortions of wartime construction, we can at least recognize that the practice of public housing is spreading to places that had not previously seen it.  The theory, of what we would like to do, if we were not forced by war to do something else, is developing steadily under the surface of our daily work.

After the war, public housing ought to expand almost explosively! I believe there ought to be a program of 600,000 publicly built houses a year for ten years after the war.  These 6,000,000 homes would care for a substantial portion of that  “one-third of a nation ill-housed.”

Public housing will have the chance to grow up and take its place as one of our greatest instruments for human betterment.

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

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Palmer, C.F. (1942, February.). Defense houing. Presentation at the National Public Housing Conference, Washington, DC. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=9017.

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