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As the country celebrates Labor Day, it’s a time for people in the housing industry to celebrate the role of the American Labor Movement in championing affordable housing and home building. Labor unions became the nonprofit co-sponsors of hundreds of affordable housing developments across the country beginning in the 1920s and were charter members of the National Housing Conference when it was created in 1931. NHC is pleased to reprint an article written for us by labor icon Walter Reuther in our 1954 Annual Housing Yearbook. His message calling for construction of 2 million homes each year to fight a housing affordability crisis resonates as loudly today as it did then – when the U.S. population was a little over 150 million, less than half of what it is today. His prescient views are reprinted below. 

Ted Chandler, AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust

If America is to catch up with its tremendous back log of needed homes and keep pace with the rising demand, we must build about two million new housing units each year. The administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency has stated, however, that only about one million homes will be built in 1954. This would be 10 percent below the level of 1953 and 40 percent below our achievement in 1950.

The fact that we are currently building only half the homes this nation needs means that only higher income families are being satisfied as to their housing requirements. We are failing to develop a program to satisfy the housing needs of the majority of our families. With some exceptions, particularly for veterans, the housing policies of the federal government still do not permit millions of low and moderate income families, whose need for housing is the greatest, to buy or rent decent homes at a cost that is reasonably related to their ability to pay. This unserved potential market, of course, is made up primarily of working people and their families.

If we are to move forward in the effort to end slums and substandard housing conditions in the United States, there are several courses we must follow:

1. A tremendous expansion in home-building can be achieved by gearing our program to meet the needs of the moderate income group. Millions of American families earn too little to buy their own homes at present prices and conditions of payments, yet they earn too much to be eligible for public housing… The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) believes this can be done, without sacrificing the quality or adequacy of the home, by a combination of low initial payments and long-term loans at low interest rates under the government’s insured mortgage program. No other way to do the job has been demonstrated.
2. For millions of additional families who are in the lowest income bracket, there is no hope of attaining decent shelter except through the provision of subsidy to meet the economic rent. This group, now largely existing in substandard dwellings and in slums, just does not have sufficient income to buy or rent private housing at prevailing costs. No method except subsidized public housing has been found to meet their minimum needs, despite continuous searching by leaders of both political parties and of the building industry.
3. One way to help moderate income families meet their housing need is for government to assist in forming cooperatives, as the government did for farmers in Rural Electrification Act (REA). Cooperative housing offers an opportunity to groups of citizens, who want to join with each other in a common effort, to obtain good housing at lower costs and with greater opportunities for good neighborhood development…
4. The obstacles to adequate housing for minority groups must be removed. Land must be made available. Mortgage money must be assured to minorities on the same basis as to all other Americans. Slums must be eradicated and replaced with wholesome, well planned neighborhoods. All this requires broad cooperation at all levels of government and by all elements in the community. No substantial housing progress can be achieved without solving the special problems of our minorities whose need is more urgent than those of any other group.

We must act promptly along all of these lines if Americans are to be decently housed. The alternative is to slide backward still further, adding each year to the already mountainous backlog of need. While we still hope the day will come when private builders will bring housing costs within the reach of the average wage earner, and the mortgage bankers will make loans available in the large quantities and at the liberal terms which our members require, we cannot wait for vague hopes to materialize. To meet the housing needs of today, we must have bold leadership, now.

Walter Reuther (1907-1970) was one of the most important and impactful labor leaders in American history. He led the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and was a close confidant of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. When Dr. Martin Luther King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, it was Walter Reuther who, having read King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, raised $160,000 for the bail needed to release all the imprisoned protesters. He was a central player in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare and Medicaid, and the Fair Housing Act.

Ted Chandler is Immediate Past Chair and ex-officio member of NHC’s Board of Governors, and managing director of regional operations for the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, a $6.4 billion fund that invests union pension fund capital in the construction of rental housing built with 100% union labor.

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