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Gordon Haskell

The San Francisco Workers Party Branch Presents
Its Detailed Program for California Housing

(10 March 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 10, 10 March 1947, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In our last issue we published a news report on the testimony of Gordon Haskell, speaking for the San Francisco Bay Area branch of the Workers Party, before the Joint Legislative Committee on Housing. Below we publish the greatest part of Comrade Haskell’s testimony. We wish also to take this occasion to correct an unfortunate typographical error that appeared in our news report. The sentence which read that the WP spokesman and the NAACP representative “opposed government housing” should obviously have read “proposed government housing.”

Factual Information and a Program to Solve the Housing Crisis
Presented to the Joint Legislative Committee
on Housing at Oakland, Calif., on Feb. 18, 1947

In the present housing crisis in California we confront a problem which has not come upon us unawares. It existed here and in the rest of the country, not only before the Second World War and not only since the depression of the thirties. Inadequate housing – housing shortage, these are and have been an integral part of the much ballyhooed American way of life.

The editors of Fortune Magazine, men who can hardly be charged with excessive opposition to the capitalist system, wrote in 1932, “Housing is the one field where private enterprise and individual initiative have notoriously failed, and it is by no means an overstatement to say that the housing situation is the disgrace of American industry.” They charged further that in that year “Less than one-half of the homes in America measure up to minimum standards of health and decency.”

In 1923 in its Report on the Housing Shortage the Commission of Immigration and Housing of California stated that in “1919 to 1920 the crisis came for California and industrial and social bodies saw a necessity for action” and at that time “Every conceivable means of shelter was utilized as congestion ... became almost unbelievable.” (California Commission of Immigration and Housing, Report on the Housing Shortage, p. 1) In concluding the Committee wrote,

“Something must be done, for unless the housing conditions of our people of moderate income are improved, there will be no improvement in our civilization. Nothing so closely touches the Individual or the race as its type of shelter – nothing has so forceful an influence on the individual as his immediate surroundings, and this is particularly true of the young individual.” (Ibid., p. 21)

If we accept the analysis of the commission referred to above, no improvement has taken place in our civilization since 1923. In fact, it has deteriorated as the housing situation has deteriorated. The influx of population to California, during and since the war has simply aggravated the housing shortage until it has taken on the aspects of a true social catastrophe.

The Housing Shortage in Oakland

During the five-year period from 1940 to 1945, the population in Oakland has increased 32.6 per cent while family housing increased only 13.4 per cent. As of January 1946 the Oakland Housing Authority estimated requirements of new family dwelling units at 23,789 and the number of substandard units which needed to be rehabilitated at 29,800. These estimates were based on existing need without any provision made for population growth during the time required to build or rehabilitate the 54,589 dwelling units in question. (Oakland Housing Authority, Analysis of the Oakland Housing Shortage as of January 1946)

The testimony before this committee to date has been virtually unanimous in its insistence that private industry be permitted to solve the housing crisis. With few exceptions, the men testifying before your committee have advocated as their program some form, concealed or otherwise, of governmental subsidy to private industry for this purpose. I propose to analyze these suggestions below. To date in Oakland the private housing construction industry has miserably failed to provide for more than a microscopic fraction of the existing need.

The Oakland Chamber of Commerce reports that in the first eleven months of 1946 a total of 1,273 new living units were built in Metropolitan Oakland. The total building permits for single family dwellings granted during the same period amounted to 911, with an estimated value of over $5,000,000. At a time when the whole community was crying for housing above all else, permits were granted for a total value of over $16,000,000 of non-housing construction. In other words, permits were issued for industrial commercial construction of triple the value of housing construction. This, despite all the public utterances of politicians and laws purporting to guarantee priority to the housing of veterans over all other construction.

The testimony before this committee has established the fact that private industry cannot build housing units to rent for less than $50 per month. The Oakland Housing Authority estimated at the beginning of last year that 60 per cent of the families in Oakland cannot afford to pay more than $35 per month for their total housing cost. At that time the Authority stated that 30,000 Oakland families were by income and due to their present housing situation, eligible to live in the permanent public housing projects. Only 922 family dwelling units of that type were then available, and to my knowledge none have been built since. In the face of this crying need for housing of 96,000 people in this city, the Oakland Housing Authority had at that time applied to the federal government for a loan sufficient to provide for only 5,000 additional units, or one-sixth of the estimated need.

Housing Shortage as a Social Catastrophe

Statistical treatment alone can never adequately portray the devastating social effects of the housing shortage. In human terms it. presents one of the. darkest chapters of the black book of lift of the poor under American capitalism. The problems of crime, of broken homes, of disrupted families, disease, juvenile delinquency and of mass neurosis if not caused by, are at least aggravated by the crowded, cheerless, unsanitary conditions under which the poor are forced to live by the failure of both private industry and government to meet the minimum needs of decent housing ...

The relation of over-crowding to juvenile delinquency can be illustrated by the following. In High School District No. 1 in West Oakland, 25 per cent of the city’s population is crowded into 15 per cent of its land area. This high school district had 38 per cent of the juvenile delinquency cases in the city, or a rate of 5.3 per hundred juveniles living in It. (Research Dept., Council of Social Agencies, Community Chest, Oakland, Calif., Juvenile Delinquency 1940–1945, Table L, p. 20.)

In a speech delivered in New York on April 13, 1940, Edith Elmer Wood made the following observations:

“The Bureau of Animal Industry in the Department of Agriculture issues a long series of farmer’s bulletins on the housing of livestock, dairy cattle, beef cattle, horses, sheep, hogs, and poultry. It comes out roundly with delightfully dogmatic statements such as: ‘Dryness, good ventilation, and freedom from drafts are the first requisites of buildings for sheep.’ ‘If little pigs are to get the right kind of a start in life, they must have plenty of sunshine.’ ‘Growing chickens and laying hens need comfortable homes that are dry and roomy with plenty of fresh air and sunlight. It never pays to overcrowd them.’ Fortunate farm animals! No one writes doctors’ theses to prove that there is no casual relation between their health and their housing.” (American Public Health Association, Committee on the Hygiene of Housing. Housing for Health, 1941, p. 7)

The disparity between the housing conditions provided for our farm animals and those for human beings under the profit system is an index of its real social values, It is profitable to provide housing for beasts. There is no profit in providing houses for men, women and little children.

In 1940 it was estimated that 30,000 fatal accidents take place in homes each year, or, and I quote “nearly as many as are attributable to the automobile. Can it be doubted that rickety steps and rotten handrails, dark stairways, wood stoves and kerosene lamps. contribute to a substantial proportion of these fatalities?” (Ibid., p. 8)

The Negro and the Housing Problem

The weight of the housing shortage falls with double and triple force on the Negro community in America. They are hit first by the fact that the overwhelming majority of Negroes are in the lowest income brackets due to job discrimination. Restrictive covenants, the rules of the housing authorities, and where these two fail, sheer physical terror are used to keep the Negroes crowded into the American version of the ghetto. For Negroes it is doubly difficult to finance and build homes through the channels of private enterprise. They have to pay higher interest on loans, and it is almost impossible for them to acquire building sites due to the general overcrowding of the so-called “black belts” to which they are confined.

For Negroes, more than for any other section of the population, public housing is the only answer. It is not just a question of curing a patent social injustice. Mr. Robert C. Weaver, Director of Community Services, American Council of Race Relations, testified before the Senate Banking and Currency Committcee on December 14, 1945, as follows:

“... there is hardly an aspect of tension involving minority groups which is not related to housing. Restricted areas, high rents, and Inferior accommodations spell economic exploitation, III health, inadequate schools, hospitals, recreation and city services. They bring suffering, despair end disillusionment and frustration. They result in disorganized communities. They encourage adult and juvenile delinquency. They invite and nurture political corruption and cynicism. They foster group antagonism and group chauvinism.” (Statement of Robert C. Weaver, Director of Community Services, American Council on Race Relations before the Senate Banking and Currency Committee, Dec. 14, 1945, p. 4)

I hardly think, gentlemen, that it should be necessary for me to add much to this statement by Mr. Weaver. Suffice it to say, that these tensions are in no way (lessened by the fact that the Negro veterans who were segregated and discriminated against while in the armed services now find themselves equally segregated and discriminated against in the post-war housing program. Of the total of 254,000 temporary housing accommodations provided for veterans during 1946, only 5,000 or less than two per cent were specified for colored veterans, and as late as last October, only 1,600 of these were available for actual use. Yet the ratio of Negro to white men in the armed services during the late war allegedly waged against the race hatred of Nazism was about ten per cent and not two per cent. (Statement by Reginald Johnson, housing coordination of the National Urban League, reported in a NNPA dispatch dated New York, Feb. 15, 1947)

Program to Solve the Housing Problem

In presenting the Workers Party program to solve the housing crisis in California, I wish to make it clear to the committee that in our opinion this problem can and must be solved, it should not be played around with. The facts I have presented here, both in the form of statistics and that of opinions of eminent authorities on the social implications of the housing crisis mean to us, at least, that the proportions of this crisis require the most drastic and complete measures.

Representatives of the Construction Industry, of the State Department, of the American Legion, of the Building Trades Council and the State AFL as well as others who have appeared before this committee have insisted that the government should not enter into competition with what they chose to call “free enterprise” in building houses, except, perhaps, as a last resort. I submit, however, that the government-cannot “compete” with private capital in providing housing for those who really need it, for the simple reason that private capital isn’t in the game.

It is clear, however, that the same gentlemen who cry out at the thought of government building houses for the people who need them are not at all averse to government subsidizing them to build, own and profit from, the construction of multiple-unit, low-cost rental housing for the people.

Mr. Washburn, State Director of Reconstruction and Reemployment, for instance stated in his prepared testimony that “public monies should not be expended for the purpose” of meeting the differential between the cost veterans can afford for housing and the rental owners must get to make as much profit as they believe they are entitled to make. But on pp. 14 and 15 of his report he proposes that this difference be raised by two forms of tax relief for the owners. With the best of will I can see little difference between a subsidy granted outright from the public treasury to our captains of industry who can’t provide housing for the people, and a concealed subsidy given in the form of tax relief.

Mr. McDonald of the Building Trades Council and others have proposed to this committee that the government, state and federal, provide the land for privately constructed housing free of charge. Again a subsidy, which will cost the poor heavily in taxes so that the contractors and real estate interests can keep on mulcting them through rents.

Mr. Washburn further proposed that to encourage the construction of multiple-unit dwellings, all rent ceilings be removed from new construction of this type (p. 13, his report). That is a good idea, if Mr. Washburn wants to guarantee that no dwellings be built for the average veteran and worker by private industry, and that ample housing be built for those who are already comfortably situated in apartments and homes with a rental of $75 and up per month.

No, gentlemen, these men who appeared befqre you must have been joking when they opposed government built housing for the veterans and workers of California. For their own testimony here proves by their own figures, and even more, by their own proposals that no one else is going to build housing except the government either directly or indirectly through concealed subsidy.

Now the question is, gentlemen, is the government actually going to build housing for the poor, or is it also going to make jokes at their expense? When the Oakland Housing Authority says there are 30,000 families in our city who need public housing, and then proposes to build 5,000 units, that is a joke. When the state government proposes to spend some $200,000,000 on a road building program and appropriates the magnificent sum of $1,000,000 for a revolving fund to help veterans buy surplus federal building materials, that too is a joke on the hundreds of thousands of veterans now living doubled up in California.

The Workers Party proposes that either the State Government and the Federal Government, and the local governments appropriate the necessary funds to really build the homes needed for the veterans and workers and all the poor people of this country to be housed in decency and comfort, or that they openly admit that all the talk about solving the housing problem Is just so much kidding, and that the people might as well prepare themselves to live in dirt and squalor for a long, long time because neither private capital nor the government which supports the system of private capital is going to build homes for them to live in.

The program of the Workers Party is for a 250 billion dollar federal housing program. Surely the government which was able to raise two billion dollars for the atomic bomb and which was able to raise hundreds upon hundreds of billions to fight the war can raise these sums to house its own people.

For the State of California we propose that the $200,000,000 proposed for the highway program be allocated to the immediate construction of low-cost rental housing, and that the state government raise an additional $1,000,000,000 by a corporate profits tax to add to this sum.

We propose an immediate state law freezing all rentals, to take effect if and when the federal law is repealed or modified in any way to permit increases in rentals. By no means should the state government leave this matter in the hands of city and ‘ county governments as advocated by Mr. Washburn, as these are notoriously subject to the pressure of the building industry and real estate interests.

We propose that a large portion of the moneys appropriated for housing be used to clear the blight of the slums frorp our cities, after making adequate provision on a temporary basis for those who will have to move while construction is taking place.

And finally, we propose a law rendering all restrictive covenants against racial minorities illegal, and further laws to prevent state or local housing authorities from perpetuating the ghetto system of racial segregation and discrimination in our cities. Housing must and should be allocated according to need, and not according to color.

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