Harmon’s Histories: Housing shortages long a problem for Montana families
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
“Lack of Houses Greatest Problem Facing the Nation,” declared the headline. No, it isn’t today’s headline, though it could be; it’s from 1920!
During World War One, residential construction virtually stopped as all available labor was redirected to war-related needs.
But as the war-related plants hired more workers, every nearby available home and apartment was gobbled up, resulting in a housing crisis. On top of that, there was a “steady rise of material and labor costs.”
According to one newspaper article, “In New York city alone it is estimated that one hundred and sixty thousand families will move” (related to job changes) “without having any other place to which to move.”
As a result, a lot of folks had no choice but to store their belongings “and live in hotels and furnished rooms.”
But that presented a Catch-22-situation for moving companies.
Charles Morris, the president of the Van Owners Association, told the New York World newspaper, “Suppose I should agree to move John Jones. I load his furniture into a van and take it to the flat he has leased.”
“The flat is occupied by James Smith. Maybe Smith has got a court order preventing the owner from evicting him for a month. Maybe he has not been able to get a moving van.”
“There I am with Jones' furniture in my van and no place to put it.” That holds up other clients who’ve contracted with Morris for their move.
“I can’t put Jones' belongings in the street. He would sue me. So there you are. Rather an unpleasant situation all around, isn’t it?”
Then (as now) cities, towns and various organization have stepped in, trying to help the homeless.
“In some instances tent cities have been established, or cottages of light construction hurriedly erected in large numbers.” (Sound familiar?)
In Bridgeport, Conn., 13 corporations, which operated big factories, “together with public service groups” created the Bridgeport Housing company “with capital stock of a half million dollars.”
That increased to “one million dollars with 50 corporations and individuals as stockholders.”
Within a few short years, 1,682 families were housed there. “Many of the houses have been sold at reasonable prices and on easy terms and the rest are rented at moderate prices. The stockholders are making six percent on their investment.”
Rents ranged from “$18.50 to $46.00 a month, depending on size and location and whether heated or unheated.
“Those who wish to buy houses are allowed to do so on payment of 10 percent down and 1 percent a month. The houses sell for $3,350 to $5,400.”
Cities, including New York and Chicago, were said to be looking at the Bridgeport project “as a theoretical solution of the problems” they faced.
In Missoula, a similar housing shortage occurred following the war. H.O. Bell, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that entire families were living in hotels, and said, “This condition ought to be acted on by the chamber of commerce, and I think that some action will be taken soon.”
Bell envisioned housing families in buildings at Fort Missoula, but was discouraged by his former dealings with the war department, in which he tried to rent some empty buildings to house highway department trucks, and was flatly rejected.”
The Missoula School Board was also facing a problem of recruiting teachers because of the housing shortage.
In an article titled, “Why Texas Gets Teachers,” it was pointed out that in many cases it’s not salaries alone that attract and retain teachers – it’s housing.
“In 1,000 school districts in the state the citizens have voted bonds or otherwise raised funds for the erection of teacherages in connection with rural schools.”
More than 100 years later, we struggle with many of the same issues and many of the same ideas - “tent cities and cottages of light construction.”
So many people are trying so hard to find solutions. May you finally be successful!
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.